06 Sun of GoldfingerSun of Goldfinger
David Torn
ECM 2613 773 1919 (ecmrecords.com)

David Torn has had an extensive career as guitarist, film composer and record producer, ranging from work with the Nordic-cool saxophonist Jan Garbarek to projects with David Bowie. Torn has also worked extensively with alto saxophonist Tim Berne, whose heated New York free jazz may seem at odds with some of Torn’s abstract cool. In this latest work, however, the association makes perfect sense.

Torn is a master of looping, constructing artificial orchestras with compound ostinatos, orchestral chords and percussion. There are three long works here, ranging from 22:10 to 23:55. The opening and closing pieces, Eye Meddle and Soften the Blow, began as trio improvisations with Berne and drummer Ches Smith (the three now performing as Sun of Goldfinger), with Smith and Torn both making extensive use of electronics while still playing percussion and guitar. Torn has then taken the materials into the studio, editing, mixing and multiplying the improvisations. Ultimately, they’re layered assemblages, the looping expanding and cooling Berne’s role, merging his micro-variations with literal repetition. The music retains its expressionist quality while becoming increasingly trance-like, creating musical worlds at once akin to those of Ornette Coleman and Terry Riley.

The work grows more allusive in the central piece, Spartan, Before It Hit, a Torn composition that supplements the trio with a string quartet, two more guitarists and keyboard player Craig Taborn. Sometimes creating thin washes of sound, it clarifies and broadens Torn’s textures while retaining their fundamental mystery.

07 John HewardQuintet
John Heward
Mode/Avant 19 (moderecords.com)

A fitting memorial for Montreal visual artist John Heward (1934-2018), who was as proficient in free music as in painting and sculpture, this 2014 77-minute improvisation shows how his sensitive and sophisticated approach applied proper percussion accents without bluster. Veteran American improvisers, bassist Barre Phillips and alto/soprano saxophonist Joe McPhee plus locals, bass clarinetist Lori Freedman and pianist Dana Reason are featured with no thought of hierarchy and ample space for each.

Matched in flutter tonguing, trilling or excavating basso tones from their instruments, the reed players are frequently involved in interchanges or doubling with either the bassist or pianist. Showcased on Improvisation 1 though, there’s no mistaking Freedman’s snorts or top-of-range squeals for McPhee’s shaded vibrations, even in altissimo mode. Often setting up sequences, Phillips’ angled bow strokes or measured pizzicato runs seem to always find the sweet spot between efficiency and encouragement. Meanwhile Reason’s feature on Improvisation 3, backed by brooding double-bass lines and drum rat-tat-tats, reveals a stylist whose methodical chromatic comping doesn’t stop her from challenging moody soprano saxophone vibrations with rubato cross pulses and inner piano-string scratches.

Unfazed by whatever sound challenges are posed, Heward reacts like a cultivated artist. For instance, he extends McPhee’s pinched soprano tones with patterning paradiddles to achieve the proper colour balance; or elsewhere adds a martial beat to physically shape Freedman’s octave jumps to proper angles. Quintet posits that Heward may be remembered as much for his music as for his art.

08 Krik KnuffkeWitness
Kirk Knuffke; Steven Herring
Steeplechase SCCD 31859 (steeplechase.dk)

Shredding conventions, jazz cornetist Kirk Knuffke teams up with classically trained baritone Steven Herring for off-the-wall performances that range from operatic classics and spirituals, to poetry set to music, and standards. Raising the idiosyncratic interpretation stakes still higher, other accompaniment is from the patterning of Russ Lossing’s piano and the gruff oom pah pah of Ben Goldberg’s contra alto clarinet. Remarkably most of the transitions work.

Unsurprisingly Herring aces the declarative nuances of Iago’s Credo and Questo Amor with studied formalism. But his creativity isn’t solipsistic. Goldberg’s stentorian puffs and Knuffke’s capillary peeps match operatic chortles on the former. Meanwhile the amorous exposition on the latter owes as much to plunger brass notes and seductive piano chords as to ebullient vocalizing. Witness, A City Called Heaven and other traditional religious songs fare as well. However, mellow horn parts and broad melodic sweeps from the pianist on Witness, as well as carefully modulated vamps from all the instrumentalists, produce subtle swing on both tunes, leaving the emotion to Herring. The baritone’s parlando serves him appropriately when Knuffke’s musical setting of Carl Sandburg’s Subway is transformed into song. But the recitation is mated with the cornetist’s passionate grace notes to reach its goal. In fact, the only miscue is Sun Ra’s The Satellites are Spinning. While clarinet snarls and cornet blats enliven it, the vocalist’s theatrical declarations miss its sardonic and humorous aspects. Witness works wonderfully as long as the musical alterations remain down to earth.

01 Paul GreenPaul Green – A Bissel Rhythm
Paul Green & Two Worlds
Big Round Records br8955 (bigroundrecords.com) 

I was more than a bissel (Yiddish for “little”) tickled to see A Bissel Rhythm on the list of available CDs for review this month. For starters, being an unabashed lover of Yiddish, the title alone put a smile on my face. And it stayed there as I made my way through clarinetist Paul Green’s lively and engaging exploration of that most natural of fusions: the coming together of the distinct, yet equally soul-stirring styles of Jewish music and jazz.

While this is Green’s second recorded foray into the world of Jewish/jazz fusion, it is his first as composer. Green and his aptly named band, Two Worlds, perform his eight original tracks with tremendous skill, warmth and verve; it is clear they are having a lot of fun, too!

In A Bissel Rhythm, a standard jazz structure collides with a freilach; a New Orleans funeral meets a klezmer doina; the Jewish misheberach scale snakes its way around a blues. And it all works! From the joyful and virtuosic title track, and the poignant sweetness of Zoey’s Chosidl (perhaps the only time a beloved pet has been memorialized with a jazz-infused Hasidic dance), to the slinky, funky ramble of Doina and Ramble, and the waltz/ballad-like Joe’s Hurra, the album does more than simply pay homage to the two musical genres it celebrates: it wraps them in a loving embrace.

Nu? Go pour yourself a bissel schnapps and enjoy A Bissel Rhythm!

02 AKA TrioJoy
AKA Trio
bendigedig BEND14-1 (bendigedig.org) 

Coming from three continents – Europe, Africa and South America – the three virtuoso musicians of the AKA Trio have merged into the relaxed and attractive transnational musical unit we hear in the aptly titled Joy. Italian guitarist and composer Antonio Forcione has toured for over two decades, having collaborated with major musicians such as Charlie Haden, Trilok Gurtu, Angelique Kidjo and Bulgarian Voices, on the way releasing 20 albums. He brings rhythmic and tuning precision, plus a soulful expressiveness into his acoustic guitar solos on Joy’s ten tracks. Seckou Keita from Senegal, among the world’s foremost kora players, has variously been dubbed “the Hendrix of kora,” and “the Clapton of kora.” International innovation running deep throughout his work, he has collaborated with Welsh harpist Catrin Finch and Cuban pianist Omar Sosa. Born into the Senegalese griot tradition, Keita‘s warm, flexible voice is key to the melodic and emotional charm of much of Joy. Brazilian percussionist and composer Adriano Adewale has also widely collaborated, including with Bobby McFerrin and Joanna McGregor, and includes compositions for orchestra and dance theatre in his credits. Adewale brings an easy and timbrally rich percussive energy to Joy, always tasteful, never overbearing.

While Forcione, Keita and Adewale grew up in three different landscapes, speaking three different languages, formed by three different cultures and musical traditions, their musical convergence in AKA Trio is so unforced as to appear inevitable. I predict their polished arrangements will be a hit on the international world music circuit.

