01 Both Sides of JoniBoth Sides of Joni
Janiece Jaffe; Monika Herzig
Acme Records JM001 (acmerecords.com)

There is no question that Joni Mitchell is a member of a small coterie of artists who have contributed to the very ethos of 21st century music itself (in all of its splendid diversity). Mitchell’s synesthesiac blendings of unconventional melodies, chordal structures and contemporary poetry have touched our hearts and minds, and it’s the eclectic nature of Mitchell’s work that has lent itself to a variety of tributes. With this posthumous release from award-winning vocalist Janiece Jaffe and pianist/arranger Monika Herzig, Mitchell’s work is interpreted with a fresh, jazz-oriented perspective, which includes stalwart performances from noted jazz artists Greg Ward on saxophone, Jeremy Allen on bass, Carolyn Dutton on violin and Cassius Goens on drums.

Included in this compelling recording are Herzig’s innovative arrangements of Mitchell’s most commercially successful songs, as well as some lesser-performed gems. First up is Help Me, which features a melodious, a cappella sax intro which then segues into a rhythmic, swinging musical tapestry replete with stunningly beautiful multi-track vocals from Jaffe. Jaffe’s voice is a delight to the ear. Her clear, pitch-perfect tones embrace the melody and charge it with meaning and Goens’ relentless drums and Ward’s improvisational choices propel this superb track.

The title track is rife with emotional content – exploring the nature of hindsight and regret, and Mitchell’s melancholy River (from Blue) has been cleverly arranged by Herzig. My Old Man is a total delight, warm and ebullient with well-chosen chord substitutions, fully embracing jazz motifs and featuring a solid electric bass solo from Peter Kienle and lighter-than-air soprano work from Ward. The Hissing of Summer Lawns is a triumph in every way – transporting Mitchell’s intent to a whole new dimension of free jazz featuring an energizing piano solo by Herzig. Also of special note is The Circle Game – presented here with a profound innocence and pristine vocal. Although Jaffe died suddenly prior to this release, her vision and musicality will be celebrated with extensive tours in the U.S. and Europe featuring New York City chanteuse Alexis Cole.  

02 Tina HarttAbsence of You
Tina Hartt
Independent (tinahartt.com)

The instrumentation hooks you, the arrangements reel you in and Tina Hartt’s passionate performance catches you. Trust Your Heart is an arresting original composition, with Jonathan D. Lewis’ wistful strings cascading over Hartt’s evocative lyricism; equal parts yearnful and triumphant. The relationship between form and substance shines through in every note Hartt sings. Every once in a while, when the band employs silence or coordinates hits for emphasis, Hartt shapes her phrases in a way where profundity takes center stage. In lines like “I can’t touch but I can dream” from I Can Look but I Can’t Touch, that hesitation adds an exclamation point to the echo effect the music creates, bringing the idea home with great clarity. 

Aside from Hartt’s consistent ingenuity as a vocalist and limitless creativity, this album is tied together by how incredible it sounds. Credit is due to Steve Dierkens for the mixing, because it adds a great feeling of intimacy and closeness to the album. There are no effects imposed on any musicians present and yet the sound is recorded with startling detail. Every element of the music feels like the most prominent aspect at any given moment, and it is this kind of clarity that lends to Hartt’s voice perfectly. From the very first track to the end, there is a singular directness of Hartt’s approach to her music, and the effectiveness of said approach cannot be overstated.

03 Harry BartlettWildwood
Harry Bartlett Trio
Independent (harrybartlettmusic.com)

Harry Bartlett, an accomplished jazz guitarist and composer with a music degree from the University of Toronto, has played in festivals and venues across Canada and has also toured public schools to provide improvisation workshops. Although currenting living and playing in Toronto, he grew up in the Pacific Northwest and the music for Wildwood was composed while living on Gambier Island (approximately 50 km northwest of Vancouver). Titles like Snowfall on Sword Ferns and Circle of Moss and Fire Smoke evoke the landscapes which inspired Bartlett’s music. Wildwood was recorded over three days on that same Island. 

All the tunes have an atmospheric quality that is enhanced by the trio’s empathic playing. Burgess Falls is hauntingly melodic, and the guitar work combines a Bill Frisell-feel with a few country-ish riffs. Sailing Over Troubled Waters features a distorted and atonal guitar line along with swirling and bashing drums to mimic an occasionally violent storm. Wildwood is an engaging and beautiful album with Caleb Klager (bass) and Harry Vetro (drums) providing nuanced support to Bartlett’s superb guitar work.

04 Blink TwiceBlink Twice
Jackson Welchner
Plutoid Records (jacksonwelchner.com)

“Let’s go grab a coffee/and talk about every moment since/since we had last crossed paths.” Blink Twice is comfort music. The harmony is warm, the strings are soft, the rhythms are sweet, the lyrics are reassuring. The five-pattern-synth ostinato on the title track will bounce around your skull for hours as it soothes you into a heightened state of being. Sum of All Strings feels like the chamber movement to end all others, as it meditates on its final figure, with an abrupt fade leaving the listener time to recompose themselves. Sarah Thawer’s ride cymbal shimmers, Michael Davidson’s vibes intrigue, Thom Gill’s arpeggios envelop, while Patrick Smith, Kae Murphy and Anh Phung’s countermelodies positively delight.  

Contemporary music that commands perhaps the most respect is the kind that treats the low end with the same respect it treats the mids and highs. Jackson Welchner’s arrangements are an exercise in perfect, immensely cathartic balance. The music is progressive, stylistically well-versed while being astonishingly easy to move to. Welchner’s voice is absolute velvet, while being able to consume the cosmos on The Distance. The versatility is in the consonants, and in the consonance. Nary a second of music doesn’t feel cared for and nurtured. It would be easy to come across as hyperbolic saying it, but at this point in the year, it’s hard to find many first (or second, or third…) listens more holistically gratifying than this.

05 Silent Tears PayadoraSilent Tears – The Last Yiddish Tango
Payadora Tango Ensemble
Six Degrees 657036132924 (payadora.com/silent-tears)

This Payadora Tango Ensemble project features guest musicians and vocalists, and executive producer/English text adapter Dan Rosenberg. It is comprised of tango-flavoured song settings of heart-wrenching memoirs, poems, testimonials and writings by female Holocaust survivors in Canada about the traumatizing violence women and children experienced during the Nazi occupation of Poland. The main lyric sources are from Dr. Paula David’s Terrace Holocaust Survivors Group Poetry Project at Toronto’s Baycrest Centre for Geriatric Care, and from Toronto-based Holocaust survivor Molly Applebaum. All arrangements are by Payadora’s Drew Jurecka.

These songs are based on the inter-war tangos which were popular in the Jewish Central European communities such as four here composed by Artur Gold (1897-1943) who was murdered in the Treblinka Death Camp. Gold’s last tango composition Nie Wierze Ci is arranged into A Prayer for Rescue, based on two 1942 Applebaum diary entries. Marta Kosiorek’s moving heartbreaking vocals, Rebekah Wolkstein’s violin and Jurecka’s bandoneon countermelodies, with steady tango grooves by Robert Horvath’s piano and Joseph Phillips’s double bass are an intriguing uplifting/sad mix. Four songs are composed by Wolkstein. Her The Numbers on My Arm features Aviva Chernick’s colourful emotional vocals with words from the Terrace Group about wearing long sleeves in Canada to hide the numbers branded on Auschwitz prisoners is given tight ensemble support. The release also features guests Lenka Lichtenberg and Olga Avigail Mieleszczuk (vocals), and Sergiu Popa (accordion).

This is the most memorable release I have ever had the privilege to listen to and review.

Ever since the J.C. Deagan company perfected the modern vibraphone in the late 1920s, decisions as to whether it should be used as a rhythm or a solo instrument have divided musicians. Some, like Lionel Hampton, emphasized the percussion functions, others, like Milt Jackson, perfected its melodic use. Improvised music accepts each of these functions – and a few more – as reflected on these discs.

