13 GorillaBrain Drain
Gorilla Mask
Clean Feed CF 540 CD (cleanfeed-records.com/product/brain-drain/)

With the power of an oil derrick pumping, Gorilla Mask’s Peter Van Huffel uses his baritone saxophone throughout to unearth subterranean textures, in order to extract robust dynamics that slam against Roland Fidezius’ electric bass hammering and percussionist Rudi Fischerlehner’s comprehensive battering. All eight tracks composed for this Berlin-based band by Kingston, Ontario-native Van Huffel straddle metal force and improvisational exploration. Despite leaning towards the former, the trio never strays into excess.

Sonically defining the difference between a headbanger and a Hoser on a track named for the Ontario taunt, the narrative of sutured bass and saxophone outbursts are almost too thick to be partitioned. But the drummer’s oblique ruffs and rebounds retain a whiff of the unexpected. In the same way, Fidezius uses effects to suggest ringing guitar-like licks on tunes like Barracuda; and the saxophonist sometimes turns from baritone rumbles or altissimo squeaks to airy alto saxophone trills.

Additionally the group is versatile enough to brush against bedrock funk on Caught in a Helicopter Blade, as reed honks, drum pops and string sluices up the excitement level. But the best demonstration of balancing insight and intensity comes on the extended Drum Song where intense kinetics radiate from Fischerlehner’s cymbal clashes, bell ringing and rim shots, as electronic-fattened dual reed timbres and bass twangs steamroll the theme forward.

While Canada’s musical loss may be Germany’s gain, the result is a notable and individual band identity.

01 Iimpressions of debussy coverImpressions of Debussy
Lori Sims; Andrew Rathbun; Jeremy Siskind
Centaur Records (andrewrathbun.com) 

With its evocative harmonies and imaginative rhythms, the music of Debussy particularly lends itself to jazz interpretations and the blending of the two idioms meld perfectly on this Centaur recording featuring nine of Debussy’s Préludes played by pianists Lori Simms and Jeremy Siskind together with soprano saxophonist Andrew Rathburn. The disc is a delight!

Comprising 18 tracks altogether, the well-ordered sequence features Sim’s performance of a prelude as it was originally written, immediately followed by the same piece reimagined by either Siskind or Rathburn and performed by the duo. The arrangements were first presented at the Gilmore Keyboard Festival in 2016.

Sims’ performance is poised and sensitive, at all times beautifully nuanced. And what is particularly appealing is the manner in which the jazz interpretations reinvent the original in such a creative way that frequently the piece is transformed altogether. As an example, the esoteric and mysterious mood of preludes such as Les sons et les parfums tournent dans l’air du soir and Feuilles mortes is almost abandoned in the jazz version and replaced instead by the use of a brisker tempo and jazz harmonies in an amiable conversation between the two parts. Yet other re-interpretations are closer to the original, such as Minstrels with its quirky rhythms and slapstick good humour.

Throughout, the duo plays with a freshness and spontaneity that truly breathes new life into traditional repertoire in a very convincing way – how could Debussy not have approved?! Impressions of Debussy is perfect listening for a summer evening – or anytime for that matter. Recommended.

02 Daugherty This LandMichael Daugherty – This Land Sings (Inspired by the life and times of Woody Guthrie)
Annika Socolofsky; John Daugherty; Dogs of Desire; David Alan Miller
Naxos 8.559889 (naxosdirect.com/items/daugherty-this-land-sings-inspired-by-the-life-and-times-of-woody-guthrie-534848) 

Celebrated American composer Michael Daugherty’s musical tribute This Land Sings: Inspired by the Life and Times of Woody Guthrie arrived just after George Floyd’s death and the protests against racism. The CD’s theme of social injustice in the songs and life of Woody Guthrie (1912-1967) is timely. But how did Daugherty in 2016 compose music out of music? The answer is versatility. Travelling across America in space and time, the tribute includes many stops: Utah at the 1915 death of singer-labour activist Joe Hill; Oklahoma during the 1930s dust storms; with Guthrie as a cook on US Merchant Marine convoy ships; and at a Jewish community in New York where Guthrie lived after World War Two. The composer alludes to well-known Guthrie songs and parodies traditional American songs, mixing in his own often-satirical poetry and music. The brilliant David Alan Miller-conducted small ensemble Dogs of Desire begins with a quasi-Stravinsky-ish Overture that has eerie suggestions of Guthrie’s This Land Is Your Land. Soprano Annika Socolofsky’s low vibrato-less sound is especially effective in the duet The Ghost and Will of Joe Hill, but I wondered if baritone John Daugherty’s ringing timbre was appropriate in this composition’s initially rough milieu. 

