01_ofra_harnoyWhen she was 16 years old, cellist Ofra Harnoy emerged as a phenomenal musician with a distinctive style and sound. She was wooed by record companies and by the time she was 20 she had been signed to an exclusive contract by RCA Red Seal, which meant that she was promoted world-wide and engaged to appear and record with major international orchestras, such as the London Philharmonic. This kind of contract, signed in New York, was the first awarded to a Canadian since Glenn Gould. DOREMI CD (DHR-6607) contains three concertos recorded for Fanfare before the RCA signing and subsequently reissued by RCA in the mid 1980s. The light-hearted, flamboyant Offenbach Concerto in G major, with Erich Kunzel and the Cincinnati Symphony is followed by Tchaikovsky’s Rococo Variations and the Saint-Saëns no.1 both with Paul Freeman and the Victoria Symphony. Strikingly apparent throughout all three are Harnoy’s natural musicality and effortless execution, giving performances worthy of a dedicatee. To our loss, by about 30, with her prestigious career in full bloom, she stopped performing. This CD is a shining reminder of an exceptional talent.

02_sibeliusToronto concert goers won’t soon forget the Sibelius Festival in Roy Thompson Hall last April. Guest conductor Thomas Dausgaard inspired the Toronto Symphony to achieve and sustain unsuspected levels of refinement and charm from shattering tuttis to hushed pianissimos. Dausgaard is a master of this repertoire as are and were other conductors, notably Beecham, Barbirolli, Koussevitzky, Karajan, Osmo Vanska, Vladimir Ashkenazy, and Leonard Bernstein. The Unitel videos of four Sibelius Symphonies (1, 2, 5, & 7), with the Vienna Philharmonic under Bernstein have been released by Cmajor on 2 DVDs (702208). Some 20 years have passed since the live performances but age has not lessened their immediate impact. Symphony No.2 from October 1986 is a performance not of crescendo upon crescendo but of perfectly judged tempi and dynamics culminating in a definitive final statement. This is not possible if the conductor, as often happens, ‘gives it away’ too early and too often. The First, from February 1990 was recorded a bare eight months before the conductor’s death. Bernstein, although clearly enervated after the first movement (you can see it in his face and body), could not have offered a more searing valedictory address. The Fifth has real pulse and tension waiting to be relieved only by the final considered chords. Very special. In truth, they are all special, conducted by the wunderkind who never lost his heuristic mind. Excellent video definition, faultless camera work and thrilling five channel audio make this set quite irresistible.

03_brahms_barenboimSince Daniel Barenboim made his celebrated recordings of the Brahms Concertos with Barbirolli and the Philharmonia in 1967 we have seen and heard him in this repertoire many times. Barenboim’s Brahms is authoritative, vigorous and second to none. On a recent DVD of the First Concerto we heard him with Zubin Mehta and the Israel Philharmonic and now another performance has arrived from EuroArts (2022020108), recorded on May 1, 2004 in the Herodes Atticus Odeon in Athens. Simon Rattle conducts the Berlin Philharmonic during their first European concert tour after he took over as chief conductor. Even though it is an open air event, the sound is remarkable and the balances ideal. The orchestra plays with splendid vitality, confirming, as if it were necessary, the wisdom of his appointment. The orchestra offers a passionate reading of Brahms Piano Quartet No.1 op.25 in the orchestration by Arnold Schoenberg. This performance by Rattle and company has the impact and scale of another Brahms symphony. Watching the video reveals the high level of excitement and enthusiasm of the players and conductor. Brahms enthusiasts must not pass this by.

04_o_fortunaO,FORTUNA is Tony Palmer’s film offering a warts and all portrait of the late Carl Orff, the composer of Carmina Burana, Der Mond, Oedipus, Prometheus, Antigonae, Der Kluge, Music for Children, etc, etc (TP-DVD113). Orff was a man who would tolerate nothing short of perfection in performances of his work and who burst into a vitriolic attack against those who fell short. There are no actors: everyone seen and heard are the actual musicians and producers involved with Orff, his wives and offspring. Orff is seen in interviews and in demanding encounters with his colleagues. No complete performances are included in this DVD which provides extensive insights into this complex composer and human being who, as wife number three says, should have been born 2500 years ago. One thing is sure: you will listen to his works with fresh ears hereafter.

