01_rachmaninov_triosAlthough resident in Quebec since 1993, Paris-born Patrice Lare studied in Moscow for 8 years, and is steeped in the Russian piano school tradition. His playing provides a massive foundation for the Complete Rachmaninov Piano Trios (XXI-CD 2 1700) with his wife, cellist Velitchka Yotcheva (also Moscow-trained), and Canadian violinist Jean-Sebastien Roy. Rachmaninov’s Trios Elegiaques are both early works in his Romantic, post-Tchaikovsky mold. No.1 is a single-movement trio in G minor from 1892, and No.2 a three-movement work in D minor, written after the death of Tchaikovsky in late 1893 and dedicated “To the Memory of a Great Artist”. This is big but always sensitive playing, perfectly attuned to the style and nature of the music. Recorded at the Radio-Canada studios in Montreal, the sound quality matches the tremendous performances.

 

02_lang_lang_vadim_mischaI’ve sometimes wondered if the technical heights reached by Lang Lang are always matched by the depths of his interpretations, but he certainly does his artistic reputation no harm with his first chamber music CD, Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninov Piano Trios with Vadim Repin and Mischa Maisky. Presumably this is his final major release from Deutsche Grammophon (477 8099), following his $3 million signing with Sony; if so, it’s a fascinating farewell, suggesting chamber music as a new field with huge potential for him. The Rachmaninov trio is the G minor, and both here and in the Tchaikovsky A minor trio Lang Lang really seems to avoid “showy” playing, getting to the heart of the music and clearly sharing the interpretative view of his Russian colleagues. Again, the standard of the recording matches that of the two outstanding performances.

 

03_horn_triosAt first sight, there doesn’t seem to be any connection between the works on the latest CD from faculty members at McGill University’s Schulich School of Music (XXI-CD 2 1699), but they are in fact closely related. Jonathan Crow (violin), John Zirbel (horn) and Sara Laimon (piano) open with a beautifully warm reading of the Brahms E flat Horn Trio. This was the first work written for this instrumental combination, and was inspired by the death of the composer’s mother. Brahms chose to use not the newly-developed valve horn but the natural waldhorn, with its sentimental ties to his family and his youth in Hamburg. It was, in turn, a request from a Hamburg pianist for a horn trio to be played along with the Brahms that led György Ligeti to write his own Horn Trio in 1982; moreover, Ligeti had also lost his own mother earlier that year. Sub-titled “Hommage à Brahms”, it is a demanding, complex and multi-layered work in the same four-movement form. Again, the performance is exemplary. Brahms’ mentor Schumann wrote his Adagio & Allegro for horn and piano in 3 days in February 1849; the first substantial solo work to fully explore the potential of the new valve horn, it is still a demanding piece, and Zirbel and Laimon are terrific. Recorded at the acoustically-excellent Schulich School, the sound quality is outstanding.

06_stravinskyStravinsky - Pulcinella; Symphony in Three Movements

Chicago Symphony Orchestra; Pierre Boulez

CSO RESOUND CSOR 901 920

 

At the ripe old age of 85 Pierre Boulez remains as fit as a fiddle and twice as stringy. This recording from the Chicago Symphony’s own Resound label captures a concert from February 2009 featuring Boulez, currently celebrating his 15th season as CSO principal guest conductor, in fine form in familiar works by Stravinsky with an exceptionally attentive and virtuosic Chicago Symphony. The largest work here is the complete ballet score of Pulcinella, Stravinsky’s strategic retreat into neo-classicism from 1920. The work for small orchestra includes vocal contributions from a trio of fresh-faced singers, mezzo Roxana Constaninescu, tenor Nicholas Phan, and bass-baritone Kyle Ketelsen, with Phan making the lasting impression. I am happy to see that the texts and multiple translations have been provided.

 

Though this is certainly not Boulez’s preferred period of Stravinsky’s oeuvre, he provides a genial performance nonetheless, though rather insouciant compared to the composer’s own account of it. It is bested by a magnificent performance of the Symphony in Three Movements of 1945, which revives the old spark of Stravinsky’s early rhythmic drive, and the enigmatic Four Études from 1914. The notably desiccated acoustic of Chicago’s Symphony Hall complements both the laser-like precision for which Boulez is celebrated and the dry champagne that is Stravinsky’s music.

