shostakovich_8Shostakovich - Symphony No. 8
Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra; Vasily Petrenko
Naxos 8.572392

The Eighth Symphony of Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975) was composed in the summer of 1943 as Soviet forces turned the tide of war with their decisive victory at the Battle of Kursk. Though it is less well-know than its much-hyped predecessor, the garish “Leningrad” Symphony, it is in all respects a far superior work. The epic five-movement structure of the Eighth is balanced on a pair of memorable Scherzo movements that move from biting sarcasm to sheer terror, flanked by a poignant 25-minute opening movement and a finale terminating in an atmosphere of serene resignation. The ambiguous, highly personal language of the work was criticized for its dearth of overt patriotism and was poorly received. Christened the “Stalingrad” Symphony by Soviet propagandists, performances of the work were officially banned in 1948 and the work was not heard again in Russia until 1956.

This superb Naxos disc marks the third installment of a very promising series of Shostakovich symphonies conducted by Vasily Petrenko with the Liverpool Philharmonic. Though a mere 34 years old, the Russian maestro clearly has the Liverpool ensemble in his thrall. With his uncanny knack for drawing together the disparate elements of Shostakovich’s prolix language into a coherent argument and an equally fine ear for subtle interpretive details, Petrenko makes a very strong impression indeed. The recording is bright and spacious, the performance is excellent, and the price can’t be beat.

01a_mindsMinds
Ara Malikian; Daniel Del Pino
Non Profit Music NPM0911





01b_malikian_no_seasonsNo Seasons
Ara Malikian; Non Profit Music Chamber Orchestra
Non Profit Music NPM093 (www.nonprofitmjsic.org)

The Lebanese-born Armenian violinist Ara Malikian is one of the younger generation of soloists who, while classically trained, are not afraid to let other musical styles influence their playing.

Malikian, currently concert-master of the Madrid Symphony Orchestra, has recorded the solo works of Bach, Ysaÿe and Paganini, but is clearly very much at home in these two CDs of mostly contemporary – and mostly Spanish and Argentinian – works, where his love of gipsy and tango music in particular makes him an ideal interpreter.

The “Minds” CD is a selection of shorter works for violin and piano. Only Gerald Finzi’s lovely Elegy and an early Kodaly work, the Brahmsian Adagio, are not recent compositions. Astor Piazzolla’s Tanti Anni Prima is a beautiful opening track; Lera Auerbach’s Postlude is short but sweet.

Marjan Mozetich’s Desire at Twilight is recorded here for the first time, as is Agua y Vino by Fernando Egozcue, formerly one of Piazzolla’s arrangers.

Jorge Grundman’s sonata What Inspires Poetry, also a premiere recording, is the biggest work on the disc, but also unfortunately the least appealing for me, with too much formulaic writing and little character. Elena Kats-Chermin’s Russian Rag, in the same vein as William Bolcom’s Graceful Ghost, is a charming closer.

There are three larger works on the oddly-titled “No Seasons” CD. (An RTVE concert of the same works by the same artists was called – more logically - 12 Seasons)

Piazzolla’s Four Seasons of Buenos Aires were originally written as separate pieces for his quintet with bandoneon between 1964 and 1970. This arrangement is by Leonid Desyatnikov, who added direct quotes from Vivaldi’s Four Seasons. Malikian is again clearly in his element with Piazzolla’s idiosyncratic music.

Joan Valent’s Four Seasons in Mallorca fits Malikian’s style perfectly, but Grundman’s Four Sad Seasons Over Madrid, for soprano, violin, piano and string orchestra, is a disappointment. Susana Cordon has a big voice, but really struggles with her English pronunciation. Not that it matters – despite her singing at full belt, the unsympathetic setting and heavy orchestration make her words almost inaudible.

Each CD comes in a beautifully-produced hard-cover booklet in English and Spanish, although the English translation is awkward at times. Sound quality is excellent throughout.

01_richochetRicochet
Adrean Farrugia
Independent AF0610

There is a dedicated group of younger musicians in Toronto making their mark on the jazz scene. This CD features the music of one of the outstanding members of that coterie, Adrean Farrugia. He is in the company of some of Toronto's leading players performing a programme of mostly original compositions. The one exception being Blackberry Winter, a little heard song by Alec Wilder and Loonis McGlohon in a beautiful duo performance by Adrean and vocalist Sophia Perlman who is heard on two more of the album's eight tracks using her voice very effectively in wordless vocals.

Adrean's strengths as a composer are much in evidence, displaying a wide spectrum of musical traditions which he has absorbed and developed into his own creative personality. The broadness of his musical palette is impressive, ranging from Meadowlark which features the cello of Kiki Misumi to the driving layers of sound on Situmani which features the horns of Kevin Turcotte, Kelly Jefferson, Sandar Viswanathan and William Carn. Andrew Downing on bass and Anthony Michelli on drums add immensely to the success of this recording and are joined on a couple of compositions by tabla player Ravi Naimpally.

This is contemporary music of a very high standard and an excellent addition to the growing body of artistic work by Mr. Farrugia.