05_horensteinJascha Horenstein was an iconic conductor who, although he was in demand on every continent, did not become the music director of a major orchestra even though he conducted them regularly. He was considered by many to be in the league of Furtwangler and Klemperer. DOREMI has a DVD of the Beethoven Ninth with the ORTF (DHR-7960) from October 31, 1963 with an all-star cast, Pilar Lorengar, Marga Hoffgen, Josef Traxel and Otto Weiner. This is one of only two known videos of Horenstein conducting. One suspects that a 30 second drop in sound level of the opening bars held back any official release. Nevertheless, this is an essential item for collectors, in spite of the picture quality of a vintage VHS with sound to match.

Long-established jazz groups have become as common as pop hits based on Mozart melodies topping the charts – they sometimes exist. But with accomplished improvisers tempted by side projects, bands often reconstitute and sidemen regularly have their own gigs. In most cases, though, this doesn’t affect the music’s quality.

01_35mmTwo bands confirm these realities. Ken Vandermark’s Vandermark5 (V5), which is at SPK (Polish Combatants Hall) June 17, has been together with only one personnel change for almost 15 years. Yet even Chicago-based Vandermark is involved in multiple side projects, as The Frame Quartet - 35 mm demonstrates. V5 members, cellist and electronics-player Fred Lonberg-Holm and drummer Tim Daisy are represented as well. Meanwhile saxophonist Dave Rempis, a V5 fixture for 10 years, shines on Cyrillic, a duo with drummer Frank Rosaly. New York pianist Matthew Shipp, whose trio plays June 13 at Gallery 345 on Sorauren Ave. is similarly part of numberless formations. Nu Bop Live involves some of his cohorts, who won’t be in Toronto. For an idea of what piano/bass communication sounds like involving Michael Bisio, the bassist who is in Shipp’s Toronto trio, there’s Session at 475 Kent  with Connie Crothers.

02_cyrillicThe Non-V5er on 35 mm (Okka Disk OD 12078 www.okkadisk.com) is Nate McBride, whose thick acoustic bass lines, electric bass thumps and manipulated wave forms distinguish this disc. Strident friction from Lonberg-Holm additionally gives the CD’s five long selections a rough-hewn quality, enhanced by Daisy’s reverberating and pinpointed cymbal slaps, not to mention Vandermark’s soloing which encompasses straight-ahead licks or tongue slaps on tenor saxophone and feathery clarinet trills. This is especially notable on Theatre Piece (for Jimmy Lyons) which links decisive sawing from the cellist, restrained plucks from the bassist and clatters, pops and rim shots from the drummer as Vandermark’s sound ranges from tremolo pitch-sliding on the clarinet to tongue-moistured saxophone flattement, flutters and split tones. Mid-way through, the tempo halves to allegro to expose faux romantic cello sequences that gradually shatters into sul ponticello lines mated with harsh, low-pitched saxophone rasps, balanced on crackling and buzzing electronics. Eventually the piece ends with an exposition of disconnected timbre-shredding from Vandermark and a conclusive string slap from the cellist.

Halve the number of players and double the performance intensity for Cyrillic (482 Music 482-1064 www.482music.com). Completely improvised, the selections include those with cymbal-chiming funk grooves, replete with honking reed patterns, plus others featuring smeared double-tonguing from Rempis, where he never seems to stop for breath, matched with rim shots and side spanks from Rosaly. Most impressive are In Plain Sight and How to Cross When Bridges are Out. The former, which could be a deconstructed classic R&B line, gains its rhythmic impetus from Rempis’ guttural baritone saxophone snorts. The latter is like a face off between never-ending ratcheting, rolls and ruffs from Rosaly’s Energizer Bunny-like drumming and Rempis’ Eric Dolphyish-alto saxophone with its broken-octave staccato runs and wide split tones. Changing the agitato tempo to andante, the tune slips into uncharted aleatory territory, echoing with excitement and abandon.

03_nu_bobBoth those adjectives are also on show on Shipp’s CD Nu Bop Live (Rai Trade RTPJ 0015 www.matthewshipp.com), especially on the 26-minute Nu Abstract suite. Putting aside the many-fingered staccato patterning on other tunes, the pianist initially restricts himself to occasional plinks, as drummer Guillermo Brown use electronics to unload crackling signal processing and hissing voice patches. After the pianist constructs a many-layered impressionistic response, he joins with William Parker’s fluid bass line and saxophonist Daniel Carter’s tightened reed snarls, in multi counterpoint. The performance swells to shrieking horn glossolalia, stretched and scattered bass-string movements and the pianist’s cascading note patterns. Climaxing alongside Brown’s explosions of drags and bounces, Shipp’s raw, exposed notes layer the interface alongside Carter’s strident altissimo cries and Parker’s triple-stopping.