Nevertheless, the two singers later became the work’s saving graces as Daugherty’s lyrical musical voice emerged. Hearing the spare voice/single instrument combinations in Bread and Roses (soprano/bassoon) and I’m Gonna Walk That Lonesome Valley (baritone/clarinet), I had travelled a long way indeed.

04 Strings for PeaceStrings for Peace
Amjad Ali Khan; Sharon Isbin; Amaan Ali Bangash; Ayaan Ali Bangash
Zoho ZM 202004 (zohomusic.com/cds/isbin_stringsforpeace.html) 

Innovative Grammy-winning guitarist Sharon Isbin has just released a new recording that not only pushes cultural musical barriers and stereotypes, but breaks them down entirely. Isbin is joined here by iconic sarod master, Amjad Ali Khan and his talented sons, Amaan and Ayaan Ali Bangash. Noted drummer/tabla player Amit Kavthekar, adds his considerable talents to both the intensity and the beauty of the repertoire. The project itself is comprised of stirring ragas and talas, composed in the traditions of region-specific North Indian classical music. The CD was recorded in New York City following the ensemble’s successful and aptly titled “Strings for Peace” 2019 tour of India, and features four original compositions by Khan that are based on popular ragas, and were written and arranged specifically for Isbin’s transplendant musicianship, as well as for her deep, intuitive understanding of this thrilling music, steeped in antiquity.

With over 30 diverse albums to her credit, Isbin’s sibilant and precise guitar work is the perfect complement for Khan’s ancient sarod – both in timbre and tone. Of special note are By the Moon, in which languid, dreamy drone tones conjure up the magic and mystery of the moon’s esoteric power; in contrast, Love Avalanche is a rousing, rhythmic celebration, involving an intricate and melodic musical conversation between Isbin and Khan. The irresistible Sacred Evening is an experience of gentle, fragile beauty as well as a dip into the eternal sea of oneness that we are all a part of.

This inspired ensemble will spread their much-needed message of peace, beauty, unity and understanding through music in an upcoming United States cross-country tour next year, beginning with appearances at the world-famous Tanglewood and Caramoor Festivals.

Despite the difficulty of organizing large ensembles, determined musicians strive to realize the unique mixture of expanded colours and rhythm only available from this format. Although finances mean that the groups here are either occasional or organized for specific projects, what they lack in permanence they make up for in quality presentations.

01 FireOrkCD002The most topical program, sadly related to the March 29 death at 86 of Polish composer Krzysztof Penderecki, is Actions (Rune Grammofon RCD 2212 runegrammofon.com). Conceived of before his death and eagerly encouraged by the composer, it’s the first performance of Penderecki’s mixture of improvisation and composition since its premiere in 1971. With the same number and almost exact instrumentation of the initial band, the 14-piece Scandinavian Fire! Orchestra, conducted by baritone saxophonist Mats Gustafsson, devises a personal interpretation. Negotiating the peaks and valleys of the creation, the group works its way from an introduction heavily weighted towards growling brass from tubist Per-Åke Holmlander and trombonist Maria Bertel to a protracted silence broached by muted tones from one of three trumpeters and propelled into a steadying groove from bassists Elsa Bergman and Torbjörn Zetterberg. From then on, until a semi-climax at the midpoint, fruitful dialogues emerge involving distorted runs from guitarist Reine Fiske and Gustafsson’s low-pitched baritone slurs. A middle section driven by kettle-drum thumps and gong resonations from Andreas Werliin plus Christer Bothén’s bass clarinet continuum is further propelled by Alexander Zethson’s ecclesiastical organ pumps that judder just below the polyphonic surface. Overblowing snorts from Gustafsson coupled with surging glossolalia from the other reeds lead to a final section of pumping guitar distortion and a capillary explosion. With the massed instruments’ layered top, middle and bottom textures equally audible as a crescendo, brief guitar frails and organ washes signal the finale.

