05 Coltrane Giant Steps webGiant Steps – 60th Anniversary Edition
John Coltrane
Rhino-Warner Records/Atlantic SD 1311 (amazon.ca/Giant-Steps-60th-Anniversary-Coltrane/dp/B0864JZ9ZL)

Few jazz recordings have the historical significance of Coltrane’s Giant Steps, taking the tenor saxophonist from brilliant sideman to major figure. Recorded within weeks of Miles Davis’ 1959 classic Kind of Blue, to which Coltrane also contributed, Giant Steps was a different vision, its complex harmony a contrast to Davis’ spacious modality. If Kind of Blue signified sculptural perfection, Giant Steps, its title track still a jazz test piece, signalled hard work, running unfamiliar chord patterns – “Coltrane Changes” – at high velocity. The finished LP took three groups and multiple sessions to achieve the initial release. 

This commemorative two-CD (or two-LP) set presents snapshots of the record’s history. The first CD presents the original LP in all its glory. Including the flying Countdown, the modal Cousin Mary, the shimmering, bittersweet Naima, it’s a work of many moods and genuine mastery. 

The second disc, with eight rejected versions of key songs, demonstrates the many paths Coltrane could wend through material that stymied his sidemen. Only bassist Paul Chambers appeared consistently. An initial session with pianist Cedar Walton didn’t appear at all on the original disc, while pianist Tommy Flanagan and drummer Art Taylor required two sessions to record six of the original tracks. A satisfactory Naima was captured seven months later with pianist Wynton Kelly and Jimmy Cobb in a session for a different LP. 

Completists will want the Heavyweight Champion, the seven-CD set released in 1995, with nine false starts and alternates for Giant Steps alone, but for most, this set will suffice; a singular step in a great musician’s path.

In 2009 Blue Griffin Recording was brought to our attention by Canadian mezzo-soprano Patricia Green who had released two discs on this small, independent Lansing, Michigan-based label. In April of that year Pamela Margles reviewed both in these pages, The Ice Age and Beyond: Songs by Canadian Composers, and Unsleeping: Songs by Living Composers, on which Green was accompanied by Midori Koga and John Hess respectively. In the decade following we reviewed more than two dozen subsequent Blue Griffin titles, including Green’s La Voix Nue: Songs for Unaccompanied Voice by Living Composers (R. Murray Schafer, Judith Weir, Hilary Tann, Jonathan Dove, José Evangelista and György Kurtág) in 2013, and fellow Canadians Jerome Summers and Robert Kortgaard’s The Transfigured Nightingale: Music for Clarinet and Piano, in 2014. After a brief hiatus, earlier this year we received a shipment of new releases dating from 2018 to the present, which provided the impetus for the following article.

David Olds, recordings editor

Sergei KvitkoBoasting over 200 titles to date, Blue Griffin Recording celebrated its 20th anniversary on June 1, 2020. Fresh off the heels of a Latin Grammy Award nomination and the unveiling of a new website, label founder Sergei Kvitko recalls the early days when he found his way into a recording studio, before the label’s birth in 2000. 

He began to offer his recording engineering services to friends and colleagues at Michigan State University, where he was completing a doctoral program in piano performance. Based on an early enthusiastic response, he decided to pursue his talents in audio engineering more thoroughly, setting up a for-profit recording company. His very first client made a complete set of Schumann’s piano music and the fire was lit: Kvitko thought “Let’s print a few copies and see what happens” and after a modest distribution scheme and favourable reception, it all “snowballed,” as a second project was conceived and then a third; another artist came on board and Blue Griffin (bluegriffin.com) was born. Now, 20 years later, this latest crop of releases is indicative of how far the label has come. 

01 Phoenix Rising Creviston ScanOne of the newest releases from the label in 2020, Phoenix Rising (BGR519), features dazzling saxophonist Christopher Creviston. This disc is a consummate example of the vision and breadth conceived in a Blue Griffin production. Comprised entirely of premiere recordings, Creviston coyly guides the listener through seven different works, five with pianist Hannah Creviston and one with the Arizona State University Wind Orchestra, conducted by Gary Hill. The musicianship and expertise here is compelling, with the title track – written by composer Stacy Garrop – a solo highlight of the disc. Names of movements pique our listening curiosity further, with evocative phrasing such as The Pulsar Wind in Taurus, The Phantom Dancer and Dying in Embers – Reborn in Flames. Imaginative and rewarding, the album must surely have been a joy to curate, record and produce. No wonder that Kvitko is rather proud of this release – the kind of sexy and slick musical program that is hard for any to resist. The album’s cover art (by Hosea Gruber) should also be mentioned: a red emblem set upon black, with flames of a Phoenix. Look closely and two alto saxophones entwine as they spiral up into the bird’s wings. 

Kvitko considers the cover art and graphic design of his releases carefully. He shies away from developing album art that has a universal look, citing labels such as Deutsche Grammophon that retain a monothematic design throughout their catalogue. Kvitko aspires, he says, to something more akin to “tapestry” for his records. He appreciates that his releases employ different colours, varying characteristics and visual profiles. For those of his artists who are unsure of what to feature on their record cover, Kvitko offers his seasoned advice and curates this aspect of the product as well. He functions ostensibly as pre-recording curator, producer, audio engineer, post-production and PR manager and photographer. He even has an eye for well-written liner notes, impishly affirming, “Proofread liner notes? I do that too, because well, I catch things!”

By dint of heart and hard work, Kvitko has built a record company renowned for many fine things. He provides a unique experience for the artists with whom he works: refined musical ears, a rich and vibrant quality of recording production and an integrity of engineering that is increasingly hard to come by these days. The label has long had a proclivity for vocal, reed and solo piano projects, not to mention exceptional fondness for uncommon configurations of ensemble. In only 20 years, Blue Griffin has released an admirable catalogue of music from all corners of the repertoire. 

02 Wanderlust Amram Scan webAnd he still loves what he does. Always upholding a keen professionalism and high standard of music-making, he nevertheless also knows how to have fun along the way. A jovial romp of a disc that might exemplify this is Wanderlust (BGR537), a recent release showcasing flute works by David Amram. “A threading of music of many cultures and peoples,” this record is unique in its synthesis of styles, focusing on Amram’s compositional voice. Flutist Karen McLaughlin Large and pianist Amanda Arrington trace a path through Amram’s attractive scores, many of which are inspired by jazz. Amram’s illustrious career has included film composing (The Manchurian Candidate) and time spent as composer-in-residence with the New York Philharmonic. One immediately hears a joy for this music directed from the performers. (They worked closely with Amram on this recording and he plays the Irish Double-D Whistle on one of the tracks!) An idiomatic brand of writing for flute is on full display here. The Allegro con Gioia (For Dizzy Gillespie) and Zohar for solo flute are among the disc’s tuneful highlights, not to mention the charming (and keyboard-centric) Theme and Variations on “Red River Valley.”

03 Metamorphosis Three Reeds Duo Scan webWhile on the subject of rivers, another newish release of note opens with Peter Lieuwen’s Little Rivers (2018), a work commissioned by the Three Reeds Duo, co-founded by Leah and Paul Forsyth. The record, Metamorphosis (BGR523), spotlights the unique instrumental combination of oboe and saxophone. It lends a delicate, almost serene profile to an entire album devoted to works by contemporary composers (notwithstanding the title track by Benjamin Britten.). There is skilful execution, bright-eared and flawless in ample measure. Few recording labels would put their faith in a disc such as this one, and the trust has been handsomely repaid. 