02_TimeAfterTimeTime/After Time: A Jazz Suite
Geordie McDonald
Sonavista Records (geomic@interlog.com)

Audaciously taking on nothing less than a history of our sad planet, from the big bang to its potential post-apocalypse, veteran local drummer Geordie McDonald has put together a multi-faceted two-CD set that melds futuristic, multi-ethnic and contemporary improvisations.

“Time/After Time” is an instrumental parable that begins with a brief electronically propelled explosion and ends with more than 12½ minutes of McDonald’s inventive polyrhythms on drums and ancillary percussion including a bell tree, claves, oversized cymbals, woodblocks and rain sheets. The suite encompasses the skills of 18 [!] of Toronto’s top improvisers plus New York-based trombonist Roswell Rudd, whose inventive brays and slurs perfectly fit the primitive-modern CD the drummer organized.

Organized is the key word since McDonald only composed one track. The others are group improvisations or themes written by the other players such as alto saxophonist/Shuffle Demon Richard Underhill; trumpeter/Flying Bulgar David Buchbinder; baritone saxophonist/educator David Mott; and inventive flutist and bass clarinetist Glen Hall.

A perfect example of this contrapuntal concordance both in writing and playing occurs on Hall’s Tribal Survival. Accompanied by vibrating resonations from John Rudel’s congas and Rick Lazar’s doumbek, the vamping horn section plus staccato hocketing from vocalists Maryem Tollar and Sophia Grigoriadis, the trombonist splutters cross tones throughout, working up to a climax of staccato, flutter-tonguing.

Further Rudd duets that include a low-pitched, plunger-and-slurs face-off with Mott, and Buchbinder and the trombonist advancing their version of modern tailgate styles, confirm that McDonald recruited the perfect crew for this project.

03_saturday_matineeSaturday Matinee
Michael Louis Johnson; The Red Rhythm
Urban Meadow um2010001 (www.urbanmeadow.ca)

Every Saturday afternoon in a tiny casual bar located at Dundas St. W. and Ossington in the Queen West area of Downtown Toronto Red Rhythm recreate jazz standards from the swing era and originals composed by leader Michael Louis Johnson. This recording captures the atmosphere of these sessions - nothing earth shattering and a strong emphasis on entertainment. Leader Johnson has an enthusiasm that largely compensates for what has to be described as a limited technique on trumpet. He brings the same zeal to his vocals which are featured on every track.

The solo department is without doubt in the hands of guitarist Roberto Rosenman and bassist Terry Wilkins with rhythm guitarist Patrick Gregory giving solid support. There are also guest appearances by Bob Stevenson on clarinet and Chris Bezant on guitar which add in no small measure to the quality of the recording.

Entertaining is the key word when describing Johnson's approach to his craft - The Hobo Knows being a prime example. The second half of the CD in particular demonstrates just why the group is so popular with its small but loyal following.

Cellar Live is a Vancouver jazz club with its own prolific record label (www.cellarlive.com) and an owner-performer-composer chief in the enterprising Cory Weeds, who’s also a deejay and record producer. Here are two of its newest releases.

01_baile_bonitaTrumpeter Chris Davis is a relatively new member of the West’s jazz elite and he shows why with Baila Bonita (Cellar Live CL020510). In an unusual combo with alto saxist Ian Hendrickson-Smith, bass Adam Thomas and drummer Jesse Cahill, U.S.-born Davis soon suggests the style, fluency and attack of a 1960’s Freddie Hubbard, though tune structures are more complex and demanding, often involving pleasing unison runs. On six of the nine tracks he wrote, Davis displays well-thought-out ideas. The front line’s especially chipper on West 42nd Street, offers a brawny All That Glitters with the leader’s throwback Latin trumpet while the craftily charted You Dig is a post-bop rallying cry with busy pulse-stirring Cahill roaring vigorously here and on the succeeding Iniquity. Elegant muted trumpet, pretty alto counterpoint and provocative march beat round out this impressive disc.

02_weedsThe boss has to have an occasional piece of the action, so here’s The Cory Weeds Quartet declaring Everything’s Coming Up Weeds (Cellar Live CL011909). The music’s played by the band Weeds brought to Ontario earlier this year – American trumpeter Jim Rotondi plus western stalwarts Ross Taggart (piano), John Webber (bass) and Willie Jones III (drums). The leader on tenor and Taggart contribute three cuts apiece, and the mood’s soon set for a typical mainstream performance with the opening B.B.’s Blue Blues highlighting Weeds’ hard-blowing approach and buzzing thrust on I’ve Never Been In Love Before and how he lovingly handles a ballad (Little Unknown One). The boss’ best tunes are Bailin’ On Lou which has catchy hooks and the punchy 323 Shuter. (Not to diminish this session, Toronto has a number of bands of this calibre – why aren’t they heard more on record?)