02 BothTrueCD003Moving from the music of an older Polish composer to that of two young Canadians is Both Are True (Greenleaf Music GRE CD 1075 greenleafmusic.com) by the Webber/Morris Big Band. The 19-piece ensemble is named for its co-leaders, now Brooklyn-based. Anna Webber and Angela Morris both compose, play tenor saxophone and flute, and split conducting chores. The other players are some of New York’s top young veterans. Lighter in tone and movement than the Fire! Orchestra’s interpretation, tracks range from the chipper to the atmospheric. The brief Webber-composed Rebonds for instance, has a slinky cartoon villain-like theme personified by the slow acceleration of guitarist Dustin Carlson’s distorted pedal frails among low-pitched snorts by four trombonists. In contrast Webber’s extended Reverses is a pensive mid-range creation of reed gurgles complemented by a rococo-like brass arrangement that slides via Marc Hannaford’s piano comping into a modulated smorgasbord of swing effects, further opened up midway through. Trumpeter Kenny Warren emphasizes flutter tonguing and grace notes upfront as textures from the other sections couple and separate in the background. A complete change of pace, Morris’ And it Rolled Right Down suggests what would happen if a C&W ditty was interpreted by crack improvisers. Interpolating a marching band motif, the piece lopes along as clarinetist Adam Schneit and bass trombonist Reginald Chapman face off earnestly before a funky plunger-muted snarl from trumpeter Jake Henry confirms the piece’s links to jazz. Elsewhere brief unaccompanied sax duets confirm the co-leaders’ improvisational skills. Overall, slick arrangements make the band’s program audacious as well as animated.

03 SupersonicCD004Another large group dedicated to the interpretation of a single composer’s work is Norwegian percussionist Gard Nilssen’s Supersonic Orchestra (ODIN CD 9572 odinrecords.com). With If You Listen Carefully the Music Is Yours, the 16-piece group blasts through six Nilssen tunes with the speed, exuberance and ferment that would have been apparent if Maynard Ferguson’s flashy big bands had included more sophisticated improvisers. The band’s cumulative textures are also idiosyncratic since the Supersonic features only two trumpets and one trombone along with seven saxophonists, some of whom double on clarinets, plus three double bassists and three drummers. Despite refined string patterning from some of Scandinavia’s most accomplished bassists, the band’s lack of chordal instruments means that melodic twists and turns are most often marked by short contemplative sequences that stand out from the lusty arrangement. At the same time a constant glaze of group stimulation permeates the live disc, from the introductory Premium Processing Fee to the concluding Bytta Bort Kua Fikk Fela Igjen. The first is notable as skyscraper-high trumpet tones and riffing reeds answer bass drum and cymbal patterns before settling into descriptive tongue slaps and slurs from baritone saxophonist André Roligheten and his section mates. Meanwhile the concluding Norwegian-language-titled track finds everyone slapping, scraping, bouncing and ratcheting additional percussion instruments alongside the drummers for a dancing Scandinavian variant on Afro-Cuban beats. Low-pitched brass stutters later push the narrative into an explosive, multi-vibrated finale. Along the way, players pilot a path that draws equally on John Coltrane’s large group work, Norwegian folk melodies, unforced Count Basie-like swing and African-oriented percussion. Almost all of the soloists distinguish themselves, but with so many playing similar instruments, it’s impossible to praise the unaccompanied bassist or bassists who bridge the rhythmic gap in the middle of a couple of numbers or to whom to ascribe the standout mellow tenor sax musings or the twists and tongue-slapping turns of higher-pitched alto saxophone excitement.

04 SoundTapcd005That isn’t the problem with Sound Tapestries (SoLyd Records SLR 0440 vladimirtarasov.com), since all soloists in the Krugly Band Orchestra (sic) are named as the 17-piece ensemble plays a multi-hued, multi-sectional composition by percussionist Vladimir Tarasov. A former member of the USSR’s legendary Ganelin Trio, the drummer now splits his time between Lithuania and California. However this complex and cadenced performance features all Russian musicians and was recorded in Tasarov’s birth place of Arkhangelsk. Although like the Supersonic Orchestra three drummers are featured, the swish of cymbal, hand patting and cross rumbles are used throughout as piquant accents rather than the whole sonic meal, and integrated within the band’s well-modulated execution of the material. Especially prominent is the funky bass line of Denis Shushkov, whose heavy gauge strokes cement the rhythmic base. While he holds the bottom, the most frequent arrangement involves contrapuntal challenges as soloists alternate with full-band responses. Another standout is pianist Grigory Sandomirsky. He’s equally adept at dense swirling dynamics, as on Tapestry #7, which mates a Latin-like groove with Eastern Bloc dance rhythms, the crushing rock-like thrums of guitarist Tim Dorofeev and the yearning tones of Anton Kotikov’s Armenian double reed, the duduk. Later, Sandomirsk’s pensive and reflective chording is accompanied with taste and sensitivity by drummer Tarasov, Oleg Yudanov and Peter Ivshin in a moderated fashion on Tapestry #3 (for S.J.F), a showpiece that opens up into a sympathetic duet between the breathy expression of tenor saxophonist Alexey Kruglov and the buttery triple-tongued affiliations of trombonist Maxim Piganov. The climactic Tapestry #6 brings the polyphonic program to a masterful close as trumpet squeals and reed spurts relax from shrill scattershot explosions to casually swinging motion alongside flexible percussion claps.

