MoisalaS09Kaija Saariaho

by Pirkko Moisala

University of Illinois Press

144 pages, photos; $40.00 US

In a recent blog, Canadian Opera Company General Director Alexander Neef revealed that the COC is planning a production of L’amour du loin by Kaija Saariaho. This is exciting news, since this is a beautiful opera by an important composer. So this excellent study of Saariaho is especially welcome.

Musicologist Pirkko Moisala offers a knowledgeable description of L’amour du loin, along with Saariaho’s other compositions to date. Moisala appreciates Saariaho’s work, and has interviewed the composer at length. In fact, Saariaho approved the manuscript for this book, meaning on the one hand that it is thoroughly reliable, while on the other that there is nothing written here that Saariaho herself does not want to see in print.

Moisala charts Saariaho’s course from her childhood in Finland, through her years working in the electronic music studios at IRCAM in Paris, to her present work with both acoustic instruments and electronics.

This biography is the first in a projected series on women composers. Yet Saariaho’s attitude towards her position as one of the few women – though not, as Moisala claims, the first – to reach the top eschelon of composers working today seems to be conflicted. Not wanting  her music to be considered feminine, Saariaho resists being classified as a woman composer.

Saariaho’s music stands out today for the adventurous way that it expands conventional techniques without moving away from traditional sounds and structures. It sounds new yet familiar. But what really resonates is the emotional impact of her music. “The task of today’s artist,”  Moisala quotes Saariaho as saying, “is to nurture with spiritually rich art.”

One of the most striking aspects of Saariaho’s output is how different each work is. Moisala clearly describes her method of composing, showing how the shape of each work develops from the material. I was interested to learn that Saariaho, like Messiaen, Sibelius, and Scriabin, experiences the kind of multisensory perception known as synesthesia, where all the senses are blended. For her, sounds are connected to colours, shapes, scents and textures, so they all provide sources for her to draw on for her rich palette.

01_porpora_ariasNicola Porpora - Arias

Karina Gauvin; Il Complesso Barocco; Alan Curtis

ATMA ACD2 2590


Sic Transit Gloria Mundi – The glory of this world is fleeting. What an apt description of the current status of Nicola Porpora. At one time, creator (with poet Petro Metastasio) of some of the greatest triumphs of musical performance that pleased monarchs, delighted their courts and held sway over public imagination – today Porpora is little known and even less recorded. Six of 14 arias on this disc are world premiere recordings. How could the vocal teacher of castrati Caffarelli and Porporino, female superstars La Romanina, Nicola Grimaldi and Lucia Facchinelli, the man who discovered his most important protégé, Farinelli, be so thoroughly neglected? Well, there are two reasons for that: there are no more castrati and, secondly and most importantly, the music of Nicola Porpora was always meant to be a neutral background on which to showcase the castrato’s voice. His arias are not necessarily brilliant or groundbreaking – in fact, many of them seem repetitious. However, endowed with the sound of the castrato’s voice they must have been stunning. Such voice is impossible to replicate. Even for the film Farinelli, the producers digitally “mashed” the counter-tenor and soprano, to achieve a desired effect. The Canadian soprano Karina Gauvin continues to amaze with the beauty of her voice, increasingly focusing on Baroque music. Technically flawless, in this recording she is augmented by the “first leaguers” of period performance, Il Complesso Barocco and Alan Curtis. So if no single human being can reproduce the castrato’s voice, we owe Ms. Gauvin thanks for approximating it for us.

02_puccini_ritrovatoPuccini - Ritrovato

Violeta Urmana; Placido Domingo; Wiener Staatsopernchor; Wiener Philharmonic; Alberto Veronesi

Deutsche Grammophon 477 7745


Process of artistic creation is commonly regarded as 10% inspiration and 90% perspiration. This is also true in musical composition. There are very few composers like Mozart who hit upon perfection almost instantaneously, like Minerva springing out of the head of Jupiter.

Even Beethoven had agonizing struggles to arrive at perfection, as the 3 Leonora overtures show very clearly.