03_steve_lacy_rentAn album honouring the great music of the late Steve Lacy, an American who spent his last years in France, is well worth seeking for enjoyable interpretations of eight of his songs by Toronto band The Rent whose Musique De Steve Lacy (Ambience Magnetiques AM 197 CD www.actuellecd.com) is a very accessible commentary on a leading avant-garde figure’s legacy. Kyle Brenders renders soprano sax, Lacy’s instrument, alongside suave improviser Scott Thomson (trombone), Wes Neal (bass), Nick Fraser (drums) and Susanna Hood (voice) – the latter a vast improvement on shrieking Lacy vocalist (and wife) Irene Aebi. Brenders’ abrasive tone goes beyond most Lacy, but there’s witty trombone counterpoint and attention-grabbing solos. With voice added the Lacy spirit comes across best. If the title track is merely chirpy, the five-part suite Blues For Aida is beautifully worked, voice fully integrated with horns. Other gems include an austere The Bath and an upbeat A Ring Of Bones.

04_brownmanBrownman, the artist formerly known as Nick Ali, is a hyper-busy trumpeter who heads six bands, is music director for others and turns up everywhere on the musical map. Here he’s the core of Brownman Electryc Trio’s Juggernaut (Browntasaurus Records NCC1701E www.brownman.com). It’s a lively, entertaining and hip tilt at some standards on which he’s backed by the electric bass of Tyler Edmond and drummer Colin Kingsmore on six lengthy tracks. The atmosphere is seriously funky and draws on rock, hip hop, drum ‘n bass and more, with a burning Yesteryear, just recognizable as an ear-bursting take on Yesterdays, opening the show at The Central. The music’s muscular and quick, much of it thrilling if you can deal with the decibels. The group is at its best when playing together, as Brownman employs a host of pedals and devices that let him dub his instrument electric. Enjoy spirited, original versions of Stolen Moments, Coltrane’s 26-2, Hubbard’s Red Clay and two Brownman tunes, Evolution Revolution and the titlepiece.

05_wpbeThe Worst Pop Band Ever may be the jazz world’s worst title (but then there’s JMOG of course) but the quintet makes smart if curious music. Dost thou believeth in science? (PPFTS-002 www.wpbe.bandcamp.com) is a 10 track collection of jazz improv inflicted on would-be or real pop tunes (I think) interspersed with earnest scratchings on turntables by LEO37. Leading with an insistent beat is drummer Tim Shia, with saxman Chris Gale, bass Drew Birston and keyboardist Daffyd Hughes. It’s all easy on the ear, expertly and effortlessly delivered with elaborate solos and surprising heat. There’s also a laconic vocal from Elizabeth Shepherd on the Bacharach-David authentic pop tune Close To You. Bandsmen are responsible for most of the others, of which my ‘top of the pops’ are Man Down, Pul, and Bits And Pieces.       

06_vignettes_marshallThe third album by Toronto’s Scott Marshall offers 71 minutes of reflection on 14 pieces designed to show his versatility and finesse in the company of pianist Marcel Aucoin, bass Wes Neal and drummer Nick Fraser. Yet The Scott Marshall Quartet on Vignettes (amy music SMT003 www.scottdouglasmarshall.com) lacks the focused excellence of his previous entries “Face It” and “New Moments Of Time”. The leader composed 12 of the 14 tunes and on them plays tenor sax, soprano sax and flute, as dexterously as on classical, pop and world music outings but there’s little beyond the competent-plus mainstream to excite here. There are however interest-piquing moments, such as the two versions of The Vespers, Glamourama, Ode To Old School and Lope.

Although the romantic image of a lone trumpeter has been standard in jazz since the time of “Young Man with a Horn”, musically it’s actually more difficult for a trumpet to be the sole horn in a band – at least until freely improvised music rewrote the rules a few decades ago. The reason is simple: unlike the saxophone’s many keys which the soloist can manipulate for different timbres, the trumpet has only three valves and a length of tubing. Brass players thus most often work with a reed partner or as part of an ensemble. However these CDs, featuring mostly Canadian casts, show that notable sessions can appear no matter the instrumental make up.

01_SmithAnticipationToronto-born, Brooklyn-resident David Smith’s Anticipation (Brooklyn Jazz Underground Records BJUR 015 www.bjurecords.com) is the most conventional of the discs, with Smith and Montreal-born drummer Greg Ritchie playing in a quintet filled out by tenor saxophone, guitar and bass. Working out on one standard, a Coltrane line and five originals, the band rarely strays from the expected head-solo-head formula, with Smith’s bright playing amply backed by saxophonist Kenji Omae and guitarist Nate Radley. Standouts are the trumpeter’s compositions, Bittersweet, a gentle line celebrating his daughter’s birth with tremolo tonguing; and The Question, a contrafact of Monk’s Ask Me Now, built on cascading horn lines from Omae and a tough brassy break from Smith. Throughout Smith illustrates his instrument’s restrictions, since many of his solos feature complementary runs from Omae, while Radley’s fleet-fingered chording and limber picking dominates most of the tunes.