01 Martin PyineTaking a cue from the subtle melodicism perfected by Chick Corea and Gary Burton on their series of duo discs are vibraphonist Martin Pyne and keyboardist David Beebee. But on Ripples (DISCUS 145 CD discus-music.co.uk) the two up the ante on the disc’s dozen selections by using electric piano tones to blend with vibe sonorities. The resulting improvisations involve elastic note vibrations from the plugged-in keyboard alongside sustained aluminum bar resonations. Some tracks are balladic, taking full advantage  of the ingenuity of the pianist, who also recorded the session, as he cushions the vibist’s languid, perfectly shaped single notes with tremolo comping. This is emphasized most clearly on the extended Seeking Refuge, where lyrical interludes from the vibist are backed with sympathetic piano chording. Modernity is emphasized as well since Pyne’s single notes ring as well as relate. The vibist’s ability to create perfectly rounded notes that can almost be visualized as teardrop shaped are then hardened into sustained accents when the two play staccato and presto. Glissandi created by mallet slides are sometimes as prominent as keyboard smears. The vibist’s sustain pedal pressure and firmer strokes also frequently confirm the instrument’s idiophone heritage with concise, powerful strokes. Still these instances as on Night Music and Peg Powler are never completely percussive since the latter includes stop-time interludes and the former a sand-dance-like solo from Pyne. With neither partner exclusively soloist nor accompanist the intersectional connection is always maintained. The duo defines each sequence effectively and frequently leaves a timbral ripple in the air after the selection is completed. 

02 Patricia BrennanMore percussion is featured on Patricia Brennan’s More Touch (Pyroclastic Records PR22 pyroclasticrecords.com), where the Mexican-born New Yorker adds electronics to her vibraphone and marimba narratives as she meets textures from Cuban percussionist Mauricio Herrera, and Americans, bassist Kim Cass and drummer Marcus Gilmore. Imagine Latin Music-leaning Cal Tjader amplifying his sound with electronics. At the same time, except for the final two tracks which are built around ratcheting Afro-Cuban repercussions and a solid Batá drum pulse respectively, influences far removed from the Southern Hemisphere are interpreted by what could be called a post-Modern Jazz Quartet. Brennan’s compositions touch on reggae and contemporary notated music and can sound as Arcadian as African and relate Mexican son jarocho to American swing. Textures are tweaked with electronic drones and oscillations and Cass’ supple string stops sometimes bend notes to blend with electronic wheezes and washes. Crucially though, he and Gilmore always retain the jazz groove. Extended tracks such as Robbin and the nearly 15-minute Space For Hour are treated as mini-suites. The first moves from emphasizing adagio raps from the vibist to downshifting to a silent interlude that gradually inflates with synthesized wriggles and whooshes. These join emphasized vibe slaps to build a livelier but still moderato connection. Silences separate sequences in Space For Hour, as Brennan’s skittering metal plinks start off unaccompanied until conga drum plops and cymbal clanks join them to outline the theme. As acoustic and electronic timbres are stretched, a vibe-bass duet limns a secondary theme at half the speed of the first. The subsequent multi-mallet pressure from the vibist is mirrored by bass string pops and drum ruffs to toughen the line. Finally, as the resulting stop-time exposition is intensified with drum and percussion reverb, a reprise of the vibes-bass duet preserves the original melody.

03 Dan McCarthyExcept for guitars and drums there’s no overt electronics or percussion on Toronto vibist Dan McCarthy’s Songs of the Doomed’s Some Jaded, Atavistic Freakout (TPR Records TPR 014 tprrecords.ca). But his disc aims to reflect the writing and over-the-top life of US Gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson (1937-2005). Probably less programmatic than McCarthy intended, the compositions and arrangements crafted for this 13-track CD, mix hints of Metal, pop, chromatic serialism and improv, adding up to a clever package of near-swinging lyricism. Negotiating the changes, besides the vibraphone’s chiming aluminum bars, are intersecting guitar riffs from Don Scott and Luan Phung, steadfast bass accents from Daniel Fortin and drummer Ernesto Cervini’s cooperative rhythms. Tracks like Some Jaded, Atavistic Freakout and Kingdom of Fear are more cinematic than others. The first includes rounded vibraphone plops that colour the exposition as the guitars turn from drones to harmony that almost suggest a string section. On the second, an intermingling of stentorian bass stops, percussion rubs and expanded guitar string jabs create vamps that are as menacing as those on any thriller soundtrack. Others, such as Owl Farm, are more concerned with the groove. While Fortin’s recurrent bass thumps and Cervini’s paradiddle shuffles create a continuum, string stabs slide the expressive theme out further and further as McCarthy emphasizes prestissimo clanks and echoes, with cadences as rhythmic as anything produced by Lionel Hampton. A throwback, only as far as Thompson’s early 1970s heyday, buzzing guitar flanges, double bass slaps and idiophone accents throughout the session maintain equivalence between the strident and the song-like. So, an exposition such as The High-Water Mark is as straight ahead as any soundtrack, but slightly twisted with interludes of rainstorm-like resonating notes. One 1960s recasting does misfire though with a vocal version of White Rabbit that is more plodding than psychedelic. However the quintet redeems itself by the concluding Evening in Woody Creek as McCarthy and Cervini provide appropriate pops and clatters to highlight Scott’s and Phung’s tolling Jimi Hendrix-like flanges, which relate back to the pressurized guitar feedback on the introductory Morning in Woody Creek.

Listen to 'Songs of the Doomed: Some Jaded, Atavistic Freakout' Now in the Listening Room

Adding horns and choral instruments, two European sessions position the vibraphone within the jazz continuum. All Slow Dream Gone (Moserobie MMPIP 128 moserobie.com) features Norwegian bassist Ingebrigt Håker Flaten with Swedes, clarinetist Per Texas Johansson, drummer Konrad Agnas and vibraphonist Mattias Ståhl. Meanwhile Windows & Mirrors | Milano Dialogues (Leo Records CD LR 931 leorecords.com) is even more pan-European with a quartet of two Finns: soprano/sopranino saxophonist Harri Sjöström and accordionist Veli Kujala and two Italians, trombonist Giancarlo Schiaffini and vibraphonist Sergio Armaroli.

04 All Slow Dream GoneContrapuntal sounds, the Scandinavian session All Slow Dream Gone contains enough unselfconscious swing to be reminiscent of a Benny Goodman small group session of the 1940s or ones with Terry Gibbs in the 1950s. But while these Northern Europeans have internalized hot and cool jazz, the airy sounds they produce include an undertow of studied toughness. Sure the bassist provides an unwavering pulse and there are frequent drum breaks, but when he solos, Flaten explores techniques unknown decades ago. As for the front line, whether it’s chalumeau register scoops or clarion twitters, Johansson’s tone is never forced and produces narrative advances in high, low or middle registers. Creating a woody marimba-like sound Ståhl turns off his instrument’s motor during the selection so that the notes project a hollow sustain, more earthy than elaborate. Skin is an instance of this. Played andante and vivace with never a note out of place, the vibe resonations and clarinet slurs and slithers maintain discerning motion in spite of hocketing pauses and individual interchanges with Agnas. Among the foot-tapping rhythms, maintained by the bassist’s walking, other tracks such as Slow – which isn’t – make room for the vibist’s swift, rolling glissandi and pinpointed clanks, while Gone lets the clarinetist snore and snarl his most ferocious low-pitched timbres as drum breaks and metal bar ringing keep the narrative symmetrical.

05 Windows MirrorsComing from a completely antithetical perspective is Windows & Mirrors | Milano Dialogues since its ten tracks are completely improvised. Also it’s the only disc here that doesn’t include a chordophone. This leaves expression and connection calculated through repetitive accordion tremors and resonating vibraphone clanks. For their part, the trombonist and saxophonist extend dissonant textures such as elephantine roars from Schiaffini and calculated peeps and slithers from Sjöström, as the non-horns maintain andante footing with knowing segues. If the trombonist unleashes a series of elongated plunger stutters and the saxophonist replies with biting howls or slippery bites, resonating metal pitter-patter and mid-range squeeze box shudders create a stabilizing continuum. The accordion and vibes aren’t relegated to mere background work either. Throughout the two related groups of free music tropes, each instrument asserts itself for solo introductions or in duet or trio form. A track such as Windows 5 for instance, is set up with Armaroli’s metallic pops, as the theme is kept moving with plunger brass portamento and irregularly vibrated reed slithers. Another distinct strategy is displayed on Mirrors 4, as Kujala‘s accordion squeezes create a beginning-to-end allegro pulse even as Schiaffini rumbles half-valve slurs that widen and shake the exposition. Sound summation comes on Mirrors 5, the extended concluding track. Emphasized vibe mallet splatters and malleable accordion judders join with gravelly brass breaths and reed vibrations for a climax that moves from tension-ridden to temperate, reflecting both the innovative and integral sides of the improvisations.