04session_475Sophisticated piano-bass double contrapuntal interaction get an even better showcase on Session at 475 Kent (Mutable 17537-2 www.mutablemusic.com) as every tune is a culmination of Crothers’ thickly voiced, chromatic chords working out a challenge or response to Bisio’s chiming, slapping string reverberations. Chamber interludes, the CD’s four lengthy tracks evolve similarly to Resonance, the CD’s climatic finale. With Bisio double-stopping and pulling his strings fortissimo, Crothers’ glissandi and metronomic pumping, gradually give the sympathetic dynamic a novel undercurrent of unrelieved tension – embellished by the pianist’s strumming syncopation and the bassist’s woody string-stopping. Lightening her touch with freer harmonies, Bisio follows and shifts downwards into diminished pulses until the notes from both directions merge into a satisfying, protoplasmic whole.

01_min_ragerThere’s no shortage of forceful pianists in Montreal and one of the most promising on the A-list is South Korea-born Min Rager, whose First Steps (Effendi FND09 www.ragermusic.com) is very welcome five years after her sterling debut “Bright Road”. The all-original ten-track mostly mainstream program sparkles from the start of the opening blues Nothing To Gain, Nothing To Lose, heartily aided by an equally A-list of sidemen that includes excellent trumpeter Kevin Dean, alto Donny Kennedy and drummer Andre White. The title-piece is a sneakily smart take on the Coltrane classic (Giant Steps of course) while other unabashedly modern tunes have a plethora of slithery solos, confidently delivered, that punctuate melodies and attractive harmonic structures. As well as offering slick counterpoint, Rager conjures filigree runs that sound entirely appropriate on Bella, a duo with Dean, followed by the even more arresting ballad Persistence Of Memory a trio take with Dean and American tenor Walt Weiskopf. Passing is a high-voltage burner, Dean scores again on Portrait Of Miles, with Goodbye Manhattan a passionate slow blues, just one gem in an illuminating set.

02_al_hendersonBassist Al Henderson is a formidable bandleader (notably his quartet and quintet) and composer (notably his work with Time Warp and recasting Duke Ellington) so it’s no surprise he’s in ambitious mode on the Juno-nominated Al Henderson Septet - Regeneration (Cornerstone CRST CD 132 www.alhenderson.ca). He taxes his all-star companions with a 10-piece program anchored by a six-part suite inspired by the architectural vision of Raymond Moriyama, specifically his ideas for the Canadian War Museum. This in turn has led Henderson to muse on the nature of war and the result is a work of both quality and interest interpreted with some distinction by his team – hornmen Alex Dean and Pat LaBarbera, pianist Richard Whiteman, drummer Barry Romberg and a pair of cellists, Matt Brubeck and Mark Chambers. With a difficult set of ideas to convey, this nonetheless must be successful. There’s other material here that nods to Inuit artist Turataga Ragee (Spirit Owl) and punta rocker Andy Palacio (Palacio) plus other tracks that offer chamber jazz, vaudeville and reflective passages.

03_roy_pattersonToronto guitarist Roy Patterson is always worth hearing, a long-term member of the local string elite and an artist replete with driving notions and thriving imagination. He justifies this on Roy Patterson Trio – Atlantic Blues (Toronto Jazz Composers Collective TJCC AS 001 www.roypatterson.com). For this elegant eight-tune master class the leader is supported by ageless sidemen bass Don Thompson and drummer Terry Clarke for long workouts on a mix of standards and three Patterson tunes, a live session recorded at Zooma Zooma Café in Jordan Village on the Niagara Escarpment. The musical atmosphere is warm, subtle, sophisticated and intimate, ripe with creative ingenuity, and the threesome works as one unit with playing that’s almost spiritual. Patterson’s deft fingering keeps melodies intact and everything precise and detailed. His title tune is suitably broody, Water is freewheeling pleasure, the exotic sheen of Brazilian music comes through on Jobim’s Favela, yet one gets the feeling that the guitarist is even more appealing when he casts off the unmistakable influence of Jim Hall. One question remains. Why is this Patterson’s first album in eight years?