04 Soul Searching H2Quartet Scan webHard-hitting, avant-garde music also finds voice in the catalogue at Blue Griffin. A sensational new release from the h2 quartet came out last year. Titled Soul Searching (BGR499), it headlines this maverick sax quartet in two works by Jeffrey Loeffert, one by Georg Friedrich Haas and a title track by Kerrith Livengood. The mastering here is sublimely balanced and conceived. Layers of expressivity and kaleidoscopic textures shine through what is certainly demanding repertoire. Despite the technical demands, effortlessness shines through. With the h2 quartet, we immediately feel at home, in safe hands, even amidst irresistible invention. The centrepiece of the record, Ten Years of Silence (2012), was composed for the h2 quartet in commemoration of their tenth anniversary as an ensemble. Loeffert clearly knows his tools, commanding utter mastery as he wrangles incredible tonal palettes from the four saxophones, suggesting multiple takes on familiar sonorities and challenging the listener: one imagines hearing instruments other than saxophones. Loeffert acutely understands the idiosyncratic qualities of each saxophone and writes to those strengths. Is it really a saxophone? Or flute or clarinet, even bassoon or trombone? (This is, of course, due in no small part to the virtuosity of the players!) The ten movements have a choose-your-own-adventure aspect to them. Titles such as Bleak; Gruff, Barreling, Nimble, and Cold Sober offer further glimpses into extra-musical content that hangs in the air. At times intimate, quirky and brazenly emotional, this music speaks verily, born of a serious bout of soul searching. The dedication of the performers is rewarded by the production quality from Blue Griffin and a deft sense of programming. This release is, undoubtedly, a creation to be proud of.

Kvitko relishes such projects – giving platform to lesser-known works and to the performers by whom they are championed. Frequently, artists will cold-call Blue Griffin and propose a recording. If Kvitko likes their ideas, he “goes with the flow” and engages them. He claims to “simply enjoy the process of making things that would [otherwise] not have happened without [him]. Especially with new music – and working with living composers.” He is still irrepressibly appreciative, two decades on, of the whole experience. “I enjoy the process. People find me from all over the place and [we] make recordings. It’s really been fun because I do love music and I do love computers, technology, gadgets and gear. It’s kind of a perfect world for me.” 

05 Twinge Haven Trio Scan webKvitko’s “perfect world” extends to his myriad talents as a bone fide photographer and concert pianist in his own right. He has outfitted his historical home in Lansing, Michigan with a top-of-the-line recording studio, providing an inspired, spacious atmosphere for artists when they come to work with him. And he is never fearful of going out on a limb, as witness the curious convergence on a recent disc featuring the music of Jon Magnussen with words by Barry Bearak. Twinge (BGR527) was recorded by the Haven Trio, comprised of soprano, clarinet and piano. The album’s fare is a 15-movement work, “dedicated to the memory of the hundreds of thousands of victims of the December 26, 2004 Tsunami.” The text is adapted from Bearak’s New York Times Magazine cover story, The Day the Sea Came. (November 27, 2005). The album unfolds in a commingling of spoken text, (narrated by Bearak himself), and instrumental/vocal episodes that elevate the drama of the cover story and develop the narrative arc with striking aplomb. The combination of soprano, clarinet and piano is a most attractive one. The vaulting soundscapes give an urgent depiction of the human drama as it unfolds: an archetypal battle of man vs nature; the coalescence of spoken word (in a kind of reportage style); singing and instrumental interjection bringing home the significance of human loss, set against a backdrop of geological insignificance: “for the earth, it was just a twinge.” The results are poignant as they are rare, particularly in a world awash with conservative recordings of traditional works. 

The Blue Griffin’s Studio The Ballroom

Blue Griffin steps up to the plate in such projects, proving that Kvitko is unafraid of the brave and the new. Moreover, he prides himself on knowing when, in turn, to be supportive and opiniated toward his artists: “All of my friends and clients – my artists – know that I’m very opinionated. But I can be nice and kind enough to know when to keep my opinions to myself as necessary. Everybody approaches it differently: some require more guidance and some ask more questions or require more help. And there are others who know exactly what they want. They have a vision in their head.”

Kvitko continues to be widely respected by artists throughout North America and abroad. He acutely understands, to splendid effect, just where his expertise lies and how his plentiful gifts can benefit his collaborators. And there are times when he also returns to his own piano: “I still play concerts and I still make recordings [at the piano] when I can. I do it for myself; I feel like it’s good for my soul.”

06 C Minor Progression Myamoto Scan webDespite Kvitko’s commitment to new music and its proponents, he also keeps up with productions that celebrate music from the traditional canon. A current release from pianist Peter Miyamoto includes the anomalous theme of progression in C Minor Progression (BGR503). Solo keyboard works by Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert fill this album, each of them in C Minor (a seemingly artist-imposed mechanism). The profile of this key, heard through the pianistic lens of three masters, offers an unusual slant on what would otherwise be a very usual program. Miyamoto plays exceedingly well, bringing a discerning sense of style to each of the composers’ works. There is most certainly a gentle sort of revelation here, regarding the nature of C Minor. At the risk of becoming entrapped within monochromatic sound planes, Miyamoto turns such rules – such necessity – to his invention, spurring us to hear well-trodden music anew. Again, here is an example of the perennial craftsmanship that Blue Griffin brings to the game, where care of execution so often intersects with pride of product. Few labels alive and well today can boast such attributes. 

During a prideful moment, an otherwise self-effacing Kvitko recalls a conversation he had back in the early days of his label’s founding. A business manager friend asked him what his goals and dreams consisted of: “So what do you want five years from now? Ten years – even 20?” The first words to leave his lips were, “I want to win a Grammy Award.”

“And you know,” he beams through the phone 20 years hence: “One of our latest discs is nominated for a Latin Grammy and we’ll find out next week!” And so it would seem that a full Grammy Award is very much within the label’s sights. Here’s to another 20 marvellous musical years at Blue Griffin Recording.

(Interview by phone conducted with Sergei Kvitko with permission.)

Composer-pianist Adam Sherkin is a regular contributor to The WholeNote DISCOVERIES section. 

Listen to these titles in the Listening Room: 


01 Phoenix Rising Creviston Scan 02 Wanderlust Amram Scan web 03 Metamorphosis Three Reeds Duo Scan web
04 Soul Searching H2Quartet Scan web 05 Twinge Haven Trio Scan web 06 C Minor Progression Myamoto Scan web



Kevin Laliberté, Chris McKhool, Drew Birston, from their first ever livestreamMusicians are starting to get their feet back under them and are finding new ways of releasing new and recent recordings. We checked in with a few stalwarts to find out how it’s going in the “brave new world.” 

McKhool CD REFUGE album coverWhen Chris McKhool first conceived of his latest album, Refuge, back in 2018, he had no way of knowing how the rug would be pulled out from under him when it came time to launch it. As the leader of the group Sultans of String, this was the biggest project of the fiddle player’s 25-year career. Two years in the making, the project brought together more than 30 guest artists – such as  Bela Fleck, Yasmin Levy and Duke Redbird – from multiple genres and locales as far away as Turkey. 

The initial launch concert was envisaged as a massive undertaking involving nearly all the musicians on the recording and was being billed as a “Woodstock of World Music.” It was to take place in May 2020, then was supposed to be followed by a full-day remounting at Luminato in June. About 80 shows, including a big U.S. tour, were scheduled throughout 2020/21. McKhool saw all the pieces of the plan crumble one by one as the pandemic unfolded and the shutdown happened in March.

“To say I was disappointed when we had to cancel everything is an understatement,” said McKhool. “I was devastated.”

As he and his bandmates gradually came to grips with the fact that months of planning were going out the window, they tried to adapt as each new phase presented itself. Although McKhool has done some press for the project and has taken part in events such as an online talk and video presentation at Luminato, he and the band realized that they were going to have to adjust how they do things in order to stay active and relevant. 

Livestreaming was becoming more and more the norm for presenting performances, and that meant McKhool learning a whole new skill set. So he invested in five video cameras and other recording equipment and set about teaching himself how to shoot and edit video. 