05 AntropologyCD006The most unusual use of a large ensemble however is a two-CD set by the Anthropology Band (Discus 90 CD discus-music.co.uk). On the first disc a septet of mostly rhythm instruments interprets British saxophonist Martin Archer’s 15-part suite. On the second CD, ten brass and woodwind players, with Archer and trumpeter/flugelbornist Charlotte Keeffe the only holdovers, add carefully arranged tonal extensions to the same pieces. The upshot is two vastly dissimilar variations. Awash with Pat Thomas’ shaking keyboard inflections, Corey Mwamba’s crafty vibraphone accents, plus interconnecting rhythm stabilization from drummer Peter Fairclough and bass guitarist Dave Sturt, the effervescent first program vamps along with space made for slurry half-valve effects from Keeffe and waves of corkscrew multiphonics from Archer. Even as the theme is shattered with brief solos, a repetitive ostinato is maintained with shuffle drumbeats and chunky guitar twangs from Chris Sharkey. While forceful beats also keep the sequences spiralling with blues-jazz-rock affiliations, a snowflake sprinkle of vibe resonation and moderated flugelhorn fluttering maintain a lyrical centre. The swinging finale emphasizes both currents with aggressive drumbeats and distorted guitar runs as prominent as melodic Gabriel-styled trumpet blasts. Adding nine additional players transforms the suite. Evolving at a swifter pace, intertwined horn textures and solos fill in the spaces left by echoing bass lines and guitar splatters. With the subsequent sonic fullness taking on more obvious pastoral effects via orchestral instruments like Mick Somerset’s bubbly flutes. Later though, before altissimo reed screams and brassy emphasis make interpretations overly cacophonous, tracks are rhythmically grounded with logical forward motion. This strategy is most obvious on People Talking Blues as shaking keyboard riffs and pointed guitar patternings are subordinated by Nathan Bettany’s nasal oboe tones and Keeffe’s mellow flugelhorn until the rhythm unveils a cymbal-clashing climax. From that point on, the narratives rebound between sympathetic horn input including the trumpets’ bugle-like pitches and five-part reed section harmonies on one hand and a hypnotic bass guitar beat and chugging percussion on the other. With whistling horn slurs and stutters, frailing guitar licks and intensified tremolos from the rhythm section, the orchestral version of the concluding The Wrong Stuff 4 U is infused with the same equilibrium between rhythm and refinement as the septet variation. 

A mature demonstration of how expanded instrumental groups can illuminate and intensify a musical program is illustrated not only on this disc but on the others as well. 

01 Ignaz FriedmanIgnaz Friedman Complete Recordings (1923-1941)
Ignaz Friedman
Danacord DACOCD861-864 (naxosdirect.com/items/ignaz-friedman-complete-recordings-1923-1941-532264) 

Ignaz Friedman was born in Podgórze, near Kraków in 1882. His prodigious abilities were apparent and he studied with Hugo Riemann in Leipzig. He entered the class of the renowned pedagogue, Theodore Leschetizky in Vienna. “Under Leschetizky he developed a technique surpassing all others and in 1904 made his concert debut that became the stuff of legends.” In 1914 he settled in Berlin where there is a plaque in Pariser Strasse that commemorates his stay in the city. He toured in Europe and America until 1914 when the outbreak of war found him touring in Australia where he remained, enjoying a successful career, there and in New Zealand, as a teacher and performer. He was married to a Russian Countess, Manya Schidlowsky, a relative of Tolstoy. Friedman was deservedly acknowledged by critics including Harold C. Schonberg and colleagues, Sergei Rachmaninoff and others, as pianist-among-pianists. He died on Australia Day, January 28, 1948. Friedman was an editor and a composer with several of his compositions heard here meticulously restored, as are all entries in the set Ignaz Friedman Complete Recordings from the LP years, 1923-1941 (six cds for the price of three). 