02_KlaxonGueleEx-Torontonian, now Montrealer, trumpeter Gordon Allen plus saxophonists Jean Derome and Philippe Lauzier take an equally standard role as backing horn section on Montreal band Klaxon Gueule’s Infininiment (Ambiances Magnétiques AM 194 CD www.actuelle.com). Throughout the 13 minimalist tunes the horns extend or amplify improvisations from the band’s core trio – guitarist Bernard Falaise, bassist Alexandre St-Onge and percussionist Michael F. Côté. Concerned as much with mood and texture as melody, the scene-setting arrangements frequently find single horn parts providing brief commentary on Falaise’s popping guitar licks, St-Onge’s pulsating rhythms or the knitting-needle-like clatter of Côté’s delicate drumming. The bass line serves as a pedal point drone on Momo Pèle, for instance, which fades away following dissociated drum beats, but not before Allen has pumped out a bugle-like reveille. In contrast singular note extensions from one saxophone plus chromatic mellow timbres from the trumpeter inflate from distanced peeps to provide a counterweight to dissonant guitar-string snaps and abrasive strums on Brown Suinte.

03_LewisDowningMartinAltering the paradigm so that each instrument is as important as any other creates a more equitable and satisfying performance – and boosts the trumpet’s role. Toronto’s Jim Lewis, Andrew Downing and Jean Martin demonstrate this On a Short Path from Memory to Forgotten (Barnyard Records BR 0311 www.barnyardrecords.com). Consisting of 10 instant compositions, there is no foreground or background instrument. One tune for example could be a capriccio, as Lewis’ joyful trumpet blasts define the theme; another is dependent on Downing’s thumping bass pulsations; and almost all are illuminated more by the splashes of multiphonic color Martin creates with gamelan-like bell tones and triangle resonation than a steady beat from his regular kit. Showcasing Lewis’ phrasing, which ranges from staccato heraldic blasts to graceful flutters, is Eight, the tune in which his moderated a capella puffs give way to a rubato, double-time version of theme and finally to aviary chirps plus whistling resounds. These intertwine with martial rolls and rebounds from Martin and walking slap bass from Downing.

04_InhabitantsVacantLotA refinement – or coarsening – of this strategy is displayed by Vancouver’s Inhabitants, on A Vacant Lot (Drip Audio DA 00579 www.dripaudio.com), which adds the guitar of Dave Sikula to the basic trumpet (JP Carter), bass (Pete Schmitt) and drums (Skye Brooks) trio. Another major difference is the use of electronics, with Carter’s heavily miked trumpet’s pulsating alongside Sikula’s folksy strums. Eschewing a steady beat Schmitt and Brooks still use string strokes and harsh backbeats to prevent otherwise airy timbres from ascending into the stratosphere. Pacific Central is the representative track. After a minimalist introduction that’s mostly acoustic guitar and trumpet peeps, the piece opens up and accelerates to full-bore polyphony with hard drum ruffs, staccato guitar licks and trumpet shakes which cascade chromatically then fade, while still encouraging the group’s affiliated pulses. This is electrified music with a touch of dissonance.

By crafting new roles for trumpeters within improvising combos, these Canadian players have produced memorable CDs.

01_hiveHive
Gamelan Madu Sari
Songlines SGL 2406-2 (www.songlines.com)

Vancouver’s brave label Songlines Recordings has just released the second fine album by that town’s Kyai Madu Sari. Playing a complete Javanese gamelan, this group of composers and musicians has been developing innovative music and theatrical productions since 1986. Their ambitious and delightfully rewarding album documents a new level of artistic sophistication and an ability to communicate their voice to a wider non-gamelan-centric audience.

“Hive” is constructed around three things: the group’s provocative shadow theatre production Semar in Lila Maya, the full possible instrumental range of the Javanese gamelan, and vocals up front in the mix. In fact those unfamiliar with the world of Javanese gamelan music may be surprised at the prominence of the glorious solo and choral singing in much of it.

Ben Rogalsky’s compositions illustrate all three threads beautifully. His song From Heaven to Earth deftly draws on two music genres for inspiration: the old-fashioned syncretic Indonesian folk style kroncong and the more recent Javanese campur sari. Behind Rogalsky’s backing of gamelan allied with mandolin, cello and string bass, are the warm and communicative vocals of the composer, Jessika Kenney and the chorus. The same vocal group is heard to good, though very different, effect in English composer Alec Roth’s eerie Full Fathom Five.

The Javanese born and long-time west coast resident Sutrisno Hartana's two elegant compositions are the most Javanese in feeling and conception of the works presented here. “Hive” is a rich and rewarding musical experience that challenges as well as it soothes – and magically manages to do it on several cultural levels at once.

02_bali_xProject Bali X
Giri Kedaton
Independent GKN-10809 (www.girikedaton.com)

First of all, Projet Bali is defiantly not your chill-out ambient gamelan album. It is however a genre bending, skillfully composed, performed and recorded compilation by the crack Montreal Balinese gamelan group Giri Kedaton. Never academic, it incorporates with élan Western popular and classical musical elements with straight-up and twisted Balinese gong kebyar instrumentation and musical textures.