“I must have spent a hundred hours this summer learning about the world of video,” said McKhool. “But I figured this new way of doing concerts isn’t going to go away anytime soon, so I’d better invest in the equipment and learn the skills so I can stay on top of things.”

The band (McKhool on violin; Kevin Laliberté, guitar; and Drew Birston, bass) also decided to try using Zoom to present concerts. The first one took place in September and there was a lot of trepidation about whether they could pull it off. It took days of preparation and fiddling around with cameras and microphone placement, in order to have multiple camera angles and a rich experience for the audience, rather than just one camera pointed at the band.

“That first Zoom show was a really emotional experience for me,” said McKhool. “Seeing how the audience not only connected with the music and the band, but how they connected with each other was really heartening.”

McKhool and the Gang: I make music for families stuck at home due to covid-19 with my educator wife Catherine Kurucz and our nine-year-old daughter working the puppets.McKhool realized that doing interactive Zoom concerts enabled audience members from diverse locations to come together, unlike with live shows. They can congregate via video prior to the show and chat and get to know their fellow fans in a way they probably wouldn’t at a live show. They also had a robust Q&A between the band and audience after the concert. 

“People were really engaged and curious. We were able to talk with them in a way we can’t normally at a live show. There’s a surprising sense of intimacy and give and take that happens doing a Zoom show as opposed to the one-way push of a live show.”

JAZZ.FM91’s FRIDAY LIVE live-to-air concert series, October 9: Dione Taylor performed music from Spirits in the Water with Nichol Robertson, guitar, Mark McIntyre, bass, and Lyle Molzan, drums. Photo by Sandy Mamane

TAYLOR CD Spirits in the Water Dione TaylorDione Taylor takes a more philosophical approach. When her fourth album, Spirits in the Water, was supposed to come out in March and everything came grinding to a halt, the veteran blues/roots singer and songwriter decided to just put things on pause. Then, after several months of reflection on world events and discussion with her team, she decided September was the right time to bring Spirits in the Water to people.

“I don’t believe in coincidences,” said Taylor. “Even though we wrote many of these songs a couple of years ago, a lot of the meaning and messages in them are relevant right now.”

Inspired by mythical folklore, Taylor took an insightful road trip to Nashville to find inspiration for her new album. The songs have themes of perseverance, mystical truths, race inequality, homesickness and transformation, while staying true to her signature “prairie blues” style, which is a mix of roots, blues and Americana. 

“My sense is that people will feel empowered by our music,” said Taylor. “Plus everyone’s at home a lot more right now and people like to hear something new.”

Taylor said she loves touring and playing live and she’s definitely missing the exchange of energy that happens with an in-person audience. 

“We’ve been doing some livestreaming via Facebook and Instagram and it’s been a huge learning curve doing those,” said Taylor. “We’ve also used this as an opportunity to produce a video for each song on the album, using existing images and footage, since we weren’t able to shoot original footage. That was a fun experience.”

Not being able to play live has taken a toll but she’s optimistic it won’t last forever.

“I did a live to air on JAZZ.FM91 with my band that reminded me what a good feeling it is to play with musicians,” said Taylor. “Connecting is what makes the arts so vital but it takes a lot of courage to do that right now. I hope non-arts people will realize it and be kind to musicians because of that.”

Bocana: Steve Webster and Emilie-Claire Barlow. Photo by Karen WikstrandJUNO Award-winning singer, arranger, producer and voice actor, Emilie-Claire Barlow, has been collaborating with musicians and recording remotely for years, so she was prepared when the pandemic hit.

“My partner Steve Webster and I have been splitting our time between Mexico and Canada for some time now,” said Barlow. “We have a portable set-up to record pretty much anywhere we are. I’ve been doing voice work for commercials and cartoons and music recordings like this for years now, so the pandemic has not changed this part of our process in any big way.” 

BARLOW Bocana new singleNo stranger to traditional studio work, of course, Barlow has done many group sessions over the decades and misses the magic of in-person work, especially when it’s with the 70-piece Metropole Orkest she worked with on her Clear Day album. There’s no recreating an experience like that remotely, she says, but enjoys the freedom to make music anywhere in the world with musicians who are anywhere in the world. “Right now we have several musical projects on the go, and are recording singers and instrumentalists in Toronto, Montreal, Chicago, Berlin and LA.”

Which isn’t to say, even living in Huatulco, that it’s all been a day at the beach for Barlow. (Pun intended.) 

“I miss my bandmates terribly,” said Barlow. “I definitely miss some parts of touring – the music and the audiences, the camaraderie with my band. But I will say that staying put in one place for these seven months has been healing and restorative in some ways. Even as I say that, though, I hesitate, because I’m incredibly sensitive to the fact that for some musicians, touring is their whole livelihood. But for me, while I miss the live music experience, there have also been some positives.”

Barlow explained that she and Webster were finally able to work on some musical ideas that had been brewing for years but just hadn’t had the time to develop while touring. Making their new duo, Bocana, a priority has resulted in six singles being released and a substantial listenership on digital platforms.

“It’s been a hugely rewarding and freeing experience to collaborate together in this capacity to make music that lives in its own space apart from ‘Emilie-Claire Barlow.’ We truly feel free to make our own rules and defy genres.” 

Cathy Riches is a self-described Toronto-based recovering singer and ink slinger.

01 Avoid the DayThis month, once again, a good book has brought me back to some of my favourite music and provided a few discoveries. Avoid the Day: A New Nonfiction in Two Movements by Jay Kirk (Harper Perennial harpercollins.ca/9780062356178/avoid-the-day) is an intriguing read on many levels. The two “movements” have completely different settings and contexts: the search for the autograph score of Bartók’s String Quartet No.3 which takes us to the University of Pennsylvania, the city of Budapest and ultimately to Transylvania; and a luxury eco-cruise to the land of the midnight sun. This latter is ostensibly for the purpose of producing a documentary for a travel magazine, but the author’s and director’s creative impulses kick in and the project turns into a horror film, referencing Frankenstein’s monster’s banishment to the Arctic and various Hollow Earth theories, with a nod to Thomas Pynchon’s Against the Day. Each adventure conveniently provides Kirk with an excuse to “avoid” spending time with his father, on his deathbed back in the United States. Somewhat reminiscent of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s autofiction My Struggle, although at 370 pages only about ten percent of its length, Avoid the Day is a no-holds-barred exposé of some of Kirk’s seedier sides – alcohol and barbiturate abuse being primary preoccupations. This would not normally be of interest to me, but the tales are so well written and cleverly layered that I found it compelling. And of course the musical references were like so many bread crumbs for me to follow. 

02 Bartok VeghMusic is the major focus of the first movement and I found myself digging deep into my vinyl collection to find recordings of some of the works mentioned, including Bartók’s Bluebeard’s Castle and Cantata Profana – talk about dark nights of the soul! – and his final work, the Third Piano Concerto. It must be 30 years since I listened to any of these pieces, well, 28 for Bluebeard, because I did attend the COC’s original presentation of Robert LePage’s production in 1992. I found I had two recordings of the Cantata. The Romanian legend of The Nine Enchanted Stags tells the story of a widowed father’s shiftless sons, whose only skills are hunting and hanging out in the woods, who are transformed into magnificent animals with enormous racks of antlers, and of the subsequent confrontation with their father. I was surprised to realize that my Turnabout Vox recording is sung in English. It seems Bartók translated the Romanian story into Hungarian and added some texts of his own to provide the libretto and although it was completed in 1930, its premiere was in London in 1934, performed in an English translation. The Cantata was not presented in Hungary in Bartók’s original translation until 1936 and it is this version found on the Hungaroton Bartók Béla Complete Edition. In both performances the lead stag’s solos – tenors Murray Dickie in English and Jószef Réti in Hungarian – are stunning. My 1973 Angel LP of the Third Piano Concerto features Daniel Barenboim as soloist, with Pierre Boulez conducting the New Philharmonia Orchestra. Need I say more?  