04_andrew_downingThe prolific Andrew Downing, his reputation as bassist-bandleader-composer already established, takes a bold step with his newest album Silents (Black Hen Music BHCD-0058 www.andrewdowning.com). His fascination with silent movies has led to this examination by a dozen musicians of a pair of early 20th century films – horror masterpiece The Cabinet Of Doctor Caligari from 1920 by Germany’s Robert Weine and the fantasy tale Impossible Voyage from 1904 by France’s George Melies. Downing has created 18 tunes that pinpoint episodes in the films and the execution by the players – Downing forsaking bass for cello – is very satisfying. You’d love to be watching the plots unfold with this sophisticated music accompanying them, especially the 12 creepier pieces for Caligari, a tale wherein the evil doctor is exposed as a serial killer. Impossible Voyage is weird, narrating a trip by car, train and submarine by travellers who survive it all, even when the train reaches the sun! Among the players, clarinettist Quinsin Nachoff and bassoonist Peter Lutek stand out, while there’s disciplined work from the strings, notably bassist Joe Phillips – but all should take a bow.

05_red_blue_greenThe group dubbed Red Blue Green offers a debut album of 11 originals where de facto leader – pianist Tom Richards – dominates action with playing that suggests he’d be comfortable in any musical niche. On Transparent Thesis (Pet Mantis Records PMR006 www.petmantisrecords.com) he has clearly digested diverse approaches and revels in dark compositions, shifting time signatures, switching from lyricism to abstraction and is fully in control though there’s less jazz focus on occasion. He gets sympathetic backing from bass Andrew Pacheco and drummer Jay Sussman in what’s free improv with an innate sense of structure. The trio is both thoughtful and adventurous, keeps jarring elements to a minimum, inserts classical influences and, importantly, play quieter than The Bad Plus. Best tunes: Song For Under A Bridge, Recovery and Lost Arrow.

03_little_heartsLittle Hearts
Shannon Butcher
Independent SB2010
(www.shannonbutcher.com)

Jazz singer Shannon Butcher has come out with another great album and its main strength is in the material she’s chosen to cover. She’s done what I think all modern jazz singers should be doing, i.e. quit covering the done-to-death standards and look to a more modern songbook for fodder. Sure there’s a place for the Gershwin and Porter rehashings now and then - especially in live performance - but when greats like Ella and Sarah have recorded them before, a singer had better be bringing something pretty interesting to the party, or why should we buy it? So when I see 70s and 80s tunes on a CD cover, as is the case with “Little Hearts,” it’s a sign that an artist is thinking outside the box, and that’s what jazz is all about. The Bacharach-David beauty Walk on By gets a moody, heartfelt treatment that reflects the sentiment of the lyrics better than the peppy Warwick original (sorry Dionne!) and Bryan Adams’ Run to You goes Latin American with Daniel Stone on cajon and Rob Piltch doing his usual tasteful nylon string guitar work.

Butcher has also done some very fine songwriting on this album. Joy in My Heart kicks off the disc with a soulful ode to staying positive and the duet with the enormously talented Michael Kaeshammer - The Last Word - is a cute nod to 60s romantic comedies. The one older standard covered here - Irving Berlin’s What’ll I Do - has been given an inventive alt-country facelift courtesy of Piltch’s twangy, plaintive guitar work.

Concert Note: Butcher’s CD release event is at Hugh’s Room on June 2.

02_brown_sugarBrown Sugar
Shakura S’Aida
Ruf Records Ruf 1155
(www.shakurasaida.com)

What a sweet blast. Shakura S’Aida has earned praise in Canada as a singer, songwriter and actress of substance and now she’s got a firm grip on the solo career ladder with a scintillating new CD to follow her excellent album “Blueprint”.

Released in North America in April and before that in Europe, “Brown Sugar” lets S’Aida, whose family arrived in Toronto in the 1970s, use the vast experience gained from working with luminaries such as Jimmy Smith, Ruth Brown and Patti LaBelle.

It’s a startlingly good album that bears repeated listening, diction so clear that the cool sounds one might expect don’t happen. There’s emotional connection and passion aplenty here on a dozen tracks, 11 of which employed power guitarist Donna Grantis to work with S’Aida in lyrics and music. The band is tight, featuring organist Lance Anderson, bass Dave Smith, drummer Steve Potts and Rick Steff on keyboards.

Mr. Right is a superb opener best at big volume and offers a glimpse of the vocalist’s attractive high warble. Walk Out That Door is a fetching shuffle while Gonna Tell My Baby is a slow burner with fierce wails. Two successive tunes, the grittily intimate Did It Break Your Heart and the swinging Missing The Good And The Bad would have been great fodder for Janis Joplin and they’re followed by a delightful trio of songs that break the raunch barrier - Sweet Spot, the bitter title track and Anti Love Song.