Glancing at the album’s titles is a dead giveaway to the cheeky culture-mashing intentions herein. Bali Hillbillies layers gong kebyar with the rock trinity: electric guitar, bass and drum set, with blood-pumping results. Ritual du Citadin continues the rock trope mirroring drum set breaks with kendang (drum) and ceng-ceng (Balinese multiple cymbals) features, underscored by spacey synth textures and rippling kotekan (interlocking patterns) provided by the rest of the gamelan.

The musical and material ‘metal’ metaphor is brought to the surface in Jembatan Metal. I find that the tempestuous Balinese kebyar (“burst in flame”) music & heavy metal rock energies and gestures suit each other so well that it made me wonder what took so long to marry them?

The album also embraces a Radiohead cover, surf rock vibes, synth soundscapes, Cuban bata drumming, Ennio Morricone references and techno beats, all quite comfortably and unapologetically cohabiting with gong kebyar music.

Thanks to Giri Kedaton’s twenty-six dedicated and skilled Quebec musicians and composers “Projet Bali” is one thrilling cross-cultural voyage worth taking repeatedly with little fear of culture shock.

OLD WINE IN NEW BOTTLES – Fine Old Recording Re-released
By Bruce Surtees

01_martzyHungarian violinist Johanna Martzy (1924-1979) had a unique, pure and tender, quasi angelic tone. Now an icon and cult figure and even though she recorded for major labels including EMI and DG, her records are in such demand that it is not unusual that her LPs at ‘second hand’ specialists are priced in the thousands of dollars. In the last 20-30 years there have been extensive efforts to locate her live broadcasts and each such find is welcomed as a treasure by collectors. One British label was for many years devoted exclusively to Martzy broadcasts. A new DOREMI CD (DHR-778) has the Beethoven Concerto which she did not record commercially and appears here for the very first time as does the Mozart sonata in B flat major, K454. Her performances are striking, at the same time disarmingly exquisite, unforced without Romantic excess. The ease and purity of her playing is different from and unmatched by her peers. In the concerto she is supported by Otmar Nussio and the Radio Svizzera Italiano Orchestra live from 1954 and by Jean Antonietti in the Mozart live from Berlin in 1955. In clear sound, this is a treasure indeed.

02_mahler_completeGustav Mahler: The Complete Edition (DG 47788256, 18 CDs) contains every published note; the symphonies and song cycles, plus the Klavierquartettsatz from 1876. Rather than offering the symphonies by one conductor in one of the many complete cycles from the DG, Decca, and Philips, Alan Newcombe, the editor of this edition selected 10 different conductors in performances that best served the composer. Most of us will have preferred versions, but each of the performances selected here has solid strengths. I had lost sight of what a marvellous Mahler conductor Raphael Kubelik was but his performance of the First with The Bavarian Rundfunks is both lyrical and dynamic. Mehta with the Vienna Philharmonic take the Second with Ileana Cotrubas and Christa Ludwig. Haitink’s 1966 recording of the Third with the Concertgebouw and Maureen Forrester remains, for many, a performance of choice. The sensitivity of the Boulez Fourth from Cleveland was unexpected while Bernstein’s Vienna Fifth has not lost its impact. The Sixth with Abbado and the Berlin Philharmonic from 2006 may be considered definitive. The Seventh is from 1994 with Sinopoli and The Philharmonia and Solti’s justly lauded performance of the Eighth from 1971 with the Chicago Symphony recorded in Vienna’s Sofiensaal still packs a mighty wallop. As it should, with The Vienna State Opera Choir, The Vienna Singverein, The Vienna Sangerknaben and eight supreme soloists recorded by Decca’s now legendary recording team headed by Kenneth Wilkinson. The Ninth here is the second Karajan, recorded live at his request in 1982. The final Deryck Cooke realization of The Tenth is conducted by Ricardo Chailly with The Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra. Blumine, the original second movement of the First Symphony is handled by Ozawa and The Boston Symphony while the interesting curiosity Totenfeier, which was reworked to become the first movement of the Second Symphony, is played by Boulez and the Chicago Symphony. Das Lied von der Erde played by Giulini with The Berlin Philharmonic, Brigitte Fassbaender and Francisco Araiza, is a worthy contender in the Das Lied sweepstakes. Of the song cycles, Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen, Kindertotenlieder, and the Rückert-Lieder enjoy outstanding interpretations by Thomas Hampson accompanied by Leonard Bernstein and the Vienna Philharmonic. Das klagende Lied was recorded by Riccardo Chailly conducting the Berlin Radio Symphony, the Dusseldorf Musikverein and five of the best solo voices of the day (1989). The startling originality of this early work is vividly conveyed both in performance and recording. Das Knaben Wunderhorn is performed to perfection by Anne Sofie von Otter and Thomas Quasthoff with Abbado and the Berlin Philharmonic. The 17 Lieder und Gesänge aus der Jungendzeit is entrusted to three artists, Bernd Weikl, Anne Sofie von Otter and Thomas Hampson. The Piano Quartet movement is played by Oleg Maisenberg, Gidon Kremer and Veronika and Clemens Hagen. Finally, Mikhail Pletnev and the Russian National Orchestra play the Entr’acte from Die drei Pintos, Weber’s unfinished opera that Mahler completed and orchestrated from the composer’s sketches. A nice touch. All together a very impressive package in every respect... doubly so as the price for the package is what one would have paid for a just few of the symphonies not so long ago! Unfortunately there are no translations of the texts included but they can be readily downloaded.