My first exposure to Bartók’s six string quartets was the historic 1959 recording – the first American recording of the cycle, I believe – by the Fine Arts Quartet, which I found on the budget Concert-Disc label at Sam the Record Man around the time I began collecting in the early 70s. The music was an epiphany for me and provided one of my earliest entries into the world of “contemporary” music, notwithstanding the fact that Bartók had died almost three decades before. This was soon followed by the Juilliard String Quartet’s 1963 Columbia cycle, on vinyl at the time but now available on Sony CD, and then, under the tutelage of Eddie Santolini, my mentor at Sam’s, the (perhaps) definitive 1972 recording by Quatuor Végh. The quartet’s leader Sandor Végh had completed his studies at the Franz Liszt Academy of Music in Budapest in 1930 and worked with Bartók on the Hungarian premiere of the String Quartet No.5 as a member of the Hungarian String Quartet before the composer fled Europe for the United States in 1939. Végh founded his own quartet the following year. Since that time almost every string quartet of note has undertaken to climb these legendary peaks and you can find reviews of some of the most notable ascents in our archives at thewholenote.com, including those of the Vermeer, Penderecki, Hungarian, Guarneri, Alexander, Chiara, Arcadia and Takács Quartets.

I have twice in my life had the pleasure and privilege of hearing all six Bartók quartets performed live over a two-day period, once by the Juilliard at the Guelph Spring Festival in my formative years and about 15 years ago by the Penderecki at the Kitchener-Waterloo Chamber Music Society. Both were incredible experiences and I recommend the recordings of these ensembles, but for me, the ultimate is still the Quatuor Végh which I am sorry to say I never had the opportunity to hear in person. They disbanded in 1980 and Végh died in 1997 in Salzburg where he had taught at the Mozarteum for the last two and a half decades of his life.

03 Crumb Haunted NY PhilGeorge Crumb makes an appearance in Avoid the Day as part of Kirk’s quest for the Bartók score, and the music that is mentioned is Songs, Drones and Refrains of Death and, one of my favourites, the orchestral masterpiece A Haunted Landscape. I came to know the latter from a New World Records vinyl release featuring Arthur Weisberg and the New York Philharmonic – who commissioned it and gave the premiere performance. There is also a fine CD recording available from Bridge Records featuring the Warsaw Philharmonic under the direction of Thomas Conlin. It is an ethereal, mysterious and at times bombastic work in which a low B-flat drone by two scordatura double basses, sustained throughout the work, adds to the eerie ambiance. The composer tells us A Haunted Landscape “is not programmatic in any sense. The title reflects my feeling that certain places on the planet Earth are imbued with an aura of mystery…” He goes on to say “contemplation of a landscape can induce complex psychological states, and perhaps music is an ideal medium for delineating the subtle nuances […] that hover between the subliminal and the conscious.” 

04 Crumb Songs Drones and Refrains of DeathSongs, Drones and Refrains of Death is the fourth in a cycle of eight chamber settings of poetry by Federico García Lorca which Crumb composed between 1963 and 1970. Although I do know the four books of Madrigals that make up half of the series, and the 1986 postscript, Federico’s Little Songs for Children, I was not previously familiar with this work and I would like to thank Bridge Records for graciously providing me with a recording to facilitate this article (bridgerecords.com /products/9028). Songs, Drones and Refrains of Death is scored for baritone (in this case Sanford Sylvan), electric guitar, electric contrabass, electric piano/harpsichord and two percussion, performed by members of Speculum Musicae. As with many of Crumb’s works the dynamic range extends from barely audible to ferocious explosions of sound, and the vocal lines are often angst ridden, reflecting the nature of the texts. As William K. Bland tells us in his program note, “Throughout the entire range of Crumb’s compositions symbology has been a central aspect of his communicative language. [Here] several musical and philosophical symbologies are present. These range from the overt musical ‘illustrations’ of the text […] to the cycle-spanning metaphysical implications of the Death Drone. […] Like many of Mahler’s works, Songs, Drones and Refrains of Death has its beginning in the contemplation of Death, and its ending in the affirmation of the promise of a peace-filled transfiguration.” Incidentally, I had the pleasure of meeting and spending time with George Crumb and his family during the preparations for a New Music Concerts performance which included the Canadian premiere of Federico’s Little Songs for Children with soprano Teri Dunn, Robert Aitken (flute) and Erica Goodman (harp) at Glenn Gould Studio in 2003.

05 Bartok DuosThat already seems like a lot of listening to come out of the reading of a single book, one not ostensibly about music, but I will add a couple of footnotes before I move on from this nearly month-long journey. The first involves Bartók’s 44 Duos for Two Violins, written in 1931 just after completion of the Cantata Profana and four years after String Quartet No.3. When Kirk travels to Hungary in Avoid the Day his translator is “Bob,” originally from Teaneck, New Jersey via the Bronx, but who has lived in Budapest for 30 years. Kirk tells us that Bob’s “main thing is klezmer. Not the honky-wonky clarinet-heavy wedding band American klezmer. His specific niche: Carpathian klezmer. He spent years tracking down the sacred-original stuff in Transylvania.” After learning what he can at Béla Bartók Memorial House in Budapest, Kirk is dragged off into the wilds of Transylvania by Bob to experience some of the authentic music that Bartók spent several years collecting on wax cylinders a century ago, research that would profoundly affect his own music and ultimately the art music of the 20th century. Although he assimilated the influences of these hundreds-of-years-old folk songs seamlessly into his own concert works, many of the peasant melodies and rhythms can be found in a more unadulterated form in Bartók’s pedagogical works, especially the Mikrokosmos collection for piano(s) and the violin duos. It was a real pleasure to discover on my shelf a recording that I had forgotten about of these duos. In 2008 violinists Yehonatan Berick and Jonathan Crow recorded the Bartók along with Luciano Berio’s Duetti per due violini for the XXI label (yehonatanberick.com/recordings). I knew the Bartók on vinyl from the Hungaroton Bartók Béla Complete Edition but was unfamiliar with the Berio until this release came my way a decade ago. While Bartók organized his duets in order of difficulty as a primer for violin students, culminating in the challenging Pizzicato, Allegretto, reminiscent of the fourth movement of the String Quartet No.4 and Transylvanian Dance (Ardeliana), Berio’s set (1979-1983) is arranged chronologically by date of composition. Each brief piece is named for a friend or colleague and the set begins appropriately with Béla (Bartók). Other names I recognize are Vinko (Globokar), Pierre (Boulez), Mauricio (Kagel), all of whom I had the pleasure of meeting during my years at New Music Concerts, Henri (Pousseur), Bruno (Maderna) and Igor (Stravinsky). As with the Bartók, the pieces are at various levels of difficulty, but rather than being performed progressively Berio envisioned a stage performance by at least a dozen pairs of violinists of varying degrees of skill. The rousing final piece, Edoardo (Sanguineti), is conceived for violin choir where all of the performers join in on the two lines of the duet. Currently concertmaster of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra, at the time of this recording Crow was teaching at the Schulich School of Music at McGill University where he had previously obtained a Bachelor of Music in Honours Performance studying with Berick. In this performance of Edoardo the two are joined by a host of violinists who (I assume) are their colleagues and students from McGill. 

The final note is about an anachronism that stuck out in Avoid the Day, when Kirk was musing while on the eco-cruise ship about the last minutes of the Titanic. Legend has it that the resident string quartet was playing Nearer My God to Thee as the ship sank, but he wonders if they wouldn’t have played something “more important, like Berg’s Lyric Suite.” I realize that this is just wishful speculation and he does not suggest that they actually could have played that piece, but it struck me as a strange choice since Alban Berg would not write his suite until more than a dozen years after that maritime disaster. Nevertheless, it sent me back to the library to dig out my Lasalle Quartet recording of the string quartets of the Second Viennese School to find another old friend in the Lyric Suite. Once again I have the Deutsche Grammophon set on vinyl, but for convenience sake I chose the CD reissue. 

