03_60_improvisasionsVarious Artists

Association of Improvising Musicians of Toronto AP-04 (www.aimtoronto.org)

David Sait (b.1972), the Brampton/Toronto experimental guzheng (zheng) improvising musician and the curator of this album, has “sewn together back-to-back… sixty innovative, forward thinking musicians from all over the World.” Each of them has provided a sixty second performance identified by their own unique musical voice.

While one expects a conceptual and aesthetic musical framework around such a curating job, this unique CD has in addition a fascinating numerological frame. The organisational principal of the number sixty is evident on several levels: sixty musicians performing for sixty seconds each, carefully compiled and arranged into ten tracks comprised of ten suites of six musicians.

Moreover the resulting journey is not a simple smorgasbord of individually recorded solo improvisations. It is rather a reaffirmation of David Sait’s long-term project: to forge links between performers of experimental and traditional global musical languages. The inclusion of performers from North and South America, Europe and Japan implies a kind of emerging global community of improvising musicians. For Sait’s future projects, I would like to propose the inclusion of musical voices from the rest of the world.

The mind-boggling variety of instrumentation included on this CD already serves to blur traditional and experimental musical genres. Solos on church organ, “rubber glove bagpipes,” cello, gong, piano, signal processor, oud, Theremin, tar and “field recordings” are among dozens of different instruments. Leading Toronto free improvising musicians Michael Snow, John Oswald and Joe Sorbara present characteristic virtuoso gestures, but there are too many musical highlights and quirky moments to mention in a single review.

Listening to this CD is a satisfying international armchair sonic expedition. There seems to be something for almost every musical taste here – and if you encounter something too sonically trenchant, you can relax knowing that in less then sixty seconds you will be entering yet another new personal sound world to explore.

01_matt_newtonEach year in Toronto and environs a handful of homegrown stars hold sway – and happily for fans there’s more than a handful of up-and-comers trying hard to dislodge them. One such talented wannabe is pianist Matt Newton, who displays his wares on Push (Firetown Music 905 www.mattnewton.ca) in a quartet setting on eight tunes. He’s a cooler version of keyboard ace Jacky Terrasson (whose newest album is also titled “Push”) as he takes the risky debut route highlighting his own material, but the Ottawa-born grad of the U of T jazz program is in good company with slick tenor Petr Cancura, bass Mark McIntyre and always-busy drummer Ethan Ardelli. The leader allows plenty of space for colleagues, especially his hornman’s clean, confident lines and the tuneful bassist supporting his neat single-note runs, disciplined explorations and carefully crafted notions with inventive ideas of their own. The title song is a knotty piece with subtle rhythms that gives a sense of the emerging group persona, Ardelli kicks off Where To? with style, the impressionistic soundscape that is Blue (the colour) is a delight while elsewhere music flows and ebbs appealingly (note Tides Of The Mainland).

02_andrew_rathbun

Expatriate Andrew Rathbun is a skilled factor in the contemporary New York scene, but still loves his homeland – and shows it. In the past he’s used Margaret Atwood poetry as his muse, and now it’s Glenn Gould who in the 1960s made a CBC documentary titled The Idea of North. That’s led to The Idea Of North (Steeplechase SCCD 31695  www.andrewrathbun.com), an eight-track portrait of Canada that updates Oscar Peterson’s Canadiana Suite. It includes Rathbun’s versions of Wayne Shorter’s whispering Teru and a work by Gluck, but the rest is original sophisticated images, highlighting his great, always probing sax sound, five smart comrades including excellent trumpeter Taylor Haskins and precise pianist Frank Carlberg, plus stellar use of counterpoint. Rathbun has a unique way of putting elements together that work well on tunes like Arctic, December and Harsh by employing supple approaches that are vigorous but not overstated and fascinating, well-executed ideas. Rockies is just one seriously catchy piece on a recording well worth seeking out.

03_barry_romberg

It’s the tenth anniversary of tough-minded improvisers Barry Romberg’s Random Access whose streamlined line-up is in fine fettle on The Gods Must Be Smiling (Romhog Records 119 www.barryromberg.com). This time out drummer Romberg leads regulars Rich Brown (bass) and Geoff Young (guitar) but has added power keysman Robi Botos to crank up the usual tension. It works; the mood established quickly with the rockish, spooky romp 1st Things First that keeps building while mixing in whimsical exchanges and Botos examining his inner Joe Zawinul. Yet these free pieces always somehow stay in the groove, fuelled as ever by bucolic drumming with unexpected accents. A Christmas Song is raucous with intricate rhythm rather than seasonably sappy and while the title track is penned for Romberg’s young son its extreme romanticism changes before halfway to extreme craziness punctuated by squealing guest saxes. Lowell’s Bowel is a three-parter, the first with Young’s questing dominating, the second with tenorman Kirk MacDonald seeking a personal whirling grail and the third with hard-driving sax pursued hotly by rumbling electric bass. The closing Epilogue is a Botos solo taped live at Humber with drums bookending.