03_mahler_jarviPaavo Järvi who distinguished himself with a reenergised Beethoven Symphonies cycle for RCA returns to Virgin Classics with a very impressive Mahler Second with the Frankfurt Radio Symphony plus the Orfeon Donostiarra choir of San Sebastian and soloists Alice Coote, mezzo, and soprano Natalie Dessay (50999 694586, 2 CDs). I had expected a good performance, not necessarily a great one. However, this is a spectacular one and a demonstration quality recording. Järvi has true Mahlerian sensibilities and this performance reveals an empathy that eludes many prominent conductors. It seems that any orchestra can be a Mahler orchestra under the right conductor. Järvi flawlessly balances his orchestra (he has been their music director since 2004) so that no lines are obscured. Even the glockenspiel towards the finale in the last movement is clearly heard without breaking out of the fabric. The off-stage forces are in the correct distant perspective with no diminished presence. There are rests between particular passages that are quite differently judged from any other performance that I’ve heard; their heavenly lengths appropriate for a “Resurrection” (couldn’t resist that). This is a not to be missed performance delivered in splendid, uncompressed sound.

04_fischer-dieskau_mahlerIncluded in Audite’s release of four archive recordings issued in a Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau Birthday Edition is the recital of Mahler Lieder recorded live on 14 September 1971 in the Philharmonie in Berlin (95.634). These discs are copied directly from the master tapes of Deutschlandradio so the fidelity of the stereo recording is first class. By 1971 Fischer-Dieskau was established as the consummate lieder singer, his beautifully shaded tones and sensitivity to the texts never more in evidence than here. Daniel Barenboim, his accompanist, was a perfect colleague. There are four songs from Lieder und Gesänge aus der Jugendzeit; two Rückert-Lieder, Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen; and Des Knaben Wunderhorn. Full texts are enclosed.

51_working_with_bernstein_coverWorking with Bernstein
by Jack Gottlieb
Amadeus Press
383 pages, photos; $24.99 US

“Is this book biased? You bet it is!” writes Jack Gottlieb in this memoir of his years spent working with Leonard Bernstein. As Bernstein’s assistant, on and off,  from 1958 until his death in 1990, Gottlieb worked on Bernstein’s concerts, scripts, program notes, orchestrations, recordings, compositions and  books, and picked up his laundry.

Gottlieb is candid about Bernstein’s always spontaneous, frequently volatile and sometimes shameless behaviour. Gottlieb describes LB, as he refers to him throughout this wonderful “grab-bag” of a memoir, as “passionate, profligate, overextending himself, taxing his associates.” One of Gottlieb’s diary entries reads, “Later LB upsets me by saying I’m a disappointment.” But he remains fiercely loyal to the man and his music. In fact, Gottlieb heads up the Leonard Bernstein Office today.

He creates a portrait of Bernstein in all his genius, exuberance, and irrepressible energy. Bernstein was driven by what Gottlieb calls “a burning need to communicate,” and Gottlieb covers the full range of his remarkably versatile accomplishments as a composer for Broadway, the concert hall and the opera house, conductor, pianist and even lyricist.

Everyone who ever met Bernstein, it seems, has a story. Even the FBI has their own dossier, because of his notorious political activity. But nobody’s anecdotes are funnier or more revealing than Gottlieb’s. Clearly his ability to appreciate the wry side of situations helped him survive an intense working relationship with a very complex man.

Gottlieb, a composer himself, includes his own program notes for many of Bernstein’s works. In their clarity and commitment to Bernstein’s own method of using purely musical values rather than programmatic references to talk about music, they promote appreciation of lesser known works like Gottlieb’s favourite, The Dybbuk, as well as under-estimated late works like Arias and Barcarolles and A Quiet Place.

Gottlieb provides the full text of the notorious yet misunderstood disclaimer Bernstein addressed to New York Philharmonic  audiences in 1962 before conducting Glenn Gould in Brahms’ Piano Concerto No.1 in D-. “I have only once before in my life had to submit to a soloist’s wholly new and incompatible concept,” Bernstein said, in part, “and that was the last time I accompanied Mr. Gould.” At the same time, Gottlieb provides a look behind the scenes before the concert as Gould, who Gottlieb describes as “a luminous pianist but quite messy about his appearance”, gets a haircut and grooming from Bernstein’s wife, Felicia, at the Bernstein apartment.

Given that Bernstein never, unfortunately, wrote his own memoirs, this contribution from such an observant, witty and loving associate – and his collection of personal  snapshots - is all the more treasurable.

 

52_mara_coverMara
by Lilly Barnes
Variety Crossing Press
345 pages; $22.95

“You are getting some notion what it’s like trying to fit everything I found out about Mara into one single person,” says Ted, the lead voice in Lilly Barnes’ novel about music, madness, racism and survival. “There’s always something goes squishing out the sides.” That something is why Ted is so fascinated with Mara. Mara, whose daughter Michelle, a jazz singer, has just died, has apparently cut off the dead girl’s earlobes. Ted, a jazz pianist, is obsessed with discovering why.