05_tchaikovsky_prokofievTchaikovsky - Rococo Variations; Prokofiev - Sinfonia Concertante

Gautier Capuçon; Orchestra of the Mariinsky Theatre; Valery Gergiev

Virgin Classics 9 694486 0

 

This excellent CD is a live recording of a Christmas Eve 2008 concert at the Mariinsky Theatre in Saint Petersburg.

 

Gautier Capuçon is an outstanding player, although I feel he tends to favour detail over the bigger phrase at times. Such an approach is fine in the Rococo Variations, where the virtuosic demands outnumber the emotional, and Capuçon handles them with ease and style.

 

The Prokofiev is clearly another matter, but Capuçon rises to the challenge. Dating from the early 1950s, when Prokofiev was still under censure for his “antidemocratic tendencies”, the Sinfonia concertante is a reworking of his Op.58 Cello Concerto from the late 1930s, and marked a return to his true style. Even so, Prokofiev was wise enough to supply an alternative – and more orthodox! – version of the finale for the premiere. Gautier has apparently loved this fascinating work since his childhood days, and it shows in his convincing and nuanced performance, full of the “calm power and serene strength” that he rightly says the cellist needs.

 

The orchestral support from superstar conductor Gergiev and the OMT is, not surprisingly, of the highest order. The recording ambience is warm and natural, with no hint of audience noise. The booklet notes are excellent, and are particularly illuminating on the publishing history of the Tchaikovsky.

 

I may still a bit reluctant to fully jump on the Capuçon bandwagon, but this CD certainly has me now hanging on to the tailgate!

04_mahler_7Mahler - Symphony No.7

Tonhalle Orchestra Zurich; David Zinman

RCA Red Seal 88697 50650 2

 

Integral sets of Mahler symphonies have run amok as the double whammy of the composer’s sesqui-and-centennial anniversaries approach (born 1860, died 1911). Among the finest of these is the ongoing series, released in chronological order, by David Zinman and the Swiss Tonhalle Orchestra.

 

The Seventh Symphony has long been regarded as the problem child of the set, a true test of a conductor’s insight due to its multi-faceted interpretive challenges. It is, relatively speaking, an uncharacteristically optimistic work and one which hints at advances in Mahler’s harmonic thinking to which he would return in his uncompleted Tenth Symphony. Critics of the past regarded the composer’s appropriation of a sunny disposition in this work forced and disingenuous. Influential curmudgeon T.W. Adorno declared the work a complete failure, dismissing Mahler as “a poor yea-sayer”, while Mahler’s acolyte Bruno Walter avoided this work throughout his career. Today Mahler’s puzzling ambiguities have captured the imagination of our own era to such an extent that he now rivals Beethoven in his universal appeal. Zinman approaches his task with characteristic thoroughness and a scrupulous adherence to Mahler’s exacting performance directions. His admirable control of orchestral balances is well captured by RCA’s production team. Though Zinman’s performance of the three central movements of this vast, symmetrical five-part structure are beyond reproach, the convulsions of the weighty first movement are less well defined and the rollicking finale, though certainly festive, falls short of the triumphant atmosphere established by Bernstein and Abbado in their multiple recordings of this work. Despite the rather undernourished sound produced by the Zurich string section and Zinman’s micromanagement of events hindering the spontaneity demanded by Mahler’s more operatic moments, this is nonetheless a major recording which I heartily recommend.

03_grieg-mogensenPiano Music of Edward Grieg, Volume 2

Sandra Mogensen

Independent CHM 0901120 (www.sandramogensen.com)

 

Edvard Grieg was not an especially complicated composer – yet, ironically, his style offers something of a challenge for performers. On one hand, a pianist should respect the heart-on-sleeve emotionalism and down-to-earth directness of Grieg’s ideas. On the other hand, this music demands interpretation: a pianist must do something with it.

 

And Sandra Mogensen, a Canadian pianist who lives in Stratford, Ontario, does plenty with it. With all of the 23 selections recorded here, there’s a strong sense of mood and dramatic purpose. In her hands, each piece on this clear-sounding disc captures an image or tells a story.