04_herriott_harkness

Perhaps it’s the current economics of the business, but jazz duo discs seem to be on the increase. One interesting find is a collaboration between Canadian flugelhorn player Mike Herriott and American guitarist Sean Harkness, a session democratically divided with half the 10 originals recorded in Toronto, half in the Big Apple. The result is Flights: Volume One (www.mikeherriott.com) which is said to be the first of many more joint ventures. That’s good news, because Toronto-based Herriott’s horn and Harkness’s strings work on a very intimate basis, with elegant sounds abounding in an overall easygoing vibe – not an easy listening vibe, but one that commands attention be paid to the polished accomplishments of the performers. Four of the original tunes benefit from Toronto mainstays Jim Vivian (bass) and Kevin Coady (drums) joining in, while trombonist Mark Miller adds sonorities to Leap Year. There’s much sleek unison playing, almost always followed by soloing that’s very impressive technically with attention carefully paid to varying melodic line in an ongoing, alert dialogue of musical opinion. Just two instruments does tend to limit possibilities however, and thus the emphasis logically leans more to restraint than abandon while sometimes what’s mellow is overdone. Yet H2 (their designation) does produce excellent chamber jazz.

Derided in the past as effete or derivative, chamber-style improvising has fascinated musicians since at least the 1920s, both on the jazz (Benny Goodman, Red Norvo) and classical (George Gershwin, Ferde Grofé) sides. However, as this group of CDs demonstrates, with contemporary musicians conversant with both strains of sound, the transitional awkwardness of the past has been replaced by inspired flexibility.

01_to_the_moonTake for instance, Jean-Marc Foltz’s To The Moon (Ayler Records AYLCD-112 www.ayler.com). Although at first it seems as if the ten sparkling miniatures performed by the French clarinettist and his American sidemen pianist Bill Carrothers and cellist Matt Turner, are high-gloss examples of composed music, careful investigation reveals just the opposite. All of these instant compositions were improvised by the trio in one studio session. Inspiration came partially from the tale that inspired Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire plus the wintery moonlight of the studio setting. The result is atmospheric and elegiac in equal doses. Often showcased are the chalumeau textures of Foltz’s bass clarinet which soar and buzz as they contrapuntally meet up with doleful cello slides and strummed metronomic passages from the piano. As improvisers, the three expose a subversive post-modernity as well. Crosses, for instance begins with Carrothers recital-styled harmonies melding with vibrated slides from Turner. Yet while the broken octave-style theme is played by an unperturbed pianist, Foltz constantly interrupts with twittering atonal chirps from the highest regions of his clarinet. The pianist’s reflective thumps which shake his instrument’s inner metal, wood and strings perform a similar function on Knitting Needles. Elsewhere the cello’s quivering vibrations and low frequency organic patterning from the piano are often only there to sooth Foltz’s more intense flutter tonguing.

02_ox_arcana

Comfortably probing this third stream is Vox Arcana, a similarly constituted trio with Tim Daisy’s percussion and marimba, clarinettist James Falzone and Fred Lonberg-Holm’s cello and electronics on Aerial Age (Allos Documents 004 www.allosmusica.org). Daisy’s eight compositions equally reference minimalism, the so-called New York school as well as the improvisation which permeates the music of the trio’s home town Chicago. Throughout, the instrumental tones often hocket and undulate in triple or double counterpoint. Perfectly illustrating this cohesion is Falling. After the tutti exposition splinters into episodes of reed-biting intensity, driven by the drummer’s pumps and rebounds, Lonberg-Holm lets loose. Doubled sul ponticello runs are extended almost infinitely without breaking the glissandi, and only gradually superseded by single-note reed twitters. Reverberating kettle-drum-like pops set up a final variant of plucked cello and melodic mid-range clarinet whistles. Another example of this skill occurs on Chi Harp Call in E. While no one could mistake Falzone’s coloratura trills or Daisy’s popping marimba rolls for the harmonica-led blues the tune salutes, the cellist’s scraping his strings into an agitated polyphonic mass easily equals timbres produced by blues guitarists. Still, the roiling marimba strokes and liquid clarinet asides link the melody to the ongoing European sound tradition.