01_for_the_first_timeFor the First Time
Hugh O’Connor; Mark Ferguson; John Geggie; Don Johnson
True North Records TND532
(www.truenorthrecords.com)
In an age when almost anyone can put out a CD and almost everybody does, in some cases reducing the music to the status of a calling card, it’s refreshing to come across a first time album by a veteran player who simply wants to “tell his story”.

The musician is Ottawa born saxophonist, Hugh O’Connor. At age 81 O’Conner, who began playing in the late 1940s, has just released his first CD. His approach is refreshingly melodic and he plays with an authority that says, “For me, here’s where it’s at.”

Recorded in the Almonte Ontario Old Town Hall, the CD consists of a programme of superior standards ranging from the seldom played A Portrait Of Jenny to the frequently performed My Funny Valentine on the opening chorus of which there is a Desmond-ish quality to the sound of his horn. But Hugh is definitely his own man and puts an individual stamp on this recording which also includes such great songs as In The Wee Small Hours, How About You and The More I See You.

He is ably and tastefully accompanied by pianist Mark Ferguson - yes the same Mark who used to be a trombone player in Toronto - bassist John Geggie and, on five of the twelve tracks, drummer Don Johnson.

Although active and successful, mainly around the Ottawa area, he has maintained a relatively low profile on the Canadian jazz scene. Perhaps that can change with the release of this very welcome CD.

02_tenneyOld School: James Tenney
Zeitkratzer
Zeitkratzer Productions ZKR 0010

Without the necessity for surround-sound or other methods of sonic dissemination, James Tenney (1934-2006) composed tension-laden pieces such as the three here, whose crescendos and decrescendos derive from concentrated orchestration. As the Berlin-based, ad hoc Zeitkratzer ensemble of two woodwinds, two brass, three strings, percussion and director/pianist Reinhold Friedl demonstrate on this exceptional CD, properly performing the themes of the long-time (1976-2000) York University music professor depends as much on harmonic convergence as intonation, attack and acoustics.

Most fascinating and mostly fortissimo is 1988’s Critical Band. Based on standard pitch A and its fundamentals, this exercise in tonal expansion undulates on pitches that concentrate and divide as they modulate infinitesimally and recurrently. Only when the final variation arrives can the capillary timbres of Matt Davis’ trumpet and Hayden Chisholm’s alto saxophone be distinguished from the others.

Slightly lengthier, 1976’s Harmonium #2, which details the deliberate build-up and break-down of a chord, exposes fundamentals, as the harmonic progression expands through Friedl’s intense keyboard clusters. After variants on the narrative – related to the circle of fifths – reflect inwards onto themselves as they advance chromatically, the resolution involves a crescendo involving articulating Hilary Jeffrey’s trombone reverberations plus thick piano patterns.

Distinctive, the performances are both authoritative and inventive.

01_arc_ensembleTwo Roads to Exile
ARC Ensemble
RCA Red Seal 88697 64490 2

“A sense of exile”, the opening of the CD booklet notes tells us, “is not always accompanied by geographical displacement.” Hence the title of this outstanding disc of virtually unknown works by Adolf Busch – who, although not Jewish, chose to leave Germany when Hitler came to power in 1933 – and Walter Braunfels, who, while half-Jewish, chose to remain in Germany despite the implications for his career and personal safety.

Toronto’s ARC Ensemble (Artists of The Royal Conservatory) specializes in reviving long-buried and essentially-forgotten repertoire, especially the works of composers whose lives were fundamentally altered by the Second World War and in particular by the Holocaust.

Both Busch, now remembered primarily as a violinist and as leader of the Busch Quartet, and Braunfels were established composers in 1920s Germany. Busch’s String Sextet Op.40 from 1928 (revised in 1933) remains unpublished, however, and Braunfel’s String Quintet Op.63, from 1945, has never been recorded before. Both works are strongly in the German Romantic tradition, a factor which worked against both composers in the post-war years, despite their treatment by the Third Reich.

The ARC members – Marie Bérard and Benjamin Bowman (violins), Steven Dann and Carolyn Blackwell (violas), Bryan Epperson and David Hetherington (cellos) – are superb throughout. Recorded in the RCM’s Koerner Hall last November, every nuance of their performance is magnificently captured by producer David Frost. The recording has the distinction of being the first produced in this acoustically superior new concert venue. The excellent booklet notes are by ARC Artistic Director Simon Wynberg. An absolute gem of a CD.