03 Rafael ZaldivarConsecration
Rafael Zaldivar
Effendi Records FND153 (naxosdirect.com) 

Since moving from his native Camagüey, Cuba to Montreal in the mid-2000s, pianist Rafael Zaldivar has established himself as one of Canada’s top Afro-Cuban musicians. His latest album, Consecration, released on March 15 through Effendi Records, is a celebration of Zaldivar’s Yoruba spirituality, as well as a showcase for his multifaceted musicianship: Consecration deftly blends the pianist’s Afro-Cuban musical heritage with modern jazz, fusion and classical musics. Zaldivar is joined on Consecration by electric bassist Rémi-Jean LeBlanc, upright bassist David Gagné, vocalist Mireille Boily, percussionist/vocalist Amado Dedeu Jr., conguero Eugenio Osorio and drummer Michel Medrano.

Consecration begins with A Rock con Leche, which effectively sets the pace for the album that follows: after an evocative introduction of chanting and far-off, reverb-soaked whistling, it quickly shifts into a hard-driving groove, with drums and percussion providing a strong pulse under Zaldivar’s synth solo. Afro-Cuban Warriors follows a similar trajectory, as an insistent choir of voices introduces the thunderous song and weaves throughout the rest of the piece. When I Think of You and Simple Talking both feature Boily singing wordless melodies, and are amongst Consecration’s gentler pieces, as is Rezos, which features Zaldivar alone at the piano.

Consecration is an intriguing, creative album that recalls the work of musicians such as Michel Camilo and Luciana Souza, but it stands uniquely on its own, in no small part due to Zaldivar’s unique approach to integrating a multiplicity of voices into his compositions.

04 A Good ThingA Good Thing
Blue Standard
Big Time Records BTRCD-007 (downinthevalley.com) 

It does not take much to become entranced by this disarmingly natural and eloquent performance by the duo that calls itself Blue Standard. Both vocalist Raoul Bhaneja and pianist Jesse Whiteley bring out the music’s inherent drama with deeply felt emotion (in the case of the vocals) and deft touch (in the case of the pianist) together indulging each other’s lyrical and storytelling instincts to the full. Bhaneja brings élan, intelligence and passionate engagement to these performances throughout A Good Thing. For his part, Whiteley is an immaculate accompanist, showing a particularly clean set of fingers in the dashing virtuosity of every song on the disc.

Bhaneja’s enunciation of the lyrics is funded by a deep understanding of the characters in the stories told in song. He expresses the myriad of emotions behind the phrases in each song with clarity and precision so that each imaginative speculation is based as much on intuition as on reason. This naturally ensures that the lyrics are imbued with both musical conviction and beauty of tone. Meanwhile, Whiteley too, sniffs out all of the music’s detail, expressing each in a manner thoroughly deserving of his virtuosic attention. The result is an energizing and colouristic invocation of the piano’s full melodic and harmonic potential by someone who participates equally in the creativity of this session. For this reason even an old song, like LOVE for instance, sounds as if it were newly minted.

05 13goDomestic Tranquility
13go
Independent (13gomusic.com)

The album’s title comes from the Preamble to the US Constitution which is an ambitious document tying together several political and philosophical imperatives. This album is also ambitious and brings together musicians from Canada (Aubrey Dayle, drummer and composer), Kim Ratcliffe (guitarist, miscellaneous strings and composer), Uganda (Ian de Souza, bass), and the USA (Vernon Reid, guitar on selected tracks).

Although the group’s CDBaby page describes the album as “guitar fusion music,” the first few songs demonstrate more varied sounds and textures. Boogie Down 1 is exactly what the title advertises, a solid groove with some nicely phased guitar lines and simple melodies that create and release tension. How Much Longer is faster, more intense and with some wicked guitar from both Ratcliffe and Reid and more complex drumming. Pointe-Claire is a softer and more lyrical homage to the town where Dayle grew up and Eleanor Rigby is a solid cover that combines tasteful playing with a very laid-back sense of time.

The other tracks include some spoken word segments ending with Boogie Down 2, which is very ska-influenced, and There’s Three Little Girls at the Window, a whimsical Ratcliffe composition with mandolin as the primary instrument, which is calming and definitely tranquil.

The album has a nice pacing, contrasting edgy fusion pieces with softer, more introspective works, which encourages a sustained listening experience.

Listen to 'Domestic Tranquility' Now in the Listening Room

As difficult as the idea of creating sophisticated improvisational music may sometimes seem, even more fraught with challenges is finding the inspiration behind any improvisation. Creation may be singular or involve ensembles of varying size, while the influence or incentive for the work may result from examining a work of art, an historical action, a physical or spatial location or even a realized sonic concept. Each of these notable discs defines inspirations in a unique fashion.

01 Blood HwangTake American violinist Jason Kao Hwang’s Blood (True Sound Recordings TS1 jasonkaohwang.com). His eight-member Burning Bridge ensemble mixes Eastern (pipa and erhu) and Western (three brass, double bass and drums) instruments on five of Hwang’s polychromatic compositions which make their points by twisting varied musical strands, but without trading efficiency for exoticism. Although reflecting on trauma inflicted on his mother in China and his associates in the Vietnam War, Blood isn’t agitprop. Instead, melancholy and aggression are portrayed through sounds. For instance, on the title track, stop-time counterpoint from Steve Swell’s trombone projecting from a bellicose march driven by Andrew Drury’s drums cedes space to delicate textures from Wang Guowei’s erhu and Sun Li’s pipa. Although the concluding Declarations references and resolves the CD with a peaceful overlay consisting of chromatic pipa strums plus pedal-point modulations from Swell and tubist Joseph Daley, theatrical woe is balanced by sophisticated virtuosity. Giving the Asian instruments parts that unselfconsciously swing, some of Hwang’s other tunes skip and soar with lively inferences. The two-part Surge for example, finds string parts swirling around Taylor Ho Bynum’s graceful, kinetic cornet, and if Hwang’s violin solo impresses with calculated flying spiccato then so do Li’s crunching strums with a blues sensibility closer to the Mississippi river than the Yangtze. Surge Part 2 is more memorable, since not only does Daley confirm his breath control as he matter-of-factly slides from basso-like to sopranino-like tones, but the composition’s uniqueness is confirmed when Hwang’s bluesy sweeps and Swell’s plunger yelps erupt from within a sequence that emphasizes string stretches from the traditional Chinese instruments.

02 GGRILConcerned with the realization of musical concepts, rather than reflecting tangible actions or emotions, is Façons (Microcidi 014 tourdebras.com), a two-CD set where the 20-odd members of Rimouski, Quebec-based GGRIL interpret free music tropes created specifically for the ensemble. Describing exactly his aim, Organon, by Montreal’s Isaiah Ceccarelli, aims to transform the orchestra into a gigantic pipe organ, and the inflated crescendo which introduces the piece does just that with a collection of tremolo polyrhythms and polytones making distinctive sonic colours judder every which way. As the organ-like chording intensifies however, helped by wave form pressure from GGRIL’s low-energy synthesizers, individual contributions such as Alexandre Robichaud’s trumpet slurps, undulating split tones from all four reedists, plus bell clangs and glockenspiel smacks from percussionist Antoine Létourneau-Berger, bring singular personalities forward. By the climactic finale, brass and reed parts retain the concentrated theme, while fissures in the form of idiosyncratic runs from the three electric guitarists, percussion and two violinists create a contrapuntal challenge. On disc two, rather than concentrated textures, London-based soprano saxophonist John Butcher, who joins the group as it plays his six-part Local Fixations, emphasizes tonal contrasts. As metallic guitar frails from Olivier D’Amours and Robert Bastien sharpen the exposition, string section modulations join with Robin Servant’s accordion vibrations to create divergent drones. By midpoint, the development divides between solo snatches of high-pitched flute echoes, reed bites and fiddle sweeps plus stop-time from the entire ensemble. An interval of triple-tongued saxophone, bowed bass and guitar plucks creates wider intervals on the penultimate Collective Memories II until cogwheel ratchets signal a hushed interval. A concluding sequence, Floating Amphora emphasizes sul ponticello string bowing, mechanized thumps, cawing brass and reed cries as well as tough rebounds from Éric Normand’s electric bass; a final orchestral tutti sways into conclusive snorts from Gabriel Rochette-Bériau’s trombone and Mathieu Gosselin’s baritone saxophone that blur the disparate timbres into a distinctive finale.