03_bacalhau

Strings and percussion – with the leader’s cello and vibraphone played by Matt Moran – are also featured on the Daniel Levin Quartet’s Bacalhau (Clean Freed CF 195 CD www.cleanfeed-records.com). But Peter Bitenc’s bass is added and the horn is Nate Wooley’s trumpet. Paradoxically a full-time bassist makes this the most “jazzy” of these sessions. It also means that on a piece such as Bronx #3, when agitato bass lines combine with the trumpet’s sputtering triplets, the subsequent contrapuntal framing gives Levin a staccato forum to practically duet with himself. More impressive still is the epic Soul Retrieval, which evolves in several distinct sections. Initially a mid-tempo mix of brassy trumpet and mournful cello, a mid-section expansion of sul tasto bass work and downward string slides moves the trumpeter towards an interlude of tongue-stopping intensity. Chiming vibraphone pulses then collide with intense, discordant bowing from both string players, only to have the theme re-developed with broken-octave concordance by the end.

04_kath_ladano

Not all this chamber improv comes from jazzers however, as bass clarinettist Kathryn Ladano demonstrates with Open (www.kathrynladano.com). Classically trained and co-founder of the Kitchener-Waterloo Improvisers Collective, Ladano mixes solo and group pieces; notated music with improv. Her swelling glissandi, harsh flutter tonguing and aleatoric trills give her work a definite identity. While an episode of broken chord variants that matches her breathy echoes with ringing vibraphone tones is particularly noteworthy, elsewhere her repetitive trills, which confirm impressive reed control, are needed to modulate feverish interface from some of the other players. Overall, multiphonic inventions on composed material may be her strongest attribute.

Singly and together, the CDs confirm that persuasive improvisation can result without being fortissimo or frantic.

01_tango_borealTango Boreal

Denis Plante; David Jacques; Ian Simpson

ATMA ACD2 2661

The bandoneon is one of the world's most highly unlikely popular instruments. Tricky to play, a tuning nightmare, and a wheezy creaky contraption, this distant relative of the accordion has made its musical mark for the musicality that it emotes, and the composers who have written for it.

Quebec composer/bandoneonist Denis Plante combines the work of his predecessors and his own musical sensibilities to create an interesting aural pastiche for his Trio Boreal, comprised of himself, guitarist David Jacques and double bassist Ian Simpson. The music is wide ranging in its moods, with a little something for everyone’s taste. The mellower trio tracks are the weakest as they run the risk of becoming too clichéd in their laid-back sentiment. But all is forgotten in the Latin influenced Danza with its jolting rhythms and uplifting spirits. Ave Maria is a beautiful solo bandoneon number drawing on the instrument's religious music background. The guitar solo Vallée de la Lune is gorgeous. Most exciting is the group's potential that can be heard in Prelude where there is a je ne sais quoi element of ensemble playing and compositional attributes that forecasts a promising future.

Production qualities are excellent – we can even hear the breathing of the bandoneon! But it is the fact that all three musicians are fine performers who love the music they are playing which makes this release so special.

 

02_adi_braunCanadian Scenes 1

Adi Braun

Independent (www.adibraun.com)

“This recording is a dream-come-true,” says award-winning jazz vocalist Adi Braun of her recently released a five-song EP, “Canadian Scenes I.” On it Braun has stretched her already impressive talents to include songwriting with three originals tunes.

In My Heart I Know begins with a softly plucked acoustic guitar, and is soon joined by an evocative arco bass, to set up this beautifully romantic ballad. Ocean Eyes is an excellent example of Braun’s “cabarazz” style, a mixture of cabaret and jazz. Her sultry vocals caress the lyrics, swooping and soaring over the pulsing beat of Kevin Barrett’s guitar and the piano of Jordan Klapman. Grace “walks with a steady pace/Through the summer heat,” a loving ode to “the place where she and I belong.” It is good to hear that Braun has taken Shirley Eikhard’s encouragement to “put my songwriting foot forward.” These three tunes are hopefully harbingers of many more originals to come.

Braun is also noted for her determination to bring Canadian songwriters to her audiences’ attention, and she does so exquisitely with Tony Quarrington’s collaboration with Jordan Klapman, Rain on the Roof. Songwriter Julian Taylor joins Braun on his composition It’s Not Enough, a pop ballad reminiscent of the many duos of 90s rock. Other contributing artists on “Canadian Scenes I” include bassist George Koller and Glenn Anderson on drums. The EP is available through Braun’s website.

03_serenityA Touch of Serenity

Ensemble Chiaroscuro

Independent HAP3781 (www.theflutestudio.ca)

In the 1970’s the name “The Huggett Family” was synonymous with the revival of baroque music played on period instruments. Leslie Huggett, his wife, Margaret, and their four children were known across Canada for their tasteful interpretations of music from the medieval, renaissance and baroque periods. From Canada’s National Arts Centre to London’s Wigmore Hall and on the CBC and BBC the family performed in period costumes to the delight of audiences and critics on both sides of the Atlantic. In 1982, after several successful LP recordings, the group disbanded.