The conception and expression of vibraphone playing has come a long way in 100 years. On the evidence here it’s sure to keep evolving.

01a Das Rhinegold coverMany of you will be familiar with the epic series of operas, Der Ring des Nibelungen by Richard Wagner. Also known simply as The Ring Cycle, it’s a spellbinding 15 hours that took Wagner over 25 years to compose. With inspiration derived from Norse legend and German mythology it is full of gods and goddesses, giants, dwarves, magic mermaids, a dragon, heroes and heroines. With these operas, we are gifted with some of the most beautiful music ever written. 

Four operas comprise the complete Ring cycle and while these operas are inextricably connected, they more than admirably stand alone as autonomous works. The first two of the newly remastered Solti Ring Cycle from Decca have now been released in Canada, Das Rheingold and Die Walküre and with Siegfried and Götterdämmerung to follow this summer.

The Solti Ring was recorded in Vienna between 1958 and 1965 and in commemoration of the 25th anniversary of Sir Georg Solti’s death Decca has spared no expense and remastered the original recordings for this outstanding reissue. According to Gramophone Magazine in 1999 and BBC Music Magazine in 2011, the Solti Ring is “The Greatest Classical Recording of All Time.” The original recording was an immense undertaking; it was the very first studio recording of the complete set and represented the first stereo recording of the Ring Cycle. Solti and the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra completed the final recording in November of 1965.   

The cast was assembled by John Culshaw, a producer for Decca, and with the release of the first opera in 1958, it appeared that the Ring Cycle would be a commercial success. Each opera was well received and fueled the production of the next one until all four had been recorded. This amounted to a whopping 19 LPs meticulously produced by a team of sound engineers led by Gordon Parry. 

01b Die Walkure coverContributing to the overwhelming success of Decca’s recordings was the stellar cast of singers. For Das Rheingold, Kirsten Flagstad was cast as Fricka, and Canada’s own George London as Wotan. They are joined by a cast of singers considered the very best Wagnerian voices of 1958. Each new opera that was recorded was newly cast with the most outstanding singers available at the time. Perhaps that is what is so appealing about these recordings. We are stepping back in time to hear extraordinary performances the likes of which are simply no longer feasible or possible. For Die Walküre, we have Birgit Nilsson as Brünnhilde and Christa Ludwig as Fricka among a stellar cast. This certainly contributed to the overwhelming success at that time and explains why this recording endures today.

The sound staging is a feat unto itself. I was fortunate enough to listen to a couple of the CDs through the Avantgarde Horn Speakers and tube pre- and power-amplifiers. I wanted to experience the music with the kind of gear that was considered the norm in the 50s and 60s. For my ears, this setup brought the singers right into the room and brought home what Decca was trying to achieve with these remastered recordings. Is the sound perfect? One cannot expect it to be, but it is as close as technologically possible based on the original recordings.  

It has been a wonderful week of listening and immersing myself in the incredible world Wagner created. We have love and loss, passion, betrayal, revenge, ambition and a little incest. From the lovely and mischievous magical Rhinemaidens to Wotan’s singing Brünnhilde to sleep in an enchanted ring of fire, the first two operas are spellbinding.

Many years ago I travelled to Bayreuth, Germany to hear the Ring cycle at the Festspielhaus, the opera house that was commissioned specifically for this work. Completed in 1876, to this day the Bayreuth Festspielhaus is used solely for annual performances of Wagner operas. But I digress. Wagnerians will have much to celebrate and look forward to there again this summer. 

Editor’s Note: I’m delighted to see that Bruce was so enthralled by the performances and pristine sound on these historic recordings that this was the focus of his review. However, I think it worthy to note the packaging of these Hybrid SACD reissues, which will also be available in limited edition 3-LP Deluxe vinyl pressings. Each edition includes lavishly illustrated booklets featuring technical information on the new HD remastering and the original recording techniques, an introduction to each opera by producer John Culshaw, synopses and libretti in English & German, plus many original session photographs and rare facsimiles. You can find full details at store.deccaclassics.com.

02 Renee FlemingDecca Classics has also recently released Renée FlemingGreatest Moments at the Met (store.deccaclassics.com). These are all live performances, some of her greatest moments packed into a 2-CD set. The incomparable Fleming formally retired from the Met in 2017 at 58 years old, and this CD includes many of the incredible highlights from her illustrious career. 

I’m not sure I understand how retirement works, as Fleming will sing Tosca at the Santa Fe Opera later this year and will return to the Met this spring in La Traviata. Her voice now at 64 sounds better than many sopranos half her age. But I digress again…

The chosen arias highlight her distinctive lyric soprano voice and spotlight some of her greatest vocal roles. It’s very exciting that some of these performances have never been previously released. The duets include Cecilia Bartoli, Samuel Ramey, Massimo Giordano, Susan Graham and Dmitri Hvorostovsky among others. Some 16 composers are featured including some of her best known and most beloved roles, Violetta in Act II of Verdi’s La Traviata from March, 2004 and Manon in Act III of Massenet’s opera of the same name recorded in 2006 and in 2008 accompanied by Massimo Giordano.   

I’m very partial to Franz Lehár’s Merry Widow recorded in January of 2016. Happily, I saw it in February of the same year through the Live from The Metropolitan Opera HD transmissions.  

I’d like to mention the outstanding performance as Marguerite in Gounod’s Faust. This recording from a performance at the Met in 1997 is one of the last times she performed this part despite it being one of her much-admired roles. In her own words, “I stopped singing Marguerite… it disturbed me that she was a victim from the first note – she never had a chance. It’s so much more interesting to me to portray women who have agency, some say in their own fate.”  

The results of the Met’s outstanding orchestra and chorus, the terrific acoustics and great conductors are definitely some of The Greatest Moments at the Met. Admittedly two CDs are not enough to capture the sheer number of Fleming’s outstanding performances, but this set is an excellent addition to her discography. 

John Beckwith photo by Andre LeducI received the sad news shortly before Christmas that my friend, iconic Canadian composer John Beckwith, had died at the age of 95 from complications of a fall. I had seen him some ten days earlier when I dropped by to have him autograph my copy of his latest book – his 17th! – MUSIC ANNALS: Research and Critical Writings by a Canadian Composer 1974-2014 (Institute for Music in Canada 2022) which you likely read about in last September’s issue of The WholeNote. You may also have read the many insightful CD reviews John contributed to this magazine between 2001 and 2016, running the gamut from early Canadiana (1753 – Livre de Montreal) and period performance practices (Haydn – Five Sonatas on Fortepiano performed by Malcolm Bilson), through Beethoven Late String Quartets (Takács Quartet), Schubert’s Winterreise (Russell Braun) and Chopin Nocturnes and Impromptus (Angela Hewitt) to 20th-century American composers (Toch, Persichetti, Bolcom) and his Canadian contemporaries Harry Somers, Henry Brant and Eldon Rathburn to name but a few. These can all be found on thewholenote.com website. Of course, numerous recordings of his own music were also reviewed in these pages. 

John’s career was many faceted, encompassing a range of fields from music critic, composer, teacher, writer, historian, administrator – he served as Dean of the Faculty of Music at U of T and Director of the Institute for Music in Canada – and performer, but he preferred to refer to himself simply as a musician. His knowledge and breadth of interest was vast, and his own compositions tended to incorporate and synthesize several of these at a time. John’s oeuvre spanned virtually all genres of art music from folk-song arrangements to art songs, choral works and operas, symphonic works, chamber music, duets and solo pieces. Although his stage works are strikingly underrepresented, recordings of a good cross section of his other works can be found at the Canadian Music Centre (cmccanada.org). Also available from the CMC is his moving personal autobiography, Unheard Of: Memoirs of a Canadian Composer, which I highly recommend.