03 Ulrich MitzlaffShrinking the personnel down to one and the inspiration to description, is Lisbon-based cellist Ulrich Mitzlaff’s Sonic Miniatures about Edvard Munch’s “The Scream” (Creative Sources CS 531 CD creativesources.com), During ten brief tracks, Mitzlaff’s cello figuratively examines the famous Norwegian painting from every perspective, using extended techniques to make each diminutive track distinctive. The most significant is Miniature #5, a multi-hued sketch in itself. Beginning with the sound of the bow clattering on the ground, it evolves to resonating pizzicato plucks advanced one at a time in ascending pitches, until aggregate stops vibrate all strings with below-the-bridge drags, and then suddenly fade to one concluding twang. Shaded differently, Miniature #9 is almost as dramatic, with speedy spiccato shuffles shading the melody as it moves at a frenetic pace, only to end with lulling timbres. Also displaying col legno pops, chamber music-like formalism, sul ponticello echoes, distinctive low pitches and strongly focused stops, the cellist doesn’t echo the message of Munch’s painting as much as create a distinctive art work of his own.

04a Ochs CleaverOriginal methods of using spatial considerations inspire two other sessions. Songs of the Wild Cave (RogueArt ROG 0084 roguart.com) was recorded in the dark and silence of a Paleolithic cave in southwestern France by Americans, saxophonist Larry Ochs and drummer Gerald Cleaver. The other CD was recorded in the Chihuahuan Desert in West Texas by American alto saxophonist Joe McPhee and tenor saxophonist John Butcher, far removed from GGRIL. Named for the massive brick sculptures constructed in the desert by a reclusive American sculptor, the improvisations on At the Hill of James Magee (Trost TR174 CD trost.at) were created as much in the desert air as inside the shale-rock structures.

On Songs of the Wild Cave though, shadowy haze masking prehistoric cave paintings and stone walls dripping moisture become part of the program as Ochs and Cleaver first tentatively and then sonorously pierce the oppressive quiet with contemporary noises. Fully acclimatized, midway through the program with a track literally titled Deeper, Ochs’ combination of glossolalia, horn shakes, reed bites and dyspeptic tones breech the opaque air to such an extent that reed cries could bring out ghosts of more than Albert Ayler. Meanwhile the drummer complements these saxophone spurts with cymbal smacks, wood pops and rebounding patterns. Adapting to the cave’s spatial qualities, by Ringing It In, the saxophonist’s harsh narrow vibrations and squealing split tones seem to be figuratively digging through the murk and the clay-encrusted walls beyond. Dispersing the cavern’s chill, the drummer performs a similar feat, warming the air with subtle tambourine and maracas-like shakes and bass-drum smacks. As the improvisations thicken on the penultimate Rooted in Clay, a quasi-melody, never previously heard in these primeval surroundings is constructed out of repeated breaths, slurs and vocalized cries, and moulded linearly with bell ringing and rattling strokes. When wide honks and inflated multiphonics bounce off the earth and rocks during the final extended Light from the Shadows, it appears as if the title’s promise is fulfilled; Cleaver’s subsequent near-bebop rhythm, decorated with intermittent saxophone peeps, confirms the sound illumination. 

04b McPhee ButcherInventively displaying meditations on a comparable structural challenge on At the Hill of James Magee, at least McPhee and Butcher had the advantage of defining their art above ground. At the same time, the opportunity to produce sounds within and outside 40-foot high edifices, made of shale with iron doors and encompassing shattered glass, rust, flowers and textile shards, is as daring as it is unique. Turning acoustics to advantage, natural amplification makes saxophone strategy stand out even more. On Mine Shaft for instance, the width of a pit is marked with circular breathing, that while touching the saxophone’s highest reaches, also relaxes into a melodic theme. Oddly, the echoes on Butcher’s Paradise Overcast, more than the previous improvisation, reflect a near-bottomless pit, as his darkened slurs and key percussion are coordinated into a rhythmic smear. Otherwise using vamps and asides to emphasize tonal differences between their horns, the duo’s most profound application of this spatial inspiration is the almost 21-minute introductory Sometimes Yes, Sometimes No. Apparently convening from opposite angles of the structures, ghostly reed tones connect in concentric circles of growls and buzzes that inflate as they deepen. The alto saxophonist’s moderated tone and the tenor saxophonist’s harsh overblowing fragment in a climatic intermezzo after which watery but lyrical timbres predominate. Individual textural variations appear before a protracted pause with a finale that balances McPhee’s narrowed tweets with dampened snarls from Butcher.

Whether rooted in cerebral hypothesis or a physical object, fascinating improvisations can have many sources. These CDs show some of the ways this happens.

01a KempffWilhelm Kempff – The Complete Schubert Recordings On Deutsche Grammophon (deutschegrammophon.com, 9 CDs + 1 Blu-ray audio disc). Wilhelm Kempff was born in Jüterbog, Germany in 1895. He grew up in Potsdam where his father was the organist at the St. Nicolai Church. His grandfather was also an organist and his brother the director of church music at the University of Erlangen. Wilhelm’s first teacher was his father; then, when he was nine, he went to the Berlin Hochschule für Musik where one of his piano teachers was Karl Heinrich Barth with whom Arthur Rubinstein also studied. His teacher for composition was Robert Kahn. Kempff would write two symphonies, piano concertos, violin concertos, four operas, chamber music and choral works. In 1914 he continued his studies at the Viktoria Gymnasium in Potsdam after which he returned to Berlin to finish his training. In 1917 he won both the Mendelssohn Prizes. By 1916 he was already recognized as one of the leading pianists of his time, especially noted as a Beethoven interpreter. His first major recital was in 1917 playing predominantly major works including Beethoven’s Hammerklavier Sonata and Brahms Variations on a theme of Paganini. From 1924 to 1929 he was director of music at the Hochschule für Musik in Stuttgart. From then he devoted himself to concert appearances throughout the world. He was so well received in Japan that, it is said, they named an island for him, Kenpu-san. His first recital there was in 1936, returning frequently until 1979. Kempff made his first London appearance in 1951 and his New York debut in 1964. He gave his last public performance in Paris in 1981, retiring for health reasons (Parkinson’s disease), dying in Positano in 1991.

In 1934/1935 Kempff made his first Schubert recordings. With the exception of a 1935 recording of Liszt’s cute arrangement of Schubert’s Stänchen D889, here only on CD, his complete Schubert recordings from DG are also contained on the single Blu-Ray audio disc in immaculate sound. Included are every one of the piano sonatas plus these no lesser works: six Moments Musicaux, D780; four Impromptus D899; four Impromptus D935; “Wanderer” Fantasy in C major D760; Three Piano Pieces D946; Andante in A Major D604; Allegretto in C Minor D915; Scherzo in B-flat Major D593 No.1, and finally his last Schubert recording for DG: from August 1970, 13 Variations on a Theme in A Minor by Anselm Hüttenbrenner D576.

From the very first sonata to be heard in this welcome assembly of Kempff performances, it is clear that this pianist was a natural Schubertian who understood and projected the composer’s thoughts beyond the printed score.

01b KempffA new CD from SWR Classic contains an in-concert recording of a piano recital from the 1962 Schwetzinger Festspiel with Wilhelm Kempff playing in the Schwetzingen Schloss (SWR 19412). The program consists of short pieces by Rameau, Couperin, Handel, Beethoven and Schubert’s Piano Sonata, D845. Poetic repertoire and pleasingly charming.