In the mid 1980’s Leslie and Margaret established their Flute Studio in Markham, Ontario and were joined subsequently by rising young flautist Flora Lim. Now, performing under the name Ensemble Chiaroscuro, their stated aim is “to present music of many genres.” The artistry and sensitivity is still there, but in a very different format. These are not duets. Rather, we are treated to the artistry of two solo flutes, with seamless transitions as the melodies are passed from one performer to the other with the tasteful, non intrusive accompaniment of Leslie’s son Andrew. From traditional songs like Bonnie Doon to operatic arias including Delibes’ Flower Song from Lakmé and Puccini’s O Mio Babbino Caro we are treated to a broad spectrum of beautiful calm melodies. There are no bombastic displays of technique. These performers don’t have to prove anything. This recording is not just “A Touch of Serenity,” it’s a feast of serenity.

To put the icing on the family cake, the final track features Andrew’s daughter Emma singing Ray Noble’s timeless The Very Thought of You, accompanied by the ensemble.

04_urban_fluteUrban Flute Project [RE:Defining Space with Sound]

Jamie Thompson

Independent UFPCD001 (www.urbanfluteproject.com)

The aim of the Urban Flute Project, the brainchild of Royal Conservatory flutist and teacher, Jamie Thompson, as I understand it, is to acquaint anyone who is interested (through its website and through CDs like this one) with urban locations around the world, not through the way they look but through their acoustical properties, conveyed by hearing a flute played in them.

This CD consists of 28 short tracks of Jamie Thompson playing in various locations. He was most successful in attaining the goal, “Re-defining space,” the CD’s sub-title, in places where the acoustical environment became a co-performer: the Manitoba Legislature; the Scarth Street Deco in Regina; track the Soldiers’ Tower at University of Toronto; Singhampton Bridge; Laird Lair; and the Millennium Centre in Winnipeg. The reverberation of these spaces became his performing partner. The ambient sound conveying the unique sonic properties – everything from moving water, birds, industrial machinery, horses’ hooves, the voices of people and even frogs – on the other tracks came across, alas, not as musical partners but as contrived impositions, reminiscent of the naïve sound effects of 1940s and 50s radio dramas.

No doubt, live at the time, every one of these musical moments would have been surprising and magical. Capturing the magic, the surprise and the spontaneity in an audio recording, has proven here to be very difficult if not impossible. The idea is good, but did not translate well into CD format. I might add that Jamie is a fine flutist and I hope he continues to record. I look forward to hearing a recording that does him justice.

01a_tennstedt1_fitznerWhen Klaus Tennstedt defected from East Germany in 1971 he was already an acclaimed maestro. He was granted asylum in Sweden and accepted engagements in Gothenburg and Stockholm and in 1972 he became general music director of the Kiel Opera. In 1974 he made his North American debut in Toronto conducting the TSO in Massey Hall. I remember to this day a gangly figure, singularly animated, who generated an unforgettable Beethoven violin concerto with Itzhak Perlman. Soon he was in demand worldwide and he followed Solti as conductor of the London Philharmonic from 1983 until 1987. He guest conducted the Berlin Philharmonic from 1977, leading 23 concerts over 14 years. Karajan, it is said, talked of him as his possible successor... perchance to keep pretenders at bay. Testament has licensed five complete Tennstedt/Berlin concerts in the Berlin Philharmonie between 1980 and 1984 recorded by Rundfunk Berlin-Brandenburg. The first CD (SBT-1446) contains an unusual and exciting 14 minute overture, Das Katchen von Heilbronn by Hans Pfitzner, followed by Mozart’s Piano Concerto No.23 with Babette Hierholzer and concluding with Dvořák’s Eighth Symphony. Hierholzer was only 23 at the time of this concert, October 7, 1980 but had made her debut with the orchestra two years earlier. A critic at the time was impressed by the seamless give-and-take between piano and orchestra.