 

For instance, there’s a Schumannesque flutteriness to Butterfly (Op. 43. No. 1); and a sunny, pleasant disposition to Gade (Op. 57 No. 2) – a musical portrait of Grieg’s teacher Niels Gade. As well At the Cradle (Op. 68 No. 5) is suitably dreamy, and Bell Ringing (Op. 54 No. 6) is dark and mysterious. For Nordic folksiness look to Springdans (Op. 17 No. 1) or Norwegian (Op. 12 No. 6).

 

Some of these pieces go beyond the expression of a single idea, enfolding contrasting material into single movements. Mogensen’s performance of the famous Solveig’s Song (Op. 52 No. 2) is alternately mournful and sweet. And the enigmatic Vanished Days (Op. 57. No. 1) – the longest piece on the disc – runs the gamut from introspective wistfulness to intense high drama, with some playful passages thrown in for good measure.

 

For those with a penchant for sterner stuff, some of the pieces recorded here will no doubt seem overly sentimental. Be that as it may, Mogensen pleads Grieg’s case sincerely and well.

02_faure_violinFauré - Works for Violin and Piano

Olivier Thouin; Francois Zeitouni

XXI XXI-CD2 1702

 

This fine disc’s two “pillars” are the early and late Fauré violin sonatas. Sonata No. 1 in A Major shows Fauré already at the height of his powers. This performance realizes the music’s striving, yearning sensibility. The passionate first movement features Fauré’s distinctive modal and chromatic harmony. Zeitouni controls the florid piano accompaniment well, bringing out motifs and subordinating lines, or underlining the violin’s melodic shaping. In the barcarole-like slow movement, sensitivity to harmony is displayed in violinist Thouin’s classic, subtly-coloured style. Both players meet the demands of the intricate, skittering scherzo, featuring fine staccato from Thouin’s bow.

 

The duo makes the most of the disc’s three lighter works. Berceuse in D Major is like a charming French mélodie. I find the Romance in B-flat Major too conventionally sentimental, but the forward-looking Andante in the B-flat Major’s melody in ascending fourths receives particularly interesting harmonizations.

 

The performers capture well the much different character of Sonata No. 2 in E minor: the first movement’s soaring lines seeming to ascend out of tumult towards light; the second movement’s tossing and turning; and the finale’s conflict and ambiguity resolving only at the final measure.

 

This disc may attract new listeners to Fauré, while aficionados will find it faithful to the composer’s style and spirit. The recording quality is excellent, capturing a full dynamic range in all registers, and Zeitouni's accompanying notes only reinforce the case being made for this great composer.

01_raymond_spasovskiPhoenix 

Raymond Spasovski

Independent (www.raymondspasovski.com)

 

I don’t imagine Walter Hall has changed all that much since I gave my one and only noon-hour recital there many years ago as a fourth-year composition student. But what I do know is that pianist Raymond Spasovski plays much better than I did on this live recording of a concert held there last October. Born in Macedonia, Spasovski made his debut at the age of 10 with the Macedonian Symphony, and since then, has appeared with major orchestras throughout Europe and North America to great acclaim.

 

This CD, his first, presents an attractive program drawing heavily from the late Romantic period, but opening with a short sonata by the 18th century composer Mateo Albeniz. Although this piece and the Bach Prelude in A minor BWV 807 clearly demonstrate his technical dexterity, it’s the repertoire from the late 19th century in which he particularly excels, especially that by Spanish and South American composers. Indeed, de Falla, Granados, Isaac Albeniz, Lecuona, and Ginastera are well represented, and he approaches them all with great panache. The playing is confident and bold, particularly demonstrated in the Tres Danzas Argentinas by Ginastera, and Granados’ Allegro de Concierto. Yet his interpretation of the Chopin Berçeuse shows a decidedly more sensitive side to his playing.

 

While I’m always a little leery about live recordings with respect to audio quality, the sound here is well-balanced and warmly resonant - and even the frequent applause doesn’t detract in any way. So a big bravo, Mr. Spasovski – the Walter Hall Steinway sounds much better under your capable hands than it ever did with mine!

