15 What does it mean to be freeWhat Does It Mean To Be Free
Anthony Fung; David Binney; Luca Mendoza; Luca Alemanno
Independent (anthonyfungmusic.com)

Drummer/composer Anthony Fung was born in Richmond Hill and raised in Canada, but has studied and lived in the United States for several years. He earned a Bachelor of Music degree from Berklee and a master’s from the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz Performance. What Does it Mean to be Free? is his third album and was recorded in L.A. where he currently lives. 

This an exciting album with eight original compositions and a great arrangement of Wayne Shorter’s Sighteeing, all played with an intense yet grooving style by some stellar musicians. In addition to the core quartet (Fung on drums; David Binney, alto sax; Luca Mendoza, piano; Luca Alemanno, bass) several tracks have special guest performers. On the title track, Andrew Renfroe brings some blistering guitar work including a high intensity exchange with Binney on sax. Defiance features Braxton Cook on a tender yet intense alto sax melody throughout and Alemanno with a pretty bass solo. Let Us Not Forget to be Kind has Roni Eytan providing some beautiful Toots Thielmans-influenced harmonica. 

Throughout the album Mendoza’s piano is spectacular, providing tasteful accompaniment and solos on the slower tunes and effortlessly complex bop lines on the up-tempo numbers. Fung’s drums are propulsive and complex while still providing a solid backing to the proceedings. What Does it Mean to be Free? At least part of the answer has to be: free to make great music. 

17 Rhodri DaviesFor Simon H. Fell
Rhodri Davies
Amgen 04 (rhodridavies.com)

A studied requiem for UK bassist/composer Simon H. Fell (1959-2020), Welsh harpist Rhodri Davies uses transformative prestidigitation on this eponymous disc to exhibit the assemblage of timbres, pitches and rhythms he can induce from the acoustic pedal harp. Davies and Fell were members of the imposing string trio IST for 25 years – cellist Mark Wastell was the third participant – and although most of this salute evolves at moderato and lento tempos, it’s no lachrymose dirge. Instead, the performance includes interludes of bubbling drama, heartfelt emotion and coiled percussiveness.

Interspaced with pauses and reverberations, Davies’ almost hour-long creation forges unique harp timbres, which alternately resemble vibraphone reverberations, tombak-like drum strokes, keyboard-like vibrations and woody rubs against unyielding material. All are used for emphasis and sequence shifts. Expected thick glissandi, multi-string drones and singular staccato echoes figure in as well, so that by midpoint multiple strokes are layered into an almost opaque squirming mass. Its subsequent division into single-string high and low twangs and plinks that move forward and ricochet back into the concentrated narrative, suggest not only IST’s multiple string tropes, but the sort of unique compositions Fell wrote, arranged and played.

Properly saluting a fellow string player and improviser, this session also confirms Davies’ innovative ability to come up with near-orchestral, multi-string motifs sourced with compelling skill from the attributes of only a single stand-alone harp.

18 Blue JournalBlue Journal
Ester Wiesnerova
Independent (esterwiesnerova.com)

The eloquent vocalist Ester Wiesnerová bids you to sink into her very private world with this elaborately packaged Blue Journal: 11 songs, and an illustrated, 120-page book. Here Wiesnerová invites us to enter what appears to be a musical portal. Listening to the opening bars of her very first song – Sinking Deep – you will find it hard to resist relocating yourself into her world. Her voice is like a warm, inviting, whispered breath as the poetic alluring lyrics are released into air. 

Wiesnerová is accompanied by musicians completely attuned to her vision and artistry. Sam Knight’s questing horn soars above tumbling cascades of Charles Overton’s radiant harp. Kan Yanabe’s percussion colourations glued together with the gentle rumble of Michal Šelep’s bass also invite us with impassioned conviction into Wiesnerová’s private world. 

Wiesnerová beckons you between the sheets (so to speak) of the Blue Journal. She lures you into this music of unsentimental intelligence, with her clear, beguiling tone. At the heart of her artistic conception is Nightingales and Maple Trees, a song that lies at the heart of Wiesnerová’s secret soundscape deep inside her Blue Journal

Throughout this repertoire, warmth and affection abound, befitting the delicately amorous subjects of the songs. For her part the inimitable Wiesnerová breathes her way into this extraordinary music with imagination and infectious musicality.

19 JusticeJustice – The Vocal Works of Oliver Lake
Sonic Liberation Front and the Sonic Liberation Singers
Hugh Two HT038 (sonicliberationfront.com)

Decades ago I was a young saxophone player attending university in Edmonton and saw a poster for an Oliver Lake solo concert. It had only a picture of him standing alone holding an alto saxophone. Intriguing. In that concert Lake chanted, shook beads and other percussion, hummed and spoke a few words between long soliloquies on his horn. The evening was a meditation that moved from one mood and thought to another and it was entrancing. Since then, Oliver Lake has performed and composed with an incredibly diverse range of musicians including the World Saxophone Quartet, and released over 40 albums as leader and more as a sideman. 

The Sonic Liberation Front invited Lake to write for their unique instrumentation of violin, tenor sax, acoustic bass and drums with a vocal quartet. Lake wrote eight pieces which include two poems. This album has a great energy, which moves freely amongst all the players. What is funky and has an uplifting and syncopated melody played together by saxophone, violin and vocalists. It then moves into a scrappy but swinging sax solo by Elliot Levin while Veronica Jurkiewicz’s phased violin solo reminds me a bit of Jean-Luc Ponty. Dedicated’s beautiful flute line, combined with the smooth vocals, sounds like a strange and misplaced Burt Bacharach composition. I love it! 

Ain’t Nothin’ Real BUT Love is one of the two pieces based on Lake›s poetry and has only some delightful a cappella background vocals accompanying the emphatic statements about how love «moves independently of our fears and desires.» Justice manages to be loose, edgy, groovy and heartfelt all at the same time.

01 Balkan ConfluenceConfluence – Balkan Dances and Tango Neuvo
Zachary Carrettin; Mina Gajić
Sono Luminus DSL-92256 (sonoluminus.com/store/confluence)

Confluence marks the second release for the acclaimed Sono Luminus label by husband-and-wife duo, pianist Mina Gajić and violinist Zachary Carrettin. The pairing of Marko Tajčević’s folky Balkan Dances with the contemporary tangos by Ray Granlund may seem risky at first glance but it works very well and is a reflection of the cultural influences that are meaningful to these two performers. Here we have a flowing together, a merging of two different compositional languages, coming from regions that are geographically distanced but complementary with their distinct rhythmicity and melodic flavour. 

The selected tangos were written for Carrettin and it is obvious how much he enjoys playing them. The passion and lyricism, mixed together in both the writing and interpretation, are truly engaging. Granlund leaves room for improvisation and plenty of interpretative choices, and Carrettin thrives on the explorative freedom the tangos are providing. His sound is mellow and intense at the same time, as if he is daring us to get up and join him in dance. 

Tajčević’s Balkan Dances, written for solo piano, are not as exuberant but they have an absolutely relentless rhythmical drive, reminiscent of Bartók, and the melos and sturdiness of Balkan music. Gajić brings the percussiveness to the forefront and she does it with both grace and conviction. TangoNometria, one of the pieces on the album, easily links all the aspects of the music and performances on display here – ever-shifting rhythms, visceral melodies and thrilling interpretations.