01b_tennstedt2_bachThe other four Tennstedt concerts are each contained on two-CD sets which are issued at a reduced price. Each concert features a notable soloist. The first concert dating from November 21, 1981 opens with Bach’s Second Violin Concerto BWV1042 played by the orchestra’s concertmaster Thomas Brandis and Bruckner’s Eighth Symphony (SBT2 1447). The Bach is elegant with Brandis reliably polite and solid. The Bruckner is a different story. The work was a Karajan specialty and it is quite illuminating to hear Tennstedt’s more personal vision: “less solemn, less calm, but more colourful than usual” according to one 01c_tennstect3_beethoven_brucknercritic. The second concert (SBT2 1448) dates from December 14, 1981 and features the Bruckner Fourth Symphony preceded by a very fine version of Beethoven’s Second Piano Concerto joyfully played by Bruno Leonardo Gelber whom Arthur Rubinstein considered to be one of the greatest pianists of his generation. Schubert’s Symphony No.9 is the main work on the concert from April 19, 1983 which also featured American violinist Peter Zazofsky playing the Dvořák Violin Concerto (SBT2 1449). The concerto comes off very well but the Schubert is a different matter. Tempi are often quite different from those chosen by his peers and may, and in fact did to the critics, sound like a series of miscalculations. However, on second hearing it all sounds fine and of a whole and quite magnificent. Reviewers with deadlines at a live 01d_tennstedt4_dvorak_schubertperformance do not have the luxury of returning to that same performance and listening with new ears as we able to do listening to a recording. (Still, critics have their place... I know several regular concert-goers who express guarded opinions, or have none at all, until they read what the local pundit(s) declare.) The last concert in this Testament series (SBT2 1450) is an exciting one. 01e_tennstect5_prokofiev_dvorakMussorgsky’s original version of A Night on Bare Mountain sounds, as it should, lurid, threatening and scary. The Prokofiev Second Piano Concerto (my favourite of the five) is given a no-holds-barred performance by Cuban born Horacio Gutierrez. A great work and a superlative performance. Closing out this concert of March 13, 1984 is a beautifully balanced, dynamic Dvořák Symphony No.9, From the New World that, in earlier days would top the charts.

These five Testament releases are well timed as there is a growing interest in Tennstedt’s artistry, thereby generating demand for his live performances both on CD and DVD. The Testament recordings were re-mastered this year and the dynamics are accurate and the imaging has a believable depth of field in a sympathetic acoustic. Listening to them all was, and continues to be, a great pleasure.

02_klemperer

One other 2CD release from Testament must be mentioned (SBT2 1456): a Mahler Second from May 18, 1951 conducted by Otto Klemperer with the Vienna Symphony Orchestra, the Akademie Kammerchor, and Ilona Steingruber and Hilde Rössl-Majdan. Sound familiar? A performance involving all the above, recorded in the same month was issued by Vox in the early 1950s. Testament states that their performance is previously unpublished. This is a monumental realisation that 03_richterbelongs in the pantheon of Mahler performances. Disc one contains a 2010 meticulous remastering which sounds quite robust in clarity and dynamics. Disc two takes this new remastering and subjects it to “Ambient Mastering that utilises very small frequency delays to give a sense of space and width to a mono, or very narrow stereo.” I was rather doubtful about the efficacy of this process but there was now air around the instruments, tuttis were opened up and individual instruments were more discernable. The recording was easier on the ears and more immediate and based on this example, this is a very effective and worthwhile process. The 2CDs are issued at a reduced price.

hellmerGrowing with Canada: The Émigré Tradition in Canadian Music

By Paul Helmer

McGill-Queen’s University Press

400 pages; $29.95

 

• Between 1933 and 1948 a number of musicians came to Canada to escape persecution in their homelands. Most were fleeing the Nazis in Europe, but some were escaping the Communists within the constantly changing borders of the Soviet Union. Paul Helmer has identified 121 musicians among the 4000 to 5000 who came to this country seeking refuge during that period. Many, though by no means all, were Jewish. But Helmer’s investigation focuses less on why they escaped than how they got out, and what they achieved after they arrived in Canada.

Most landed in Canada with little more than their talent and whatever contacts they could come up with. None had willingly chosen to abandon their families, homelands, cultures, careers or schools to endure the dangers and humiliations that they endured. But Helmer, who taught musicology for many years at McGill, shows how these émigrés retained some control over their destinies.

The core of Helmer’s book is a series of interviews he did with some thirty of these émigrés or their surviving family members. Though it would be interesting to read these interviews in full, Helmer has put them to good use here, effectively building up a multi-layered picture.

The impact of these émigrés on the Canadian music scene was so profound, Helmer argues, that they managed to overturn the prevailing dominance of English musical culture and introduce their central European values and standards – not just in composition but also in music education and the then-developing field of musicology. Although Helmer himself is a pianist as well as a musicologist, he doesn’t devote as much attention to the influence on performance styles, although he does note how musicians like Greta Kraus and Mario Duschenes pioneered baroque performance practice in Canada. In any case, the result was the beginnings of musical independence, what could be termed a Canadian style, and international prestige.