04_terfelBad Boys

Bryn Terfel; Swedish Radio Choir and Symphony Orchestra; Paul Daniel

Deutsche Grammophon 477 8091

 

Tenors may win winsome hearts playing the romantic lead, but, as we often see, the “bad” bass-baritone elicits a strange yet much more compelling attraction. Perhaps it's raw brute force that turns our heads and makes us quiver with excitement, or maybe it's the element of danger that we find fascinating: the kind of thrill that even the noble Donna Elviras of this world can't possibly resist. With this recording and a tour of the same name, Bryn Terfel offers highlights from villains of the opera house and musical theatre in all their various forms, ranging from gossips, swindlers and cads to the ruinous, murderous and satanic.

 

He is menacing as Sweeney Todd, cruel and calculating as Iago (Otello) and Scarpia (Tosca), pure evil as Mephistopheles (Faust) and Kaspar (Der Freischutz). As Sportin' Life (Porgy & Bess) “It ain't Necessarily So” transposed to the baritone range gives him the opportunity for a carefree, devil-may-care attitude. The final scene of Don Giovanni provides the best showcase of all as Terfel sings all three roles: The Commendatore, Leporello and Don Giovanni.

 

Bryn Terfel is a consummate showman; he brings these characters driven by lust, revenge and greed to life with sheer power and range of emotion few are capable of. And, at the same time, he seems to be having an awfully good time giving us a good scare with a fierce growl.

 

03_finleyGreat Operatic Arias

Gerald Finley; London Philharmonic Orchestra; Edward Gardner

CHANDOS Opera in English CHAN 3167

 

For no logical reason, opera sounds better when you can’t understand it. We seem satisfied with knowing the plot and reading projected “surtitles” in order to follow the progress of grand opera. We grant a foreign language status as carrier of refinement and class, keeping opera tantalizingly beyond the reach of many potential new followers. English seems just fine for Oklahoma and Pinafore but what about Verdi and Wagner?

 

Baritone Gerald Finley is a key player in the CHANDOS Opera in English series funded by British Philanthropist Peter Moores whose mission is to have us all enjoy opera as much as Italian, French and German audiences do. The project’s core belief is that opera in an audience’s native language conveys the immediacy of each moment more effectively.

 

Perhaps not surprisingly, operas originally written in English seem just fine. And this may actually prove the point. Gerald Finley does a truly splendid job with arias from Adams’ Doctor Atomic and Turnage’s The Silver Tassie. These tracks offer credibility to other selections from Don Giovanni, Die Meistersinger and Otello. The Tosca excerpt is especially rewarding.

 

Whatever the final verdict from opera lovers, it’s clear that opera sung in English translation seems a bit odd – at first. Much depends on the quality of the translation, matching English text to the phrasing and cadence of music never intended as a poetic partner. Done well, however, it actually works. Listen to Gerald Finley and you’ll understand why.

 


02_wagner_gotterdamWagner - Gotterdammerung

Schmittberg; Hoff; Mowes; Meszar; Foster; Weissmann; Staatskapelle Weimar; Carl St. Clair

ArtHaus Music 101 359

 

The last, cataclysmic instalment of Wagner’s monumental Ring cycle from Weimar is very much a vision of the director, Michael Schultz. His strong philosophy is most manifest here where his pessimistic views are aided by the apocalyptic story. “There are tears in the world/as though God had died…” The grief is never ending.

 

To the cruelty and murder so prevalent in the drama the director adds his own issues: cruelty to women and even to defenceless animals. The 2nd act turns into a pandemonium of mass rape by the Gibichung thugs (reminding us of British soccer hooligans). Brunnhilde’s horse Grane is portrayed by a pantomime actress with flowing white hair much abused throughout by Hagen and the adolescents also added to the production. The Director believes that children of the world are cast out, helpless therefore aggressive. They witness all major turns of event but are unable to participate and move around in curiosity, with blood-stained hands.

 

Difficult to describe this theatrical experience with words, one really has to see how powerfully it’s handled by sparse visual means. Stage background is black throughout; there are virtually no sets and lighting plays a prominent role. So memorable to see Siegfried tenderly mourned by Grane, the long suffering horse and at the final scene water is cascading from above over the abused women, who are reborn & cleansed by Brunnhilde’s self sacrifice and redemption.