02 Cello SonatasBridge Records has reissued an album produced in association with the Musical Heritage Society for the Walter Fund Prize for Young Concert Artists first published in 1989 recorded at the SUNY Purchase Recital Hall. The artists involved are cellist Marcy Rosen and pianist Susan Walters playing Cello Sonatas of Richard Strauss and Edvard Grieg (Bridge CD 9512 bridgerecords.com).

Marcy Rosen has a high profile among concertgoers in the United States, Canada, England, Italy, France and The Netherlands. She was born in Phoenix, Arizona and her teachers include Marcus Adeney, Felix Galimir and Sándor Végh. She has collaborated with a who’s who of luminaries including Leon Fleisher, Richard Goode, Mitsuko Uchida, Isaac Stern, Robert Mann, Sandor Végh, Kim Kashkashian and the list goes on. She is currently Professor of Cello at the Aaron Copeland School of Music at Queens College.

Susan Walters studied piano at the Curtis Institute and the Mannes College of music. She joined the New York City Ballet as a solo pianist in 1997 and has performed many important piano solos with the company. She performs outside the ballet with renowned artists including Midori, Mendelssohn Quartet, Orpheus Chamber Ensemble and with members of the New York Philharmonic. She works regularly with Jacques d’Amboise at the National Dance Institute. Walters is on the faculty at the Mannes College of Music in NYC. She is to be heard on recordings from the major studios including Bis, DG, Sony, Philips, Koch and others.

Together these two are a superlative chamber music team. Rosen is in perfect command of her instrument. Her playing has a beautiful singing quality and Walters’ piano is sensitive to it. Together their music making flows spontaneously. With such harmonious playing our attention is on the music, not the players. Such a pleasure. Some credit must go to the engineers who perfectly balanced the two instruments.

03 BohmBack in the days of 78 rpm discs the pieces that took only one or two sides were the backbone of the industry. Recordings in the classical field of an overture, a waltz, an intermezzo, etc. were all safe bets to release just about anywhere. In Europe, Electrola was the company and their recordings were issued worldwide on HMV and their affiliates. In April 1935 Electrola made their first studio recording with the Saxon State Orchestra (Staatskapelle Dresden) conducted by their recently appointed (in 1933), 38-year-old conductor, Karl Böhm. Those two recordings of ballet music from Undine and the Clog Dance from Zar und Zimmermann, in remarkably fine sound, are included in a 2CD set of recordings from 1935 and 1938-39 of Overtures and Entertaining Concert Pieces (Profil PH18035 naxosdirect.com) all recorded in the Semperoper in Dresden. There are 24 tracks including overtures to Die Fledermaus; The Marriage of Figaro; The Abduction from the Seraglio; Leonore 3; Egmont; Der Freischütz; Aida (prelude); Oberon; Donna Diana and The Bartered Bride. Other pieces include the Interlude Music from A Thousand and One Nights; Eine Kleine Nachtmusik; two Hungarian Dances by Brahms; the Rákóczy March; the Emperor Waltz and other lollipops including a truncated version of Capriccio Italien. Dazzling would be the right word to rate the sound on these transfers. Not one quibble about the performances. 

Some of my favourite memories are from road trips taken with my dear friend André Leduc. We met in the lobby of Jane Mallett Theatre at the intermission of an Esprit Orchestra concert sometime in the mid-1980s. I was already well versed in the 20th-century canon, and was quickly drawn to the outgoing personality of this musical naïf whose curiosity about the subject seemed boundless. I told him about my radio show Transfigured Night on CKLN-FM and he told me about his work as a commercial photographer. We became fast friends and later travelling companions. Our journeys most often have contemporary music at their heart – Montreal for the founding of the Canadian Electroacoustic Community, Ottawa for QuartetFest, Montreal again (and again) for a number of festivals and conventions – although our trip to Quebec City and on up the north shore to Sainte-Anne-de-Beaupré and beyond to see the arrival of the snow geese, was strictly a pleasure outing as I recall. But there is always an aspect of modern art involved too, with gallery visits an integral part of our adventures. One memorable trip around the turn of the new millennium combined these two shared loves in a most wonderful way. The timing of our visit to Montreal on that occasion coincided with a retrospective tribute at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts to Jean-Paul Riopelle who had died earlier that year, and a concert by Quatuor Molinari featuring one of our shared favourites of the genre, Lutosławski’s String Quartet.

Guido Molinari. Photo by André Leduc.An unintended highlight of that trip was meeting the artist who was the namesake of the quartet, Guido Molinari and spending time in his studio. This was at the instigation of founding first violinist Olga Ranzenhofer who, charmed by my friend, encouraged us to “give Guido a call” when she found out our interest in contemporary visual art. We did, and found him to be a most amiable host, generous with his time so long as we were willing to wait while he put a few more brush strokes on “before the paint dries.” That is when André took the photo seen here of Molinari at his work bench. On many of our trips, and during two decades as photographer for New Music Concerts before retiring, André captured some of the most significant musical voices of our time. You can find his book of Canadian composer portraits, Composers In My Lens, at musiccentre.ca/node/144800.

01bMolinari QuartetI believe it is safe to say that the Molinari String Quartet is the most active chamber ensemble in Canada devoted almost exclusively to the performance and propagation of contemporary music. They have just released their 13th disc on the ATMA label, as well as having contributed to portrait recordings of Jim Hiscott and Otto Joachim over the years. In addition, the Molinaris have been a prime factor in the development of the genre by hosting, since 2002, a biennial international string quartet competition for composers under the age of 40. Three of their ATMA discs have been devoted to early laureates of the competition.

Their most recent release, following discs of music by international luminaries Gubaidulina, Kurtág and Schnittke, features four works written between 1988 and 1996 by American John Zorn (ATMA ADC2 2774 atmaclassique.com/En). The disc begins with what has become Zorn’s most frequently performed work, Cat O’ Nine Tails, a pastiche often reminiscent of a Roadrunner cartoon. Although in one movement, it is constructed of many brief fragments, in the words of Ranzenhofer: “By turns sparkling or gritty, virtuoso improvisations, musical allusions, harmonic sequences and sonic mash-ups – all these components freely combine in this dazzling, disconcerting and droll work.” Zorn himself suggests that the next work, The Dead Man, is “like the soundtrack of a sordid and sadomasochistic film set in a gloomy New York or Tokyo basement.” Although divided into 13 movements, again they are brief fragments ranging from 20 to 90 seconds, juxtaposing wild mood swings.

The final two works are much darker. Momento Mori is presented as an emotional autobiography composed in 1992 and is dedicated to Zorn’s longtime collaborator Ikue Mori. At 27 minutes it is by far the most substantial work on offer here. While it too juxtaposes a plethora of moods, from meditative repose to extraordinary tension, there is none of the comic flamboyance of the preceding tracks. The final work, Kol Nidre, was written “in a single 30-minute burst of inspiration” according to Zorn, and Ranzenhofer says it “uses music stripped of all impure sonorities to reveal a world of inner peace.” For its seven-minute duration we are drawn into an almost medieval stasis of entirely tonal, gentle unison melody more suggestive of Arvo Pärt, or Shostakovich in his more contemplative moments, than the Zorn of the earlier works. Throughout the disc the Molinaris are superb, finding just the right balance between abrasive exuberance, virtuosic hilarity, quiet desperation and haunting beauty as required.