01b optional BeckwithOne work that I have particularly enjoyed revisiting in recent days is Quartet as recorded by the Orford String Quartet (John Beckwith Centrediscs CMC-CD 5897). Back in 1986 I had the pleasure of interviewing John on my radio program, Transfigured Night at CKLN-FM. When speaking about Quartet John mentioned that, like Bartók, who had drawn on his Hungarian heritage and had the string instruments mimic the sounds of cimbaloms and hurdy-gurdies, he wanted to reflect the traditional music of Canada in his string quartet. Although John was not particularly well versed in popular music, his father had played the mandolin and his oldest son played guitar, so he had a bit of a head start and as usual was willing to do some homework. He began researching fiddling styles and attended the finals of the Canadian Open Fiddle Championship in Shelburne, Ontario. The resulting work, while not sounding like fiddle music per se, draws on gestures and nuances of fiddle technique and adds a surprising innovation. The two violinists share a third instrument in an alternate tuning enabling different open string chords and unexpected harmonics and producing a “distorted fiddle tune at the same time as the real one” towards the end of the piece. It’s quite a stunning effect. 

Hear! Hear! Remembering John Beckwith takes place at 7:30 on February 28 at Walter Hall, U of T. Performers include Choir 21, Monica Whicher, New Music Concerts Ensemble, Opus 8, Robert Aitken, Peter Stoll and others.

02 Fiddle TunesAs mentioned, Beckwith’s Quartet doesn’t sound like traditional fiddle music, but I had no shortage of the “real” (or should that be “reel”) thing over the past month or so. I was inundated with folk recordings by local artists in a variety of styles and from a variety of traditions. First up, a disc simply called Fiddle Music by Elise Boeur and Adam Iredale-Gray (Fiddlehead Recordings FHR013 eliseandadam.ca). Boeur plays both fiddle and hardingfele (Norwegian hardanger fiddle) while Iredale-Gray alternates on fiddle and guitar. They are accompanied by upright bassist Robert Alan Mackie, who also provides lyrical solos on some of the numbers. The personal liner notes give the authors and origins of each of the tunes and how they came to be in the group’s repertoire. The disc begins with a medley of lively traditional Irish tunes featuring fiddle and guitar. This is followed by La Coccinelle (ladybug), a bourrée by French fiddler Jean Blanchard combined with a tune by Norwegian accordionist Kristoffer Kleiveland, performed on two fiddles with added bass. The lyrical valse à cinq Evening Glory, penned by Belgian Toon Van Mierlo, is arranged here for fiddle, guitar and bass. Other eclectic offerings include more traditional Irish, American and Swedish tunes and several for hardingfele – a rull and a Setesdal Gangar – that Boeur learned while studying folk music in Norway. The disc concludes with a stark tune by the Icelandic jazz band ADHD, followed by another medley that starts slowly with the melancholic Frank Thornton, gets moving with Cock and the Hen and finishes with a rousing rendition of Cottage in the Grove. All in all, a feast for the ears, with fine playing from all concerned.

03 VintaBassist Robert Alan Mackie reappears as a member of Vinta on the next disc, Beacons (vintamusic.com). Other members include Emilyn Stam (fiddle and piano accordion), John David Williams (clarinet, diatonic accordion, bass clarinet) and Nathan Smith (fiddle and viola). One might expect hints of Klezmer from the ensemble’s instrumentation, but Vinta is based in the folk-dance traditions of Europe, especially those of France and Sweden. Growing out of Balfolk gatherings in the High Park neighbourhood of Toronto, the enforced isolation of the COVID lockdown also provided an aspect of the group’s inspiration. “At a time when joy and celebration were far away, the four of us came together and shared everything we could. First came the old tunes, hot meals and loud laughter – sure enough, then came the new tunes.” The result is an album of original music in traditional style(s), and one cover – Seduction, a 1929 waltz by Frenchman Mario Cazes, which is combined with Mario and Everest by Stam, “a wedding waltz written for dear friends.” A highlight for me is another waltz, Rosedale Valley by Mackie, once again paired with a composition by Stam, Regent Street Parade. Other pieces of note include High Park by Williams, and the group composition Le réveil des coccinelles, yes, those ladybugs again. Producer (and mandolinist extraordinaire) Andrew Collins praises Vinta’s “unique aesthetic driven by their original composing, arranging and virtuosic playing. […] one certainty is that you will have a smile on your face.” I couldn’t have said it better myself. 

04 Emilyn and JohnThe next disc features half the members of Vinta, Emilyn Stam and John David Williams performing as a duo. I thought Stam was a familiar name and searching back a few years I found a disc by a local group called The Shoeless – a “cross-cultural stew, combining the sounds of Klezmer, French, Celtic, Appalachian and English music” in a trio with fiddle (Stam), banjo and cello – so obviously her roots spread far afield. The current album focuses on her Dutch heritage and draws on a collection of tunes published in the early 1700s, the title of which translates as Old and New Farmer Songs and Contradances from Holland. On The Farmer Who Lost His Cow and other old Dutch tunes (emilynandjohn.com) Stam plays five-string fiddle, piano and piano accordion, while Williams adds harmonica to his arsenal of clarinet and diatonic accordion. To 21st-century ears there is a certain sameness to the melodies, but differing tempos and the way the duo switches up the accompaniments makes for an entertaining listen that kept my attention. I’m not sure if it is just the novelty of the titles, but highlights included The Pig Scratches His Hole, The Mullet Fish and, of course, the title track, along with the almost minimalistic The Friction Drum and the haunting Farewell My Love with its harmonica lead. As well as songs, there are numerous Gaillardes interspersed throughout this compelling disc. And I feel I must mention, the graphic art includes… ladybugs!

05a David GreenbergDavid Greenberg’s Multiple voices for One (Leaf Music DG2022A davidgreenbergviolinist.bandcamp.com/album/multiple-voices-for-one) is another disc that combines traditional fiddling styles with dance forms, contemporary arrangements and compositions. For over three decades, Greenberg has enjoyed a double career as a Baroque violinist and Cape Breton fiddler. His international career spans continents and his Toronto connections have included performing as a member of Tafelmusik and Toronto Consort among others. This disc features movements from Bach’s partitas and sonatas for solo violin and other classical movements intercut with a variety of jigs, reels and marches from various sources and original tunes by Greenberg and his son Owen, as well Toronto’s late legendary fiddler Oliver Schroer’s Enthralled. Greenberg plays both Baroque and octave violins on the album, both tuned in period style at A414. There is no overdubbing involved, he just plays one or the other on each track, but the booklet includes a clever picture in which he appears to be playing both at once with the smaller one tucked under his chin, the other on his shoulder and the bow spanning both instruments. Greenberg is an acknowledged master of violin and fiddle techniques and, as this recording attests, possesses a consummate musicality that spans genres and styles. An accomplished clinician, he offers a variety of online tuition opportunities, that latest of which is “Making Tunes with Intention,” a three-week course exploring the composition and arrangement of traditional style tunes – Celtic, Baroque, and classical – beginning February 26. You will find details and registration at davidgreenbergviolinist.com/mti-home.

Listen to 'Multiple Voices for One' Now in the Listening Room

06 David JaegerSticking with the violin family, but moving away from the fiddle tradition, the next disc features music for solo viola by longtime CBC producer and frequent contributor to The WholeNote, David Jaeger. In the spirit of full disclosure I will say that I have had a lengthy professional relationship with Jaeger over the years as the administrator of New Music Concerts but of course almost everyone in the contemporary music community could say the same. Since retiring from the CBC, Jaeger, when not busy producing independent recordings for some of Toronto’s finest musicians, has expanded his activities as a composer and there has been a wealth of new work in recent years. Conjuring: Viola Music of David Jaeger (Redshift Records TK524 redshiftrecords.org) spans four decades. The soloist is Hamilton native, now Vermont resident, Elizabeth Reid who rises to the various challenges the works present with aplomb and conviction. She is accompanied by Alison Bruce Cerutti in Sonata, Tristan and Isolde, written in 1992 in honour of the 70th birthday of the composer’s mother (and her dog and cat), and Sonata No.1 for viola and piano written just four years ago. The Six Miniatures for unaccompanied viola are based on verses by Scottish poet David Cameron, the texts of which are included in the booklet, with the violist “in effect, playing the role of the reciter.” As befitting a founding member of the Canadian Electronic Ensemble, Jaeger’s three remaining works involve the use of technology in one form or another. Constable and the Spirit of the Clouds is an adaption of a work originally for solo cello. At the suggestion of Reid, Jaeger reworked the cello score for viola and added an electronic track “composed using a similar process,” i.e., examples of linear variation observed in the work of English Romantic artist John Constable. The result is intriguing. The final two works were written for the internationally renowned Israeli violist Rivka Golani who made her home in Toronto for some years. Favour for viola and live digital delay controlled by the performer was composed in 1980. Sarabande was composed to address the issue of the complicated set-up required for the live electronics aspect of Favour, here replaced by a single playback track for the performer to play against. Favour was originally released on Golani’s Viola Nouveau (Centrediscs CMCCD 0883), still available from the Canadian Music Centre, providing a rare opportunity to compare two interpretations of a contemporary Canadian piece. By pairing these two works we are presented with Jaeger’s “second take” on the same material and also a second performer’s take on them both. It’s great to see a new generation of musicians taking up the mantle and championing existing works along with the new. 

