03a_ursula_bagdasarjanz_1Ursula Bagdasarjanz Vol. 1: Bach; Nardini; Mozart; Bartok

Ursula Bagdasarjanz; Luciano Sgrizzi; Fernande Kaeser

Gallo CD-1248

03b_ursula_bagdasarjanz_2Ursula Bagdasarjanz Vol. 2 - Othmar Schoeck

Ursula Bagdasarjanz; Gisela Schoeck

Gallo CD-1249 (www.bagdasarjanz.com)

When the Swiss violinist Ursula Bagdasarjanz retired from the concert stage in the late 1990s, she compiled a CD collection of radio and live recordings of her performances. These were, in turn, re-mastered two years ago for a commercially available series that currently stands at four volumes.

I must admit Bagdasarjanz, now 76 years old, is a new name to me, but given the standard of her playing on these two fascinating discs it’s difficult to understand why.

Volume One features works by Bach, Nardini, Mozart and Bartok, recorded between 1960 and 1969, and demonstrates not only Bagdasarjanz’s performance range but also the consistent elements in her playing: a big, warm tone; faultless intonation; a fairly heavy (but not wide) vibrato which is always used intelligently and sensitively; and a sophisticated sense of phrasing. The Bach A minor solo sonata is technically flawless, with a great sense of line and some remarkably tight triple-stopping in the Fuga. The big tone is evident in the Nardini D major sonata, the Mozart Bb major sonata K378, and Bartok’s First Rhapsody. The piano sound is slightly fuzzy in the Nardini, but otherwise the transfers are excellent.

By far the most significant of the two CDs, however, is Volume Two, which features the complete works for violin and piano by the Swiss composer Othmar Schoeck. Recorded for Swiss Radio in 1961, only 4 years after the composer’s death, the three sonatas feature Schoeck’s daughter Gisela as the accompanist in performances that The Strad magazine rightly called “so authoritative… that it is impossible to imagine them ever being superseded.” All three sonatas – Op.16, Op.22 and Op.46 - are not part of the standard repertoire and are rarely performed these days, which is a real shame; the first two in particular, dating from the early 1900s, are strongly personal works reminiscent of Brahms and Franck. Again, the re-mastered sound is excellent.

If you know Bagdasarjanz’s playing – and recordings of her have always been pretty scarce – then you won’t need to be told to get these CDs; if you don’t know her playing, get them anyway – you won’t be disappointed!

01_james_harleyNeue Bilder - Music of James Harley

New Music Concerts; Robert Aitken

Centrediscs CMCCD 16010

One of the benefits of the endangered CD format is illustrated by the release of compilations such as this revealing in-depth look into the oeuvre of Canadian composer James Harley (b.1959).

On one hand we have detailed programme and biographic notes in the booklet allowing one-stop exploration of the creator’s mind and life leading up to compositions spanning 22 years. On the disc, we have the star performances of Toronto’s venerable New Music Concerts (NMC). Celebrating 40 years of dedication to new music this season NMC’s musicians consistently present interpretations of a high level, and these performances – many recorded live – live up to those standards of excellence. As a stellar example, NMC co-founder and internationally renowned flutist Robert Aitken’s brilliant performance of Harley's early solo flute piece Portrait (1984) is a demonstration of virtuosity in the service of the composer’s lyrical musical vision.

While the spirit of the Second Vienna School is alive in the eloquent and elegant music of Harley’s composition Neue Bilder (1991), the notes reveal that the work is actually based on the music of an earlier Austrian composer. “Algorhythmically” transforming abstracted material from an illustrious aria from Mozart’s opera The Magic Flute, this work is a testament to the magical possibilities inherent in musical metamorphosis in its many forms.

Judging from the five works here Harley, who presently teaches Digital Music at the University of Guelph, has a rare gift for sustained melodic line. The passionate flute and cello solos in Epanoui (1995) and the breathy, delicate bass flute exhalations in Tyee (1995) provide ample evidence of that. It’s a gift I appreciate receiving, repeatedly.