Listen to 'John Zorn : Chamber Music' Now in the Listening Room

One of my “trips of a lifetime” on which André did not accompany me, was a ten-day visit to Iceland in 2012 with my wife Sharon at the invitation of New Music Concerts’ colleague Robert Aitken and his late wife Marion. Of course there was music and art involved – Bob seems to know every composer and musician on the island and is also an aficionado of modern art – but also museums. Iceland seems to have a museum for everything, including expected topics like Vikings, glaciers, volcanoes and whales, but some surprising off-beat subjects as well, like punk music, herring and penises (Icelandic Phallological Museum) – we did not visit that one. It was an amazing trip in the last days of June and early July, with the sun barely disappearing below the horizon for an hour each night. Although we did not circumnavigate the island, we did travel to many of the (incredible) landmarks including Snæfellsjökull, a 700,000-year-old glacier-capped stratovolcano which was the starting point of The Journey to the Centre of the Earth in Jules Verne’s novel; Thingvellir National Park, home of Althing, the world’s first parliament which was convened there in 930 and continued on that site until 1798, and is also the meeting point of the North American and European tectonic plates which are gradually moving apart at a rate of a millimetre or two per year; a number of unbelievable waterfalls, various hot springs and geysers and the black sand beaches of Vik. Most striking was the stark, treeless landscape and the barren hillsides dotted with Iceland’s miniature horses and endless sheep. And why am I telling you all this? I believe that trip gave me the background to truly appreciate the starkness of the next disc.

02 ThoprsteinsdottirIcelandic-born cellist Sæunn Thorsteinsdóttir has just released Vernacular (Sono Luminus DSL-92229 saeunn.com/vernacular) which includes world premieres of solo works written for her by three of the current generation of Icelandic composers, and a contemporary classic by senior composer Haflidi Hallgrímsson (b.1941). Composer Hallgrímsson is a cellist in his own right (and incidentally was in the trio ICE with Robert Aitken and composer/pianist Thorkell Sigurbjörnsson during the 1970s). He composed Solitaire for solo cello in 1969 and it was his first published work, later revising it to its current form two decades later. Thorsteinsdóttir says that from the first time she played the work she felt a connection “not only to the music, but also beyond the music.” The idiomatic writing is like “playing [with Hallgrímsson’s] hands… getting to know a fellow musician in this physical way is satisfying and humbling at the same time.” After the extremes of the first three pieces on the disc, Solitaire is a welcome relief. A five-movement work, it opens with Oration employing simultaneous left-hand pizzicato beneath a soaring bowed melody. Serenade is played entirely without the bow while the central Nocturne is richly melodic in a meditative way. This is followed by a Dirge which the composer says “is lyrical in nature and hints at darker thoughts, leading eventually to the last movement which is a lively and energetic Jig.” This performance makes clear why Solitaire is regarded as a seminal and significant exploration of “the sound world… available to the contemporary cellist,” at least as perceived in 1969.

As mentioned, the recent works on this recording explore more extreme notions. The disc begins with Páll Ragnar Pálsson (b.1977), a rock musician who has recently come to the world of art music. He studied with Helena Tulve at the Estonian Academy of Music where he received a PhD and in 2017 released his first album as a composer. In 2018 his Quake for solo cello and chamber orchestra was a selected work at the International Rostrum of Composers in Budapest, which marked his first collaboration with compatriot Thorsteinsdóttir. The solo work Afterquake is a direct outgrowth of that project. This is followed by 48 Images of the Moon by Thurídur Jónsdóttir (b.1967), which combines solo cello with quiet natural sounds from a field recording made at night in an Icelandic fjord by Magnús Bergsson. The entire piece takes place in barely audible gestures with only a rare pizzicato pop rising above the field. Halldór Smárason (b.1989) contributes a three-movement work simply titled O. Thorsteinsdóttir tells us that “In Iceland, darkness in the winter months has created a need for light and warmth for centuries, and candles continue to be a source for both. This piece explores the meaning and associations with the intimacy, warmth, and the wild yet contained energy of the light of the candle and its effect on the darkness surrounding it.” As effective as this depiction is, it only makes me the more content to have visited Iceland during the days of the midnight sun. 

03 Elinor Frey Guided by VoicesThis month’s final disc also contains new works for solo cello, but with a very different premise. Guided by Voices – New Music for Baroque Cello (Analekta AN 2 9162 analekta.com/en/) features works written for Elinor Frey. Frey, an accomplished cellist comfortable in the music of all eras but particularly known for her early music acumen, says: “When modern composers write a new piece for ‘Baroque’ cello it becomes an instrument of today, helping to expand the sound worlds of both the cello and new music audiences.” The breadth of vision and diversity of voices represented here certainly support this. Scott Edward Godin’s piece, which gives the album its title, “draws inspiration from the life and oeuvre of Saint Hildegard of Bingen, […and] exploits the obsessiveness found within recurring melodic units of Hildegard’s music, deconstructing these units before reconstructing them in a new musical framework.” Those familiar with Hildegard’s long, sustained melodies may be surprised by the level of activity in Godin’s creation, but strains of her melodies do peek through the busyness.

Minerva, says composer Lisa Streich “imagines a goddess who, almost like an octopus, helps with or stands for many things at once – a goddess of everything. She reminds me of the human being of the future, a human fully endowed with equal rights, who, according to Global Gender Gap Reports, should exist in 217 years.” Frey dedicates her project to Maxime McKinley with gratitude for his “humour and kindness.” McKinley’s own contribution, Cortile di Pilato, was inspired by a courtyard in Bologna surrounded by the Basilica of Santo Stefano, a complex of four churches built on a foundation begun in the fifth century that was itself built on a temple dedicated to the Egyptian goddess Isis. He says: “I was interested in the ‘copresence’ of different epochs in the same place that create a thread among many centuries. This pleased me, particularly when writing a piece for Baroque cello and harpsichord.” For this performance Frey is joined by Mélisande McNabney.

Like the McKinley, Linda Catlin Smith’s Ricercar was commissioned with the support of Toronto philanthropist, the late Daniel Cooper. It is perhaps the most “Baroque” of the pieces on offer here; played with little or no vibrato, the melody gently unfolds and grows. But gradually it expands through other sound worlds as the melody is supported by double and triple stops that produce some close harmonies, some wide interval jumps and, toward the middle of the piece, a driving rhythmic pulse. This eventually gives way to a quiet section before building dramatically again and receding once more. Ken Ueno says Chimera “is a kind of meta-suite in five movements, one that traverses time. Starting with a contemporary recasting of a prelude, the following movements gradually approach a ghost of the Baroque.” Frey seems at home in all the realms this journey presents her with, be it just intonation, microtonality, hectic virtuosity or stasis. It is our good fortune to accompany her.

We invite submissions. CDs and comments should be sent to: DISCoveries, WholeNote Media Inc., The Centre for Social Innovation, 503 – 720 Bathurst St. Toronto ON M5S 2R4.

David Olds, DISCoveries Editor
discoveries@thewholenote.com

01 Matthew LipmanAscent is the first solo album by the 26-year-old American violist Matthew Lipman, and also marks his debut on the Cedille Records label (CDR 90000 184 cedillerecords.org). He is accompanied by his regular duo partner, American pianist Henry Kramer. The creative process behind the CD started when Lipman asked American composer Clarice Assad to write a fantasy piece for viola and piano in memory of his mother. Lipman chose the Ascent title to describe the album’s music and “the upward movement that happens throughout life and after.”

The opening track is the Phantasy for Viola and Piano Op.54 from 1914 by the English composer York Bowen. It’s a simply gorgeous work which perfectly showcases the warmth, lightness and agility of Lipman’s playing as well as the top-notch contribution from Kramer. The standard never drops throughout the world premiere recording of Assad’s two-part Metamorfose or Robert Schumann’s four Märchenbilder Op.113.

Fuga libre by the Irish violist and composer Garth Knox is the only solo viola work on the CD. Written in 2008 for the Tokyo International Viola Competition, it uses some really interesting effects, including quite fascinating harmonic glissandi.