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07 Missy MazzoliMid-career American super-star composer Missy Mazzoli "inhabits an exquisite and mysterious sound-world that melds indie-rock sensibilities with classical traditions… [equally at home in] concert halls, opera houses and rock clubs." Dark with Excessive Bright (BIS-2572 missymazzoli.com) is a portrait disc spanning 15 years of Mazzoli’s international career, featuring Norwegian violinist Peter Herresthal. Once again, we are presented with a composer’s alternate takes on several works. The title piece was originally a concerto for double bass and string orchestra that at Herresthal’s request Mazzoli reworked for violin, “essentially flipping the work upside down.” Dark with excessive bright is a phrase from Milton’s Paradise Lost, a surreal and evocative description of God’s robes, written by a blind man. Mazzoli says: “I love the impossibility of this phrase and how perfectly it describes the ghostly, heart-rending sound of strings.” It appears here twice, bookending the disc, opening with the Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by James Gaffigan and closing with a reduced version for solo violin, string quartet and double bass performed by members of Norway’s Arctic Philharmonic under the direction of Tim Weiss. Both versions are extremely powerful, with a sound palette that belies the all-string instrumentation, and it’s hard to comprehend that in the latter all that sound is being created by just six players. Vespers for Violin is a reimagining of the earlier Vespers for a New Dark Age, in which “sampled keyboards, vintage organs, voices and strings from that composition, drenched in delay and distortion,” are used to create an effective work for a solo violinist. Full orchestral resources are utilized in Sinfonia (for Orbiting Spheres) with music “in the shape of a solar system.” The title draws on two meanings of the word sinfonia: a Baroque work for chamber orchestra and the old Italian term for a hurdy-gurdy. Mazzoli describes it as “a piece that churns and roils, that inches close to the listener only to leap away at breakneck speed, in the process transforming the ensemble into a makeshift hurdy-gurdy, flung recklessly into space.” There’s a Toronto connection in Orpheus Undone. It’s an orchestral suite, fragments of which have their origins in Orpheus Alive, a work composed for the National Ballet of Canada back in 2019. In its present form, it depicts “a single instant in Orpheus’s life, in the immediate aftermath of his wife Eurydice’s death. I have used the Orpheus myth… to explore the ways traumatic events disrupt the linearity and unity of our experience of time.” It was composed in 2021, no doubt in response to the trauma of COVID-19. Concert Note: Speaking of Toronto, Mazzoli’s Dark with Excessive Bright will be performed in its original double bass version by the Toronto Symphony and guest conductor Kerem Hasan, with TSO principal Jeffrey Beecher as soloist on March 1 and 2 at Roy Thomson Hall. 

We invite submissions. CDs, DVDs 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

01 Vagues et ombresVagues et ombres (Waves and shadows), the latest release from the Montreal string ensemble Collectif9 features music by Debussy and Canadian-American composer Luna Pearl Woolf (Alpha Classics 858 collectif9.ca/en).

The central work on the disc is Woolf’s Contact, an extremely effective and fascinating piece described as “a sonic view into the underwater world of beluga whales in the St. Lawrence Estuary,” including the impact of human actions.

It’s the Debussy selections that steal the show, however, in quite brilliant arrangements by Thibault Bertin-Maghit, the group’s bass player. Four piano pieces – Étude No.4, Des pas sur la neige, and Passepied and Clair de lune from the Suite Bergamasque open the CD, the increase in players and the resulting expansion of textures being balanced by the challenge faced in reducing Debussy’s orchestral masterpiece La Mer to nine players. The latter is an astonishing reinterpretation that draws quite remarkable playing from the ensemble in music in which – as they note – timbre and colour are paramount. It’s breathtakingly brilliant in all respects.

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02 Mozart Concertos 3 5Baroque violinist Gottfried von der Goltz is the soloist on Mozart Violin Concertos Nos.3-5 with the Freiburger Barockorchester under Kristian Bezuidenhout (Aparté AP299 prestomusic.com/classical/products/9364986--mozart-violin-concertos-nos-3-5).

The three concertos – the G Major K216, the D Major K218 and the A Major K219 – are “presented in a new version: in accordance with practices of the time, Bezuidenhout improvises a pianoforte part, while conducting the orchestra… A totally new and exciting approach to these works!” Well, don’t get too excited about the resulting impact – the pianoforte is almost totally inaudible, although it may well be subtly adding to the texture; if I hadn’t known I would never have noticed it, except possibly in a few moments in the D Major concerto.

No matter, for these are superb performances any way you look at them, beautifully judged and balanced, with faultless solo work and orchestral playing that is full of life on one of the finest Mozart discs you will hear.

03 Beethoven Stravinsky Vilde FrangThe brilliant Norwegian violinist Vilde Frang is in top form on Beethoven Stravinsky Violin Concertos, with The Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie Bremen under Pekka Kuusisto (Warner Classics 0190296676437 vildefrang.com/beethoven-stravinsky).

Kuusisto, himself a violinist makes his debut recording as a conductor, and what a debut it is, forming a perfect partnership with Frang. There’s a decided chamber orchestra feel to the performance with the timpani prominent, the lengthy first movement cadenza being a transcription of the one (with timpani) that Beethoven wrote for his own piano transcription of the concerto.

Stravinsky’s spiky and neoclassical Violin Concerto in D Major Op.8 isn’t heard as often as it should be, the performance here underlining what we’re missing. It’s full of life and never merely academic, with an emotionally deep Aria II third movement.

Frang started studying both concertos at the same time in her teens, always feeling some sort of relation between the two. Certainly they make an ideal pairing on an outstanding CD.

04 Andrew Wan Charles Richard Hamelin Schumann The Three Violin SonatasWith Schumann: The Three Violin Sonatas violinist Andrew Wan and pianist Charles Richard-Hamelin continue the partnership that gave us the recent outstanding 3CD set of the complete Beethoven sonatas (Analekta AN 2 9003 analekta.com/en).

The Violin Sonatas No.1 in A Minor Op.105 and No.2 in D Minor Op.121 are from 1851, written at the suggestion of violinist Ferdinand David. The Violin Sonata No.3 in A Minor WoO27 incorporates the two movements Schumann contributed to the F-A-E sonata, the 1853 collaboration with Brahms and Albert Dietrich that was a gift for Joseph Joachim, Schumann adding a first movement and a scherzo to complete an original third sonata.

Effortlessly beautiful playing from both performers coupled with exemplary recording quality makes for another outstanding release.

05 Shostakovich RachmaninoffFrom one outstanding duo release to another: Shostakovich Rachmaninoff Sonatas for Cello & Piano finds cellist Carmine Miranda and pianist Robert Marler in superb form in two of the great cello sonatas (Navona NV6475 navonarecords.com/catalog/nv6475).

Miranda’s deep, rich cello and Marler’s clear, warm piano, perfectly balanced and beautifully recorded, immediately promise great things – and boy, do they deliver! Shostakovich’s Cello Sonata in D Minor Op.40 from 1934 is described as a lyrical, classical work, but it still has the pain-ridden slow movement and frantic fast movements so typical of his later works.

The Rachmaninoff Cello Sonata in G Minor Op.19 from 1901 is a big Romantic work that requires a big technique from both players, its third movement Andante surely one of the most glorious movements ever written. It’s hard to imagine a more gorgeous performance than this one.

06 Patricia KopatchinskajaViolinist Patricia Kopatchinskaja and pianist Fazil Say have been playing together as a duo since 2004, and the close nature of their musical relationship is clearly evident in the three sonatas on Janáček Brahms Bartók (Alpha Classics ALPHA885 outhere-music.com/en/classical-music-shop/latest-releases).

The Janáček and Bartók sonatas were both completed in 1921, and both show the influence of folk music on the two composers. The Brahms work is the last of his three, the Sonata No.3 in D Minor, Op.108, completed in 1888. 