“Once the émigrés had decided to emigrate to Canada,” writes Helmer, “they faced no real impediments because of race, religion or nationality.” Yet even if we accept Helmer’s controversial conclusion that the Canadian immigration department did as much as it could have to save lives threatened by the Nazis and the Soviets, we feel the loss of the millions who didn’t make it out, and what they would have further contributed to Canadian music.

This is a fascinating, provocative and important book (though it does deserve a more thorough index). Helmer’s celebration of the contributions of these émigrés to Canadian music resonates deeply when he writes, “We can only pay tribute to their accomplishments by continuing to welcome musicians who come to Canada from around the world to contribute to our unique musical tapestry.”

patti_lupone_cover_artPatti Lupone: A Memoir

By Patti Lupone with Digby Diehl

Crown Archetype

336 pages, photos; $29.99

 

• During a show Patti Lupone gave in Toronto last year with Mandy Patinkin, she asked the audience to suggest a title for her upcoming memoirs. The title she ended up with, Patti Lupone: A Memoir, sounds decidedly low-key. That’s surprising, because there is nothing low-key about Lupone.

In her memoir Lupone is feisty, funny and daring – just as she is on stage. Notoriously combative, she is at the same time willing to expose vast layers of vulnerability. More than once while reading this, I wondered why she was sharing a particularly uncomfortable bit of information.

As she details her struggles for good parts, favourable contracts, and positive reviews, she writes, “I truly believe you learn more from failure than you do from success.” I found her descriptions of the never-ending struggles to get into a character especially interesting. But the one thing she has never had to struggle for is appreciation from audiences. In fact, her main battles seems to be with herself.

Lupone’s initial big-time success came with the premiere of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Evita. But after premiering Webber’s Sunset Boulevard in London in 1992, she was dumped from the Broadway opening in favour of Glenn Close. Lupone was devastated – and evidently still is. It’s a messy story, with Webber as the duplicitous villain. But her career thrived with hit shows like Les Misérables, Sweeny Todd, and, most recently, Gypsy. Along the way there were small but special shows like her now-legendary Saturday midnight cabaret at a New York nightclub called Les Mouches while she was doing Evita on Broadway in 1980 (Ghostlight Records recently issued a live recording).

Webber gets top billing on her list of despised colleagues, but there’s also Bill Smitrovich, her co-star on a tv show she appeared in for four years, Life Goes On, and Chaim Topol, who was briefly – though none too briefly for her - her co-star in one of the many flops she was involved in, The Baker’s Wife. Her list of those she loves is much longer. It includes fellow Juilliard student and former boyfriend Kevin Kline, frequent co-star Patinkin, playwright David Mamet, teacher John Houseman, director Arthur Laurents, who wrote the book for Gypsy and directed her in it, and her husband Matt Johnston, who sounds like a remarkably balanced, supportive guy.

Lupone can sound either self-deprecating or self-serving – or both, even in the same sentence. But what always saves her here is her ability to find something wonderful in every experience, good or bad. That’s one of the many delights of this revealing and thoroughly enjoyable memoir. Conversational in style, it reads like an extended interview. In fact, Lupone has recorded it for an audio CD. I haven’t heard it, but I imagine it would be terrific to experience this memoir with Lupone’s spoken voice.

 

Evita is completing its run at the Stratford Festival with final performances on
November 1, 2, 4, and 5 at 2:00pm, and
November 6 at 8:00pm.

01_scarlatti_vespersAlessandro Scarlatti - Vespro della Beata Vergine

Nederlands Kamerkoor; Harry van der Kamp

ATMA ACD2 2533

Whether or not younger composers in Scarlatti’s day described his music as boring or old-fashioned, Scarlatti’s abilities were acknowledged by no less than Pope Clement XI and Queen Christina of Sweden. For many years, Scarlatti was not well-paid and he moved from city to city before returning to Naples. This moving around is reflected in the selection of vespers on this CD; they were dispersed in several European cities and are also difficult to date. They can roughly be dated from 1703-1708 and 1714-1720 when Scarlatti’s age ranged from 43 to 60.

 

In the opening track, Dixit Dominum, soloists Barbara Borden and Margrit Stok add a celestial quality to Scarlatti’s setting. Barbara Borden’s name features throughout – she is a mainstay of this recording. Even the shortest and, dare one say it, hurried settings such as Laetatus sum and Nisi Dominus (Psalms 121 and 126) are infused with joy; the combined voices of the Nederlands Kammerkoor are given free rein. Perhaps most uplifting, however, is Ave Maria Stella, its verses with their intimate pleas interpreted clearly and intensely by smaller groups of singers.