Shostakovich’s very brief (at 1:56) Impromptu for Viola and Piano Op.33, written in 1931 but not discovered until 2017, is another world premiere recording, Lipman having managed to obtain a pre-publication transcript of the score from the DSCH Publishing House. A viola arrangement of Franz Waxman’s virtuosic Carmen Fantasie brings an outstanding CD to a close, Lipman’s flawless technique, beautiful tone and consummate musicianship making for viola playing as fine as any you will hear. 

02 Vierne FranckIt’s difficult to think of a more exciting duo than violinist Alina Ibragimova and her long-time pianist partner Cédric Tiberghien. Their 3-CD live recital set of the complete Beethoven violin sonatas contained some electrifying performances, and they bring the same level of playing to their latest CD, Vierne & Franck: Violin Sonatas, a recital of works that pay homage in their own ways to 19th-century musical thinking, their fairly dense textures and serious nature being qualities that would be rejected in post-WWI Paris (Hyperion CDA68204 hyperion-records.co.uk).

The Poème élégiaque Op.12 by Eugène Ysaÿe opens the CD – and what an opening it is! Published in the piano version in 1893 and the first of Ysaÿe’s nine Poèmes for string instruments and orchestra, it was inspired by the death and funeral scenes from Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet and employs scordatura tuning for darker colour, the low G string being tuned down to F. It’s a rhapsodic, passionate work that perfectly showcases this duo’s strengths: tone, nuance, intelligence, passion, commitment, and flawless technical assurance.

César Franck’s Violin Sonata in A Major was written in 1886 as a wedding present for Ysaÿe; it’s been popular for so long that hearing it again is like revisiting an old and treasured friend, and the visit here is a truly lovely one. The connections between the works on the disc continue with Louis Vierne’s outstanding Violin Sonata in G Minor Op.23. Vierne was a pupil of Franck, and this sonata was written at Ysaÿe’s request and premiered by him in 1908. It’s a sweeping work much in the style of the Franck, and deserves to be much better known.

The brief Nocturne from 1911 by the 18-year-old Lili Boulanger, Nadia’s younger sister, acts as a light dessert after the richness that has preceded it, and ends a CD of music-making of the highest order.

03 ShostKab CDWhenever there’s another CD from the always wonderful Steven Isserlis in the new releases, you just know you’re in for something special, and so it proves yet again with Shostakovich & Kabalevsky Cello Sonatas, Isserlis being joined by his recital partner of over 30 years, pianist Olli Mustonen (Hyperion CDA68239 hyperion-records.co.uk).

The Shostakovich Sonata in D Minor Op.40, written in 1934 when the composer was in his late 20s, sets the tone for the whole CD, Isserlis displaying his usual full-blooded and passionate, yet always sensitive and musically intelligent playing, especially in the opening movement and the fiendish and demonic second. Mustonen is his equal in every respect.

Prokofiev’s Ballade in C Major Op.15 is an early work from 1912 when the composer was only 21; it is essentially in two halves, Prokofiev referring to it as “similar in form to a sonata in two movements.”

There’s no doubting the strength and quality of Kabalevsky’s Sonata in B-flat major Op.71, written for Rostropovich in 1962. Isserlis notes that this is a work that should really be heard more often, and his performance here makes an even stronger case.

Three short works round out the CD. Shostakovich’s brief (at 2:31) Moderato was only published in 1986 after being discovered in a Moscow archive alongside the manuscript of the Cello Sonata. It’s believed to be from the same period, but its real provenance remains unknown. Prokofiev’s Adagio – Cinderella and the Prince is a 1944 arrangement of a section from his ballet Cinderella. Kabalevsky’s Rondo in memory of Prokofiev Op.79 was the third of three test-piece Rondos he wrote for the Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow – one for piano in 1958, one for violin in 1962 and this one in 1965. It’s quite substantial, with more than a hint of Prokofiev’s music, especially the wispy “wind-in-the-graveyard” effect from the first violin sonata.

In his usual outstanding booklet notes Isserlis includes his customary exact timing references to salient points in the works, adding an extra touch of class to a simply outstanding CD.

04 Gerhardt Bach CDIn his introductory booklet notes to Bach: The Cello Suites (Hyperion CDA68261 hyperion-records.co.uk) the German cellist Alban Gerhardt reveals that, like so many others, he was reluctant to even try recording these challenging works before turning 50 – which he does this coming May. He is also aware that any recording can never be a final word.

For some time Gerhardt studied Baroque performance practice, but felt his attempts to assimilate historically informed techniques didn’t work for him, his playing sounding “neither authentic nor musically very interesting. I came to realize that just turning off the vibrato and using a sound which barely touched the surface of the string actually had very little to do with historical performance and didn’t sit well with me as a musician.”

He consequently uses vibrato “with great care and control” and aims for “a seemingly effortless articulation with as much depth to the sound as possible.” Add Gerhardt’s 1710 Matteo Gofriller cello and the results are simply beautiful. It’s a set that easily holds its own in a very competitive field.

05 Tan DunWith the BIS Super Audio CD Tan Dun: Fire Ritual – Violin Concertos we enter the distinctive sound world of the Chinese composer Tan Dun, now in his early 60s. The Norwegian violinist Eldbjørg Hemsing has been collaborating with the composer since 2010, a relationship which resulted in the creation of both of the works on the CD: the violin concertos Rhapsody and Fantasia and Fire Ritual. Tan Dun conducts the Oslo Philharmonic Orchestra (BIS-2406 bis.se).

An early version of the Rhapsody and Fantasia was originally written over a decade ago, but the work is heard here in the 2018 revision for Hemsing. The two movements, each of three parts, have their roots in ancient Peking opera melody, Tan Dun having been a conductor of a travelling Peking Opera troupe in his teens.

Fire Ritual was written for Hemsing and premiered by her in Oslo in September 2018. Subtitled A music ritual for the Victims of War, it unfolds from – and stays centred on – the single note D, using its status as “Re” on the solfège scale as a prefix meaning “again,” as in the Renewal, Resurrection, Return and Rebirth of souls who were lost in wars.

Both concertos have a similar sound, with little Western melodic (or harmonic, for that matter) material, prominent percussion sections (four players with at least 20 mainly Chinese percussion instruments) and a distinctly Chinese flavour to the solo violin writing. Hemsing is outstanding in what must be considered definitive performances.

06 Hungary TaiwanFormed in 2002 for a concert tour of Taiwan, the Formosa Quartet celebrates its members’ Taiwanese heritage on From Hungary to Taiwan, a project that pairs treatments of folk music from the two countries and explores their similarities (Bridge Records 9519 bridgerecords.com).

Dana Wilson’s Hungarian Folk Songs was commissioned by the quartet as “a sort of entrée” into Béla Bartók’s quartets. Wilson says that he tried to capture key aspects of the traditional music itself and not just write his own music inspired by it, and he certainly succeeded. The Formosa Quartet perfectly captures his remarkable folk music effects and nuances.

In Song Recollections, another work written for the group, Chinese composer Lei Liang studies Taiwan’s art, songs and people. His settings of five songs from four native tribes are mostly quiet and atmospheric, with a distinctly Chinese feel.

Béla Bartók’s String Quartet No.4 from 1928, constructed as a five-movement symmetrical arch with the Night Music slow movement at its heart, is the major work on the CD.

Another Formosa Quartet commission, Wei-Chieh Lin’s Four Taiwanese Folk Songs from 2017 ends the disc. These clearly popular and much-loved melodies, two of them written in the 1930s, are given lush, Romantic treatment, and draw rich, warm and evocative playing from the quartet.

A bonus track, Spring Breeze, is available only through an online link; it turns out to be the first of Five – not FourTaiwanese Folk Songs, so its omission from the CD is a bit odd. Still, it’s a gorgeous piece, and you can watch the quartet performing the complete set on YouTube. It’s well worth watching, and well worth a listen.