Kopatchinskaja has a clear, bright tone that can sound quite light at times without ever losing strength, and the ease with which she handles the technical demands never lacks depth and conviction. Say is an equal partner in all respects on an excellent disc.

07 Guitar FavouritesXuefei Yang was the first Chinese guitarist to study at London’s Royal Academy of Music, and the first to launch a worldwide professional career. Guitar Favourites, her latest CD, reviews her 35 years with the guitar, returning to the quintessential guitar music that first drew her under its spell (Decca 485 8195 xuefeiyang.com). 

Her technique is flawless and apparently effortless, but it’s what she does with it that makes this such a remarkable disc; the clarity, definition, dynamics and flowing, flexible phrasing making even the most familiar pieces sound fresh. Works include Albéniz’s Asturias, Tárrega’s Recuerdos de la Alhambra (with rubato!) and Capricho Árabe, Sor’s Variations on a Theme by Mozart Op.9, four pieces by Augustín Barrios Mangoré including the three-part La Catedral, Yang’s own Xinjiang Fantasy, the first recording of When the Birds Return by guitarist John Williams and single pieces by Rodrigo, Lauro and Villa-Lobos. 

A gorgeous arrangement of Danny Boy completes a stunning recital.

08 Takacs Quartet Hough Dutilleux Ravel String QuartetsA composition by the British pianist Stephen Hough opens Hough, Dutilleux & Ravel String Quartets, the latest CD from the Takács Quartet (Hyperion CDA68400 hyperion-records.co.uk/dc.asp?dc=D_CDA68400).

Hough’s six-part String Quartet No.1, “Les Six rencontres” was written in 2021 specifically as a companion piece to the Dutilleux and Ravel works. It’s extremely attractive, finely crafted and idiomatic writing, dedicated to the Takács Quartet and given what must be a definitive performance here.

Henri Dutilleux’s Ainsi la nuit from 1973-76 began as a group of short studies in sonority, the seven linked sections creating fascinating effects and tonal colours. Again, there’s superbly controlled and nuanced playing from the quartet.

A dazzling reading of Ravel’s String Quartet in F Major from 1902-03 completes a terrific CD. 

09 RVW Quartets2022 saw the Tippett Quartet mark their 25th anniversary year and the 150th anniversary of Vaughan Williams’ birth with Ralph Vaughan Williams & Gustav Holst String Quartets (SOMM Recordings SOMMCD 0656 somm-recordings.com/recording/vaughan-williams-holst-string-quartets).

Vaughan Williams spent the year 1907-08 studying with Ravel in Paris; his String Quartet No.1 in G Minor from 1909 showed a resulting greater textual clarity, although it remained unpublished until a revised version appeared in 1922. The viola, Vaughan Williams’ own instrument, is prominent in the String Quartet No.2 in A Minor from 1942-43; the work is dedicated to Jean Stewart, violist in the Menges Quartet that gave the first performance in 1944. The beautiful Romance second movement, in particular, is Vaughan Williams at his most characteristic.

 Holst wrote his Phantasy Quartet on British Folksongs Op.36 in 1916, but eventually withdrew it, feeling it to be “insufficient.” His daughter Imogen published a string orchestra version some years after his death. The viola is again prominent in this charming quartet edition by Roderick Swanston.

10 Piatti QuartetThere’s more Vaughan Williams on Boyle, Moeran, Ireland, Vaughan Williams, his Household Music – Three Preludes on Welsh Hymn Tunes from 1940-41 opening the new CD from the Piatti Quartet (Rubicon RCD1098 rubiconclassics.com/release/piatti-quartet-boyle-vaughan-williams-moeran-ireland). 

The main work here though is the premiere recording of the lovely String Quartet in E Minor from 1934 by the unjustly neglected Irish composer Ina Boyle (1889-1967), who, apart from travelling to London for lessons with Vaughan Williams, from 1923 spent virtually her entire life in the family home in County Wicklow. This attractive work remained in manuscript until a new performing edition was made in 2011.

John Ireland’s brief The Holy Boy is his 1941 arrangement of a 1913 piano solo. The disc ends with E.J. Moeran’s undated two-movement String Quartet No.2 in E-flat Major, discovered in his papers after his death in 1950. The Novello edition felt it to be “clearly an early work,” but while the first movement may support this view the Irish folksong nature of the second movement suggests a strong post-war influence of the songs he collected in County Kerry, some of which he published in 1948.

11 David Oistrakh QuartetOn Beethoven Shostakovich Schubert String Quartets the four Russian musicians of the David Oistrakh Quartet, all soloists in their own right, “embrace the fury of these three works” with full-blooded playing (Praga Digitals PRD250426 prestomusic.com/classical/products/9408438--beethoven-schubert-shostakovich-string-quartets).

Beethoven’s String Quartet No.4 in C Minor, Op.18, if a little rushed at times, certainly shows passion, which works particularly well in the Allegro prestissimo fourth movement. 

Shostakovich’s String Quartet No.3 in F Major, Op.73 from 1946, is the heart of the disc, both physically and emotionally. It became known as his “war quartet” after the composer renamed the movements in the manner of a war story to avoid being accused of “formalism” or “elitism.” Blythe ignorance of the future cataclysm, Rumblings of unrest and anticipation, Forces of war unleashed, In memory of the dead and The eternal question: why? and wherefore? give a clear indication of the music‘s soundscape.

Schubert’s String Quartet No.12 in C Minor, D703 “Quartettsatz” from 1820 is the brief first movement from an unfinished quartet. The final track, not mentioned in the booklet notes, is the quartet’s violist Fedor Belugin’s dazzling arrangement of Paganini’s Caprice Op.1 No.24 in A Minor.

12 Beautiful PassingOn Beautiful Passing the title track is the single-movement violin concerto written by the American composer Steven Mackey in 2008 and inspired by the death of his mother. Anthony Marwood is the soloist, with David Robertson conducting the Sydney Symphony Orchestra (Canary Classics CC-22 canaryclassics.com).

Consisting of two halves separated by a cadenza, it’s a tough, uncompromising work that has passages of real beauty above and amid the sometimes-brutal orchestral texture, with a demanding and finely woven violin line brilliantly played by Marwood. It’s a work that invites and will surely reward further listening.

The remainder of the CD consists of Mackey’s Mnemosyne’s Pool from 2014, a five-movement symphonic saga dealing with aspects of remembering, Mnemosyne being the Greek goddess of memory. Described by Musical America as “the first great American symphony of the 21st century” it’s a hugely impressive orchestral canvas that receives an outstanding performance.

13 WeinbergMieczysław Weinberg Complete Works for Violin and Piano, Volume Four completes the series of music by the Polish-born Soviet composer and close friend of Shostakovich that began in September 2010. Yuri Kalnits is the excellent violinist and Michael Csányi-Wills the equally fine pianist (Toccata TOCC 0188 toccataclassics.com). 

This final release covers music from Weinberg’s teenage years – the Three Pieces from 1934-35 – to the 1959 Sonata for Two Violins Op.69, in which Kalnits is joined by Igor Yuzefovich. The Largo in F Major from 1944, only rediscovered in 2012, was originally part of the Sonata No.2 Op.15. The Two Songs without Words from 1947 and the Concertino in A Minor Op.42 from 1948, originally for violin and string orchestra, complete an excellent disc and series. 

14 Angele DubeauComposer Alex Baranowski is the latest subject in the Portrait series that has been so successful for violinist Angèle Dubeau and her La Pietà string ensemble (Analekta AN 2 8750 analekta.com/en).

The CD follows the usual format of short pieces and extracts arranged – in this case by the composer himself – for Dubeau’s group. This collaboration was clearly a joy for composer and artist alike, Dubeau calling Wiosna, the piece she commissioned, the heart of the album, while Baranowski calls it one of the most personal pieces he’s ever written.

Most of the tracks reflect Baranowski’s work for screen and stage, with several extracts from the movies The Windermere Children and Nureyev, and the ballets Nineteen Eighty-Four and Kes. There’s not a great deal of variety, but the beautiful writing and top-notch performances will make this a sure-fire winner with Dubeau’s many fans. 