Lilly Barnes, a scriptwriter and documentary-maker for the CBC, uses her keen ear for dialogue to create a cast of vivid personalities to tell her story from various points of view. We hear from Ted, a jazz pianist enlisted to help Mara, Bear, who is Ted’s jazz partner and best friend, Bear’s wife Alicia, Michelle’s former neighbour Lena, and Mara herself, who had been a concert pianist in Europe. Barnes gives each one a distinctively idiosyncratic way of talking.

The story is set in Toronto in 1964, with frequent references to the thriving jazz scene then. By sending Ted off to Europe, Barnes is able to introduce characters  from Mara’s mysterious past and describe what it took for her to survive the Holocaust as a Jew. In fact, the most compelling aspects of this novel relate to Barnes’ own life, since her mother was a Russian concert pianist, Barnes herself was married to the late Canadian composer Milton Barnes, and her sons Micah and Daniel are jazz musicians.

At one point, Lena says, “I love a mystery. It’s where surprises come from.” But, richly layered and moving though this novel is,  surprises are few, since it turns out that things are just as they seemed all along. It’s just that Ted couldn’t see it. But at least in the end Ted, who had been musically blocked, gets his chops back –and more – and the music triumphs.

 

52_hilmes__cosima_wagnerCosima Wagner: The Lady of Bayreuth
by Oliver Hilmes
Yale University Press
374 pages; $40.00

“The last thing I want to do,” writes Oliver Hilmes in this penetrating biography of Cosima Wagner, “is to criticize Cosima or turn her in to a psychotic study.” Fanatical, insecure, humourless, self-debasing, pugnacious, manipulative, and autocratic, Cosima offers few qualities that are likeable, and many that are downright repugnant. But she certainly is fascinating - all the more so when put into the perspective of her times and mileu as deftly as Hilmes does.

For the first half of this portrait, which roughly covers the first half of Cosima’s life, Hilmes treats her with sympathy.  Cut off from her mother, the Countess Marie d’Agoult, a writer who used the pen-name Daniel Stern, neglected by her father Franz Liszt and his termagant mistress Princess Carolyne von Sayn-Wittgenstein, bullied by a harsh governess, she was understandably eager for an escape. She married Liszt’s brilliant but effete – and abusive – student Hans von Bülow. Soon after, her beloved brother and sister both died. She ran off with  Richard Wagner, colleague to her father (Wagner was just two years younger than Liszt) and mentor to her husband. Wagner was an egotistical  philanderer, though he did write Siegfried Idyll for her thirty-third  birthday in 1870, the year they were finally able to marry.   But as Hilmes covers the second half of Cosima’s very long life, from the death of Wagner in 1883 until her own death in 1930, at the age of ninety-two,  Hilmes’ sympathy is significantly reduced.  Cosima takes control of her husband’s fledgling opera festival in Bayreuth, and even manages to control the  production of Wagner’s operas. Hilmes describes how she would hide in a black-curtained booth at the side of the stage during rehearsals, sending her comments out on scraps of paper. In fact she turned the Bayreuth Festival  into a fiefdom, and established her own family as the ruling dynasty, a tradition which continues today with the recent appointment of two of her great grand-daughters as co-directors following the death of her grandson, their father Wolfgang.

But Hilmes shows Cosima’s Bayreuth Festival to be not just a family business but a  reactionary cult. Exposing how she turned Wagner’s nationalistic, anti-semitic ideas into a political cause that led directly to the destructive German nationalism of the Nazis, he traces the roots of the family’s well-documented ties to Hitler and the Nazis directly to Cosima.

The translation from the German by Wagner expert Stewart Spencer is elegant and clear. But I wonder whether it is Hilmes or Spenser who identifies Alma Mahler-Werfel as a ‘Viennese socialite’, since Hilmes’ previous books include a biography of Alma Mahler.

 

sibeliusSibelius
by Andrew Barnett
Yale University Press
461 pages, photos & musical examples; $28.00 US (pb)

YALE UNIVERSITY PRESS HAS just released some of its most interesting recent titles in low-priced paperbacks – among them The Oboe by Geoffrey Burgess and Canadian musicologist Bruce Haynes; John Worthen’s Robert Schumann; and this biography of Jean Sibelius by Andrew Barnett. After the revelatory performances of Sibelius’s magnificent symphonies by the Toronto Symphony under Danish conductor Thomas Dausgaard in April, and their broadcast on CBC, this excellent study of his life and works is especially welcome.

Sibelius was a melodist in an age when composers like Arnold Schoenberg, who was born just nine years later, were seeking out new languages, sounds and techniques. Throughout his long life, Sibelius steadfastly resisted the influence of serialism and the avant-garde, so that by the time he died in 1957 he was decidedly out of fashion. But today composers enthusiastically celebrate his influence.