Listen to 'Confluence' Now in the Listening Room

02 Lamia Yared OttomanOttoman Splendours
Lamia Yared; Ensemble Oraciones
Analekta AN2 9176 (analekta.com/en)

Diverse does not begin to describe the musical heritage of the Ottoman Empire. Full credit then to Lamia Yared, who has assembled a suitably diverse CD, drawing on Sephardic, Turkish, Hebrew and Greek music. Full credit to Didem Başar for her plaintive settings of most of the songs on the CD.

The backbone of the collection comprises a group of Ladino songs, some of which feature melodies that would not be out of place among the courts of medieval Europe; Dicho me habian dicho is a case in point with the haunting singing of Yared and its vivacious string accompaniment.

Ensemble Oraciones’ interpretations of the Turkish songs bring home the liveliness of this tradition; for example, Niçin gördüm seni highlights all the Ensemble’s players, one by one, in a spirited performance enhanced by Yared’s yearning voice.

Perhaps the most eccentric tracks on the CD are the songs written by Greek composers. Kouklaki mou (My Doll) begins with a clarinet intro by Yoni Kaston in full accordance with the rebetiko tradition of the Greek underworld. The tune may have been borrowed by Judeo-Spanish musicians but Kouklaki mou has its own place in Greek music – performed by women singers delivering their song within the hashish dens of Athens (the little doll is not the sort of woman you would want to bring home to any Jewish mother.)  

Mention should certainly be made of the instrumental contributions, for example the staccato drumbeats of Tres morillas eventually interweaving with the urgency of the kanun part. The versatility of the kanun is in fact proven by Başar’s own playing.   

The performers were very brave in condensing music from a whole swath of Europe onto one CD – which demonstrates how right they were to amalgamate their exceptional talents. 

Listen to 'Ottoman Splendours' Now in the Listening Room

03 Les ArrivantsHome
Les Arrivants
Analekta AN 2 9175 (analekta.com/en)

Les Arrivants is a positive COVID-19 pandemic creation. The three musicians -- Amichai Ben Shalev on bandoneon, Abdul-Wahab Kayyali on oud, and Hamin Honari on percussion -- independently settled in Montreal between the summers of 2019 and 2020 where they met and found a musical common ground playing together as an ensemble. They each draw on their personal backgrounds, resettlement experiences and respective musical expertise of Argentinian tango, classical Arabic music and traditional Persian rhythms with Montreal contemporary/traditional/improvised music and life during COVID to make unique music 

Each musician is also a composer. Title track Home (Chez Soi) by Honari has his repeated percussion rhythm grounding the bandoneon’s modern wide-pitched, held notes and chords midstream, then an oud solo and a closing upbeat group build. Kayyali’s Burkaan (Volcan/Volcano) is fast and fun, more traditional oud music, with the band members doubling and answering the oud lines. Each member performs a solo track. Shalev’s bandoneon composition Solitude is a musical contemporary storytelling take on the tango genre with swells, held notes and wide-pitch ranges. Special guests Reza Abaee on gheychak, and Pierre-Alexandre Maranda on double bass, appear on select tracks like the closing Nava by Parviz Meshkatian, showcasing the band’s world, improvisation and popular style musicianship.

Special thanks to artistic residency support from the Montreal-based Centre des Musiciens du Monde in collaboration with Analekta for this album. Les Arrivants’ tight seamless blending of styles and instrumentals creates accessible, colourful, world/popular music for all to enjoy.

Listen to 'Home' Now in the Listening Room

Almost from the time when so-called classical music was first recorded, inventive musicians have figured out ways to alter the scores in some way for novelty, commerce or homage. The most sincere of these trends began in the 1950s as creative musicians began interpolating improvisations into what had been treated as immutable musical doctrines since High Culture codification began in the late 19th century. This sonic refashioning continues, with the discs here demonstrating different approaches to the revisions.

01 MarekOutlier of the group is the octet led by Polish woodwind player Marek Pospieszalski on Polish Composers of the 20th Century (Clean Feed CF 585 CD cleanfeed-records.com). Rather than recasting any of the classical canon’s greatest hits by great composers on this two-CD set, Pospieszalski, two other horn players, three string players, a pianist and a percussionist plus the use of tape and a soundboard, produce variations on a dozen themes by contemporary Polish composers. Titled with the composers’ last names, most of which are little known outside their home country, the tunes are given additional resonance as jazz, noise and electronic tropes are worked into the performances. Staying true to the music’s genesis though, references are always made to the initial theme. Each track is, above all, an orchestral work, since there are few solos, and no protracted ones, with each performance arranged as primarily group work. What that means, for instance, is that while a piece like Stachowski may be broken up with effects pedal rock-like flanges from guitarist Szymon Mika and metallic percussion from drummer Qba Janicki, the track’s essence is a horizontal flow that becomes more concentrated as it evolves. Similarly, Kotoński may be briefly segmented by Tomasz Dąbrowski’s mewling trumpet breaths, Piotr Chęcki’s pinched vibrations and Pospieszalski’s flat-line clarinet buzz, but the equivalent of a military-style march projected by the drummer and bassist Max Mucha also suffuse the track. True to Poland’s Slavic folk heritage as well, tracks such as Szalonek and Rudziński include some joyous, terpsichorean moments. The first bounces along with drum clanks and hard percussion pummels while climbing to an explosion of vamping-horn multiphonics and harmonies. Meanwhile, the second uses horn slurs, Mucha’s clipping-nerve beats and pianist Grzegorz Tarwid’s jumpy keyboard pressure to replicate Eastern European free-style enthusiasm. Overall though, the paramount impression left by the 12 performances is how both discipline and dexterity have united into an ingenious salute to contemporary Polish composers, which also stands on its own as a musical statement.

02 OttoThe same concept applies to Danses (Microcidi 027 circum-disc.com) by the French Otto duo of electric guitarist Ivann Cruz and drummer Frédéric L’Homme. Transforming 13 Bach compositions for lute and cello, the two invest the suite with a modern sensibility without overdoing things. So while some of the gigue interpretations would seem more appropriate to pogoing than courtly dancing, the basic lyrical form is maintained. Gigue, Suite n°2 BWV 997 encapsulates what the two do in miniature. Beginning with rugged rat-tat-tats from the drummer and a low-pitched bass-string thump that moves towards Memphis funk, the familiar lyrical melody soon replaces the track inception so that the piece sways back and forth between both sonic strands to the expected ending. Later transformations are signalled on Prélude, Suite n°2 BWV 997, the first track, as L’Homme’s two-beat cowbell ringing pulse would be more common in a Dixieland club than a Baroque-era church and Cruz’s fleet pinpointed swinging references confirm the impression. Throughout the guitarist’s stylings encompass not only jazz but country picking (Allemande, Suite n°1 BWV 996) and even flirt with punk rock (Allemande, Suite pour violoncelle n°2 BWV 1008), as rugged percussion asides or straight-on drum pressure adds to the fluid expressiveness. The duo though, is also canny enough not to override the melodic core of Bach’s work. So, while a tune like Prélude & Allemande, Suite pour violoncelle n°3 BWV 1009 allows the drummer to expose his inner Neil Peart with busy, connective ruffs and bottom clanks and the guitarist to seed the track with a shower of high-power buzzes and flanges, the collective slides and echoes may be more aggressive but no more discordant than the original. Letting themselves go, Chaconne, Partita n°2 BWV 1004 is extended to 13-plus minutes, with the interpretation as intensified as it is concentrated. Throughout, lighter string frails, subdued percussion crackles, reverb challenge for supremacy, molasses-thick string chording and borne-down drum bangs and ruffs, it’s this tension which defines the challenge met and satisfies by giving way to folksy reverberations by the end.