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01 Andrew Balfour NagamoAndrew Balfour – Nagamo
Musica Intima vocal ensemble
Redshift Records TK522 (musicaintima.org)

Often, in histories of rock music, one confronts the idea that the so-called “concept album” is the sole province of this genre. Friendships, I’m told, have been ruined as a result of heated debates as to whether Frank Zappa’s Freak Out!, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band or Pet Sounds by the Beach Boys can rightly lay claim to being the inaugural blending of music with an extra musical meaning in conceptual form. All of this is ridiculous, of course. Woody Guthrie was recording dust bowl ballads with a shared narrative theme through his recordings as early as 1940. Further, Frank Sinatra’s 1955 In the Wee Small Hours is most certainly united by way of the themes of melancholy and unrequited love, weaving a requisite and consistent thread through the tracks that, by all accounts, is a hallmark of the concept album.

Regardless of the aforementioned problematic claims to historic ownership of the format, composer Andrew Balfour, a self-described “former choir boy” and Sixties Scoop survivor, has waded into this conceptual format in an extraordinary and beautiful way with his 2023 release Nagamo. The title, like several of the album’s lyrics, is Cree (other texts featured here come from Ojibway, English, Latin and Gaelic sources) and the concept mines the fantastical question of what might have happened musically should Indigenous and European musics and cultural expressions come together in a manner collaborative and respectful, rather than divisive. The suggested result, as manifested on the beautiful album here, captures 12 crystalline skilled voices working their way through motets and Elizabethan choral music reimagined into Cree and Ojibway languages, alongside a duo of fine original pieces by Balfour with a Scottish Gaelic text. A beautifully recorded and interesting new release from the ensemble musical intima.

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02 NelliganNelligan
Various artists
ATMA ACD2 2814 (atmaclassique.com/en)

The tragic life story of Émile Nelligan, one of the most renowned 19th-century Canadian poets, has been a subject of several contemporary artistic endeavours and inspires wonder and speculation in creators and audiences alike. Born in 1879, Nelligan joined the École littéraire du Montréal at 17 and produced a significant body of poetic works by the time he was 19, at which point he was committed to a psychiatric hospital by his parents, for reasons that are not entirely clear. He stayed there for another 40 years and never wrote a word of poetry again.

Although characterized as a pop opera, Nelligan’s score is built on a classical foundation mixed with several musical genres, including pop and musical theatre. It is not surprising that the cast on this album is comprised of 15 stellar actors/singers, who brought to life both the emotional and circumstantial aspects of Nelligan’s story. Written by French Canadian icons, André Gagnon (music) and Michel Tremblay (libretto), the full operatic version was premiered in 1990 to critical acclaim. The more intimate version appearing on this album, splendidly arranged for two pianos and cello by Anthony Rozankovic, has an alluring element of confidentiality, as if the characters are spilling their innermost thoughts to our ears. It could be argued that the score does not quite access the emotional intensity of Nelligan’s life, but the featured elements of restraint, melancholy, purpose and poignancy, as well as beautiful melodies, certainly make up for the lack of raw emotion. Tremblay’s libretto is both potent and subtle, displaying societal oppression of artistic freedom and sexual orientation, the explorative tendencies of young artistic minds and linguistic tensions in Nelligan’s bilingual family all in one breath. 

It is interesting that Tremblay chose to portray two Émiles – a young one, completely consumed by poetry, and a much older one, nearing the end of his life in the hospital. Dominique Côté and Marc Hervieux are simply stunning in their portrayal of these two characters. Their heartfelt performance in one of the arias, Les Muses, into which the chanting of nuns is interpolated, is a perfect example of the power of this opera. Kathleen Fortin is poignant in the role of Émilie Hudon, Nelligan’s mother, especially in La dame en noir. The strong instrumental ensemble, featuring Esther Gonthier (piano and direction), Rosalie Asselin (piano) and Chloé Dominguez (cello) underlines the lyricism and storminess of the music with perfect sensibility.

03 Tu me voyaisTu Me Voyais
Christina Raphaëlle Haldane; Carl Philippe Gionet
Leaf Music LM257 (leaf-music.ca)

Christina Raphaëlle Haldane and Carl Philippe Gionet come together on Tu me Voyais to take us on a fascinating journey with lieder richly evocative of Acadian culture. Haldane is an agile soprano with a whisper-soft, tremulous vibrato. Always plangent and eloquent, she often inhabits a range that is dramatically lower than her soprano and darker in tone texture. Gionet is an equal partner in this exquisite recital and Haldane’s renditions of these songs is borne aloft throughout on Gionet’s delicate, shimmering – often spellbinding – pianism. 

The song poetry does much to elevate the music on this album. With repertoire that ranges from (the fin-de-siècle) Douze chansons folkloriques acadiennes, exquisitely arranged by Gionet, the dramatic Icare: premier fragment by Adam Sherkin, and pour une Amérique engloutie (IV) and Il va sans dire by Jérôme Blais, vocalist and pianist create a canvas that is by turns sensuous, ruminative, teasing and dramatic. 

Both artists weave mighty artistic spells throughout – Haldane with her impassioned and often amorous vocals that are melismatic and hauntingly beautiful, and Gionet with unmatched pianism that is marked with subtle lyricism. Listening to them is like experiencing an exquisitely choreographed pas de deux – one moment graceful and balletic, the next robust and athletic. Their supple ornamentation, informed by evidence of theatricality in the traditional Acadian sources, is also most effective. The open sound of this finely balanced recording enhances the ethereal quality of these delicate songs.

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04 Wagner RingWagner – Der Ring des Nibelungen
Stemme; Hilley; Paterson; Jovanovich; Teige; Pesendorfer; Deutsche Oper Berlin; Donald Runnicles
Naxos DVD 2107001 (naxos.com/CatalogueDetail/?id=2.107001)

Deutsche Oper in Berlin has always been famous for avant-garde, innovative, even iconoclastic versions of operas, so this brave new production was eagerly awaited. Filmed by Naxos on seven DVDs, all in HD full stereo sound in a deluxe edition, Der Ring des Nibelungen is a tetralogy that took Wagner 25 years to compose while in exile in Switzerland. It is directed by Stefan Hernheim, a multiple award-winning Norwegian-German director. It is a visionary Ring for the 21st century with today’s complex issues like the refugee crisis, inclusiveness and gender equality worked in, but fully respecting Wagner’s drama and music. It’s a stunning production, a visual knockout with an international cast of the best singers available today, masterfully conducted by Donald Runnicles.

Das Rheingold begins with an empty stage. A group of refugees with worn out suitcases walk across it stopped by a grand piano. The leader of the group strikes an E-flat note and the music begins. The E-flat triad is the basis of the Prelude and represents pure unspoiled Nature, the depth of the river Rhine; from here onwards things start to go awry (like the Expulsion from Paradise, the Original Sin). The group then breaks up, some become the singers, like the Rhine maidens, plus many extras. The backdrop is a white silk handkerchief that has a life of its own and expands into a giant screen. It undulates like the waves of the Rhine but later, with clever videography and projections, becomes a forest, mountains, fire or the majestic hall in Asgard. At the Finale the sheet is spectacular with all the colours of the rainbow as a backdrop to the Gods entering Valhalla. Outstanding singers are the young Wotan (Derek Welton), Alberich (Markus Brück) and Fricka (Annika Schlicht). Thomas Blondelle’s performance of the clever demi-god Loge is exceptional.  

The grand piano is omnipresent at centre stage. Interestingly it stands for musical inspiration and is said to represent the famous Érard on which Wagner composed the entire Ring cycle. At emotionally charged moments a singer sits down and pretends to play with enthusiasm. Another important feature is the extras who do many different things, but mainly form a group like a Greek Chorus and at key points watch and silently comment on the action. Also, the director constantly reminds us of the plight of refugees with worn black suitcases piled up and forming a rocky terrain in the outdoor scenes. 

In Die Walküre there are magnificent scenes. In the first act when the weaponless Siegmund desperately cries Wälse, Wälse! wo ist dein Schwert!? he is elevated on a platform some 20 feet above the stage which suddenly turns pitch black with only Siegmund illuminated. Spring bursts in as a giant translucent ball lit up inside in springtime colours – just gorgeous. The passionate love duet is beautifully sung by Brandon Jovanovich and Elizabeth Teige. In the Third Act the Ride of the Valkyries becomes pandemonium. The score is seing thrown around and the singers occasionally check it as if not sure of what they are doing. The corpses they carry come alive, crowd the stage and try to rape the warrior maidens(!). Finally they are all hustled off the stage by the angry Wotan. Wotan’s Farewell to Brünnhilde is affectionately sung by Iain Paterson as the stage becomes enveloped in fire (which is spectacular).