07 Juilliard QuartetThe Juilliard String Quartet has been around since 1946, and although founding first violinist Robert Mann lasted for an astonishing 51 years and two subsequent members for over 40 years each, the ensemble has had a total of 17 members during its existence. The 2017 lineup (first violin Joseph Lin left in 2018) is featured on Juilliard String Quartet: Beethoven, Davidovsky, Bartók, a CD recorded as part of the group’s 70th anniversary celebrations (Sony Classical 19075 88454 2 sonymusicmasterworks.com).

The quartet’s longstanding commitment to both the classic repertoire and new contemporary works is fully evident here. A suitably tense and energetic performance of Beethoven’s String Quartet in F Minor Op.95 “Serioso” opens the disc, and the centrepiece is Mario Davidovsky’s Fragments, String Quartet No.6 from 2016, written on a commission for the Juilliard. Davidovsky explains that the title refers to broken and scattered parts that, “moved and processed by some creative force, can aggregate to become something.” It certainly gives you a good idea of what the quite brief work sounds like as it moves from a fairly abrasive start to a more integrated ending.

A passionate and powerful performance of Bartók’s String Quartet No.1 ends the CD. It’s a work with a distinct post-Romantic feel, and no hint of the Night Music of the later quartets – more an indication of where the composer has come from than where he is going.

The playing throughout is of the exceptionally high standard we have come to expect from this ensemble. 

01 Chopin Piano Concertos COVERCharles Richard-Hamelin’s recent recording Chopin: Concertos Nos. 1 & 2 (Analekta, AN 2 9146, analekta.com/en) is an exhilarating encounter with these two items of standard repertoire. There is a freshness in this performance that owes everything to its collaborators. Kent Nagano and the OSM are deeply aware of how much Chopin has vested in the piano’s role. Their ability to morph into something purely ethereal for the slow movement of Concerto No.2 is magical. The balance and unity across the ensemble, in this and similar passages, support the piano exquisitely. So much of the piano part in this movement is in simple octaves, albeit often very ornamented and fast. Richard-Hamelin performs it with absolute fluidity, as if it were an extended keyboard recitative. The time signature seems to dissolve, leaving only a hint of anything resembling a beat as the soloist and orchestra flow toward some distant ending.

The essence of dance that is inherent in Chopin’s writing saves the pianist from a conflictual role with the orchestra. The two are instead a pair of dancers elevating the solo instrument above the ensemble. While historical criticism of these works has focused on Chopin’s weak orchestral writing, Hamelin and Nagano have delivered such a transcendent experience that the criticism seems somehow lost if not irrelevant in the overwhelming beauty of this performance.

02 Pires VogtMaria João Pires appears in a new collaboration with the London Symphony Orchestra under Bernard Haitink, Beethoven Piano Concerto No.2, Triple Concerto (LSO www.lsolive.lso.co.uk). Despite the numbering, the piano concerto is actually Beethoven’s first and much of it recalls Mozart, especially in the opening movement. But the young Beethoven is unmistakably present in the piano writing where his unique keyboard figurations are now recognized as familiar vocabulary. It’s a careful and measured performance that reveals the caution with which Beethoven wrote it. No angry rebel here, just an explorer testing the waters for the journey to come.

All this presents a considerable challenge to the performers because listeners tend to have an expectation of what Beethoven should sound like and aren’t usually prepared to hear something so Mozartean and Haydnesque. Haitink keeps the orchestra firmly in classical territory, helped by reduced instrumentation. Pires follows suit technically and stylistically but exploits every opportunity to remind us of the voice she is interpreting. The slow movement, despite its delicacy, carries an intensity that can only be Beethoven, even if it’s the young version. The final movement, however, leaves nothing to doubt. Pires plays with the lightness, clarity and impeccable phrasing that have made her career.

While the Triple Concerto offers more substance, here in a reissue featuring Gordan Nikolitch (violin), Tim Hugh (cello) and Lars Vogt (piano), the piano part was written for Beethoven’s patron and pupil, the Archduke Rudolph, and so doesn’t have quite the virtuosity of its string partners. Still, Vogt shapes every keyboard utterance into a masterful line. The recording is, in every way, a classic.

03 Ed Martin JourneysJeri-Mae G. Astolfi is a Canadian pianist working principally in the US as a performer and teacher. Her new CD, Ed Martin – Journeys (Ravello Records, RR7995, www.ravellorecords.com) demonstrates her interest and commitment to contemporary piano music. She plays three works by one of her contemporaries, American composer Ed Martin who wrote two of them specifically for her.

The major piece on the recording is the title work Journey. Laid out in 11 sections, it charts the progress of life through a range of experiences that Martin uses as his program. Astolfi’s performance of Journey makes its impact through the startling contrasts between agitated movements with titles like Vexed, Obsession and Manic and the more serene sections with names like Soul, Lament and Transcend. One of the intriguing characteristics of Martin’s music is that he doesn’t shy away from long fermatas or extended rests. Silence and decay are an effective part of his vocabulary. Astolfi surrenders completely to this language producing a performance so intense that it seems more like channelling than playing. Her entanglement with the essence of this music is absolute.

Two other works, Swirling Sky and Three Pieces for Piano, while shorter, are equally effective programmatic expressions. Martin is a composer who sees and feels things tangibly in his music and Astolfi is a ready interpreter with an undeniable affinity for his writing.

04 GlinkaInga Fiolia’s new disc Glinka – Complete Piano Works Vol.2, Dances (Grand Piano, GP 782 www.grandpianorecords.com) follows her first volume that focused on Glinka’s variations compositions. The 23 tracks are predictably brief though some are arranged in longer sets of quadrilles and contredanses.

Glinka’s place in Russian music history acknowledges his contribution to a national style that began to set Russian composers free from their cultural debt to the French, German and Italian influences of the 18th and 19th centuries. This contribution is not particularly obvious in this music, designed as it was to accompany light-hearted times in the parlours and salons of Russian society.

Fiolia is a natural performer for this genre. Something about the dance form, regardless of its origin or style, seems to draw from her a fluid response that sways with the music. Her keyboard technique makes an instant impression. She has a touch that in rapid repeats throws the hammer against the strings in a way that must challenge the double escapement action that makes it possible. She relies less on pedalling than many pianists and the result is a highly articulated clarity that respects the inner harmonies of Glinka’s writing.

05 Garlands for Steven StuckyPianist Gloria Cheng played a major role in the creation of Garlands for Steven Stucky, (Bridge, Bridge 9509, www.bridgerecords.com). She led the call for invitations to write short works of tribute in memory of the American composer who died in 2016. Over his lifetime, he wrote well over a hundred works in nearly every form and won dozens of awards. Cheng included some of Stucky’s piano music on a Grammy Award-winning 2008 recording.

The 32 compositions Cheng compiled for this tribute are very personal musical statements from Stucky’s colleagues, friends and composition students. They’re each accompanied by brief anecdotes and dedications to Stucky’s memory. What emerges from these tributes is the picture of a person who was not only a gifted and skilled composer but even more, someone remembered for his kindness and humanity. Stucky’s ability to build close rapport with anyone he met opened countless opportunities for creative collaboration, instruction and deep personal friendships. In his work with the Los Angeles Philharmonic and other orchestras, Stucky made a point of getting to know each musician personally. This direct openness accounts for much of the affection the LA Philharmonic and Essa-Pekka Salonen had for Stucky and his music. It seems fitting that Salonen’s tribute Iscrizione is the disc’s opening track.

This recording is a remarkable collection of utterances by composers old and young; ultimately, it will bring Stucky’s work to a wider audience.