When I was quite young, the usual, most-expressed evaluation of a neighbours’ child playing our piano was he or she “has a nice touch.” Those two words seemed to cover the situation quite nicely and pleased the proud parent. Back to the present. In these recordings, in gentle passages, there is often the illusion that Friedman is able play the notes without striking the keys. Now, that is a “nice touch.” This is not to say that this quality is omnipresent but it is there often enough across the 87 tracks on the six discs. Included are works by Scarlatti, Mozart, Widor, Beethoven (Moonlight Sonata) Schubert, and lots of Chopin (Mazurkas. Waltzes, Polonaises, etc.), for which he was renowned. Also Mendelssohn (Songs without Words), Gluck, Brahms, Hummel, Paganini, Liszt, Dvořák, Grieg, Rubinstein, Moszkowski, Paderewski, Suk, Mittler, and, of course, Ignaz Friedman. Bronislaw Huberman is heard in the Kreutzer Sonata.

I put disc one in the player with but a cursory look at the contents and was so enamored that I soon had no inclination to do anything else but sit back and enjoy disc two…

02 Mozart Toronto WindsMozart – Serenade in B-Flat K361
Toronto Chamber Winds; Winston Webber
Crystal Records CD646 (crystalrecords.com)

In his novel Steppenwolf, Herman Hesse depicted Wolfgang Mozart as a smiling Buddha-like immortal. Peter Shaffer, in his play Amadeus, depicts him as human, a vulgar young goofball with uncanny abilities, who had a sense of his music’s importance beyond that assigned by his patrons. In the play, upon hearing the slow movement of the Serenade No.10 in B-flat Major K361”Gran Partita,” the character Antonio Salieri describes with awe the beautiful simplicity of its construction; he believes he is hearing the voice of God. His disillusion with the human form supplying that voice provides the drama for the entire play. 

The theme of immortality rises before me as I listen to this release: these are all voices from the past, a recording made in Massey Hall in 1982, featuring some of the finest Toronto wind players from the time. Many of them were my heroes as I grew into the profession, and some remain active today. It is also an artifact of the time when the elite musical world was a men’s club. 

The performance is very fine, and if it tends more toward a representation of Hesse’s Mozart than Shaffer’s, it does so with warmth and style, and with a commitment to proper performance practice. This feature makes the CD well worth owning: the research into proper articulation and ornamentation was carried out by Daniel Leeson, one of the performers and a Mozart scholar. The results are quite pleasant, and instructive as well. It’s good to hear the freedom from the page that James Campbell’s ornaments demonstrate. The virtuosic Finale: Rondo Allegro molto is packed with flurries of 16th notes articulated at blinding speed.

Among the voices singing out from the recent past, I am most affected by that of Harry Sargous, at one time the principal oboe of the Toronto Symphony. If the account of the piece here has a flaw it would be that it is careful, rather than joyous. Sargous, however, seems to call out to his colleagues with his tone, and beseech them to revel in both the sacred and profane aspects of the music of this immortal fool.

01 Flights of AngelsWhile I don’t personally put much store in celestial beings, in these dire times I concede that we need all the help, comfort and support we can get anywhere we can find it. It seems that the extraordinary cellist Margaret Maria firmly believes in angels, and they are an ongoing source of inspiration in her work. Her latest, Flights of Angels (enchanten.bandcamp.com), once again creates an orchestral texture by combining many layers of sounds generated by her solo cello. From the artist’s website (enchanten.com) we learn this is meant to be: “Healing music being released into a broken world. Music created from otherworldly energies and the spirit world that can only be felt when you open your spirit to the invisible that exists just beyond what we can see. This music represents my spiritual journey in finding my music and moments of subconscious/dream states where I felt compelled to move in a certain direction, as if guided by a light towards an idea or emotion…” 

Beginning with Snow Angel, “overjoyed by the dancing snowflakes as they descend upon her wings,” we embark upon a journey that takes us through many states of being and consciousness: An Impossible Gift (to feel everything, to be a channel for both the dark and the light); An Angel for Maria (a special angel or spirit... one of the most beautiful Angels); Another World Opens (limitless, timeless, expansive); Tears of an Angel (listening to the sadness in the world); Passing Through (reality passes in and out of consciousness and finally, through); Breathtaking Light (a liminal light... made of half earth and half heaven); What If (...what if / In your dream / You went to heaven / And there plucked a strange and beautiful flower...); Floating Hope (the strongest emotion that keeps propelling me forward is hope...); And They Kept Kissing (heaven on earth to my tortured soul); Be Love (...a place where I can float in a space of love) and finally Princes of Heaven (I have been sent four Archangels in my life...).