To put closure to all this, I also revisited my vinyl collection to find Gavin Bryars’ chilling The Sinking of the Titanic with the Cockpit Ensemble on Brian Eno’s Obscure label. That haunting performance can now be heard on YouTube (youtube.com/watch?v=2oVMRADOq5s). 

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

The English label Biddulph Recordings (altocd.com/biddulphrecords) was founded in 1989 by the violin dealer Peter Biddulph and the violinist and writer Eric Wen, the former editor of The Musical Times and The Strad. It specializes in new and historic recordings, especially of string instruments, and three recent issues are welcome reminders of three great 20th-century violin talents.

01 RosandAaron Rosand plays Bruch (LAB 1024 ) features the most recent recordings: the Violin Concerto No.1 in G Minor Op.26 and the Scottish Fantasy Op.46 in 2000 recordings with the NDR Radio-Philharmonie Hannover under Christoph Wyneken and the Violin Concerto No.2 in D Minor Op.44 in a 1970 performance with the Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks under Peter Richter Rangenier. They were originally licensed to Vox on two discs by the Rosand estate but since Vox was acquired by Naxos they were recompiled and licensed to Biddulph for their 10CD box set Ten More Great Violinists of the Century (LAB 8102) and for individual release.

Rosand, who died in 2019 at the age of 92, enjoyed an astonishing 77-year performing career. He had a simply lovely tone, with a fairly constant but always tasteful vibrato, and was particularly noted for his performances of the Romantic repertoire, a view clearly supported by his playing here. There’s no hint of any decline in technique in the 30-year gap between recordings, which feature first-class orchestral support in really lovely performances.

02 HubermanThe other two CDs also resulted from the creation of masters for the LAB 8102 set. Bronisław Huberman Columbia and Brunswick Masters (LAB 1025) comprises tracks from two previous issues plus new material featuring the Polish virtuoso who died aged 64 in 1947. There’s nowhere near the amount of portamento that you might expect from someone who was performing in the 1890s, but there is real individuality in his phrasing and style.

Recording years aren’t given, but the only Brunswick master is an American acoustic recording, with piano, of Sarasate’s Carmen Fantasy on Bizet’s music; the remaining works – a fiery Kreutzer Sonata and ten short pieces by Bach, Schubert, Brahms, Tchaikovsky, Bruch, Elgar, Sarasate and Zarzycki – are apparently electrical Columbia performances with piano, although Ignacy Friedman in the Beethoven sonata is the only pianist identified.

Huberman’s mellow tone, described in the booklet notes as far darker in the Columbia recordings than on the Brunswicks, is quite distinctive, and his technical command outstanding, especially the double stops in Sarasate’s Romanza Andaluza and the dazzling playing in Brahms’ Hungarian Dance No.1 in G Minor and Zarzycki’s brilliant Mazurka in G.

03 SeidelThe real revelation in these three CDs, though, is Toscha Seidel the RCA Victor Recordings & Franck Sonata (LAB 138), a straight reissue after 20 years unavailability. The Russian Seidel, who died in California two days before his 63rd birthday in 1962, was in Leopold Auer’s legendary violin class in St. Petersburg with the young Jascha Heifetz. He made his American debut in April 1918, one year after Heifetz’s sensational debut there, and consequently always seemed to be in the latter’s shadow, moving to California in the 1930s and making a career in Hollywood and studio orchestras.

Seidel’s tone is very bright, clear and warm, his vibrato fairly fast and consistent, and his technique absolutely brilliant and effortless. Add his sweeping phrasing and captivating musicality (“Heifetz with heart” say my notes – guaranteed to start an argument somewhere) and you end up wondering why Seidel isn’t remembered as the violinist of the first half of the 20th century.

Six short pieces by Mozart, Wagner, Brahms (the Hungarian Dance No.1 in G Minor again in another terrific performance), Bakaleinikoff and Provost are from December 1938 and February 1941. Korngold’s previously unissued Much Ado About Nothing Suite from July 1941 sees Seidel joined by the composer at the piano in a memorable performance. Three songs from the movie, The Great Waltz, feature Seidel’s obbligato (well, in two of them at least) for soprano Miliza Korjus (“rhymes with gorgeous” – unfortunately, unlike her vocal talents on this showing), and a private studio recording from the early 1950s of the Franck Sonata in A Major, in which Seidel and pianist Harry Kaufmann seem completely unable to agree on tempo or rhythm in the first movement, complete a revelatory disc.

If you don’t know Seidel’s playing, you owe it to yourself to put that right.

04 Kodaly LigetiGerman cellist Gabriel Schwabe is in simply superb form on a new Naxos CD of solo sonatas by Zoltán Kodály and György Ligeti, with the equally fine violinist Hellen Weiß joining him in the Kodály Duo for Violin and Cello (8.574202 naxosdirect.com/search/747313420278).

Kodály’s Sonata for Solo Cello Op.8 dates from 1915, and has been recognised as the most significant work for solo cello since the Bach Suites. It’s a monumental work, given a thrilling performance here that explores every inch of its depth.

Ligeti’s Sonata for Solo Cello is a relatively brief piece of two short movements that were written in 1948 and 1953 respectively but not heard in public until 1979 thanks to the political restrictions of the Hungarian Composers’ Union. The first movement shows a folk music influence, with the second movement inspired by the Paganini solo violin Caprices.

Kodály’s Duo for Violin and Cello Op.7 from 1914 opens the disc. It’s a work that combines classical forms with the folk music in which Kodály was immersed at the time.

Weiß’ violin is a Matteo Goffriller from 1698, Schwabe’s cello a G. Guarneri, Cremona from 1695-97. The sound they produce is quite superb.

05 HopeatHomeRestricted to his Berlin apartment by the cultural and social lockdowns earlier this year, violinist Daniel Hope wondered if he could find a way to perform from home but with top-quality sound. With the support of the TV broadcaster ARTE he turned his living room into a high-tech television studio and scheduled a six-week series of online chamber concerts with specially invited guests.

The result was the Hope@Home livestream project, a series of recitals that was broadcast live on ARTE and on the Deutsche Grammophon YouTube channel, and from which the label has now released highlights as an album (483 9482 deutschegrammophon.com/en/catalogue). The pianist and composer Christoph Israel was involved from the start; he accompanies Hope on most of the tracks and also contributed several of the terrific arrangements. 

Every track is a live, single-take performance, with no editing. What strikes you first is the stunning sound quality. What strikes you second is Hope’s sumptuous playing – I’ve never heard him sound better. The 21 tracks include classical favourites like Schubert’s An die Musik, Fauré’s Après un rêve and Rachmaninoff’s Vocalise and popular standards like Moon River, Summertime, Autumn Leaves, La vie en rose and Over the Rainbow.

It’s an absolute joy from start to finish.

06 City LightsYou may well have heard the opening track of City Lights, violinist Lisa Batiashvili’s new CD with conductor/pianist Nikoloz Rachveli on the classical radio channels, City memories – Chaplin offering sumptuous arrangements of two themes from Chaplin’s Limelight together with two from Modern Times, plus José Padilla Sánchez’s simply gorgeous La Violetera from City Lights. Batiashvili’s ravishing tone makes a captivating start to the disc, followed by a series of 11 special arrangements that offer multi-layered musical portraits of cities that are important to Batiashvili (Deutsche Grammophon 00289 483 8586 deutschegrammophon.com/en/catalogue). 