06 Katarzina MusialKatarzyna Musiał’s new recording My Spanish Heart (Dux, Dux 1448, www.dux.pl) is beautifully planned with repertoire that leaves no doubt about where her cultural affections lie. “A Canadian pianist with Polish roots,” as her agent describes her, Musiał is undeniably at home with this repertoire. Whether playing Albéniz, Granados, Turina, Mompou or de Falla, she takes to the idiomatic rhythms like a flamenco dancer, delivering characteristic Spanish melodic snaps as if her keyboard had castanets.

The Danzas gitanas Op.55 by Turina are especially impressive for the atmosphere of seductive mystery in which Musiał wraps them. But the tracks of Manuel de Falla’s own piano transcriptions of his ballet music, The Three-Cornered Hat and Love the Magician are the most impressively played. In these, Musiał combines the piano’s best percussive and legato qualities to deliver a full range of orchestral effects. The entire CD is an energized performance of music for which she has a fiery passion.

07 Cliff EidelmanMichael McHale and Tom Poster appear as the two pianists in Cliff Eidelman – Symphony for Orchestra & Two Pianos and A Night in the Gallery, (EN001, www.cliffeidelman.com). Eidelman is an American composer and conductor with a lengthy and impressive career, most of it writing for film. His relatively few ventures into the world of large-scale orchestral forms include a symphonic tone poem, ballet music and similar works.

McHale and Poster perform neither as soloists nor as players fully integrated into the ensemble. Eidelman has, unusually, created a flexible role for the two pianists that lies somewhere between the concerto form and a fantasia featuring the keyboards, perhaps akin to Saint-Saëns Carnival of the Animals. The two pianists do appear convincingly as full-scale soloists in the second movement’s cadenza. For the balance of the work, however, they emerge from and retreat back into, the ensemble at the composer’s will.

As a highly skilled orchestrator, Eidelman’s mastery of colour and subtle shading is superb. He describes finding the inspiration for the Symphony in the reflection of water and writes in a way that uses the pianos to enhance the emotional image of its various characters, whether still, flowing or turbulent. It’s easy to hear why his film scores like Star Trek VI and Christopher Columbus have been so successful.

The disc’s second work is Eidelman’s Night in the Gallery for orchestra and piano. Here pianist Michael McHale becomes part of the composer’s palette for recreating the impressions he experienced on viewing specific paintings by acknowledged masters.

08 ShpachenkoNadia Shpachenko’s latest release The Poetry of Places (Reference Recordings, FR 730, www.referencerecordings.com) is a collection of original and highly imaginative works for piano, assorted instruments and effects. The concept for the recording project is an exploration of the relationship between music and its space. Shpachenko writes briefly about her experiences of space on performance, including the performers and the audience. Her curiosity has led to commissions from eight composers to write specifically about their impressions of spaces and places as represented by architecture.

The variety of this repertoire is remarkable. Shpachenko performs a veritable tour of structures ancient and modern, producing extraordinary colours and textures from her Steinway D. Her composers sometimes add a second piano, voice, a toy piano, percussion and electronics to build their works. The subjects include Ireland’s 5,000-year-old Newgrange, Aaron Copland’s home in upstate New York, Bangladesh’s National Assembly, a small cottage on an island in rural New York state, the American Visionary Art Museum and a couple of architectural projects by Frank Gehry.

Each composer provides a few notes on the subject of the commission and it’s immediately striking how much common ground they share with Shpachenko on this abstract challenge. The strong affinity between the principal performer and the composers has produced a thoroughly engaging disc. 

01 Ottawa Bach ChoirHandel – Dixit Dominus; Bach & Schütz – Motets
Ottawa Bach Choir; Lisette Canton
ATMA ACD2 2790 (atmaclassique.com/En)

The Ottawa Bach Choir and Ensemble Caprice join forces in this recording for thrilling performances of Baroque masters Handel, Bach and Schütz. From the outset of Dixit Dominus, the quick pace and precision with which the chorus deftly moves through Handel’s ever-running and cascading phrases is awe-inspiring. Daniel Taylor guests for the alto aria Virgam virtutis in which the interplay between his golden voice and the continuo instruments is sublime. Soprano Kathleen Radke maintains a wonderfully relaxed vocal line through the execution of elaborate lines in Tecum principium in die virtutis and later she and Kayla Ruiz create enchanting chemistry in the soaring duet De torrente in via bibet.

Looking back almost a century, next on the recording are rarely heard Passion Motets from Heinrich Schütz’s Cantiones Sacrae. Heavily influenced by Italian madrigals of the time, Lisette Canton coaxes the full anguish of the thematic material from the choir in emphasizing dissonances and highly expressive rhetoric. The recording ends with homage to the choir’s eponym. In Bach’s Komm, Jesu, komm, excellent recording technique and choice of venue shine through, with a lovely resonance from the start and an erudite interchange captured in the dialogue of a choir divided into two sections by the composer.

Listen to 'Handel: Dixit Dominus; Bach & Schütz: Motets' Now in the Listening Room

02 Da Capo New WorksNew Works
Da Capo Chamber Choir
Independent DC 003-18 (dacapochamberchoir.ca)

Waterloo-based DaCapo Chamber Choir is celebrating its 20th anniversary with this release featuring Canadian choral works by six established and four emerging composers, set to words ranging from Shakespeare to D.H. Lawrence. Recorded in four sessions over a two-year period, each work was a choir premiere, with all but James Rolfe’s composition featured in DaCapo’s annual, national composition competition.

Choral lovers will rejoice (and perhaps sing along) to these diverse works. Of the established composers, Benjamin Bolden’s Harvest features classic choral counterpoint with slightly atonal sounds interspersed with tonal sections. Jeff Enns’ Le Pont Mirabeau has higher-pitched Romantic harmonies to stress the words. Rolfe’s Shadows is a to-be-expected well-written piece with dramatic word-painting rhythms at “autumn deepens” and atonality on “distress,” and a vibrant unexpected high-pitched tenor solo (sung by Brian Black) at the dramatic highpoint. Emerging composer David Archer’s In Sweet Music is a slow work with classic choral qualities (swells and lyricism) with a touch of minimalism at the repeated “fall asleep” end part. Works by Christine Donkin, Don Macdonald, Sheldon Rose, Matthew Emery, Nicholas Ryan Kelly and Patrick Murray complete the recording.

Conducted by founding artistic director Leonard Enns, the choir sings with both technical and musical acumen. Each vocal section is strong, knowledgeable and unafraid to sing both new and established choral sounds with perfect balance and articulation. Canadian choral music shines thanks to DaCapo!

01 NepomucenoAlberto Nepomuceno – Symphony in G Minor
Minas Gerais Philharmonic Orchestra; Fabio Mechetti
Naxos 8.574067 (naxosdirect.com)

As the music of the entire recording including, of course, Symphony in G Minor suggests, Alberto Nepomuceno’s map of Brazil was his glorious harmony book. The 1893 symphony predates (but only by a few years) what came to be a movement for creating an authentically Brazilian music, with less influence of European culture. In this sense, the folklore of the colourful northeastern Brazil from where Nepomuceno came was the major font of inspiration for his music.

This is not always obvious in the program at hand as we can hear in the music a struggle for Nepomuceno to pull away from his European training before drawing deeply from his northeastern Brazilian roots. His mind, newly opened to the sounds of his childhood in Recife, triggered perhaps by the influence of the French impressionists, becomes evident first in Série Brasileira (1891). It is a colourful, mysterious work and by the time we get to the fourth movement Batuque the full effect of northeastern Brazil is heard in the lyrically rhythmic infusion produced by the strings of the Minas Gerais Philharmonic Orchestra.

The mysterious splendour of O Garatuja – Prelude (1904) reverberates with the mesmeric swirling of African slave dances that Nepomuceno incorporated into his music. The full grandeur of the composer’s work is uncovered in the celebrated Symphony in G Minor where maestro Fabio Mechetti draws from the Minas Gerais Philharmonic Orchestra its fullest, winning combination of expressive power and voluptuousness yet.

Back to top