 

Young American conductor Carl St. Clair keeps tight control and never lets the tension sag. The cast is very strong. Renatus Meszar as Hagen, is a formidable presence and even more formidable voice. Catherine Foster easily conquers the endurance test of Brunnhilde’s role. Siegfried, Norbert Schmittberg, is treated as a vulnerable, somewhat naïve plaything for the evil Gibichung, a fine choice for not being the typical beefcake Wagner tenor. Gunther, portrayed as weak and somewhat tragicomic, is sung and acted wonderfully by Mario Hoff. Great theatre, this is a moving production that will give you food for thought.

 


01_haydn_orlandoHaydn - Orlando Paladino

Marlis Petersen; Tom Randle; Pietro Spagnoli; Magnus Staveland; Freiburger Barockorchester; René Jacobs

EuroArts 2057788

 

Early music enthusiasts may be attracted to this DVD by the name René Jacobs, renowned as a counter-tenor; here he enjoys the role of musical director. From the opening Sinfonia, he brings out the best in the Freiburger Barockorchester.

 

Last summer was the two-hundredth anniversary of Haydn’s death; this DVD shows the Berlin State Opera's commemorative production. Almost incredibly, with the reputation Haydn enjoys for serious symphonies and masses, Orlando Paladino, with its heroic and comic themes, was the Haydn opera performed most often during his lifetime.

 

The accompanying notes with this production are comprehensive in all but one respect – only two-and-a-half lines are devoted to the plot of the opera. The rest of the notes cover historical context. Mercifully, the Internet yields several extremely helpful synopses.

 

There are spirited performances in Act 1 from Magnus Staveland (Medoro) in the aria “Parto. Ma, oh dio, non posso” and also from Marlis Petersen’s Angelica, who makes her presence felt throughout the act. Tom Randle is noteworthy for his passionate interpretation of Orlando. What a contrast with the enforced timidity and frustration of Sunhae Im (Eurilla). One feels poor Eurilla is left to sort everything out on her own; she gets aggravation - and our sympathy vote.

 

Acts 2 and 3 are, if anything, more zany. “Vittoria, vittoria!” (Victor Torres, Pasquale) proves this. Opera purists will appreciate “Aure chete, verdi allori” (Angelica) and “Miei pensieri, dove siete?” (Orlando) but frankly, for those expecting the costumes and scenery to be as authentic as the orchestra, they aren’t. Let’s just say that this is a highly individual production!

 


EDITOR’S CORNER

01_petrowska_quilicoThe latest Centrediscs release, featuring works by Alexina Louie, Violet Archer and Larysa Kuzmenko, appropriately arrived on International Women’s Day. Pianist Christina Petrowska Quilico is the soloist on 3 Concerti (CMCCD 15610), a disc which serves to remind us that there is a grand tradition of concerto writing in this country and begs the question – why are they so rarely played? According to the Encyclopaedia of Music in Canada, interest in the concertante form began in earnest in 1938 with Ballade for viola and strings by Godfrey Ridout and the following year with Violet Archer’s Concerto for the unusual combination of timpani and orchestra. Piano concertos came to the fore in the 1940s, with 13 premiered between 1944 (Healey Willan) and 1949 (Clermont Pépin’s second). The 1950s saw the focus turn to the violin concerto with particularly successful examples by Alexander Brott, Murray Adaskin and John Weinzweig, but as this disc attests interest in the piano never waned. We are presented with works spanning four decades, from 1956 (Archer) to 1996 (Kuzmenko). Of the three, Louie’s (1984) is the most exotic. Drawing on the composer’s oriental heritage both melodically and in some of the instrumentation in the percussion section, the work is a skilful and exuberant blending of East and West. Petrowska Quilico is in fine form with the National Arts Centre Orchestra under Alex Pauk. Interestingly, considering her first foray into the concerto form, Violet Archer’s Piano Concerto No. 1 opens with a flourish from the timpani before the piano enters in moto perpetuo mode. Recorded in 1981 by the CBC Vancouver Orchestra under John Eliot Gardiner, I am a bit disappointed with the audio quality of this transfer, but have no complaints about the performance. Somewhat reminiscent of Archer’s teacher Bela Bartok in its orchestration, melodically this is a bold and mature work reflective of its time. The final piece is the most recent but also the most old-fashioned. Kuzmenko is an unabashed Romantic whose model seems to be Rachmaninov, although here too I sense the influence of Bartok. The work is flamboyantly virtuosic and Petrowska Quilico takes full advantage of the opportunity to rise to the occasion. Recorded at the Massey Hall New Music Festival in 1996 with Jukka-Pekka Saraste conducting the Toronto Symphony, I am left wondering why this would be programmed as new music. It is a well-crafted, dramatic work that would be well at home on any mainstream orchestral concert and, like the others on this disc, deserves to be heard more often.