06_if_a_birdIf I Were a Bird - A Piano Aviary
Michael Lewin
Dorian Sono Luminus DSL-92103

Olivier Messiaen once opined that birds were probably the greatest musicians to inhabit our planet, and they have indeed been inspiring many a composer and musician for centuries. With this disc, Michael Lewin pays homage to our feathered muses with a fascinating and entertaining mixture of works for solo piano.

Music by a rich array of composers is found here, and the diversity works brilliantly. There are whimsical offerings by Hoffman, MacDowell and Jensen; touches of delicate melancholy by Grieg, Granados and Schumann; and Rameau and Daquin are tastefully played on a Steinway concert grand. Transcriptions of Glinka, Saint-Saëns, Alabieff and Stravinsky are included, of which the Danse infernale from Firebird is most grand; and Messiaen himself is exquisitely represented by The Dove, written when he was twenty. Lewin also knocks off an enthusiastic rendition of the Joplinesque Turkey in the Straw and it fits the program to perfection.

The pacing of this ‘piano aviary’ is delightful and Lewin plays to dazzling and touchingly expressive effect. Highlights for me are the Messiaen and Schumann, and his renditions of Ravel’s Sad Birds and Cyril Scott’s Water Wagtail, but I will listen to this entire disc repeatedly with great pleasure. Kudos also to the designer of the booklet in which this CD is housed – the design with its rich colours and elegant illustrations is as impressive as the music within.

05_palmer_chopin_dvdThe Strange Case of Delfina Potocka –
The Mystery of Chopin
Directed by Tony Palmer
TP-DVD160

This is a thought-provoking, intriguing film about an extremely controversial subject. The argument of this DVD is set down in the enclosed notes: “It was a matter of national and socialist pride when, in November 1945, the new Communist Government of Poland asked for, and received, the heart of Chopin previously buried in Paris. Against this background, a woman called Paulina Czernika approached the Polish Minister of Culture, claiming to have some love letters from the composer to her great-grandmother, the Countess Delfina Potocka. At first curious, but eventually alarmed, the Ministry began a witch-hunt against Madame Czernika. For while it was true that there was an historic figure called Delfina Potocka – she was the only lover to whom Chopin dedicated any music – these letters were said to be pornographic, anti-Semitic and thoroughly damaging to the image of the composer as a Polish hero which the Communist government wished to promote. Czernika ‘committed suicide’ on October 17, 1949 one hundred years to the day after the death of Chopin. Or was she murdered, and if so, why? Were the letters in fact forgeries? And what was the truth about Delfina Potocka?

As Czernika encounters publishers and persons in authority, we are privy to selected personal, confidential and intimate details from the composer’s letters. The events revealed in the letters are enacted, in chronological order, by a thoroughly believable cast.

In his book Chopin the Unknown, Polish music scholar, conductor and composer, Matteo Glinski delves deeply into the Delfina Potocka affair (Assumption University of Windsor Press, 1963). Glinski’s credentials are impeccable and of this book, Roman V. Ceglowski, President of the International Chopin Foundation, wrote “I think it is the most provocative study on Chopin in our times” and commended it to Chopin scholars. Glinski quotes convincing evidence of Chopin’s character and his “elusive secret” all lending authenticity to the Delfina letters.

Is Palmer tipping his hand by entrusting the roles of Paulina Czernika and Delfina Potocka to the same actress in this unusual production?     

04a_yundi_dvdThe Young Romantic - A Portrait of Yundi
Barbara Willis Sweete
EuroArts 3079058

Pianist Yundi (he has dropped the use of his last name Li!) is an almost mythical celebrity in China. Since winning the Chopin piano competition at the young age of 18, he has captured the hearts of the people of China, and has a busy international performing schedule, much to the credit of his highly emotional and theatrical performance style. So how then to portray him on film, without the finished product becoming an advertorial to the young pianist?

Director Barbara Willis Sweete’s approach is brilliant – her premise seems to be to present him in a series of contrasting milieus: Yundi on tour in China versus Yundi in Berlin preparing for a recording/concert with the Berlin Philharmonic; The youthful serious soloist Yundi working with the senior witty Maestro Seiji Ozawa; Yundi as a child accordionist versus Yundi the young classical star; Yundi the classical pianist performing with Jay Chou, the pop star keyboardist; His family lovingly reminiscing about his childhood while also lamenting with justifiable sadness that he just doesn’t visit them enough now. Only the segment with Yundi playing ping pong with TSO conductor Peter Oundjian seems idiosyncratic and out of place. Be prepared to be shocked as well – Yundi practiced up to eight hours a day as a child and some of the teaching methods employed are questionable too!