Puccini turned 150 last year and we still know his name, which is a considerable achievement, (I don’t think many of today’s pop celebrities will accomplish this). To celebrate, DG turned out this well researched, commendable and scholarly disc of Puccini’s discarded items, earlier versions and some unknown compositions.

I was immediately taken by the young Puccini’s compositional prowess in the beautiful Preludio a orchestra written as a teenager that contains an elegant, original melody I discovered somewhat similarly appearing in Sibelius’ 7th Symphony(!) and the Adagietto per Orchestra, an even more mature work now almost totally forgotten.

The above notwithstanding, most of the compilation is devoted to earlier, discarded versions of items in Puccini’s operas. One may be grateful that the gripping final scene of Madama Butterfly didn’t end up the way it was first written, it being too loose and unwieldy. “Too many notes” – as it were. Similarly, the earlier version of the 3rd act intermezzo of Manon Lescaut, elegant and well written as it may be, is simply no match for the poignant, heart rending final version we are accustomed to. As the greatest masterpieces, La Boheme, Tosca, Il Tabarro, Gianni Schicchi and Turandot, are notably absent I may guess they did not need revisions. What we are offered is superbly sung by great opera stars and conducted by Puccini specialist Alberto Veronesi.

03_kaufmannMozart; Schubert; Beethoven; Wagner

Jonas Kaufmann; Mahler Chamber

Orchestra; Claudio Abbado

Decca 478 1463


Jonas Kaufmann is no newcomer to the opera world nor to recordings, both audio and video. He has about 20 discs on the market, from Mozart, Beethoven, Richard Strauss, and more. However none of these struck the chord as this new disc has. Admittedly he shines in Madama Butterfly and in Der Rosenkavalier and various collections with other artists, but I haven’t heard them all and there may be the artistry equal to this new disc.

I was taken completely taken by surprise by the timbre and texture of the gentle melancholy that he conveys, without a hint of bathos, in the opening lines of both In fernam land and, more particularly, Mein lieber Schwann! This entire collection is a superb showcase for Kaufmann’s artistry revealed in the arias from Lohengrin; as Tamino from The Magic Flute; arias from Schubert’s Fierrabras and Alfonso und Estrella; from Fidelio, Gott! Welch Dunkel heir!; Wintersturme; and finally two from Parsifal, Amfortas! – Die Wunde and Nur eine Waffe taugt.

The well chosen sequence of arias on this CD showcase a beautiful voice with an unusual palette of colours, textures and dynamic range whose vocal canvas is enhanced by fine musicianship and intellect. He inhabits the roles and communicates them effortlessly, supported majestically by Claudio Abbado. The recording itself is of demonstration quality, naturally balanced, very clean and well-focused.

Kaufmann’s qualities and discernable originality make it difficult to pigeonhole him as a heldentenor or a similar generalisation. He emerges as in a class of his own.

04_mahler_naganoMahler - Das Lied von der Erde

Klaus Florian Vogt; Christian Gerhaher;

Orchestre symphonique de Montréal;

Kent Nagano

Orchestre symphonique de Montréal



The Montreal Symphony Orchestra, well-known internationally in the happier decades of the recording industry for their many classic recordings of predominantly French repertoire, has joined the ranks of orchestral house labels with an excursion into what is for them relatively unfamiliar territory.    The primary allure of this performance is the finely wrought interpretation of baritone Christian Gerhaher. There is a natural, human warmth in his singing that is consistently compelling through a wide range of emotions, from the charming intimacy of Von der Schönheit to the stoical acceptance of fate in the final Abschied. Nagano is at his best in this half-hour finale, where his cool, understated approach and the white tone of the vibrato-less wind solos brings to light the Buddhist aspects of Mahler’s autumnal masterpiece. Gerhaher’s counterpart, the rising young tenor Klaus Florian Vogt, has a quite pleasant lyric tone to his voice, however Mahler’s initial vocal instructions (Mit voller Kraft; immer machtvoll) are simply beyond him. Though Vogt can be heard clearly enough over the orchestral maelstrom (thanks to a post-concert dubbing session in a Bavarian studio), his reading of his part, though elegant, is timorous and lacking in textural nuance. The audio quality is unexceptional, derived from a combination of live and studio sessions. I would gladly exchange the annoyingly speculative program notes for the full text and translations of the songs, whose absence here is unconscionable.