 

02_piano_atlanticaAnother Centrediscs release, Piano Atlantica (CMCCD-15210) is a marvellous collection of music by composers from across the country who now make their home in the Atlantic provinces. Pianist Barbara Pritchard, herself a transplant from British Columbia via Toronto, where she was a member of Arraymusic and Continuum and performed with New Music Concerts on several memorable occasions, now lives in Halifax and teaches at Dalhousie. The first notes we hear, in Jerome Blais’ Con Stella, are pounded chords at the extreme reaches of the piano’s keyboard. In his short piece Blais, originally from Montreal, also ventures inside the piano for Aeolian harp-like strumming of the strings, knocking on the inside of the instrument and employing a number of percussive “preparations”. B.C. native Ian Crutchley contributes a set of Variations based on an 11-note pitch series which holds our attention throughout its 20 minute journey. Another West Coast transplant, Anthony Genge’s Four Quiet Preludes offer a welcome respite from the drama of the first two pieces and Pritchard lingers lovingly over the long decays, never rushing to the next note. Maritime-born Richard Gibson is well represented on this disc, with a selection from his 25 Preludes - highlights include Hommage à Erik and Ricercare à 3 – and Variation, a short work in which the composer limits himself to a two octave range corresponding to the compass of a toy piano. A founding member of Toronto’s Continuum collective, Venezuelan-born Clark Ross is now the artistic director of the Newfound Music Festival in St. John’s. Ross’ at times rollicking and at times contemplative Last Dance brings this fine disc to a close. Recorded at the St. Mary’s University Art Gallery in Halifax, both pianist and piano sound exceptional.

 

03_armenian_amiciArmenian Chamber Music is the 10th release from Toronto’s Amici Chamber Ensemble and their first for the ATMA label (ACD2 2609). Pianist Serouj Kradjian, who recently replaced founding member Patricia Parr, brings a wealth of repertoire from his homeland as well as his own compositional skills to the mix. The other core members, clarinettist Joaquin Valdepeñas and cellist David Hetherington, are joined by violinist Benjamin Bowman in various combinations for works by Arno Babadjanian, Aram Khachaturian and Alexander Arutiunian. An unexpected treat upon listening without first checking the liner notes, was the warm and compelling voice of Isabel Bayrakdarian in Oror, a lullaby for soprano, clarinet and four cellos by Parsegh Ganatchian. Guests for this track are Hetherington’s TSO colleagues Winona Zelenka, Roberta Janzen and freelancer Amy Laing. Following Kradjian’s haunting and dramatic Elegy for Restive Souls the lullaby has a magical quality that leaves us regretting its brief duration. Khachaturian’s Trio for clarinet, violin and piano with it unusual Andante con dolore opening movement leads gently out of the lullaby, but is lively, playful and lyrical in the movements that follow. Arutiunian's 1992 Suite for the same forces provides a rambunctious finale for Amici's new disc.

 

04_pieta_partAngèle Dubeau & La Pietà’s latest, Arvo Pärt: Portrait (Analekta AN 2 8731), is a strong collection of the Estonian master’s works. A leading proponent of so-called Mystic or Holy Minimalism (not the composer’s terms), Pärt employs a self-made lush but austere compositional style called tintinnabuli. Several of his best known works are here, including Cantus In Memoriam Benjamin Britten for string orchestra and bell, Tabula Rasa for 2 violins, string orchestra and prepared piano and Spiegel im Spiegel for violin and piano. Pärt is particularly noted for his choral writing, represented here by Wallfartslied (Pilgrim’s Song) for male choir and strings. First championed by Gidon Kremer, it is perhaps appropriate that Quebec’s own superstar violinist Angèle Dubeau should be bringing Pärt’s music to a new audience. If you are not already familiar, this would make a great introduction to his work.