Nothing else quite reaches the heights of that first track, but short pieces representing Munich, Paris (Michel Legrand’s Paris Violon), Berlin, Helsinki, Vienna (the Strauss Furioso Galopp), Rome (Morricone’s Theme from Cinema Paradiso), Buenos Aires, New York, London, Bucharest and Tbilisi offer plenty to enjoy. Guest artists include guitarist Miloš Karadaglić on the Buenos Aires track. Orchestral accompaniments are shared by the Rudfunk-Sinfonieorchester Berlin and the Georgian Philharmonic Orchestra.

Batiashvili says that “for more than two years we put all our energy, love and dedication into this project. It became my most personal journey.” Her commitment and involvement shine through on every track.

07 VivaldiYou can always count on violinist Patricia Kopatchinskaja to come up with something different and interesting, and so it proves with her latest release What’s Next Vivaldi? with Il Giardino Armonico under Giovanni Antonini (ALPHA624 naxosdirect.com/search/alpha624). The CD interweaves ultra-virtuosic concertos by Vivaldi with short pieces by current composers mostly commissioned specifically for this program.

The five Vivaldi concertos are the Violin Concerto in E-flat Major “La tempesta di mare” Op.8 No.5 RV253 (complete with storm effects), the Violin Concerto in C Major RV191, the Concerto in E Minor for Four Violins and Strings from “L’estro armonico” Op.3 No.4 RV550, the extremely brief Concerto in G Minor for Strings RV157 and the Violin Concerto in D Major “Il Grosso Mogul” RV208, featuring some Kopatchinskaja improvisation in the slow movement and one of the very few extant cadenzas by Vivaldi in the finale – a long, unabridged and dazzling episode.

Kopatchinskaja describes this recording as inviting Vivaldi into a time laboratory and engaging him in a dialogue with today’s creative voices from Italy, the five younger Italian composers having been asked to react to Vivaldi’s music in miniatures. The short contemporary works are by Aureliano Cattaneo, Luca Francesconi, Simone Movio, Marco Stroppa and Giovanni Sollima. It’s an intriguing disc full of top-drawer playing.

08 Elgar StenhammarThe Estonian violinist Triin Ruubel is the soloist on Elgar Violin Concerto / Stenhammar Two Sentimental Romances with Neeme Järvi conducting the Estonian National Symphony Orchestra (Sorel Classics SCCD016 naxosdirect.com/search/sccd016).

There’s a rather unsettling sound to the Elgar at times, with the orchestra tending to sound a bit too distant and with the soloist sometimes seeming to be buried in the general orchestral texture. Still, Ruubel is clearly a fine player and Järvi a hugely experienced and highly respected conductor, and there are many really lovely and finely crafted moments in an excellent performance of a notoriously long and difficult work.

Stenhammar’s Two Sentimental Romances Op.28 – No.1 in A Major and No.2 in F Minor – are attractive and absolutely delightful pieces, with Ruubel clearly in her element with the Romantic nature of the music. It’s really lovely playing.

09 MobiliViolist Georgina Isabel Rossi, who was born and raised in Chile, and pianist Silvie Cheng are the duo on MOBILI: Music for Viola and Piano from Chile, a CD featuring world-premiere recordings of works by the Chilean composers Rafael Diaz, Carlos Botto, Federico Heinlein and David Cortés (New Focus Recordings FCR268 newfocusrecordings.com/catalogue). The only work previously recorded is the four-movement title track, Mobili Op.63 by Juan Orrego-Salas, who passed away at 100 just a few weeks before the CD was recorded, and to whose memory the album is dedicated.

The Diaz works are Will There Be Someone Whose Hands Can Sustain This Falling for amplified viola, and In the Depths of My Distance Your House Emerges for viola and piano. Botto’s Fantasia Op.15 from 1962 and Heinlein’s Duo “Do not go gentle” from 1985 are followed by Cortés’ Tololo, written in 2011 for viola and string orchestra and heard here in an arrangement for viola and piano by Miguel Farras. Carlos Guastavino’s really lovely El Sampedrino from 1968 is an extra track, not included in the booklet notes.

Fine playing of introspective and quite atmospheric music that really exploits the viola’s sonority to the full, results in an excellent CD.

Listen to 'MOBILI: Music for Viola and Piano from Chile' Now in the Listening Room

02 Dussek MesseJL Dussek –  Messe Solomnelle
Academy of Ancient Music; Richard Egarr
AAM Records AAM011 (aam.co.uk)

Jan Ladislav Dussek (1760-1812) is one of Western music’s most underrated yet influential personas, credited with guiding the expansion of the pianoforte’s range to six octaves and being the first performing pianist to sit with his profile to the audience, rather than facing them head-on. In addition to his work as a performer, Dussek was also a prolific and inspired composer, writing works which feature great lyricism and striking contrasts. Although once respected and highly regarded throughout Europe, Dussek fell out of popular favour after his death and performances of his works remain unjustly rare today.

Amidst this apparent neglect, the Academy of Ancient Music’s new recording of Dussek’s Messe Solemnelle shines a much-deserved light on this magnificent work and its creator. Discovered in the Conservatory Library in Florence in 2015, the manuscript score was transcribed by AAM director Richard Egarr and musicologist Reinhard Siegert, leading to its first modern performance in 2019. 

A late classical-era work, the mass is reminiscent of the works of Beethoven and Mozart, with Dussek’s own unique voice at the forefront. Throughout the Messe one is struck by the beautiful melodiousness and expert craft in each movement; nothing feels extraneous or unnecessary, but rather that every note is exactly where it needs to be, resulting in a sound that is effortless and streamlined. As we expect with Dussek, the dynamic contrasts are extraordinarily effective and contribute tremendous energy to the entire work, both within individual movements and between the larger sections of the mass itself. 

One of the world’s finest period instrument orchestras, the Academy of Ancient Music does not disappoint. From beginning to end, the care and attention they give to every musical subtlety and nuance breathes life into this newly discovered work, inviting listeners to embark on a journey of their own to discover Dussek and his Messe Solemnelle for themselves.

03 Das Lied de LeeuwMahler – Das Lied von der Erde
Lucile Richardot; Yves Saelens; Het Collectief; Reinbert de Leeuw
Alpha ALPHA633 (naxosdirect.com/items/das-lied-von-der-erde-543432)

The project to create a chamber version of Mahler’s 1908 orchestral song cycle Das Lied von der Erde was an initiative of Arnold Schoenberg, who intended to perform this reduction for 13 players for his Society for Private Musical Performances, an exclusive concert series devoted to new music which ran for three years from 1919 to 1921. Schoenberg indicated roughly how this might be achieved by annotating the full score, leaving the details to be worked out by an acolyte (likely Anton Webern). Ultimately, however, the project was abandoned as the Society went bankrupt due to the hyper-inflation that ravaged post-war Austria. In 1980 Universal Edition commissioned Rainer Riehn to make a performing edition of the score, which has proved compelling enough to have received over a dozen recordings to date. 

In 2019, the Belgian Het Collectief ensemble invited the esteemed Dutch maestro Reinbert de Leeuw, well known for his passionate advocacy for the music of Messiaen, Ligeti, Kagel, Kurtág, Vivier, Gubaidulina and Ustvolskaya, to create and perform his own interpretation of this autumnal masterpiece at the Saintes Festival in France in July of that year; sadly, this would prove to be his last public performance. Subsequently, an ailing de Leeuw implored Thomas Dieltjens, the artistic director of the ensemble, to record his arrangement as soon as possible. In February 2020, following the completion of the recording sessions in Amsterdam, de Leeuw died at the age of 81. 