03 CordamMoving from the music of a composer who died in 1750 to one who was around until 1937, are compositions partly based on Maurice Ravel themes played by Montreal’s Cordâme sextet on Ravel Inspirations (Malasarts mam 048 cordame.bandcamp.com/album/ravel-inspirations). Mature in his own writing, leader/bassist Jean Félix Mailloux alternates tracks directly influenced by the French composer and those wholly his own. The group’s treatment of Boléro demonstrates how these transformations evolve. With the familiar theme first stated by harpist Éveline Grégoire-Rousseau, it’s taken up by violinist Marie Neige Lavigne and then harmonized with supple modulations from pianist Guillaume Martineau. As harp glissandi and Sheila Hannigan’s cello sweeps embellish the exposition, Mailloux’s bass and Mark Nelson’s percussion create a rhythmic bottom. When Martineau pulses a bluesy interlude within the theme, massed and discordant string plunks add to its fragmentation, but by the end it’s reconstituted with sympathetic harp strums. Group harmonies keep the narrative linear during other glimpses into the Impressionist’s canon such as Pavane pour une infante défunte at the same time as stop-time string strokes and piano-created note swells build up excitement. That done, piled on textures from harp, cello and violin calm the performance so that it finally relaxes during the concluding integrated sequence. Other tracks may sound a bit too formal until they’re suffused by the warmth of tincture additions in Mailloux’s arrangements. Meanwhile Cordâme originals are characterized by more overt modernism in the arrangement and performances. Horizontal bow sweeps and clock-like drum ticking give way to violin triple stopping and continuous harp patterns on La bardane; while tough and heavier sound coordination among band members sutures the rubato sections of Océanos, which, besides staccato string stings, feature a rugged drum solo and a near-foot-tapping groove. Drum rumbles and pops also characterize what may be the preeminent composition Kenny Wheeler, named for another Canadian musical innovator. By cannily contrasting undulating motifs from the strings which attain smoothness without sweetness and rhythm section power, Mailloux realizes the same sort of half-Impressionist, half-intense composition, that is not unlike Wheeler’s memorable work.

04 MusicaComing from the so-called other side of the musical world is France’s Ensemble 0 whose Musica Nuvolosa: Pauline Oliveros/György Ligeti (Sub Rosa SR 528 ensemble0.com) provides an intriguing object lesson in the present day state of the improvised/notated divide. The eight-member ensemble consisting of two woodwind players, three string players, two percussionists and a pianist specialize in contemporary repertoire, usually by living composers. Unfortunately this isn’t the case here, but the adaptations of Horse Sings From Cloud (1975) by Oliveros (1932-2016) and the 11-part Musica Ricercata (1951-53) by Ligeti (1923-2006) are equally instructive. Oliveros, who had a long association with improvisers such as Joe McPhee and Joëlle Léandre, composed a 20-minute piece that, while minimalist, is less than doctrinaire and has enough chance elements to alter each performance. Encompassing an underlying string drone, the repetitive theme adds more instrumental colour and timbral extensions as it evolves, but stays true to gradual dynamics. Besides sweeping tremolo chords, Júlia Gállego Ronda’s flute overlay and Melaine Dalibert’s insistent piano clinks help characterize the evolution. A different matter, Musica Ricercata draws on Ligeti’s Austro-Hungarian background as well as more modern currents. Moving through sections of melancholy and light-heartedness it never stays long enough in either mode to define an overriding emotion. Still, while the downcast sections are slower moving and include taut bell-tolling inferences, they never become tearful. Meanwhile the speedier pieces not only resemble Magyar music, but are often foot-tapping enough to pass unnoticed in a swing band. There are even points where the piano strays close to boogie-woogie chording, the flute stops aim for rhythmic bites and violinist Tomoko Katsura could be playing at a hoedown. Furthermore with percussionists Aurélien Hadyniak and Stéphane Garin creating textures from vibraphone, glockenspiel, piccolo snare drum, small triangle, gong, marimba, xylophone, tubular bells and tam-tam, the rhythmic underpinning sometimes sounds like the beat-affiliated orchestrations and arrangements that Ferde Grofé and his imitators made for large early so-called jazz orchestras like Paul Whiteman’s.

Improvised and notated music appear to be drawing closer during every decade. These albums demonstrate some of the results of this situation.

01 Luboshutz NemenoffThe Art of Duo-Piano Playing is the title of a box of four CDs from Marston Records devoted to the recordings of one of the most esteemed duos of their era, that is the late 1930s and beyond, Luboshutz and Nemenoff (marstonrecords.com/products/luboshutz-nemenoff). They were, of course, not pioneers of the art but they were a little different from their immediate predecessors: the public would have been familiar with Bartlett and Robertson, also Vronsky and Babin and others. With Luboshutz and Nemenoff we have a superb classical pianist with an enviable background in chamber music and an experienced accompanist. Pierre Luboshutz was born in Odessa in 1891 to a Russian-violinist father who taught him to play. Although his first instrument was the violin, he eventually focused on the piano, becoming a pupil at the Moscow Conservatory where he studied with Konstantin Igumnov. His debut performance at the Conservatory was Brahms’ Piano Concerto No.1 conducted by Serge Koussevitzky. As a pianist he toured 50 cities in Russia, also touring notably with the American dancer Isadora Duncan. He toured the United States with violinist Efrem Zimbalist, cellist Gregor Piatigorsky and double bass virtuoso Koussevitzky (one and the same as the conductor). While teaching in Paris at the Conservatory he met his future wife who was among the participants attending a piano masterclass he was giving.  He married Genia Nemenoff and they settled in New York City. Nemenoff, born in Paris, spent her years before Luboshutz primarily as an accompanist to singers. On January 18, 1937 they began their duo concert debut tour under the name of Luboshutz-Nemenoff. The duo began recording in 1939 for RCA Victor, and it’s easy to hear why they enjoyed such popularity and praise from both critics and colleagues. Included in The Art of Duo-Piano Playing are 37 complete works by a miscellany of composers from Bach to Khachaturian. 

We can’t possibly go through each performance, as much as I’d love to. The essence of their playing is that they clearly enjoy playing together; they are seamless. You never get the sense that they are waiting for their turn, or even taking turns, it’s simply beautiful music. Their playing reflects how wonderfully in sync they are with each other, and that through the music, they are adhering to the simple yet profound beauty of musical dialogue between instruments. The box set includes most of their commercial recordings but also some recently discovered live performances.

In no particular order, here are some highlights from this box set. On September 8, 1939 they recorded a transcription by Luboshutz of the Danse Russe from Petrushka. It’s dynamic and exciting and well worth listening to. The Bat, a fantasy from Strauss’ Die Fledermaus is really captivating. 

We hear absolutely gorgeous playing from this duo throughout, including the Sonata for Two Pianos in D Major K448 by Mozart and Robert Schumann’s Andante and Variations in B-flat Op.46. There’s also a performance of the Ritual Fire Dance from de Falla’s El amor brujo, once again in a Luboshutz arrangement in which they capture all the excitement and romanticism of the work. 