Having disclosed my scepticism of celestial creatures I must consider it a coincidence that as I write this on April 21 while listening to Snow Angel I am enchanted to find myself watching a veritable blizzard outside my window. It has now passed and it’s a beautiful, albeit blustery, sunny day. Hopefully, like the late season snow, the COVID-19 virus too shall pass quickly. In the interim I take heart from Margaret Maria’s music. It does have healing powers, if the calm and gentle invigoration I’ve been feeling while listening is any indication.

Listen to 'Flights of Angels' Now in the Listening Room

As with almost everyone I am sure, self-isolation (with my dear wife Sharon) has curtailed much of my activity, foremost that of making music with other people. As regular readers will know, I am an avid amateur cellist, and in the months before this lockdown my string quartet had been working on several movements from Richard Krug’s arrangement of Schubert’s Winterreise. We were almost ready to bring in a singer to work with us when the pandemic reared its ugly head and all bets were off for the moment. I first encountered the string quartet version several years ago when I received a recording with baritone Johan Reuter and the Copenhagen String Quartet, of which Krug is the cellist (you can find my April 2018 review at thewholenote.com). Last fall, in my first outing following knee replacement surgery, I had the pleasure of experiencing a live performance by Daniel Lichti and the Penderecki String Quartet, during which I found myself thinking, hey, I could play (at least some of) that! I contacted Krug and purchased the score and parts to his arrangement and shortly after began to rehearse with my friends. 

02Winterreise for QuartetI look forward to getting back to rehearsal as soon as this crisis is over, but in the interim another interesting transcription has come my way. Winterreise for string quartet (Solo Musica SM 335 naxosdirect.com) is a purely instrumental version of the classic song cycle arranged by Andreas Höricht, violist of the featured Voyager Quartet. Höricht has taken half of the original songs and linked them with intermezzi of his own design to make a 50-minute suite (the entire cycle spans about 75 minutes). I have mixed feelings about the result. While it works quite well in its own right, and of course Schubert’s tunes are among the finest, I still miss the singer and the emotional content provided by the words. And I miss some of the songs, most particularly two of the ones my group has been focused on, Die Wetterfahne and Erstarrung, this latter presenting the most difficult challenge to the cellist in Krug’s arrangement and the one on which I have spent the most time and effort. That being said, Höricht’s interludes provide useful bridges between the selected songs and bring a contemporary sensibility without being particularly jarring. He has chosen seven songs from the first 19 of the cycle, but presents the final five in sequence ending, of course, with the Der Leiermann (The Hurdy-Gurdy man) in a suitably haunting performance. 

I say “of course” but in another transmogrification of Winterreise this was not the case. In January of this year Philippe Sly and the Chimera Project brought a live performance of their stunning Klezmer/Roma arrangement for baritone, violin, clarinet, trombone and accordion to Koerner Hall. In their rendition – fully staged and performed entirely from memory – the evening begins with a surprisingly peppy instrumental version of the opening song Gute Nacht before proceeding through the other 23 songs in order. After Der Leiermann with the singer accompanied by the quartet, instead of being the end of the performance, Sly, alone on the stage, then gave a chilling rendition of Gute Nacht accompanying himself on the hurdy-gurdy. It was unsettling and has stayed with me ever since. You can find Pamela Margles’ June 2019 review of the Chimera Project Analekta recording at thewholenote.com. 

03 Zephyr QuartetOther than the music of Peter Sculthorpe, I’m not well versed in Australian culture or repertoire, but from the opening strains of Hilary Kleinig’s Great White Bird on the Zephyr Quartet’s new CD Epilogue (navonarecords.com) I knew I was listening to music from Down Under, with its drones, overtones and distinctive rhythms. Touted as Australia’s “leading genre-defying explorers of dynamic cross-artform, multi-focused collaborations,” Zephyr was founded in 1999 and has since garnered numerous awards and accolades. The members all compose, arrange and improvise and their latest release brings together works written by them between 2013 and 2019. Cellist Kleinig contributes three tuneful works, Cockatoos and Exquisite Peace in addition to the opening number. Violinist Belinda Gehlert is represented by the three-movement tribute to notorious women Femme Fatale and the concluding title track. Violinist Emily Tulloch and violist Jason Thomas each contribute a pair. Tulloch’s Blindfold Gift starts as a gentle pizzicato meditation which turns into a minimalist lilting jig of sorts. Much like the disc itself, Thomas’ Time’s Timeless Art, the longest selection, is one extended harmonious arch in which time indeed seems to stand still. A balm for these troubled times.  