 

All in all, this is an attractive and varied collection of Scarlatti’s settings of vespers. The criticisms made against him by his contemporaries are answered here, whether or not he is a fashionable composer nowadays or he preferred not to change his style.



02_rossini_italianaRossini - L'Italiana in Algeri

Jennifer Larmore; Bruce Ford; Simone Alaimo; Alessandro Corbelli; Orchestra and Choirs of the Opera National de Paris; Bruno Campanella

ArtHaus Musik 107 127

Rossini’s first major success in 1813, in Venice, an opera the 21 year old composer dashed off in a month, is now available in at least 3 video performances. Although the one from the Met in 1983 with Marilyn Horne is still a strong contender, this production in 1998 by Andrei Serban from the resplendent Palais Garnier opera house must take precedence with its imaginative new stage production and high musical values.

 

How to describe it? Certainly not ‘operatic’ in the traditional sense and perhaps influenced by Broadway with constant, sometimes acrobatic movement, dazzling primary colours and grotesque, oversize, cartoonish features that may overwhelm the audience at first, but will become hugely entertaining as the performance unfolds.

 

A comic masterwork through and through, it is in this opera that Rossini first devised one of his unique Act 1 finales “Pria di dividerci da voi, signore” where 7 different voices mix and create total pandemonium.

 

The superb cast includes the protagonist American mezzo Jennifer Larmore who truly inherits the role from Marilyn Horne with comic, spontaneous acting, a wonderful voice and a stunning stage presence. I am not saying she steals the show because bass buffo Simone Alaimo as the Bey of Algiers hopelessly pining for her is even more hilarious and the pair of them with a strong chemistry simply take the bit and run with it. Necessary to complete the triangle the tenor Bruce Ford looks refreshingly different from the typical insipid Rossini tenor with his bushy hair, a beard and build that makes him believable as a lover to the likes of Ms Larmore. Being a famous Rossini tenor he copes magnificently with the florid, high tessituras of his part. Italian conductor Bruno Campanella has the perfect feel for Rossini with ideal tempi and a light, sensitive touch. He outshines James Levine of the competing set.



03_verdi_radvanovskyVerdi - Arias

Sondra Radvanovsky; Philharmonia of Russia; Constantine Orbelian

Delos DE 3404

There is always a raging debate in the operatic circles, whether some voices are “composer-specific”. Well, according to credible sources, Ms. Radvanovsky is “a true Verdian, with a big, juicy, vibrato-rich sound” (The Times). While I am not sure one would want the singer to limit her repertoire to Verdi alone, it is true that her renditions of Leonora’s lament from La Forza del Destino or Elena’s Bolero from I Vespri Sicilaini sound spot-on.

 

Her career so far has made her a popular choice for the home stage of The Metropolitan Opera, but Covent Garden, Paris Opera, La Scala, Vienna State Opera and Lyric Opera in Chicago come knocking frequently. It is a daunting field of Verdi heroines that Ms. Radvanovsky has entered, but she manages to sound both impressive and entirely original. This is to say, while getting enraptured by her nuanced and powerful performances, one never thinks “She sounds just like…” The best news is that we will get to judge for ourselves, when Ms. Radvanovsky makes her COC debut this fall in Aida! In this upcoming test, of sorts, we stand a chance to cheer not only a great soprano, but also one of “Toronto’s own”, as Ms. Radvanovsky and her husband reside in the T dot. The CD made in the Mosfilm Studios betrays a bit of typical Delos “over-ambianced” recording, but this minor quibble should not deter opera lovers from picking it up – it may in come handy during the autograph-signing session at the COC.

Concert note: The COC’s Aida runs October 2 – November 5 at the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts.

04a_mahler_songs_mttMahler - Songs with Orchestra

Susan Graham; Thomas Hampson; San Francisco Symphony; Michael Tilson Thomas

SFS 821936-0036-2 (SACD)

04b_mahler_songs_stenz











Mahler - Lieder auf “Des Knaben Wunderhorn”

Christiane Oelze; Michael Volle; Gürzenich-Orchester Köln; Markus Stenz

OEHMS Classics OC 657 (SACD)

Michael Tilson Thomas brings the San Francisco Symphony’s decade long self-produced Mahler cycle to a close with a curiously low-key album of orchestral songs featuring baritone Thomas Hampson and mezzo-soprano Susan Graham. Hampson, widely regarded as the leading Mahler singer of his generation, holds the lion’s share of this disc in concert performances of Mahler’s Songs of a Wayfarer and five selections from The Youth’s Magic Horn, while the equally eminent Graham (though less familiar in this repertoire) contributes five of Mahler’s settings of the poems of Friedrich Rückert. Hampson has recorded Mahler many times before and has not particularity outshone himself in these performances, which strike me as conspicuously mannered – one might even say hammy – and not entirely accurate. Graham’s luxuriant interpretation of the Rückert songs makes a much stronger impression, save for a few nervous moments when she is forced into her upper register. Tilson Thomas and his engineers skillfully balance the orchestra in deference to the voices and, quite unlike earlier installments in this cycle, his tempos are leisurely and relatively rigid. Those looking for mere beauty in singing may be safely assured of a comfortable evening with the superstars.