Barnett, chairman of the UK Sibelius Society, takes a detailed and critical look at the music, showing how Sibelius’s emotional life and personal experiences shaped his rugged lyricism. Barnett points out his “trademark” motifs like the descending fifth (right in the opening of the Violin Concerto), and the ‘S-motif’, like an elongated turn (heard throughout Finlandia). He offers insights into the myths and landscapes of Sibelius’s homeland, Finland, where the composer spent his whole life.

Though Barnett doesn’t offer much psychological insight into Sibelius’s debilitating insecurities, he documents Sibelius’s self-destructiveness. As Sibelius wrote in his diary, he needed to drink “in order to be able to live at all,” adding at a later date that “alcohol is the only friend that never lets one down.” Describing how Sibelius made a bonfire of his late work, including the eagerly-awaited eighth symphony, Barnett writes, “What he had in mind was a scorched earth policy with regard to many of his scores.” Barnett then quotes Sibelius’s long-suffering wife Aino, who commented, “Afterwards, my husband’s manner was calmer and his spirits were brighter. It was a happy time.”

The select bibliography and discography have not been updated since the original publication in 2007, and Winter Fire by William Trotter is still absent from the list of relevant fictional works. But Barnett paints a lively portrait of this complicated man, and provides the historical context for his work, which opened the way for Finland to become the musical powerhouse it is today.

unfinished_scoreAn Unfinished Score
by Elise Blackwell
Unbridled Books
265 pages;
$28.95 US

IN ELISE BLACKWELL’S intriguing new novel, all the main characters are musicians. Many are – or want to be – composers. Around that revolves the suspenseful plot, which deals with betrayal, blackmail, and a most unusual method of revenge.

Suzanne’s lover Alex has been killed in a plane crash. He was a famous conductor, she an accomplished violist. Suzanne is married to Ben, a cellist and composer. They share their house with Suzanne’s best friend Petra, a violinist in Suzanne’s string quartet, as well as Petra’s daughter, Adele, who – and the author makes sure the irony is not lost on us – is deaf.
Alex’s wife Olivia plans an elegant revenge by forcing Suzanne to complete a viola concerto her husband had left behind. Suzanne is such a consummate narcissist that she deceives herself into thinking that “through Alex’s music she will know what happened to her.” But Olivia has other plans, saying, “From now on, when you think of him you will also think of me.”
Ben’s unrelenting dullness gives experimental composers a bad name, and Petra’s glibness and endless supply of viola jokes grow tedious. But Olivia and Suzanne are compelling characters.

Blackwell, who teaches at the University of South Carolina, acknowleges the help of various sources like a masterclass given by Canada’s St. Lawrence Quartet for the musical side of things, such as her descriptions of the workings of Suzanne’s string quartet. She has peppered her story with arcane facts from music history, like the origins of Albinoni’s famous Adagio in G minor, as well as interesting figures like the late British composer Minna Keal (misspelled by Blackwell as Keel). They give the story breadth, steering it away from becoming maudlin by creating a musical context for the world Blackwell’s characters live in. But the confusing mixture of fact and fiction, as in the bizarre episode with violinist Joshua Felder, distracts from the story. In any case, this is a highly enjoyable novel that kept me happily reading until the surprising – and satisfying – end.

Fanny Hensel: The Other Mendelssohn
by R. Larry Todd
Oxford University Press
454 pages, illustrations & musical examples; $49.50

IN 1842, FELIX Mendelssohn was received by Queen Victoria and Prince Albert at Buckingham Palace. After he performed for them on the piano, the Queen chose a song from his Op. 9 collection, “Italien,” for him to accompany her. “I was obliged,” he wrote in a letter home – quoted by R. Larry Todd in this fascinating biography of Mendelssohn’s older sister, Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel – “to confess that Fanny had written the song (which I found very hard, but pride must have a fall).”

Hensel wrote over 400 works, including songs, piano pieces, cantatas, concert arias, and a major string quartet. Yet few were published in her lifetime, even fewer under her own name. Performances were just as rare. It’s a situation that Larry Todd calls “one of the great injustices of music history,” though it is beginning to change, with publication and performances of her music, as well as excellent recordings like Toronto pianist Heather Schmidt’s recent disc.

As Todd explains, Hensel’s career as a concert pianist, conductor and composer could only be pursued in private, as an “ornament” to her life. It wasn’t just because she was a woman, but more because she was a wealthy upper-class woman – unlike, for instance, her friend Clara Schumann. Even Mendelssohn, who encouraged her composing, dissuaded her from publishing her music under her own name.

Hensel had a devoted and supportive husband, the painter and poet Wilhelm Hensel, and a loving son, named Sebastian Ludwig Felix after her three favourite composers. But her “symbiotic” relationship with her brother was the most complicated and significant one in her life. In 1847, at age 41, she died suddenly from a stroke. Six months later, Mendelssohn too died in the same way.

Todd, who teaches at Duke University, has specialized insight into Hensel and her extraordinary family, as well as the period, having written a major biography of Mendelssohn. The best thing about his book is the sensitive, meticulous way he looks at Hensel’s music and describes her distinctively imaginative and adventurous voice, making a persuasive case for it to be heard more frequently.

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