04 Piano QuintetsTreasures from the New World (Somm Recordings SOMMCD 0609
naxosdirect.com) features piano quintets by Amy Beach (1867-1944) and Henrique Oswald (1852-1931) performed by Clélia Iruzun and the Coull Quartet. Beach’s Piano Quintet dates from 1908 and had more than 40 performances during her lifetime. She premiered it with the Kneisel Quartet, with whom she had previously performed the quintets of Schumann and Brahms. While exhibiting both a distinctive and mature voice, the work acknowledges the early influence of those two masters. 

Although Beach has been receiving well-deserved attention recently and recordings of her music are proliferating – there are currently 19 titles listed on Grigorian.com – Henrique Oswald is a new name to me. He was born in Brazil of Swiss and Italian parents and after early studies in São Paulo he travelled to Italy to study and remained in Florence for some 30 years. He returned to Brazil in 1902 where he accepted the post of director of the Instituto Nacional de Música in Rio de Janeiro. His influences were primarily the French Romantics and he was dubbed “the Brazilian Fauré” by his friend Arthur Rubinstein. Composed in 1895, toward the end of his sojourn in Florence, the Piano Quintet reflects not only his fondness of French idioms, its outer movements look back to the music of Robert Schumann, making a wonderful pairing with Beach’s quintet. 

The charming disc also includes a short work for piano and ensemble by Brazilian Marlos Nobre (b.1939) who says “I can say I am a contemporary composer still capable of writing a beautiful melody,” and Beach’s celebrated Romance for Violin and Piano with Iruzun and Roger Coull. The performances throughout are idiomatic and compelling. 

05 Aspects of PulitzerThe final disc that caught my attention this month also features music from the New World, in this case mid-to-late century works by distinguished American composers. Aspects of America: Pulitzer Edition (PentaTone PTC 5186 763
pentatonemusic.com) features Pulitzer Prize-winning works by Walter Piston, Morton Gould and Howard Hanson performed by the Oregon Symphony under Carlos Kalmar. It was Hanson (1896-1981) that drew me to this disc, as he was the one to convince Canadian icon John Weinzweig to pursue a master’s degree at the Eastman School of Music in Rochester NY, where he studied under Bernard Rogers in the years before WW2. Although not a result of the formal teaching he received there, this period proved seminal in Weinzweig’s development by virtue of his exposure to 12-tone composition through the works of Alban Berg which he found in the school library. While he didn’t become a strict serialist, Weinzweig did incorporate dodecaphonic principles into his own compositions, seemingly the first Canadian to so, and later passed them on to his own students at the University of Toronto. 

Hanson, himself, was considered a neo-Romantic composer by his peers. He personally rejected the serial approach although he did incorporate some dissonance and bi-tonality in his work. He won the Pulitzer in 1944 for his Symphony No.4, Op.34 “Requiem.” This is one of seven symphonies and Hanson claimed it as his favourite. It’s in four movements, named for parts of the Catholic Mass for the Dead: Kyrie, Resquiescat, Dies irae and Lux aeterna. Although the earliest work here, it is placed last on the program, with its “eternal light” providing an uplifting and ethereal closing to the disc. There is no mention in the notes as to whether the symphony references the global war that was raging at the time of composition. 

Chronologically next, Piston’s Symphony No.7, is the first selection on the disc. Piston (1894-1976) studied in France with Nadia Boulanger and Paul Dukas after attending Harvard, where he later taught from 1926 until retiring in 1960. His illustrious students included the likes of Elliott Carter and Leonard Bernstein. His textbook, Harmony, was published in 1941 and is still in use today. The Pulitzer he won in 1961 for the Seventh Symphony was actually his second, the first being awarded for his Third Symphony in 1948. The Seventh starts ponderously but soon develops into a driving Con moto before receding quietly. This is followed by a meditative Andante pastorale movement; the symphony finishes with a boisterous Allegro festevole

The most recent work is Stringmusic by Morton Gould (1913-1996) which won the Pulitzer in 1995. It was written for Mstislav Rostropovich and “showcases all the possible sounds and colours of a string orchestra,” although anyone familiar with Penderecki’s Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima might disagree. It’s a lyrical five-movement work – Prelude, Tango, Dirge, Ballad and Strum (perpetual motion) – which serves as a fitting monument to the life of a man whose eclectic career spanned vaudeville and Tin Pan Alley to Broadway and concert halls around the world. This excellent disc is part of an ongoing tribute to American music from PentaTone and the Oregon Symphony. 