 

We welcome your feedback and invite submissions. CDs and comments should be sent to: The WholeNote, 503 – 720 Bathurst St. Toronto ON M5S 2R4.

 

David Olds

DISCoveries Editor

discoveries@thewholenote.com

BrunhildaBrunhilda and the Ring
by Jorge Lujan
Groundwood Books
96 pages illustrated; $24.95

This month Toronto-area audiences have an opportunity to experience the world of Wagner once again when the Canadian Opera Company presents The Flying Dutchman. Like The Flying Dutchman Wagner’s four-opera Ring Cycle, which opened the COC’s new hall four years ago, is based on ancient myths and legends. But it involves many more characters. Jorge Luján focuses his retelling of Wagner’s libretto on Brunhilda, interpreting it as the betrayal of a loving, loyal woman. He even switches the final sequence of events in the last opera of the cycle, The Twilight of the Gods, so that the ending belongs to Brunhilda instead of the triumphant Rhinemaidens.

Brunhilda’s father Wotan, king of the gods, sets off the endless cycle of betrayal by refusing to pay the giants for building his dream home, Valhalla. Her stepmother Fricka, the goddess of marriage, badgers her husband Wotan into abandoning his son, Siegmund. Brunhilda’s mother Erda, the earth goddess, tells Wotan, “Once more your wishes do not match your acts and are sure to bring catastrophe.”

 

Some acts are more excusable than others. Siegfried, for instance, is fed a potion that makes him forget all about his love for Brunhilda. Even Brunhilda, who disobeys her father and ultimately betrays Siegfried, though not without cause.

 

Luján’s text, given here in Canadian translator Hugh Hazleton’s smooth translation, is concise and clear in its story-line, and poetic in its telling. There are a few unfortunate phrases such as, “I am Siegfried! You are Brunhilda!”, which occurs during one of the most gorgeous duets in all opera. But Luján does remind us of the missing music when Brunhilda “intones a deep, sad funeral song.”

 

The illustrations by Austrian artist Linda Wolfsgruber create a vivid atmosphere, with muted colours set off by a subtle use of reds. Her detailed textures evoke moods like Brunhilda’s sense of vulnerability when Siegfried wakes her. I can imagine her settings and costumes working effectively on stage.

 

Whom this book is intended for is not stated. With illustrations covering each page, it could be seen as a children’s book. Yet the details of the story are sophisticated, and both text and illustrations will delight adults. For any audience this lovely makes a terrific introduction to a complex and important work.

 

 

 

parallel play_tim page_aspergers book (1)Parallel Play: Growing Up with Undiagnosed Asperger’s
by Tim Page
Doubleday
208 pages, photos; $32.00

When music critic Tim Page was forty-five years old, he was diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome, a form of high-functioning autism. Suddenly, problems that had plagued him since childhood became understandable. “My pervasive childhood memory is an excruciating awareness of my own strangeness,” he writes in this memoir. Page is an elegant writer, with a delightfully sardonic sense of humour. But it’s his probing honesty that makes Parallel Play so affecting.

At the same time, his memoirs provide insight into the relationship between talent and mental illness. As well as being difficult as a kid, Page had been precociously talented. He excelled as a pianist, composer, film-maker and writer, with a phenomenal memory and a disconcerting wit. Role-models like his grand-mother’s tenant, the music critic Alan M. Kriegsman, steered him into writing about music.

Some of the most interesting passages here deal with Page’s relationship with Glenn Gould, whose writings he collected after Gould’s death. He talks about their friendship. But he doesn’t discuss Gould’s own posthumous diagnosis of Asperger’s. I wonder whether Page and Gould ever recognized each other as suffering from the same condition.