02_hamelinMarc-André Hamelin - Études

Marc-André Hamelin

Hyperion CDA67789

Up to now, the Montreal-born Boston-based pianist Marc-André Hamelin has been rightly regarded as something of a pianistic supernova, a musician whose technical prowess and innate musicality have gone hand in hand with his efforts at promoting piano music by lesser-known composers. But with this new Hyperion recording, titled simply “Études” we see him in a new role, that akin to a 19th-century “pianist-composer.” The CD is comprised of original material written over a 24- year period, featuring 12 Etudes in all the minor keys, Little Nocturne, five movements from a set of pieces titled Con intimissimo sentimento, and finally, a Theme and Variations.

Of the twelve études, eight are based on works by other composers, along the lines of Godowsky’s re-creations of the 24 Études by Chopin. For example, the first in the set, written in 1992, is based on the Chopin Étude Op.10 No.2, while the third is a clear adaptation of the famous Liszt-Paganini étude La Campanella – but very much taken a step further! These pieces are breathtaking in their virtuosity – amateur pianists such as myself can only marvel at the brilliant technique displayed here, which at the same time demonstrates such subtle nuances of tone and colour. The Little Nocturne from 2007 provides a languorous contrast to the pyrotechnics of the études, while the pieces from Con intimissimo sentimento are quietly introspective, showing a wholly different side to Hamelin’s creative style. Over the years, more than a handful of composers have written music expressing their love for a “significant other” and Hamelin is no exception. His Theme and Variations (“Cathy’s Variations”) is a poetic and intimate love-song honouring his fiancée Cathy Fuller.

For anyone who is sceptical about “pianists who compose” this disc is a highly worthy addition to the catalogue. We were always aware of Mr. Hamelin’s supreme gifts at the keyboard, but now he has now shown us another dimension of his talents.

03_mack_imprintsImprints - Music by Colin Mack

Various Artists

CanSona Arts Media CAM 09001 (www.cansona.com)

This 25 year retrospective disc presents profiles of Ottawa composer Colin Mack in chamber music, songs and solo piano pieces. Mack has a confident ear, writes sensitively and idiomatically for instruments and voice, and creates arresting moments. Performances are distinguished throughout.

The atonal Starry Night for piano is particularly successful. Beautiful handling of the instrument’s resources seems to evoke not only stars but supernovas, constellations, and more mysterious astronomical phenomena. The 12-part structure derived from the signs of the zodiac is reflected in a variety of contrasting sections, clearly delineated in the convincing performance by Shoshana Telner.

The modest Piano Trio: In Memoriam Dimitri Shostakovich is an apt tribute. Only settings of Gwendolyn MacEwen poems in Shadow-Maker disappoint, despite their moving performance by soprano Doreen Taylor-Claxton. For example Dark Pines is more than a nature poem. It turns an iconic Canadian image upside down, suggesting hidden depths, dark and dangerous. Here Mack’s conventional tonal language feels too timid for MacEwen’s mystical depth and ironic bite.

But Winterseen for flute, percussion, and piano, ably performed by Robert Cram, John Wong, and Claudia Cashin-Mack, makes a fine conclusion to the disc. Evocative vibraphone writing begins a transformation: from winter to spring. Jazz-accented gestures move us forward, then magical resonances of an electronically-enhanced flute. An exciting ostinato-based conclusion enacts the bursting forth of spring’s new life. I hope that this disc will bring to listeners’ notice a composer definitely worth hearing.

04_lutoslawski_nmcLutosławski's Last Concert

Fujiko Imajishi; Valdine Anderson; New Music Concerts; Witold Lutosławski

Naxos 8.572450

The late Polish composer, Witold Lutosławski (1913-1994) enjoyed well deserved recognition and his music was regularly performed and recorded by the world’s greatest orchestras and instrumentalists. A new Naxos CD features an elite group of Toronto musicians, the New Music Concerts Ensemble, under the direction of the composer recorded at a live concert in the Premier Dance Theatre on October 24, 1993.

The program opens with the Partita for violin and orchestra (1988) with brilliant playing by Fujiko Imajishi. Lutosławski’s complex textures are made transparent by both the crisp ensemble and a well balanced recording. The quiet and haunting Interlude (1989) was written as a bridge between Partita and an earlier concerted work for violin, Chain 2 (1985), which follows. Once again Imajishi provides a stunning performance.

Soprano Valdine Anderson also shines as she easily manages the nine delightful and quirky songs comprising Chantefleurs et Chantefables (1990) in a voice ranging from the purity of a boy soprano to broad operatic proportions.