01_handels_harpHandel’s Harp

Maxine Eilander; Seattle Baroque

Orchestra; Stephen Stubbs

ATMA ACD2 2541


“Handel’s Harp” celebrates good fortune - Handel not only enjoyed patronage from the Duke of Chandos but the Duke also employed the talented Welsh harpist William Powell. Handel featured the harp throughout his mature career of 30 years, whether in sacred, concerto or operatic contexts. Quite a challenge for soloist Maxine Eilander.

In fact, Miss Eilander both accompanies soprano Cyndia Sieden in spirited fashion and treats us to the full range of the solo harp. She plays the slow, thoughtful Symphony from Saul, a piece which reminds us how fortunate we are when we hear music for the classical harp.

We are again treated to almost celestial music for solo harp in Lascia ch’io pianga from Rinaldo. This is where the orchestra’s conductor Stephen Stubbs makes his presence felt. As his notes make clear, he has arranged his own version of this piece for harp because many of Handel’s opera songs were adapted by harpists and Stubbs feels that this lost art of the harpist deserves commemoration.

One almost feels that Handel was testing both harp and harpist. Handel’s harpists had to play alongside soprano voice, strings (including pizzicato), recorders, oboe, harp, viola da gamba, theorbo, bassoon, cello, flute, and mandolin. All that within the mere eight compositions presented here. Anyway, the impression should not be given that Handel’s music for harp was all austere. His Concerto in F is sprightly, fast and lively. Round off the recording with the last piece, “Hark, hark, he strikes the golden lyre” from Alexander Balus, and appreciate Handel’s good fortune.

02_hagenBernhard Joachim Hagen - Sonatas for Lute and Strings

John Schneiderman;

Elizabeth Blumenstock; William Skeen

Dorian Sono Luminus DSL-90907


Though he spent his professional life as a violinist employed by the Margrave of Brandenburg-Bayreuth, Bernhard Joachim Hagen was also a lutenist of the first order. But as this CD’s notes suggest, he may well have thought himself an anachronism by the time he died in 1787, so moribund was the lute by that time. Hagen left behind a number of works for the lute, all of which are found in a collection of manuscripts now preserved in Augsburg. This disc offers up his six sonatas for lute, violin and cello, performed by three celebrated specialists from the USA.

These are Rococo trio sonatas, with expertly balanced parts for the violin and lute and a continuo-esque line for the cello. From the cheerful and careful opening Allegro of the F major sonata through the remaining three-movement sonatas, the transparent texture and melodic delicacy of Hagen’s writing is sensitively performed. And though some of the slow movements lack musical depth, their refined delicacy is expertly expressed.

Schneiderman, Blumenstock and Skeen play with grace, poise and sensitive attention to even the smallest details, and the intimacy of this repertoire is immediately apparent here. This is a charming glimpse into the very late life of the Baroque lute, a generation after the great Silvius Leopold Weiss, and Hagen could ask for no better champions of his music.

03_mozart_donMozart - Don Giovanni

Quatuor Franz Joseph

ATMA ACD2 2559

This 2-CD set gives us a fascinating example of musical transcriptions at the end of the 18th century. Montreal’s Quatuor Franz Joseph, using period instruments, specializes in works from that era, and here they perform Mozart’s wonderful 1787 opera in an almost complete - although unfortunately anonymous - transcription for string quartet published by Simrock of Bonn around 1798.

Transcriptions of popular works were extremely common, being the only way the music could be enjoyed away from the theatre or concert salon; Don Giovanni, for instance, spawned almost 600 various arrangements in the century following its premiere.