What would a progra of this kind be if it didn’t include the Tambourin Chinois by Fritz Kreisler? It is joyous and playful. We are also treated to a mighty impressive transcription of the Coronation Scene from Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov. An important contribution to the third disc is Brahms’ Variations on a Theme of Haydn; and the Liebeslieder Waltzes are perhaps the most beautiful I’ve ever heard. 

While trying not to mention everything, I can’t leave out Saint-Saëns’ Variations on a theme of Beethoven Op.35. The alternating chords and the playing and waiting nature of the piece make it a very exciting performance. Three Pieces for Two Pianos by Khachaturian offer something different from the other repertoire in this set and they are certainly worth hearing. The Scaramouche Suite of Milhaud is played with a jaunty rhythm and is very convincing. The duo plays it like they believe it and are moved themselves by the piece. The 4CD set culminates with Harl McDonald’s Concerto for Two Pianos and Orchestra. This is especially good, played with the Philadelphia Orchestra and conducted by the composer (1944).  

Included in this little box from Marston, is a 46-page booklet and appreciation of the duo. There are lots of photographs of the artists at various stages of their career. Marston, well known for issuing such valuable performances, does us a service and deserves our thanks for undertaking this venture. Marston is very highly regarded in the business of reissues and has certainly excelled in this one. I cannot overstate the satisfaction and pleasure of hearing these performances so famous and popular in their day. Truly, this is the art of duo piano playing. 

If you search YouTube, you can find Ward Marston’s channel, called Past Forward, where he introduces the release of this new box set and plays Luboshutz’s marvellous transcription of Mozart’s overture from Le Nozze di Figaro. While listening we are treated to photos from the booklet, and even a few that appear not to have been included.

02 Clara HaskilRomanian pianist Clara Haskil (1895-1960) was a close friend and admirer of Herbert Von Karajan; sadly they never formally recorded together despite their deep mutual admiration. However, there is a recording of live performances from Salzburg made during a 1956 tour in celebration of Mozart’s bicentenary, Mozart: Piano Concerto No. 20, Symphony No. 39 & Nine Variations on a Minuet by Duport (ICA Classics arkivmusic.com/products/mozart-piano-concerto-no-20-symphony-no-39-9-variations-on-a-minuet-by-duport). The collaboration of the two in this live concert is quite a unique experience. Karajan conducts the Philharmonia Orchestra and lucky for us, one of the compositions on which they collaborated was the Mozart Piano Concerto No.20 in D Minor K466. What do we hear in this recording? Do we hear Karajan or do we hear Haskil? The fact is, we hear both of them and they are, together, far greater than the sum. The Philharmonia Orchestra under Karajan’s direction play with incomparable precision as was his style at the time. The orchestra was very familiar with his conducting and were certainly up to the mark. As a bonus, there is solo recording of the Nine Variations on a Minuet by Duport K573, also a live performance, taken from a recital in Besançon in September of that same year. For many, this little gem will be worth the price of the whole album, mono only, but in rather good sound.

Anyone looking for an incredible biography might want to pick up Jerome Spycket’s Clara Haskil (Lausanne, 1975). Haskil’s story begins in Bucharest in 1895 and ends in Brussels in 1960. In between there is every element imaginable of a compelling and powerful life story.  

As for Mozart’s Symphony No.39 which provides the heart of this CD, we have a great example of Karajan’s obsession with precision, highlighting the excellence of the orchestra.

02 Pepper AdamsLive at Room at the Top
Pepper Adams; Tommy Banks Trio
Reel to Real Recordings RTR CD-008 (cellarlive.com)

Undoubtedly the best – if not the only – exceptional jazz session featuring a member of the Canadian Senate, this set includes pianist Tommy Banks, who was in the Upper House from 2000-2011. While this date took place in 1972, Banks (1936-2018) exhibits the supportive and organizational skills that made him one of Alberta’s most accomplished musicians for years.

Of course the adaptive skills of Banks, bassist Bobby Cairns and drummer Tom Doran were stretched to the maximum on backing baritone saxophonist Pepper Adams (1930-1986), then a sometime visitor to Edmonton’s clubs, arguably the U.S.’s pre-eminent hard bopper on his instrument. Making the most of the trio’s rhythmic and improvisational talents, Adams elevates this program of two originals and five jazz-songbook standards to ferocious extended interactions. During Oleo, for instance, his unbroken line of earthy and empathetic variations is an object lesson in how to make the familiar exclusive. Banks’ speedy bop timing with blues underscoring keeps the piece moving. Here and elsewhere, excitement is torqued by thumping bass and crashing drum breaks, with both trading fours with the soloists. Sticking to mid-range tones, Adams uses squeaks and glissandi to advance his parts with the brightness of a higher-pitched instrument. The few times he emphasizes the baritone’s glottal rasp are during stop-time sequences. The resulting excitement gets added oomph when Banks’ solo slyly interjects song quotes.

Judging from their protracted applause the audience was impressed by the music. You can be too.

03 Cecil TaylorMusic from Two Continents: Live at Jazz Jamboree ’84
Cecil Taylor
Fundacja Słuchaj 16/2021 (sluchaj.bandcamp.com)

The cataclysmic pianist and composer Cecil Taylor frequently worked with large bands, his activities with student ensembles and workshop groups shaping generations of improvising musicians. His 1968 recording with the Jazz Composers Orchestra was a key event in large-scale free jazz, while his 1988 Berlin orchestra fed his own development as well as European free improvisation; however, there may have never been a band quite as apt as the compact, shifting Orchestra from Two Continents with which he performed in Europe in 1984. This performance from Warsaw presents an 11-member version, assembling many of the most distinguished members of the international free jazz community of the era. 

Like many of Taylor’s works, this hour-long piece had a ritualistic character, incorporating chanting and shouting. Here, movements with cries, hollers and snippets of song, hinting at mysteries and suggesting primordial rites, alternate with longer instrumental passages of motivically organized improvisation. These segments touch on Taylor’s deep roots. With the reeds loosely assembling around a blues-drenched riff, a passage gradually matches the loose, swarming intensity of a Charles Mingus band; a keening balladic segment spontaneously expands to the harmonic richness of Duke Ellington’s orchestra.

As with Mingus and Ellington bands, this orchestra thrives on singular instrumental voices, including the improbably sweet tone of alto saxophonist Jimmy Lyons; the brooding, blues-drenched roar of tenor saxophonist Frank Wright; the dense, forceful sound of bassist William Parker; and the brassy splendour of trumpeters Tomasz Stańko and Enrico Rava.

04 Tony OxleyUnreleased 1974-2016
Tony Oxley
DISCUS MUSIC 129 CD (discus-music.co.uk)

These previously unreleased tracks by veteran British drummer Tony Oxley contain sounds that not only expand improvised music history, but also reveal early adaptations of today’s electroacoustic interactions. Newly edited and mastered, the tracks from 1974 and 1981 find Oxley using percussion crashes and sweeps to cinch the rhythm at the same time as his processed pings, cackles and buzzes add a contrasting dimension to the other instrumentalists’ work. Considering that those challenged extensions include the output of other master improvisers such as trombonist Paul Rutherford’s lowing snarls, trumpeter Dave Holdsworth’s portamento flutters and pianist Howard Riley’s rambles and sweeps, is it surprising that a two-part ensemble piece ends with a literal waving fanfare?