De Leeuw’s version of the work for the most part follows the broad outlines of the Riehn version but amplifies it with the addition of a second clarinet, assigns the bassoon to double on the contrabassoon (its cavernous low C is an indispensable element in the finale) and, most tellingly, adds a harp part to the ensemble while curtailing the incongruous piano part to the bare essentials. Add to this the outstanding sonic alchemy of the recording team and de Leeuw’s finely balanced direction and the result is a performance that for the first time didn’t leave me feeling short-changed by the reduced ensemble. The stunning interpretation by the French mezzo-soprano Lucile Richardot is notable for its intimacy and finely nuanced word painting while the Belgian tenor Yves Saelens lends an appropriate swagger to his alternating extroverted numbers. In the closing movement of the finale, Der Abschied (The Farewell) de Leeuw provides a touching detail: while the voice gradually recedes into darkness on the word “ewig” (forever) the ensemble maintains an inexorable clockwork indifference, ignoring the indicated diminuendo. The earth alone survives, “the horizon is ever blue.” Farewell, Reinbert! You will be greatly missed.

04 Bruckner Mass MotetsBruckner – Mass in E Minor; Motets
Choir of King’s College, Cambridge; Academy of St Martin in the Fields; Sir Stephen Cleobury
King’s College Cambridge KGS0035 (kingscollegerecordings.com)

Described as “half simpleton, half god” by Gustav Mahler, Anton Bruckner remains a divisive figure in musical history. As a composer of immense symphonic structures at a time of fissure between followers of Brahms and Wagner, Bruckner was subject to severe criticism from both friend and foe, and these symphonies continue to divide listeners into pro- and anti-Bruckner factions, though less antagonistically than in the late 19th century.

In addition to his love of art, Bruckner was a devout Catholic, and it is in his smaller-scale religious works that we find a level of universally praised beauty and genius unlike any other of his contemporaries, a point reinforced by this recording of the Mass in E Minor and motets by the Choir of King’s College, Cambridge. Recorded shortly before the death of conductor Stephen Cleobury, this striking survey of Bruckner’s religiosity and skill is also a testament to the devotion and dedication of the man who led the King’s College choir for so many years.

While Bruckner’s music is often grouped with the massed-choir works of Brahms, Mahler and Schoenberg, this disc demonstrates that Bruckner, particularly in his smaller-scale material, can be ably taken on by chamber-sized groups, including choirs of men and boys. The timbral compromises suggested by this vocal disposition are, in fact, not compromises at all, for the purity of sound that is produced is essential to the transparent and acoustic-driven nature of these pieces. In a building with such reverberance as the St. Florian monastery, where Bruckner composed and worked for many years, or King’s College Chapel, it is the attack, decay and intonation that are of paramount importance, rather than the characteristically late-Romantic power and vibrato, a point reinforced by this stellar recording.

The music of Bruckner no longer needs apologists – it is breathtaking in its entirety and deserving of its place in music history. This recording once again demonstrates why this is so, revelling in the genius of that man who was once described as “half simpleton, half god.” This is music to soothe the soul in troubled times such as our own.

05 RusalkaDvořák – Rusalka
Soloists; Glyndebourne Chorus; London Philharmonic Orchestra; Robin Ticciati
Opus Arte OA13020 (naxosdirect.com/search/809478013020)

Although Antonín Dvořák wrote ten operas, the fairytale Rusalka, written at the end of his life, was the only lasting triumph for the internationally renowned Czech composer. The reason was that most of Dvořák’s operas were felt to be dramatically weak, as a result of which he failed in his lifelong ambition to be recognized as Smetana’s heir.

Rusalka is a dreamily melodic opera set to Jaroslav Kvapil’s libretto, (which also included some Slavonic features), which was based on the tale Undine by Friedrich de la Motte Fouqué; also used by Hans Christian Andersen as well as by Pushkin. Dvořák’s beautiful score occasionally evokes both Wagner and Debussy, but it also has earthier passages which underline its Czech identity. As a love story, it remains unusual. Since Rusalka is rendered mute by a charmed spell and potion given to her by the witch Ježibaba she cannot speak to her beloved prince and so there is no conventional love duet. Yet, magically, the opera’s finest arias – including the famous Song of the Moon – belong to Rusalka. 

Sally Matthews plays the heroine with tragic majesty. Patricia Bardon’s Ježibaba is dark and beguiling while Evan Leroy Johnson plays the Prince with great eloquence. Rae Smith’s set design is breathtaking and Melly Still’s direction has an epic quality to it. All of this is superbly assisted by the Glyndebourne Chorus and the London Symphony Orchestra which are expertly conducted by Robin Ticciati.

06 Stamford and HowellsStanford and Howells Remembered
The Cambridge Singers; John Rutter; Wayne Marshall
Collegium Records CSCD 524 (johnrutter.com/music)

This 2-CD set of choral music honours composers Charles Villiers Stanford (1852-1924) and his student and colleague Herbert Howells (1892-1983), each with a full disc of highly accomplished music wonderfully sung. It is a version remastered in 2020 from tracks originally recorded in 1992, with three added tracks of which Stanford’s exquisite Latin Magnificat is especially welcome. John Rutter’s Cambridge Singers excel in this music, and are complemented by the fine acoustics of Ely Cathedral. The above-mentioned Magnificat for double choir really surprised me with its unusual harmonies and variety of textures, while the more straightforward English Magnificats in G and B-flat, also on the disc, offer interesting comparisons. In the G-major work, soprano Caroline Ashton shines with her clear vibrato-less tone. Of other Stanford works I was especially taken with O for a closer walk, an intimate and moving setting of William Cowper’s poem.

Turning to Howells, the Cambridge Singers handle his works’ Eastern scales, impressionistic harmonies and complex textures effortlessly. On this disc, the Howells Requiem (1938) seems both expressive and mystical; perhaps Rutter’s own association with the composer gave him insights into the extraordinary moods of each section. The compelling, late anthem, The fear of the Lord (1976), which Howells composed for Rutter’s choir at Cambridge, is here. So is another favourite anthem, Like as the hart (1941), which actually strikes me as bluesy! And there is much more to be discovered.

08 Britten Peter GrimesBritten – Peter Grimes
Stuart Skelton; Erin Wall; Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra and Choirs; Edward Gardner
Chandos CHSA 5250(2) (naxosdirect.com/search/095115525029)

What an extraordinary thing Benjamin Britten’s Peter Grimes is. After 75 years in existence, this work has become a centrepiece of the English operatic canon. Did Britten ever imagine it would become so celebrated when he first conceived of it? In an infamous flash of prophetic purpose, upon reading George Crabbe’s The Borough in a book shop in California ca. 1942, Britten “realized two things: that [he] must write an opera, and where [he] belonged.”

The newest recording of this seminal opus features star singers such as tenor Stuart Skelton, (in the lead role) and soprano Erin Wall (as Ellen Orford). Edward Gardner helms the Bergen Philharmonic Choir and Orchestra, amongst other choruses. From the outset of this record, we perceive laser-precise execution, resulting in a thoroughly energetic and inspired interpretation of this opera. Every last note of the score has been carefully considered by every musician involved. 

Three-quarters of a century on, performance practice now exist for Grimes. Gardner is aware of such traditions and works admirably within them, reimagining aspects of the opera while adhering to the performative lineage. Orchestral solos rival those of the singers themselves, with brilliant colours and edgy textures erupting from both choral and orchestral ensembles. Gardner still manages to surprise and provoke us, prompted by the nature of the libretto itself.

Skelton is the consummate Grimes, a role that has shaped his career in many ways. Canadian soprano Erin Wall is characteristically stunning in her performance of Ellen Orford, poignant and wistful. The music world has been deeply saddened by Wall’s recent death from cancer this October; she was but 44 years old. A shining light and a rare national treasure, Wall has departed from us far too soon, long before any of her last songs should have been sung.