Questions arise, of course: Is it necessary to record the whole opera? Does it work? Is it boring? Well, Yes; Yes; and No. This is a genuine 18th century work of very high quality, and there would be little point in excerpting it. There is a transparency to the sound that allows all the vocal lines to be clearly heard, and as these are cleverly woven through the score there is no sense of “melody with accompaniment”. Sure, you lose the fullness of the voices and orchestra, but the richness of the part-writing belies the number of players, and, as the excellent booklet notes point out, the arrangement seems to bring out the purely musical aspect of the work without overly affecting its dramatic qualities.

And boring? - even at over 60 minutes per disc, this outstanding performance simply flies by!

04_mendelssohnMendelssohn - Piano Concertos 1 & 2; Symphony No.5

Louis Lortie; Orchestre Symphonique de Quebec

ATMA ACD2 2617


To mark the 200th anniversary of the birth of Felix Mendelssohn ATMA has released a disc featuring both of his piano concertos and the Symphony No. 5 - the “Reformation”, with the Québec Symphony Orchestra and Louis Lortie, as both soloist and conductor. Lortie has come a long way since his fine debut recording of the complete Chopin Etudes on the Chandos label in 1989. Now recognized as one of the world’s foremost pianists, he is as comfortable with conducting from the keyboard as he is with performing, as this disc clearly demonstrates.

Mendelssohn composed his two piano concertos seven years apart, the first in 1830 while in Italy (completing it in Germany), and the second in England, shortly after his marriage to Cécile Jeanrenaud. While the second is perhaps more serious in tone, both have many similarities – brisk solo passages requiring considerable dexterity, lyrical slow movements, and an overall sense of fine craftsmanship. Not surprisingly, Lortie rises to the challenges admirably, and together with the OSQ, both concertos are performed with great panache. This is indeed a most conducive pairing of soloist and orchestra.

Mendelssohn’s Symphony No. 5 was completed in 1830, honouring the 300th anniversary of the Lutheran faith. Under Lortie’s competent baton, the OSQ again treats the music with the respect it deserves, achieving a grand and noble sound. While the second movement was taken at a brisker pace than I would have liked, it certainly didn’t detract from this most satisfying performance. So to all concerned - félicitations on some fine music-making!

05_de_fallaPiano Music by Manuel de Falla

Jason Cutmore

Centaur CRC 2952


Pianist Jason Cutmore displays stellar star quality as he performs the piano music of Manuel de Falla. Falla’s compositional output may be described as prolific. His style embraces a wide range of sources, both in melody and harmony, but it is always Spanish in its roots. He wrote specifically for the piano but also arranged some of his other instrumental works for the keyboard. Both genres are represented here.

Two transcriptions are exceptionally noteworthy. Originally scored for chamber orchestra, El amor brujo is technically not as demanding as the other tracks but the folksy Spanish gypsy dance qualities are glorious. From the pantomime El Sombrero de Tres Picos, the piano transcription musically evokes the anger and the frustration of the upset Miller in its guitar-like passages and tumultuous chords. Cutmore plays with a passion and understanding that is never trite.

Of the original piano works, Fantasia Baetica is breathtaking in its compositional and performance values. Originally written for Artur Rubenstein, here is a really virtuosic gem. Cutmore proves that he is a master technical wizard as he seamlessly plays with a clear vision of colour, sound and rhythm.

Jason Cutmore understands de Falla’s piano music, making this an intelligent, musical and enjoyable listening experience.

Concert note: Jason Cutmore performs music of de Falla, Soler and Poulenc for the Kitchener-Waterloo Chamber Music Society on November 1.

06_quarringtonGarden Scene

Joel Quarrington; Andrew Burashko

Analekta AN 2 9931

This astounding new album from Canada’s premiere bass player Joel Quarrington is proof positive that the rarely-heard, husky voice of the double bass is indeed capable of the expressive cantilena we normally associate with the cello. This is partially accounted for by the fact that Quarrington tunes his double bass in perfect fifths (an octave lower than the cello) rather than the customary fourths, with a consequent enhancement of the instrument’s acoustics, but it is the sheer musicality of his playing that really wins the day. He is ideally partnered here by his long-time friend and sympathizer Andrew Burashko.