04b_yundi_cdThis is a beautiful flowing film that gives a well rounded portrait of the globetrotting pianist as a young man. The high Rhombus production standards are maintained – the visuals, storyline and editing are seamless. Bonus tracks of Chopin performances are an added treat. Fans and critics alike will enjoy, and also at times be disconcerted, by this superb Canadian made documentary.

Editor’s Note: Yundi’s latest CD release is the complete Chopin Nocturnes on EMI Classics (6 08391 2).

03_fantasy_pahudFantasy - A Night at the Opera
Emmanuel Pahud; Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra; Yannick Nézet-Séguin
EMI Classics 4 57814 2

During my period in music retail many years ago, I was once asked by a customer, “I need a disc of operatic arias, but I don’t want the singing, only the music”(!). I’ve undoubtedly told this story before, and I repeat it now only because it ties in so well with this new EMI recording titled “Fantasy – A Night at the Opera” featuring flutist Emmanuel Pahud with the Rotterdam Philharmonic under the direction of Canadian conductor par excellence Yannick Nézet-Séguin.

As the name suggests, this disc comprises an attractive collection of opera arias as arranged for flute and orchestra. While the operas from which they are derived are familiar, such as Verdi’s La Traviata, and Bizet’s Carmen - the arrangers are decidedly less so, and contrary to what one might think, not all date from the 19th century. For example, the Fantasy on Mozart’s Magic Flute, was composed by Robert Forbes (born in 1939), and the paraphrase from Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin was written by Guy Braunstein, born as recently as 1971. Also included on the disc is a sensitive (and unarranged) performance of the lyrical Dance of the Blessed Spirits from Gluck’s 1762 opera Orphée et Eurydice.

Not surprisingly, Pahud has no difficulty in meeting the technical demands of the virtuosic and high-spirited writing inherent here, while the Rotterdam Philharmonic, under Nézet-Séguin’s competent baton provides a tasteful and strongly supportive accompaniment.

While most of these arrangements wouldn’t really be classified as Great Music, the disc is nevertheless entertaining and diverting, a true showcase for Emmanuel Pahud’s talents, and proof indeed that Nézet-Séguin is just as at home with this lighter more flamboyant repertoire as he is with music of a more serious nature. Recommended.

02_liszt_laplanteLiszt - Années de Pelerinage Suisse
André Laplante
Analekta AN 2 9980

André Laplante by now can be referred to as Canada’s ‘national treasure’. He is a well established artist especially in the Romantic repertoire and has a worldwide reputation with critics comparing him sometimes to Richter and Horowitz. This new recording for the Analekta label tackles Liszt in an ambitious, rarely recorded program of the first book of the 21 year old Liszt’s romantic wanderings with Countess Marie d’Agoult.

Liszt met the Countess in 1832 in Paris, a married woman 6 years older, but this did not prevent one of the century’s most famous and productive love affairs from developing. Three years later Marie left her family and ran off with Franz to Switzerland, later to Italy. There were 3 children born out of this union, among them Cosima who eventually married Richard Wagner.

As we listen, the pieces vary in character from invocations of natural beauty (Lac de Wallenstadt), literary associations with Byron, Schiller, Goethe, Senacour (Vallée d’Obermann), to force of nature (L’Orage), pastoral melodies (Pastorale, Eglogue) and homage to Swiss history (Chapelle de Guillaume Tell).
Many of the pieces even appear improvised. We can just see after a day of admiring the majestic Swiss countryside, Liszt composing on the piano and playing to his object of affection. Often the quiet, self searching beginnings develop into passion with great intensity.

To capture the many layered complexities of this set, Laplante is the ideal choice and this recording shows it. Being an unassuming, introspective personality, his performances have insightful sensitivity, but never overt emotionalism, dazzling power and virtuosity that never is meant to show off and rich imagination characteristic of a great artist.