09 Henze PrinzHans Werner Henze – Das Prinz von Homburg
Adams; Boecker; Margita; Schneiderman; Kallenberg; Ebbecke; Orchestra of the Staatsoper Stuttgart; Cornelius Meister
Naxos 2.110668 (naxosdirect.com/search/747313566853)

Towards the end of Hans Werner Henze’s great opera, Der Prinz von Homburg, soldiers from the Prince of Homburg’s regiment sing “Remember: feeling alone can save us.” They are pleading for mercy for their leader, a highly distractible, irrepressibly romantic dreamer, governed more by feeling than by rules. He is about to be executed for disregarding his orders – even though by not following them he led his troops to a crucial victory. 

This production from Stuttgart Opera in 2019, set in a run-down gymnasium, is no treat for the eyes. But director Stephan Kimmig charges it with urgency, theatricality and a deep commitment to the humanitarian concerns of Henze and the brilliant Austrian writer Ingeborg Bachmann, whose libretto is based on a much-loved play from 1811 by Heinrich von Kleist. 

Kimmig is especially persuasive in highlighting the contrast between the Prince’s poetic world of imagination and the military’s regimented world of discipline in a way that forcefully resonates today, over 60 years after Henze wrote it – that is until the heavy-handed, awkward finale, where the cast pulls out scarves and T-shirts messaging sensitivity, empathy and freedom. 

Musically, the pleasures are innumerable. The singers are without exception convincing, especially Robin Adams as an endearing Prince. The orchestra of the Staatsoper Stuttgart under the direction of Cornelius Meister is incisive in the gorgeous orchestral interludes, and responsive in arias like Homburg’s moving ode to immortality, Nun, o Unsterblichkeit.

11 Eric WhitacreEric Whitacre – The Sacred Veil
Los Angeles Master Chorale
Signum Classics SIGCD630 (naxosdirect.com/ search/635212063026)

The Sacred Veil is a collaboration between longtime friends, composer Eric Whitacre and poet Charles Anthony Silvestri. In 2005, Silvestri lost his wife Julie to cancer, leaving him to raise their two young children. A decade later, Silvestri began to reflect on his loss and wrote poetry about his relationship with Julie, their courtship, love, hopes and dreams, and his loss and grief. The CD contains an interview with Whitacre and Silvestri where they discuss this; the booklet is generous, with each poem contextualized by Silvestri. 

The Sacred Veil refers to moments of births and deaths when a thin curtain, an almost imperceptible shield, lies between those who are living and those who have passed. The 12 movements each explore particular slivers of Silvestri’s reflections. The settings are intimate with poetry that offers powerful imagery throughout, the music is profound and heart wrenching, the chorus sounds exquisite, and pianist Lisa Edwards and cellist Jeffrey Zeigler’s emotional artistry is matched by their superb musical abilities.

The Sacred Veil is a deeply personal piece for Silvestri, yet the personal journey speaks to each of us individually. It is a memorable musical experience that transports us from one gripping moment to another and reaches its peak in the second-to-last movement with You Rise, I Fall; in the moment of death, when the loved one lets go and rises, those left behind descend into their darkest moments of grief. 

Premiered in February 2019, The Sacred Veil was recorded by the Los Angeles Master Chorale.

12 Tonu KorvitsTõnu Kõrvits – You  Are Light and Morning
Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir; Tallinn Chamber Orchestra; Risto Joost
Ondine ODE 1363-2 (naxosdirect.com/search/0761195136324)

Estonian composer Tõnu Kõrvits contributes a moving 60-minute work to the immense Estonian choral/orchestral repertoire with his colourful and detailed composition, You are Light and Morning (2019), performed here with compassion by the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir and Tallinn Chamber Orchestra conducted by Risto Joost.

Based on the poetry of 20th-century Italian writer, Cesare Pavese (1908-1950), the cycle abounds with emotional feelings of loss, grief, love, life and nature in Kõrvits’ Romantic- and Mahler-influenced tonal/atonal music. Six parts are sung in Italian and two in English. Highlights include the opening Fade In with its mysterious orchestral quiet minor chord that later reappears before the final song, enveloping the work in contemplative haunting soundscapes. The first part, Tu sei come una terra (You Are Like a Land), is accessible and modern simultaneously, as its introductory vocal motive (which recurs throughout the entire work), traditional choral colours and high string held notes with atonal touches, prepare the listener for what’s coming. Pavese’s poetic declaration to his love Constance is musically symbolized in To C. From C featuring full choir singing above softer walking/tiptoed pizzicato in the strings. The lush sound changes (like love sometimes) to suspenseful minor tonalities until the final vocal hum with more string plucks.  

As an Estonian-Canadian, I grew up and still listen to Estonian choral music. Kõrvits’ work here is so clearly his own, with the performers outdoing themselves in their interpretations.  Thank you/aitäh for this memorable music!

13 Part StabatMaterArvo Pärt – Stabat Mater
Gloriae Dei Cantores; Richard K. Pugsley
Gloriae Dei Cantores Recordings GDCD065 (naxos.lnk.to/StabatMaterEL)

If any composer could, singlehandedly, have created a public receptive to the holy minimalism of John Tavener and Górecki’s third symphony, it would be the monkish Estonian, Arvo Pärt whose 85th birthday (September 11) was the occasion of this release. Pärt‘s music has evolved through serialism – using the dissonances of atonal music – and Franco-Flemish choral music until, after years of meditation, religious consultation and even a break from composing, Pärt settled into using his singular voice to initiate his enduring tintinnabuli period, featuring such masterpieces as Tabula Rasa, Fratres and Cantus in Memory of Benjamin Britten.

This disc takes its name from Stabat Mater but also consists of other masterfully performed still and contemplative choral works. As with Pärt’s orchestral pieces, the uniqueness of this choral music is achieved largely through a build-up of dynamics and contrasting sonorities used in an almost circular manner. The Magnificat and Nunc dimittis are particularly eloquent examples. 

The longest work is Stabat Mater. While this music is intense, Pärt eschews the pain of the crucifixion; rather he imbues the event’s sadness with a ritualistic element by way of the gently rocking motion that forms the basis of the work. You couldn’t ask for a better end to this disc. Yet the build-up to it is extraordinary because Gloriæ Dei Cantores, directed by Richard K. Pugsley, has interiorized Pärt’s spirit – indeed his very soul – as they traverse his music to an unprecedented degree of poignancy, with beautifully moulded choral textures and colours.

Listen to 'Arvo Pärt: Stabat Mater' Now in the Listening Room

14 Marfa SongsMarfa Songs
Danielle Buonaiuto
Starkland ST-234 (starkland.com)

For her debut album, Marfa Songs, Danielle Buonaiuto enlisted four emerging composers to write song cycles for her. Marfa Songs features 19 premiere recordings by Douglas Buchanan, Natalie Draper, James Young and Canadian composer, Cecilia Livingston. Each composer provides a unique vocal terrain for Buonaiuto to explore: Buchanan’s Scots and Waters is influenced by Scottish music; Draper’s O sea-starved, hungry sea is ritualistic and portrays the sea’s powers; Young’s miniature Marfa Songs pay homage to the Texas high plains; and Livingston’s Penelope and Kalypso voyage through Homer’s Odyssey.

Marfa Songs is marked by stylistic differences that make it challenging to find musical cohesiveness and is best considered as a soundscape journey. Together with pianist John Wilson, Buonaiuto creates atmospheres that include a minimalistic panorama of a desert city, water odysseys, themes of mortality and eternity as well as Scottish folk songs and a Scots rendition of Psalm 23. Buonaiuto’s vocal agility is most notable in the Young song cycle, which is brazen and fun, although the purposeful minimalistic instrumentation and jumpy nature of the songs do not always serve her voice. Buonaiuto’s diction is flawless, especially in the highest registers and her emotional capacity as well as her full and warm voice is especially displayed in the Buchanan cycle.

Marfa Songs comes with a booklet that includes composer notes, lyrics and an introduction by American soprano Phyllis Bryn-Julson, one of the great interpreters of 20th century vocal music.

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