More dazzling though is Frame from a few years later with a different band. Here the electronics’ irregular jiggling timbres and equivalent live drum processing easily make common cause with the spectacular spiccato jumps and sprawling glissandi from violinist Phil Wachsmann. Dominant, while accompanied by Larry Stabbins’ rugged sax smears and Riley’s pounding piano rumbles, the fiddle-drums intersection projects commanding irregular textures at supersonic speeds, but not without revealing an ever-widening spectrum of sonic colours.

Remastered with full-spectrum, 21st-century sound, these heirlooms of an earlier era easily justify their unearthing and prominent display.

In Terry Robbins’ Strings Attached column this month he reviews two new recordings of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, each paired with more recent pieces of the same name. Further on in these pages Matthew Whitfield and Tiina Kiik discuss very different approaches to the setting of traditional liturgical texts by György Ligeti, Martins Vilums, Heidi Breyer and Jóhann Jóhannsson. With this in mind, it seemed fortuitous when I also found intriguing new takes on these themes by Žibuoklė Martinaitytė and Cheryl Frances-Hoad on my desk. 

01 Cheryl Frances HoadFrances-Hoad (b.1980) composed the solo cello piece Excelsus (Orchid Classics orchidclassics.comreleases/orc100188-excelsus/) for Thomas Carroll in 2002 on the occasion of his Wigmore Hall YCAT debut. She says, “I’d known Tommy for over a decade: arriving at the Yehudi Menuhin School in 1989 as an eight-year-old cellist, I was soon very much in awe of this much more grown-up player. I have memories of playing many of the great string repertory works […] with Tommy leading the section and me right at the back. These experiences shaped me as a musician, and I still look back with astonishment at the opportunities I was given at such an early age. By the time Tommy asked me to write something for his Wigmore concert (coincidentally my first premiere at the hall too) my dreams of being an international concert cellist had long since been diverted: Excelsus would be the first piece in my portfolio towards my Composition PhD at Kings College London. […] Quite why I thought a Requiem Mass was the appropriate vehicle for a Young Concert Artist’s debut is beyond me these days. But I’m still proud of this early work which seems full of exuberance and utterly lacking in self-consciousness.  […] Musically the entire work is based on two themes: one melodic, the Rex Tremendae or ‘King of Awful Majesty’ theme, heard at the very opening; and one chordal, the Lux Aeternum (Light eternal) harmonies, not revealed in their pure form until the pizzicato passage that concludes the suite. Other subliminal influences were the Bach and Britten cello suites, which I loved to play as a teenager.” 

The composer’s self-described exuberance is an apt description of Excelsus, strange as that may seem for a requiem; perhaps more fitting for a celebration of life than a funeral service. The seven-movement work is uncompromising in the technical demands placed upon the soloist, but Carroll rises to the challenges with seeming ease in a mesmerizing and exhilarating performance of a breathtaking addition to the cello repertory.

02 MartinaityteThe Martinaitytė disc includes not only her own version of the cycle of the seasons, Sielunmaisema for solo cello and strings, but also instrumental works based on Latin texts, Ex Tenebris Lux (out of darkness, light) and Nunc fluens. Nunc stans., its title taken from The Consolation of Philosophy by Severinus Boethius: “Nunc fluens facit tempus. Nunc stans facit aeternitatum.” (roughly “the now that passes creates time; the now that remains creates eternity”). 

Martinaitytė is a mid-career Lithuanian composer based in New York City whose 2020 awards included a Guggenheim Fellowship and the Lithuanian National Prize for Culture and Arts. When I reviewed her previous Ondine recording Saudade in March 2021, I said “evoking stark landscapes, there is a wonderful lushness to the music, which seems to grow inherently out of the initial quiet in vast arcs of sustained tones and tremolos, occasionally erupting like bubbles exploding from some primordial soup. The music builds and recedes in many-textured layers with no melodies per se, just shifting moods and colours that draw us in with a sense of yearning.” Incidentally, Esprit Orchestra gave the Canadian premiere of Saudade earlier this year at Koerner Hall.

That description of her music could equally be applied to Žibuoklė Martinaitytė: Ex Tenebris Lux with the Lithuanian Chamber Orchestra under Karolis Variakojis (Ondine ODE 1403-2 naxosdirect.com/search/ode+1403-2). All the works here date from the past three years and are scored for string orchestra. Nunc fluens… includes a percussionist (Pavel Giunter), but his myriad instruments merely add to the dense, though gentle, textures. The title work, completed in 2021, involves 18 individual strings and was conceived as a commentary on the current world health crisis. The most substantial work is Sielunmaisema, which the composer says is a Finnish word meaning “soul-landscape, a particular place that a person carries deep in the heart and returns to often in memory. […] Soul-landscape is related to questions of identity and place which resonate with two parallel cultural identities that I carry within – my native Lithuanian and later acquired American. In this case, the piece itself becomes an ideal soul-landscape reflecting a native environment as seen through the prism of four seasons.” Scored for “at least” 21 strings and solo cello, as in nunc fluens… the soloist (Rokas Vaitkevičius) is not a protagonist in some mythic battle with the orchestra, but floats above the ensemble often playing tremolo monotones and simply adding textures to the whole. The work extends beyond half an hour and the four movements, which may also be taken as stand-alone pieces, are played without pause when performed together. While three of the seasons share the quiet density of Martinaitytė’s signature style, Spring bursts forth with an ebullience reminiscent of John Adams’ Shaker Loops before the work returns to rich, dreamlike swells and respites. Stunning!

03 Anna ThorvaldsdottirI reviewed Icelandic composer Anna Thorvaldsdottir’s earlier Sono Luminus disc Enigma last September, noting her music “is replete with extended techniques, extra-musical effects, unusual timbres and juxtapositions. There are few melodies per se, but rather moments and strings of events that constantly surprise and command rapt attention.” That release has been followed by the Sono Luminus (SL) reissue of the 2014 Deutsche Grammophon disc Aerial with the six original tracks supplemented by the addition of Aura from an earlier SL release featuring the LA Percussion Quartet. All the tracks have been remastered by Daniel Shores for this reissue (SLE-70025 sonoluminus.com). The sound is exceptional, but unfortunately the packaging is just as sparse as the original, with no program notes or biographical information. Fortunately the publicist was able to provide an article by Doyle Armbrust from Music + Literature dating back to the DG release that includes his extensive analysis of the works and interview excerpts with the composer, which provided a welcome context for this quite abstract fare. 

Much like Žibuoklė Martinaitytė, Thorvaldsdottir’s music is all about textures and colours. It moves at a seemingly glacial pace, or perhaps that of a cooling lava flow. In the pieces on offer here, the instrumentation is mostly sparse although the timbres are rich and dense. Aeriality, performed by the Iceland Symphony Orchestra under Ilan Volkov, is the only work for forces beyond a small chamber ensemble. As a matter of fact the opener, Into – Second Self for seven brass and four percussion, is performed by only three players through overdubbing, one each of percussion, trombone and horn. The overall effect is similar to R. Murray Schafer’s Music for Wilderness Lake where 12 trombonists positioned around the periphery of a small lake play meditative music at dawn or dusk. 

The longest work, at 15 minutes, is Trajectories for piano (Tinna Thorsteinsdóttir) and an electronic track is which we seem to hear, amongst other things, the tinkling of ice crystals as if in an arctic cove before freeze-up. True to its name, Shades of Silence for violin, viola, cello and harpsichord, written for and performed by Nordic Affect, is deeply meditative once again. The whole album unfolds as if in slow motion, but if you surrender to its pace, Aerial can be a transcendental experience. 