Some say that in Wagner one must sit through long boring bits to reach the gorgeous climaxes. Not so here, as the director, by closely working with the actors, ensures that every detail in the music is correlated to the stage action. This way there are no boring bits. The Second Act’s very long, angry monologue by Wotan venting his anger to Brünnhilde (the wonderful Nina Stemme) becomes interesting, even exciting.

In Siegfried, the title character (American heldentenor sensation Clay Hilley “who brought vocal heft and clarion sound to the role” – The New York Times) is raised in the forest by the evil dwarf Mime (the terrific Ya-Chung Huang). The Forging Scene is spectacular with vocal fireworks; the slaying of the dragon is fearsome and there is a lovely, tender scene of Siegfried’s dialogue with a forest bird, sung by a little boy soprano. In the final love scene the group of extras who surround the rock are interracial, sometimes even same sex young men and women eager to make love and urge Siegfried and Brünnhilde to do the same. They applaud and rejoice when it finally happens.

In Götterdämmerung we leave the fairy tale and enter reality, the world of men who are cunning and greedy. Hagen, Alberich’s evil son (Albert Pesendorfer) is a tremendous basso and there are great musical highlights like Siegried’s Rhine Journey and his gradual awakening from the magic spell (just before being murdered by Hagen) and the magisterially conducted Funeral Music.

In a cataclysmic ending – Brünnhilde’s self-sacrifice throwing herself into a giant funeral pyre – the Ring returns to the Rhine and in the conflagration Valhalla collapses and the age of the Gods is over. The stage is now empty in a silvery light and there is hope for a new era.

05 Mahler Das LiedMahler – Das Lied von der Erde
Claudia Huckle; Nicky Spence; Justin Brown
Champs Hill Records digital (claudiahuckle.com)

This recent disc is a self-described “lockdown project” from the accomplished Anglo-German contralto Claudia Huckle, released with the support of the British Gustav Mahler Society. Recorded in 2021, it utilizes Mahler’s own rediscovered piano version published in 1989. Prepared in conjunction with the final orchestral version, this piano reduction offers the option of a more intimate interpretation of the work, notably so concerning the bellicose tenor part which must normally blast its way through perilous orchestral onslaughts; this possibility has been demonstrated in several recordings of the 1920 chamber version prepared for Arnold Schoenberg’s short-lived “Society for Private Musical Performances,” notably by the Smithsonian Chamber Players with a plangent John Elwes in 2007 and Reinbert de Leeuw’s 2020 release with the supple Yves Saelens. Nicky Spence however sings in full heldentenor voice throughout. Be that as it may, he’s quite excellent despite his stentorian, operatic approach, which might not seem so inappropriate in an orchestral setting. 

Huckle’s intense and moving performance brings us far deeper into the emotional world of these songs, however. As she writes in her liner notes, “One thing I realized during that beautiful spring of 2020 was that if I never performed again, my greatest regret would be never having sung Das Lied von der Erde.” Her deep commitment shines through in every bar. 

Equally splendid is the masterful pianism of the American conductor Justin Brown, who contributes an impressive tonal palette and sensitive dynamic shadings to the complex keyboard part.

06 MassenetJules Massenet – Intégrale des mélodies pour voix et piano
Various Artists
ATMA ACD2 2411 (atmaclassique.com/en)

The prospect of even approaching a presentation as epic in scope as this 13CD box set, Intégrale des mélodies pour voix et piano from the pen of Jules Massenet, is utterly daunting. The reason is that the reviewer is, to paraphrase the words of Pliny, “being choked with gold.” This is not such a hyperbolic metaphor once you traverse this repertoire. The majestic sweep of these songs is the more significant when you consider that Massenet was once pilloried as “Mademoiselle Wagner” with a style of light, lyrical “saccharine” music. Green-eyed comments such as those are only some of the epithets that were directed at one of 19th century France’s finest and most prolific composers of oratorios and opera, examples of which include Manon, Werther and the now-celebrated Thaïs. 

With the soaring arias in those operas, Massenet redefined the lyrical French tradition – the tradition of Gounod – in the light of Wagner’s advances in dramatic structure. This “lyric French” tradition clearly also found its way into Massenet’s shorter works – the songs that have been collected and presented in this mammoth set. 

It has often also been said of Massenet that he was uninterested in profundity of any sort, but on evidence contained in these songs it is also clear that few composers have ever created such attractive, lyrical works. The composer Vincent d’Indy also suggested that Massenet’s work had a “discreet and pseudo-religious eroticism” (borne out by his 1872 opera Marie-Magdeleine). This eroticism, together with an affection for orientalism, coloured most of Massenet’s subsequent work – including some of these songs. Massenet never denied or admitted to those characteristics. However, he was openly cynical about pandering to the French taste for religiose themes, even declaring: “I don’t believe in all that creeping Jesus stuff, but the public likes it and we must always agree with the public.”  

Massenet gained a firm handle on operatic scoring and with the inherent melodiousness of the aria form it was only natural that the composer fused his prodigious gift for the lyric and the dramatic into a shorter art song form. He put all of this brilliantly to work in the airborne poetry of the songs that make up the breathtaking repertory of the Intégrale des mélodies. 

There are 333 songs in these 13 CDs. The selection constitutes an almost complete edition of Massenet’s shorter work. The box also includes 13 unpublished and 31 never-before recorded songs. In short the box has epic proportions by any standard applied to any one musical genre – in this case, the song form. Each of the CDs features marquee-worthy stars including the great Canadian coloratura Karina Gauvin (cue L’Inquiétude and Le soir from CD 2). Of course Gauvin is not the only celebrity soprano featured here. Others include the quite brilliant Magali Simard-Galdès (Voix de femmes, CD 9). Still others include: mezzo Julie Boulianne (Avant la bataille, CD 10), contralto Florence Bourget (Le Noël des humbles, CD 5). Tenors include Eric Laporte (Napolitana, CD 2), while baritones feature Jean-François Lapointe (Amoureaux d’une étoile, CD 12), and among the narrators is Jean Marchand (Le vision de Loti, CD 12). 

While the vocalists are indubitably the stars on these discs the accompanists also deserve special mention. The cast of musicians includes violinist Antoine Bareil, cellist Stéphane Tétreault, guitarist David Jacques, harpist Valérie Milot and Olivier Godin who plays a radiant 1854 Sébastien Érard piano, harmonium and harpsichord. All the accompanists play with sublime idiomatic grace and must be recognised for their restrained artistry, which allows the vocalists to shine through the poesy of these works. Rarely has any box of CDs offered the kind of thrill-a-minute listening as this one.

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07 Artur SchnabelArtur Schnabel – Complete Vocal Works
Sara Couden; Jenny Lin
Steinway & Sons 30208 (steinway.com/music-and-artists/label)

In his book The Great Pianists, music critic Harold Schonberg devoted an entire chapter to Austrian Artur Schnabel (1882-1951), the first to record all 32 Beethoven sonatas. (I especially cherish his soul-searching Schubert recordings.) Yet now almost forgotten is that Schnabel also composed – a lot! – including three symphonies and five string quartets. 

This first complete collection of his vocal music memorializes Schnabel’s relationship with contralto Therese Behr, who brought her young accompanist (she was six years older) to public attention. The visually odd couple – Behr six feet tall, Schnabel five-four – married in 1905.

Schnabel composed 22 songs for Behr between 1899 and 1906, influenced by Brahms’ warm lyricism, rather than the febrile emotionalism of Mahler or Richard Strauss. Making her CD debut, American contralto Sara Couden, with her dark sepia timbre, perfectly suits the songs’ restrained, autumnal moods, prevalent even when the texts rhapsodize about the beauties of nature or love’s joys and sorrows. Pianist Jenny Lin admirably provides pianist-composer Schnabel’s often elaborate accompaniments.

Schnabel wasn’t immune, however, to the stylistic revolutions of Schoenberg and Stravinsky preceding World War I. His 22-minute Notturno, Op.16 (1914), written for Behr, marked a significant departure from his previous compositions. In Richard Dehmel’s lengthy poem, the narrator recounts an agonized dream about a dead friend. Dispensing with bar-lines, Schnabel’s music creates metric ambiguity along with discordant touches of the atonality he later firmly embraced. It’s a compelling musical psychodrama.

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