Like Chain 2, Chain 1 (1983), the final work on this disc, is an amusing piece full of vitality and humour, somewhat reminiscent of Poulenc or even Stravinsky, executed to perfection by members of the group.

Lutosławski died at the age of 81 a few months after this concert was recorded for broadcast by the CBC and this Toronto performance was his last conducting appearance anywhere. The recording has plenty of atmosphere, taking the listener right into the theatre. Originally released independently in 1998, it speaks well of founding director Robert Aitken and his New Music Concerts Ensemble that Naxos has chosen to bring this valuable document to international attention.

01_jon_irabagonFoxy

Jon Irabagon

Hot Cup 102 (www.joniribagon.com)

This is a thrilling album. It made the hairs stand up on my neck, with accompanying shivers. Despite listening to jazz as a regular pastime, this reaction is not common. Saxophonist Jon Irabagon, who won the 2008 Thelonious Monk competition and is clearly inspired by recordings of Sonny Rollins trios (remember Way Out West? ), leads a powerful threesome through what’s basically a 78-minute solo whose 11 “tune” titles merely indicate different approaches taken by his tenor horn to the standard 16-bar form. It starts with a roar and charges relentlessly from there, backed by furious drum assaults courtesy of Barry Altschul and muscular bass from Peter Brendler. It’s a swaggering, avant-garde outing that doesn’t rely on honks and squeals but could recall full bore Dexter Gordon or Johnny Griffin. This unflagging, exuberant long form improv is all high energy, suggesting origins in hard bop, swing and the blues. Irabagon, who plays differently and delightfully outside this studio context, isn’t breaking new ground save in solo magnitude, but he has certainly created an astonishing tour de force that underscores the spontaneity that’s at the heart of jazz. It’s exhausting to hear but it’s also exhilarating. Experiencing it deserves an accompanying T-shirt!

02_keith_roweAdditional Notes

Martin Küchen; Keith Rowe; Seymour Wright

Another Timbre at29 (www.anothertimbre.com)

About the furthest sonic distance that can be imagined from a standard guitar and two saxophones CD, this noteworthy session is mostly concerned with the matchless musical magnificence that can result from the juxtaposition of unique and unexpected timbres.

British guitarist Keith Rowe, who appears at the Music Gallery on November 30 in the company of two different, string-playing sound explorers, has for years been investigating the possibilities of the electric table-top guitar prepared with add-ons and gizmos. What he does here with dual alto saxophonists Martin Küchen and Seymour Wright is subvert the expected sound of his instrument – and theirs. Radiating outwards an inchoate collection of broken chords, ratcheting strings and grinding friction, he alternately supplements or showcases the saxophonists’ tongue-stopped squeaks and shrills. Snatches of static-laden music or verbal phrases he serendipitously locates on an affiliated short-wave radio help convert this one improvisation into a constantly surprising, layered narrative, replete with concentrated drones and pulsed timbral flutters.

A climax of sorts occurs after three-quarters of the journey, when a sudden burst of sampled pop-rock guitar excess is swiftly burlesqued by Rowe’s string scraping and intermittent, reverberating distortions. This is followed by watery multiphonic runs from one reed player and a steady, unaccented line from the other. Ring modulator-like clangs eventually prod tightened saxophone breaths to expand into mouthpiece oscillations and a final, cumulative dissolving drone. Despite the title, there is no need for additional musical notes.

03_60_improvisasionsVarious Artists

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

02_andrew_rathbun

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

03_barry_romberg

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

04_herriott_harkness

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

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

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

02_ox_arcana

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

03_bacalhau

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

04_kath_ladano

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

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

01_tango_borealTango Boreal

Denis Plante; David Jacques; Ian Simpson

ATMA ACD2 2661

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

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

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

 

02_adi_braunCanadian Scenes 1

Adi Braun

Independent (www.adibraun.com)

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

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

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

03_serenityA Touch of Serenity

Ensemble Chiaroscuro

Independent HAP3781 (www.theflutestudio.ca)

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

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

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

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

Jamie Thompson

Independent UFPCD001 (www.urbanfluteproject.com)

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

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

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

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

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

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

02_klemperer

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

hellmerGrowing with Canada: The Émigré Tradition in Canadian Music

By Paul Helmer

McGill-Queen’s University Press

400 pages; $29.95

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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