04 MessiaenThe final classical selection this month is Olivier MESSIAEN QUATUOR pour la FIN DU TEMPS (Our Recordings 6.220679 ourrecordings.com). The quartet is the only chamber-ensemble piece composed by Messiaen, and was written during his internment at a Silesian German POW camp in 1940-41. It is scored for musicians who were fellow prisoners in the camp, a violinist, a clarinettist and a cellist, with Messiaen himself at the piano. Messiaen was a deeply religious person and served as organist at l’Église de la Trinité in Paris for most of his career, even after he became world renowned as a composer. The eight movements of the Quatuor, with the exception of a brief Interlude, are based on biblical themes with titles such as Liturgy of Crystal, Praise for the Eternity of Jesus and Dance of Fury for the Seven Trumpets (of the Apocalypse).

The musicians on this recording, violinist Christina Astrand, clarinettist Johnny Teyssier, cellist Henrik Dam Thomsen and pianist Per Salo are all principals in the Danish National Symphony Orchestra and their performance is flawless. (My only quibble is the abrupt cutoff of the final note of the opening movement). Their unisons are so aligned that I keep finding myself straining to try and figure out just how many of them are playing at any given time. And Teyssier’s dynamic control when building from absolute silence in his solo movement, Abîme des oiseaux, is amazing! But the real reason to add this disc to my extensive Messiaen collection was the excellent essay by Jens Christian Grøndahl. It incorporates passages based on eyewitness testimony, descriptions and statements from Rebecca Rischin’s book For the End of Time: The Story of Messiaen’s Quartet, as well as Messiaen’s own preface to the score and excerpts from the Book of Revelation. There is also a translation of three stanzas of the poem Enfant, pale embryon (Child, pale embryo) by Messiaen’s mother Cécile Sauvage who said “I suffer from an unknown distant music” before the composer’s birth. It’s truly enlightening.  

Listen to 'Messiaen: Quartet pour la Fin du Temps' Now in the Listening Room

05 Cree CountryI recently read Permanent Astonishment, the latest from acclaimed playwright and novelist Tomson Highway. It’s a memoir of his first 15 years, growing up in northern Manitoba where it borders Saskatchewan, the Northwest Territories and what is now Nunavut. Far beyond where all roads end, access to the outside world was only by bush plane and local transport (i.e. a several hundred mile radius) was by dog sled and canoe. In spite of the hardships growing up in the bush with little-to-no amenities, Highway tells a charming story beginning with his birth (and near death) in a snowbank in December 1951. And later, of spying on his older sisters as they gather round a transistor radio to listen to country music from down south thanks to aberrant AM radio waves reflected through the atmosphere late at night. Even his time spent at a residential school is told fondly, albeit without glossing over the abuses perpetuated by some of the Christian Brothers.

Highway’s latest project is a CD – Cree Country (tomsonhighway.com) – featuring a dozen of his songs in classic country style sung by his frequent collaborator Patricia Cano. I first heard that incredible Peruvian-Canadian singer in Highway’s play The (Post) Mistress in which she sang in English, French and Cree and for which she won the Toronto Theatre Critics Award for Best Actress in a Musical in 2017. In this outing it’s all Cree, but thankfully, English translations are included. As I say, it’s in classic country style and I imagine it’s not much different than the music he would have heard growing up in the 1950s on those long nights in the sub-Arctic. Highway penned all the music and lyrics, but the production and arrangements are by Toronto jazz singer John Alcorn, who also adds some background vocals. The band includes some big names in Canadian country music: Mike “Pepe” Francis (guitars and direction), John Dymond (bass), Steve O’Connor (piano), Sean O’Grady (drums), Don Reed (fiddle) and Steve Smith (steel guitar). Reed and Smith are stellar throughout, with authentic down-homey solos, and Francis’ high-string acoustic accompaniment on Sassay Tipi-Skow (It’s Night Already) is a real treat. Most of the songs are up-tempo, and even the ballads and laments are hopeful and uplifting rather than maudlin. No “high-lonesome” moaning here, even in Ateek Igwa Adele (Ateek and Adele), the story of 20-year-old Ateek, affianced to Adele, who drowns one day when “A wind came up | and the waves grew in size | He started sinking, Ateek’s canoe started sinking | He drowned. He drowned. | Adele!”  Interestingly Highway also gives us his take on the four seasons in the contemplative Ooma Kaa-Pipook (When It’s Winter) “When it’s winter, there is snow everywhere | But when it’s spring, the snow disappears | When it’s summer, the sun shines | But in the fall, the Earth will soon sleep. Life on this Earth | It works the same way | You are born, you live | But in the fall, you, too, begin to die.” 

Concert note: Tomson Highway hosts the launch of Cree Country at the Horseshoe Tavern on May 23. It’s a digital release available now on all streaming platforms.

06 Thieves of DreamsIt’s too late to attend the launch of Thieves of Dreams: Songs of Theresienstadt’s Secret Poetess, the latest by Toronto-based Czech singer Lenka Lichtenberg (lenkalichtenberg.com) which took place at the Paradise Theatre on Mother’s Day. That date had a double significance for Lichtenberg because it was also the anniversary of the liberation of the Nazi “camp-ghetto” Theresienstadt (Terezin), where Lichtenberg’s mother, grandmother and grandfather were interned during the Second World War. Although her mother and grandmother survived, her grandfather was transported to Auschwitz where he was executed in a gas chamber. 

Lichtenberg says “When my mother Jana Renée Friesová passed away in 2016, I was sorting

through her desk in Prague and discovered two small notebooks. They were filled with poetry my grandmother, Anna Hana Friesová (1901-1987), wrote in the Terezín concentration camp. I knew that both my mother and grandmother were imprisoned in Terezín during the war — my mother wrote a book about it in 1996, Fortress of My Youth. However, I knew nothing of my grandmother’s experience. Most of us, if we’re lucky enough, have a brief window with our grandparents. That time isn’t typically spent listening to their traumatic stories. But there before my eyes were tattered pages with the handwritten dreams of my grandmother — and her nightmares in the camp, stories she never told me. So, I embarked on a quest to share her writing from the ‘hell on earth,’ to quote Primo Levi, and to bring her voice back to life in the way I best knew how: as music, in a project spanning eight decades and three generations.”

Thieves of Dreams is the culmination of this project to set the poems of her grandmother to music. She wrote eight of the 16 tracks, produced the album and is responsible for most of the arrangements. The remainder of the songs were composed by her collaborators Milli Janatková, Rachel Cohen, Jessica Hana Deutsch, Shy-Anne Hovorka, Zita Petrak and Lorie Wolf. The styles range widely from pensive ballads and torch songs to jazz-tinged sketches, folk-inspired chorales and anthems. The vast cohort of musicians involved includes many familiar names such as David Buchbinder (trumpet and flugelhorn), Jessica Deutsch (violin, viola, cello), Beverley Johnston (marimba), George Koller (double bass), Fern Linzon (piano), Tomáš Reindl and Anita Katakkar (tablas) among a host of others, with harmony vocals by Auri Fell, Murray Foster, Milli Janatková and Andrew McPherson. Mám vlastni trud (I have my own grief) features narration by Lichtenberg’s late mother. All of the songs are sung in Czech as in the original texts. The booklet includes facsimiles of the pages of Friesová’s notebooks and full English translations. This is a glorious achievement and a wonderful tribute to Lichtenberg’s forebears.  