01_afiara_mendelssohnMendelssohn - Schubert
Afiara String Quartet;
Alexander String Quartet
Foghorn Records CD 1995
(www.afiara.com)

A debut CD is something like a “rookie year” hockey card. It makes you wonder where the talent behind it will ultimately end up – in stardom or in obscurity? Based on this disc, I’m prepared to go out on a sturdy limb and predict a bright future for the Afiara String Quartet.
In case you don’t know, the Afiara Quartet is a young group of Canadians: Valerie Li and Yuri Cho, violins; David Samuel, viola; and Adrian Fung, cello. From 2006 to 2009 the quartet had a residency at San Francisco State University (where they studied with the Alexander Quartet), and they were recently named the graduate quartet-in-residence at the Juilliard School.

For their debut disc, this young group has chosen to perform works by two composers in their teens and early 20s (indeed, neither composer ever got to be very old): Mendelssohn’s Quartet in A Minor Op. 13, Schubert’s Quartettensatz in C Minor D. 703, and Mendelssohn’s Octet Op. 20, written when the composer was just 16.
In this clearly recorded CD, the Afiaras have tapped into the youthful vitality displayed in these scores. Tone is bright and tempos are perky; intonation and balance are excellent. As well, in the more introspective passages (such as the second movement of the Quartet in A minor) playing is delicate yet warm.
In the Octet, the Afiaras are joined by their mentors, the Alexander Quartet, and the two groups merge seamlessly into one glorious ensemble. This is exciting playing – a rich performance that does full justice to Mendelssohn’s youthful masterpiece.

Editor’s Note: At a recent Mooredale Concert where they performed with renowned flutist Robert Aitken, the Afiara Quartet was presented with the $25,000 2010 Young Canadian Musicians Award. The quartet will return to Mooredale Concerts on October 31 to perform with co-winner of the award, pianist Wonny Song.

02_handel_darmstadtHandel in Darmstadt
Geneviève Soly
Analekta AN 2 9121

Researching the music of Christoph Graupner led Geneviève Soly to the Darmstadt Harpsichord Book, which features works by four German composers: Graupner, Handel, Telemann and Kuhnau. Twenty-nine works by Handel are found in the collection and Ms Soly performs twenty-one on this CD - plus a parody on Graupner.

Handel’s Chaconne in G major receives the lively interpretation from Soly that this varied and florid piece deserves. The CD-notes - by Soly - are right to stress Handel’s lyricism.

Some cynically note that Handel was England’s best composer between Purcell and Elgar. The Sonata del Signor Hendel (sic), published in London in 1720, can justify this view. The second allegro and adagio are both testing pieces for any harpsichordist, the former with its two-voice structure of soprano over bass, and the latter sounding as if it were directly transcribed from organ to harpsichord.

Ms Soly adores Handel’s music. As well as meeting the challenge of the adagio already mentioned, she tackles the traditional stylised Baroque dance movements (the sarabande, gigue, allemande and courante). For this reviewer, however, the really inspired playing comes in the Sonata in G major. A test on account of its complexity, its speed, and even its pure stamina, this is Geneviève Soly at her most driven.

Soly’s choice of compositions by Handel is varied to say the least. A traditional German air and variations make up eight of the tracks - Handel at his jolliest. There is even what appears to be a parody of Graupner by Handel, a marche en rondeau.

At the age of eight, Ms Soly knew she would become a performer of classical music. How grateful we are for her ambition.            

01_rameau_masquesRameau - Pieces de clavecin en concerts
Ensemble Masques; Olivier Fortin
ATMA ACD2 2624

No, Jean-Philippe Rameau was not a sympathetic man. He was a misanthropic individual who lost no opportunity to start arguments with Jean-Jacques Rousseau during the heated discussions on the merits of French versus Italian opera.

From its very first tracks, La Pantomine and L’indiscrète, this is mercifully not apparent on this CD. Both display the virtuoso techniques of the baroque harpsichordist, in particular that French operatic style which Rameau came above all others to dominate.

There is an element of caricature to most of the sixteen movements in the collection. Speculation about the intended target - if any - for La Laborde remains to this day, but it is still a highly charming if eccentric composition. Possibly composed, one pundit says, to honour the inventor of an electric piano in 1759...

Of course, the Pièces de clavecin are not just about the harpsichord. Spirited violin-playing gives L’Agaçante its name and places La Coulicam in its grand and exotic context. Measured flute-playing imparts a slightly sombre quality to La Livri, a lament on the passing of a musical patron.

To describe this CD as varied is a gross under-statement. Pieces are scored for harpsichord, strings and woodwind, for personal acquaintances of Rameau and for his musical friends - in view of his hostile opinions they could hardly be for his enemies.

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