The album includes transcriptions of works by Korngold (the title track) and Henri Casadesus (a transposed version of his faux-classical Viola Concerto In the Style of J.C. Bach). Actual bass pieces include the celebrated Elegy in D major by the 19th century bass virtuoso Giovanni Bottesini and a slew of sugary bon-bons commissioned by Serge Koussevitsky from Reinhold Glière. Following this pleasant onslaught of bel canto salon music comes the real find, a powerful, world premiere recording of the remarkable Sonata for Solo Bass composed in 1971 by the prolific Soviet composer Mieczyslaw Weinberg. The first-class acoustics of the album were produced by Toronto jazz bassist Roberto Occhipinti. An extended podcast preview of this recording and related Quarrington interviews are available from Peter Jones’ web site at

01_multiple_flutesDifferent Stones - Canadian Music for

Multiple Flutes

Mark Takeshi McGregor

Redshift (

The seven beautifully crafted compositions by young composers, magnificently multi-tracked at the Banff Centre for the Arts by Vancouver flutist, Mark Takeshi McGregor, make this CD of music for multiple flutes of interest beyond the ranks of flute aficionados and beleaguered university flute choir directors.

Meaning of music lies in the way it creates the feeling of going somewhere, moving ahead, departing and arriving. Each piece on the disc does this, developing organically and convincingly, not as in traditional music by the repetition and variety of melody and rhythm, but with different musical elements, such as dynamics, busy-ness, expanding ranges, abrupt stops, silences, and textural contrasts. Apparently random beginnings and endings of long tones in Jennifer Butler’s Sky, for example, provide both repetition and variety, and the addition of short two and three-note tonal patterns moves the piece ahead. The simple addition of a six-note “counter ostinato” to the four-note opening ostinato in Christopher Kovarik’s Dectet similarly creates a feeling of forward motion, and the climactic chord two minutes into the piece creates the feeling of having arrived at a pivotal point.

This CD is an instructive primer in a genre of contemporary composition, which, shall we say, maximises minimalism. As such, it is of interest well beyond the coteries of flute and composition cognoscenti, generating meaning by means that are equally archetypal and yet uniquely and recognisably related to the aesthetic sensibility of our time.


Matt Haimovitz

Oxingale OX2016


Matt Haimovitz’s new solo program and CD title were inspired by American composer Elliott Carter (still with us at 100!) and his two Figments for solo cello, but the disc features a wide range of new works for cello alone or cello and electronics by established and emerging composers from Canada and the USA. Three of the works are from 2009, and five are recorded here for the first time.

The short but impressive Carter pieces were the strongest for me; in fact, I found myself preferring the non-electronic tracks throughout the CD – Ana Sokolovic’s Vez, Gilles Tremblay’s Cedres en Voile, Steven Stucky’s Dialoghi and Luna Pearl Woolf’s Sarabande all having “something to say”.

The other pieces, by Serge Provost, the Montreal-based musician/producer Socalled, and - especially - the two Du Yun works, came across less successfully, at least on initial listenings.

There is no indication of whether or not there were any improvisational or aleatoric aspects to the performances.

Unfortunately, there were no booklet notes with the digipak (although these are available on-line at Also, the gaps between CD tracks are often way too short - as little as 3 or 4 seconds at times. Given the stops and pauses in many of the works it’s sometimes hard to tell where one piece ends and the next begins.

Haimovitz, however, is in great form, in a value-for-money CD that packs in almost 80 minutes of music.

Concert Note: Matt Haimovitz’ “Figment” tour stops in Toronto at the Music Gallery on November 8.