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 Beethoven Dyachov SaulnierBeethoven Vol.1 is the initial digital release in a new series of the Complete Sonatas and Variations for Cello and Piano featuring cellist Yegor Dyachkov and pianist Jean Saulnier. The series will be launched in both digital and physical format, with the second digital volume available in September and a complete 3CD physical set due for release in October (ATMA Classique ACD2 4046 atmaclassique.com/en).

The central works on this first digital volume are the Cello Sonatas No.1 in F Major Op.5 No.1 and No.2 in G Minor Op.5 No.2. Both were written in late 1796, and mark the beginning of Beethoven’s development of the cello and piano sonata as an equal partnership.

The two sets of variations are both on themes from Mozart’s The Magic Flute: the 12 Variations on “Ein Mädchen oder Weibchen” Op.66 and the 7 Variations on “Bei Männern, welche Liebe fühlen” WoO46. The Horn Sonata in F Major Op.17, in the cello version prepared by Beethoven himself, closes the disc.

Dyachkov is a professor at McGill’s Schulich School of Music, and he and Saulnier both teach at the Université de Montréal. Their performances here are intelligent and beautifully nuanced, promising great things for the works still to be released.

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02 Joo Yeon Sir SolitudeWhen the COVID lockdown started, the London-based Korean violinist Joo Yeon Sir took the opportunity to explore the solo violin repertoire. Old and new works are equally represented on the resulting CD Solitude (Rubicon Classics RCD1076 rubiconclassics.com).

Biber’s remarkable Passacaglia in G Minor opens the disc, followed by two of the Paganini Caprices Op.1No.10 in G Minor and No.24 in A Minor – and Kreisler’s Recitative and Scherzo-Caprice Op.6. 

Sir is also a composer, and her My Dear Bessie from 2018 leads a group of four contemporary works, the others being Roxanna Panufnik’s Hora Bessarabia, Fazil Say’s Cleopatra Op.34 and Laura Snowdon’s Through the Fog, written for this CD. Ysaÿe’s Sonata No.6, Op.27 ends an excellent recital.

Sir has a big, strong tone and shows full command in a range of technical challenges.

03 Kavakos BachThis is more of a belated notification of availability than a review, unfortunately, but due to a confusing digital link I was only able to listen to three complete works plus assorted movements from the Leonidas Kavakos release of the complete Sonatas & Partitas on Bach Sei Solo (Sony sonyclassical.com/releases/releases-details/bach-sei-solo).

Still, the warm tone, traditional – almost Romantic – approach, rhythmic freedom, judicious ornamentation, leisurely triple and quadruple stops and resonant recording make it clear that this is a notable addition to the discography.

04 Jason VieauxAfter a gap of 13 years the American guitarist Jason Vieaux has finally released Bach Vol.2: Works for Violin, completing his Bach cycle that started with three lute suites on Vol.1: Works for Lute. The works here are the Partita No.3 in E Major BWV1006 (which is also Lute Suite No.4), the Sonata No.3 in C Major BWV1005 and the Sonata No.1 in G Major BWV1001 (Azica ACD71347 jasonvieaux.com/music).

From the opening bars of the Partita it’s clear that this is going to be something very special: faultlessly clean technique and a full, rich, warm tone, all beautifully recorded with a resonant clarity.

“I always try to just play what’s there;” says Vieaux, “the difficult thing with Bach’s music on guitar is that there’s so much ‘there’ there.” He is fully aware of how interpretation can change and deepen as the years go by, and says “I hope you will enjoy this latest snapshot of where I’m at on that particular journey.”

“Enjoy” is an understatement; these are performances that get to the heart of this extraordinary music on an outstanding CD.

05 Meyers Shining NightJason Vieaux is also the sensitive accompanist for all but three of the 14 outstanding tracks on Shining Night, the latest CD from violinist Anne Akiko Meyers; Fabio Bidini is the pianist on the other three tracks (Avie AV2455 avie-records.com/releases).

Described as an album that embraces themes of love, poetry and nature, the disc spans music from the Baroque era through to the contemporary scene. Vieaux is the partner on Corelli’s La Folia, Bach’s Air on G, Paganini’s Cantabile, the achingly lovely Aria from Villa-Lobos’ Bachianas Brasileiras No.5, Duke Ellington’s In My Solitude, Piazzolla’s complete four-movement Histoire du Tango, the Elvis Presley song Can’t Help Falling In Love and Leo Brouwer’s ode to the California giant sequoia trees Laude al Árbol Gigante.

Bidini accompanies Meyers on the Heifetz arrangement of Ponce’s beautiful Estrellita and on Dirait-On and Sure On This Shining Night, the two Morten Lauridsen pieces that close the CD. Meyers is in her usual superb form throughout a recital that is an absolute delight from start to finish.

06 Stefano MaioranaEntre dos almas Between two souls – features the music of the Spanish guitarist and composer Santiago de Murcia (1673-1739) in performances by Stefano Maiorana on Baroque guitar (Arcana A484 stefanomaiorana.it).

The two souls are Spanish and Italian, the latter especially representing the influence of Arcangelo Corelli in Madrid. The two major works here are both Murcia’s transcriptions of Corelli: the Sonata in E Minor from Op.5 Nos.5 & 8; and the Sonata in C Major Op.5 No.3. Only the first and last movements of the latter survive, so Maiorana has supplied his own transcriptions of the middle three.

The eight individual pieces are an absolute delight, with a lively opening Fandango and a terrific Tarantelas particular highlights. Maiorana plays with an effortless technique and with complete freedom in a beautiful but quite different sound world that is just bursting with life. Some additions and arrangements are apparently by Maiorana, but his experience renders them completely undetectable.

07 John Bullard banjoAnother quite different sound world – this time five-string banjo – is to be found on John Bullard Plays 24 Preludes for Solo Banjo by Adam Larrabee, Volume One Books 1 & 2 Nos. I-XII (Bullard Music johnbullard.com/music).

Dedicated to developing and transcribing classical repertoire for the five-string banjo, Bullard commissioned Larrabee to write 24 preludes, which the composer says “follow the long-standing tradition of writing pieces in all the major and minor keys to showcase an instrument’s versatility.” The major keys here are C, D, E, F-sharp, A-flat and B-flat; the minor keys are A, B, C-sharp, E-flat, F and G. Each Prelude has a title – Dialogue, Jig, Barcarolle, Impromptu, Waltz, etc. – with the A-flat Major Cakewalk a particular standout.

I don’t know what astonishes me more – that someone could write these pieces or that someone can play them. They’re simply terrific – as indeed is Bullard. Volume Two eagerly awaited!

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08 Mandolin SeasonsKeeping the “different sound world” theme going, The Mandolin Seasons – Vivaldi, Piazzolla features Jacob Reuven on mandolin and his boyhood friend Omer Meir Wellber playing accordion and harpsichord as well as conducting the Sinfonietta Leipzig, 18 string players drawn from the Gewandhaus Orchestra (Hyperion CDA68357 jacobreuven.com).

Each of the Vivaldi Four Seasons is followed by the appropriate season from Piazzolla’s Las cuatro estaciones porteñas, the four Buenos Aires pieces written between 1965 and 1970 and heard here in arrangements based on Leonid Desyatnikov’s orchestral adaptation. Each of the Piazzolla pieces contains direct quotes from the relevant Vivaldi concerto, so the pairings here feel perfect. The influence goes both ways, too – the Vivaldi concertos feature improvised accordion as well as harpsichord continuo.