Page, who now teaches journalism, is an uncommonly sensitive music critic, and his two volumes of criticism, Music from the Road (Oxford) from 1992 and Tim Page on Music (Amadeus) from 2002 are still worth reading. In sharing his experiences with Asperger’s, however retroactively, he opens the question of how much this syndrome affected his reviews. Discussing Steve Reich’s Music for 18 Musicians, he writes, “Today, I find myself wondering if I would have responded so profoundly to this starkly reiterative, rigidly patterned music had I not had Asperger’s syndrome.”

In any case, the role of Asperger’s in making him who he is simply cannot be determined. He writes, “I wouldn’t wish the condition on anybody - I’ve spent too much of my life isolated, unhappy and conflicted – yet I am also convinced that many of the things I’ve done were accomplished not despite my Asperger’s syndrome but because of it.” This is a brave book. I am looking forward to its sequel.

1 a MERCURY--TIMEANDANTHONYBRAXTON--COVER for wholenoteTime and Anthony Braxton
by Stuart Broomer
Mercury Press
240 pages, photos; $19.95

The influential American performer, composer and writer Anthony Braxton is best known for his work in experimental jazz. He’s one of the most recorded jazz artists around, and he has received many honours, including a MacArthur genius award, which he used to create his opera Trillium R: Shala Fears For The Poor. “Ultimately, we know more intensely how jazz works as a result of how his music works,” writes Toronto writer Stuart Broomer in this thoughtful study of Braxton’s music.

“There’s far more time inside a Braxton performance,” he suggests, “than might be measured by a clock.” Braxton’s explorations in the many applications of the concept of musical time provide Broomer with a viewpoint on the workings of Braxton’s compositions and performances. But this focus doesn’t stop Broomer from ranging widely. He even manages to work in a discussion of Braxton’s preference for wearing cardigan sweaters.

In his performances on saxophone, clarinet, and piano, Braxton plays the standard jazz repertoire as powerfully as his own compositions. While his mastery of jazz traditions keeps him in the continuum of jazz, his creative imagination takes him way beyond its outer limits.

Broomer reveals Braxton to be both a visionary composer and an imaginative improviser. Braxton is an exciting performer who plays as fast as – often faster than – anyone else around. Broomer describes Braxton’s music as “unusual collocations of floating time and abrasive sounds”. What concerns Broomer is to show just how important a voice in both jazz and classical music he is, and how he transcends the barriers between composed and non-composed music, working to keep both art forms evolving. Broomer goes a step further to make a case for Braxton as a classical composer as well, whose music should be performed in concert halls alongside composers he admires like Cage, Stockhausen and Xenakis

There are extensive notes, an index, and photos. I do wish there were samples of Braxton’s innovative scores here, to complement this fascinating perspective on Braxton’s music.

03_han_beninkHazzentijd             

Han Bennink             

Data Images 06 (www.toondist.nl)

 

Han Bennink’s art is intensely visual as well as musical, which is made clear on this excellent 70-minute documentary DVD. An un-self-conscious entertainer as well as a first-class drummer, the lanky, 68-year-old Dutchman – often decked out in shorts and a headband – coaxes swinging beats from floors, walls and other objects as easily as from his kit.

             

Director Jellie Dekker mixes 1960s black and white stills and footage of Bennink playing with established jazzers like saxophonist Johnny Griffin and questing Dutch improvisers, with a full-color contemporary portrait of the drummer at home, in his studio, on the road and in concert, not only playing, but – trained as an artist – creating distinctive drawings and sculpture.

             

Anchor of the Instant Composers Pool (ICP) orchestra, Bennink’s 50-year partnership with ICP pianist Misha Mengelberg is illustrated. So are other performances ranging from an Ethiopian tour with a rock band to an Amsterdam session with his trio, whose members are approximately one-third his age.

             

Bennink is as articulate as he is passionate about improvising. The film shows him fascinating Dutch school children with his play-anything style; plus a sequence at the Banff Centre where the veteran musician instructs young drummers in rhythmic versatility using only a snare drum. Then he studies birds and animals in the Alberta wilderness.

             

Besides Bennink’s own commentary, there are explanatory interviews with musicians such as saxophonist Peter Brötzmann and pianist Guus Janssen. Extras include seven full performances featuring Bennink solo and with different ensembles.

 

 

 

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