 

I have nothing but praise for the latest Mahler recording by Markus Stenz and Cologne’s venerable Gürzenich orchestra. The third entry in the Oehms Classics projected Mahler cycle follows estimable performances of the Fourth and Fifth symphonies with Mahler’s orchestral settings of 14 songs from the 1808 folk poetry collection The Youth’s Magic Horn. Soprano Christiane Oelze’s laser-sharp pitch and purity of tone conveys the down-home sentiments of these rustic texts with a beguiling freshness, while Michael Volle is an admirable foil with his forceful yet flexible baritone in the recurring soldier’s laments such as Reveille and The Little Drummer Boy. While Stenz is rarely histrionic in the Bernstein manner, he has a way of gently molding a phrase or timing a silence that is equally effective. Stenz’s approach is in many ways reminiscent of George Szell’s classic 1968 recording, including the fact that both singers perform in dialogue in certain selections, an idea that evidently never occurred to Mahler himself. The sound of the orchestra, recorded in studio, is outstanding in both execution and recording, with the horns in particular sounding both youthful and magical.


05_in_good_companyIn Good Company

Canadian Chamber Choir

Independent CCCCD001

www.canadianchamberchoir.ca

The Canadian Chamber Choir, under Artistic Director Julia Davids, have aptly named their first release “In Good Company”. Why? Really only a respectful musical environment can create the cohesive singing, beautiful tone, and intelligent musicality evident on this release. Even more remarkable is that this is even humanly possible considering that the members are spread across the Canada, and the group only gets together to rehearse in intense short duration workshops a few of times a year.

This all-Canadian ten composer release encompasses a variety of styles and vocal configurations. Especially glorious is Tawnie Olson's Chantez à l'Eternel for its ethereal quality. Allan Rae's Mvt #5 Allegro from Keltic Suite is a rhythmic departure from the usual lush choral sound. The hilarious Figures de danse by Lionel Daunais has the choir kicking up its heels. The choir's commission, At Sunset by composer and choir bass Jeff Enns is a tad lengthy but does utilize CCC's vocal ensemble strengths, while highlighting special guest soloist mezzo-soprano Christianne Rushton. The other special guests on the release, cellist Sehee Kim and pianist Joel Tranquilla, are also excellent on their respective tracks.

I was really surprised at the superb quality of the Canadian Chamber Choir. This group can sing lush harmonics and independent contrapuntal lines with equal expertise. Anyone even remotely interested in choral music will find “In Good Company” a welcome guest in their musical homes.



06_whitacreEric Whitacre - Choral Music

Elora Festival Singers; Noel Edison

Naxos 8.559677

This recording will appeal to admirers of well-crafted choral music that judiciously incorporates contemporary musical techniques. American composer Eric Whitacre (b. 1970) has cultivated a style where added notes and tone clusters are the norm in higher registers. With careful attention to pitch content, texture, register, and dynamics, seldom is an unattractive sound heard. Though based in innovations by other composers great and small, Whitacre’s music shows special artistry in focusing technique to ends. In Her Sacred Spirit Soars, simply thickening and thinning sonorities as pitches rise and fall conveys the sacred spirit of the music’s long-breathed motion. I particularly like the mystical sense in Lux aurumque (Light of Gold), about which the composer aptly speaks of spiritual processes: “blossoming” and “surrendering” to light.

 

There are effective piano-accompanied settings, of E.E. Cummings’ little tree with its ecstatic ending, and of Octavio Paz’s Little Birds which includes whistling, repeated consonants and quasi-aleatoric (random) singing. I prefer the sensitivity to mood in the short lyrical works; When David Heard and percussion-enhanced Leonardo Dreams of his Flying Machine have longer minimalist passages I find less convincing.

 

Noel Edison’s splendid Elora Festival Singers are up to Eric Whitacre’s every challenge. Perfectly pitched, vibrato-less sopranos in multiple parts produce sounds of wonderful life. All sections contribute to the tour-de-force with well-balanced sonorous blocks and long-decaying tones evoking reverberant space. Which brings me to close by noting the fine production and engineering by Bonnie Silver and Norbert Kraft of this important recording.


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