Reuven displays dazzling dexterity and technique in beautifully atmospheric and effective performances, Wellber’s accordion adding a new and never intrusive dimension to the Vivaldi. 

“A magical and fascinating sound world,” say my notes. Indeed it is.

09 I MusiciIf you prefer your Vivaldi Four Seasons in more traditional format then it’s hard to imagine better performers than I Musici, who made their debut in Rome in March 1952 and their first landmark recording of the work in 1955, just eight years after the 1947 recording by American violinist Louis Kaufman that launched the Vivaldi revival. Six more versions would follow between 1969 and 2012. The group marks the 70th anniversary of that first concert with the release of a new recording of Vivaldi, Verdi: Le Quattro Stagioni – The Four Seasons (Decca 4852630 deccaclassics.com/en/catalogue/products/the-four-seasons-i-musici-12623).

Marco Fiorini, whose mother was a founding member of I Musici is the soloist in sparkling performances of the Vivaldi, paired here with the world-premiere recording of Verdi’s work of the same name, the ballet music from his 1855 opera I Vespri Siciliani, arranged for piano and strings by composer-pianist Luigi Pecchia.

10 Itamar ZormanViolin Odyssey, the latest CD from violinist Itamar Zorman is the result of his 2020 livestream video series Hidden Gems, another COVID lockdown project which featured lesser-known and rarely played works; ten were chosen for this album. Piano accompaniment is shared by Ieva Jokubaviciute and Kwan Yi (First Hand Records FHR119 firsthandrecords.com).

The two major works are the 1917 Violin Sonata No.2 in B-flat Minor Op.43 by Dora Pejačevič and the 1927 Sonata No.2 by Erwin Schulhoff, both terrific works. The eight short pieces of the Heifetz arrangement of Joseph Achron’s Children’s Suite Op.57 are here, and there are short pieces by Grażyna Bacewicz, Moshe Zorman, Silvestre Revueltas, Ali Osman, Gao Ping and William Grant Still. Gareth Farr’s 2009 Wakatipu for solo violin is a brilliant highlight.

Zorman displays his customary strong, impassioned playing throughout an excellent disc. 

11 Rebecca ClarkeRebecca Clarke Works for Viola, featuring the French violist Vinciane Béranger with pianist Dana Ciocarlie is another addition to the growing body of recordings acknowledging the significance of the English viola virtuoso’s contribution to the viola repertoire (Aparté AP289 apartemusic.com).

The major work here is clearly the outstanding Viola Sonata from 1919, a passionate reading of which opens the disc. It’s followed by another early work, Morpheus from 1917-18 and the Passacaglia on an Old English Tune, from 1941.

Cellist David Louwerse joins Béranger for the Two Pieces for Viola and Cello from 1918 and the Irish Melody (Emer’s Farewell to Cucullain “Londonderry Air”) from c.1918, the latter only rumoured to exist until being discovered in the Royal Academy of Music in 2015 and published in 2020; this is its world-premiere recording.

Hélène Collerette is the violinist for the Dumka for Violin, Viola and Piano from 1941; the mostly pizzicato Chinese Puzzle for viola and piano from 1922 completes a fine CD.

12 Amaro DuboisTwo of the Clarke pieces, plus two tracks from the Shining Night CD turn up on Adoration – Music of the Americas, a CD by the Brazilian violist Amaro Dubois with pianist Tingting Yao (Spice Classics amarodubois.com).

Two works by Florence Price, the lovely title track and Fantasy in Purple, open the disc. The six Rebecca Clarke pieces include Chinese Puzzle and the Passacaglia, the latter drawing particularly strong playing from both performers. Samuel Coleridge-Taylor’s beautiful Five Songs of Sun and Shade show Dubois’ rich, warm tone at its best, and are real gems.

Some of the works in the second half of the CD are perhaps not quite as impressive, Piazzolla’s Libertango and the haunting Café 1930 from Histoire du Tango being followed by a not particularly successful transcription of Villa-Lobos’ Aria from Bachianas Brasileiras No.5, the very short Suite Nordestina by the Brazilian César Guerra-Peixe and Fanny Mendelssohn’s Six Lieder Op.7. 

Dubois has a lovely tone across the full range of his instrument. Yao’s playing is fine, although the piano sound should really have a lot more depth and body. Dubois says that a second release of works for viola and piano by Latin American composers is scheduled for release in July.

01 Schubert WinterreiseSchubert – Winterreise
Nathaniel Watson; Michael McMahon
Leaf Music LM253 (leaf-music.ca)

Having been recorded well over 500 times, Winterreise remains one of the most beloved compositions by Schubert. Set to 24 poems by Wilhelm Müller, a poet, soldier and Imperial Librarian, this song cycle follows the journey of a heartbroken wanderer through the countryside. Narratively nothing much happens here, everything unfolds inside the protagonist. This music requires a high level of maturity and insight from both performers and listeners. From the darkness of Good Night, to the beautiful torment of On the Stream and the turbulence of The Stormy Morning, the intensity of Schubert’s music never lessens.

Nathaniel Watson, baritone, and Michael McMahon, piano, convey a world that is bleak and lonely, profound in its vulnerability yet, on the other end, almost exhilarated in its core. These two artists are well attuned to Schubert’s music, their phrasing impeccable and their synergy unmistakable. Originally written for tenor, Winterreise is frequently transposed to other voices. Baritone works particularly well, with its range of colours and a degree of masculinity. Watson’s voice is dark and expressive, adding a layer of intensity to the words. The piano, having an equal role to the voice, paints the winter imagery of the harsh natural elements such as storms and wind, and McMahon does it exuberantly. On the other hand, he parallels the emotional unrest expressed in the voice with a wonderful restraint.

Not for the faint of heart, this album is a heartfelt addition to the music libraries of contemplative listeners.

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02 Amour et FantasieAmour et Fantaisie – Melodies de Lionel Daunais
Dominique Côté; Esther Gonthier
ATMA ACD2 2839 (atmaclassique.com/en)

Canadian baritone Dominique Côté is world renowned for his opera and concert performances. Here Côté demonstrates his talented musicianship by singing his favourite songs by multi-talented Quebecer Lionel Daunais (1901-1982). Côté’s illustrious singing is accompanied with passion by Quebec pianist Esther Gonthier. 

Daunais’ popular, accessible songs are as wide-ranging as his career as a composer, singer/songwriter, performer, author, artistic director and radio host. Daunais sets his own lyrics brilliantly. Highlights include the opening track L’amour de moi with slightly atonal short piano intro, low-range-touching vocals, faster mid-section and “très” dramatic build to piano flourish and held note vocal closing. Four humourous Folklore songs include folksy, happy À Montréal, a city tribute with rhythms, a slower alternating section and entertaining spelling out of the letters Montréal closing. What Montreal food to eat drives Les patates, with operatic rhythmical lyrics mentioning potatoes, chips and even a federal election! Famous La tourtière is about its flavourful wonders, highlighted by back-and-forth answering of Côté’s clear lead vocals by Ensemble Vocal Charlevoix, under musical director Julie Desmeules. Daunais’ songs with texts by writers including Paul Fort, Paul Eluard and Éloi De Grandmont are equally entertaining.

Côté writes in his liner notes, “his music speaks to me and moves me,” which comes across in his Daunais homage, understandable even with my working knowledge of French. He loves these songs, and so should listeners!

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