03_yoko_hirotaSmall is Beautiful; Miniature Piano Pieces

Yoko Hirota

Phoenix Classical PHC95252


Yoko Hirota has added another item to her impressive set of laurels in the form a new CD. Keeping things consistent, she begins with a Schoenberg work, 6 Kleine Klavierstücke, Op. 19. But Hirota advances well beyond the Second Viennese School here, with explorations that take us well into the present day, over the course of 35 different tracks. Works and composers roughly follow a chronological timeline, with non-Canadian composers ending with Elliot Carter in 2000, and the Canadians at the end, from 1951 to 2006. Hirota’s depth and control are unequalled throughout, as can be expected from one with such impressive academic credentials. But it is the works from her adoptive land, Northern Ontario, which make the disc unique. Aris Carastathis’ Traces and two recent works by Robert Lemay are remarkable.

With the recent tours of New Music North, one hopes to hear Hirota to showing pianistic muscle in an ensemble setting, but that must wait for another release. Here, we must be content with a lone Boston model D-272 piano. The recording is nicely balanced between direct and reverberant sound, although the hall is not identified. Recommended.

04_chatmanStephen Chatman - Earth Songs

Various Artists

Centrediscs CMCCD 14709

“Earth Songs” is the name of a new CD on the Centrediscs label featuring music by the west-coast based composer Stephen Chatman – a sort of “musical plea” for an endangered planet. Although the listener might rightly assume that this is a disc of choral or vocal music, it’s only the first set (and title track) that actually utilizes a chorus. Other works are scored for combinations of violin, cello, piano, saxophone, and solo harp.

The opening suite, using texts from various sources, is a wonderful study in contrasts, from the jubilance of Et inluminent terram to the delicacy of The Waterfall, an homage to ancient China. Here, the University of British Columbia Singers and CBC Radio Orchestra (sadly, in its final recording) are conducted by Alain Trudel. The set that follows, For Pent-Up and Aching Rivers, scored for violin and cello, and the piece Or from the Sea of Time, for piano and cello, are both inspired by poems by Walt Whitman. In the first, violinist Gwen Thompson (who provided the commission) and cellist Eric Wilson successfully create an impassioned mood. Or from the Sea of Time is decidedly more restrained - mysterious and introspective music, where cellist Eric Wilson and pianist Patricia Hoy are featured in a haunting dialogue.

My only quibble with this disc – and it’s a minor one – is the dark and sombre tone pervading much of the music throughout. Is there no glimmer of hope for a better (and greener) future? Nevertheless, the music is a fine representation of Chatman’s musical style – the broad sweeping lines, the lyricism, and the sensitive pairing of music and text are all very much in evidence. “Earth Songs” – what could be more fitting in these environmentally-challenged times?

05_horwoodPercussionique - The complete percussion music of Michael S. Horwood

Toronto Percussion Ensemble

Albany Records Troy1122


This disc of percussion music by American-born Canadian composer Michael S. Horwood (b. 1947) should attract both new music aficionados and others interested in revitalizing listening experiences. Superbly performed by the Toronto Percussion Ensemble (John Brownell, David Campion, Mark Duggan, and Beverley Johnston) “Percussionique” is beautifully recorded and presented by Albany Records.

The “spine” of this chronologically presented oeuvre is a series of Pieces Percussioniques dating from 1964 to 2008. Spanning various contemporary compositional practices, a consistent voice still emerges, refined yet playful. For example, in No. 3 a sensitive xylophone cadenza leads into a pensive slow section with exquisite, soft dynamics, followed by a rondo with a Monty Pythonesque march rhythm! Piece No. 4 is finely structured in four-parts; the fast sections have for me a hint of Horwood’s passion for roller coasters. A percussionist himself, Horwood writes idiomatically. Intricate divisions of the beat layered variously between instruments give an effect of luxuriant flourishing, without cluttering the texture.

Along with the Pieces Percussioniques, individual pieces showcase particular instruments: The Shadow Of Your Drum for bass drum with 2 players; Dynamite for piano and two suspended cymbals, composed for a noir-ish film scene; and my particular favourite - the vital, carefully structured Fragments (2006) delightfully performed by mallet specialists Mark Duggan and Beverley Johnston. In a noisy world we forget to listen truly: try letting Percussionique’s sound world beguile you!

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