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
discoveries@thewholenote.com

01 British Violin SonatasEnglish violinist Clare Howick garnered rave reviews for her previous five CDs of violin music by British composers, and it’s easy to hear why with her latest contribution to the genre, British Violin Sonatas with pianist Simon Callaghan (SOMM SOMMCD 0610 naxosdirect.com).

The six composers represented were exact contemporaries: Gordon Jacob (1895-1984); William Walton (1902-83); Lennox Berkeley (1903-89); Alan Rawsthorne (1905-71); William Alwyn (1905-85); and Kenneth Leighton (1929-88). Walton’s Sonata and Alwyn’s Sonatina are quite beautiful works which leave you wondering why they’re not heard more often; Leighton’s Sonata No.1 is another absolute gem.

The three short but delightful Jacob pieces – Elegy, Caprice and Little Dancer – are premiere recordings. Three more short but lovely pieces – Rawsthorne’s Pierrette: Valse Caprice and Berkeley’s Elegy Op.33 No.2 and Toccata Op.33 No.3 – complete an enthralling recital.

Howick plays with a gorgeous free-flowing rhapsodic strength and passion, matched by Callaghan in all respects. Superb recorded sound and balance, with a rich, deep and sonorous piano and full, warm violin add to a simply outstanding disc.

02 Hemsing GriegMy sheet of notes for Grieg - The Violin Sonatas, the stunning Super Audio CD by Norwegian violinist Eldbjørg Hemsing and Macedonian pianist Simon Trpčeski (BIS-2456 naxosdirect.com) has one word at the top – “Wow!!” – that could easily suffice as the entire review.

It should come as no surprise that Hemsing has an innate affinity for the music of Norway’s favourite musical son, but the high level of her interpretation here is still a real ear-opener, with big, spacious and expansive playing in the Sonatas No.1 in F Major Op.8, No.2 in G Major Op.13 and No.3 in C Minor Op.45. Trpčeski is a fine partner, clearly at one with Heming in all respects.

Heming’s own solo violin composition Homecoming – Variations on a folk tune from Valdres – showcases a tune her great-great-grandfather sang that found its way into Grieg’s solo piano Ballade Op.24. It’s a brief tour de force that provides a fitting end to an outstanding CD.

03 Korngold Violin ConcertoErich Wolfgang Korngold was an astonishingly precocious and gifted musical talent, considered in his early years in Austria to be the greatest composer prodigy since Mozart. Evidence of his youthful abilities is paired with the most popular work from his later years in Hollywood on Korngold Violin Concerto & String Sextet with violinist Andrew Haveron, the RTÉ Concert Orchestra under John Wilson, and the Sinfonia of London Chamber Ensemble (Chandos CHAN 20135 naxosdirect.com).

Although fully revised in 1945, the concerto was actually drafted in 1937 before Korngold moved to America. Essentially reworking material from his 1930s Hollywood film scores, it’s an unashamedly romantic work in sweeping cinematic style, and given a terrific performance by Haveron, whose lustrous tone combines brilliance and warmth in an immensely satisfying recording.

Haveron is also first violin in the Sextet, a remarkably impressive four-movement work written when Korngold was only 17. While there are shades of Brahms and hints of early Schoenberg, an eminent critic at the premiere wrote that Korngold’s signature was unmistakeable from the very first bar.

04 Elinor FreyCellist-composer Giuseppe Clemente Dall’Abaco (1710-1805) was esteemed throughout the major European musical centres, but while his unaccompanied 11 Caprices have been published his 35 accompanied sonatas remain virtually unknown. Five of them – the Sonatas in A Major ABV30, C Minor ABV32, D Minor ABV35, VII in C Major ABV18 and VIII in G Major ABV19, the latter usually incorrectly attributed to Sammartini – are featured on Dall’Abaco Cello Sonatas, a delightful CD from the Montreal-based cellist Elinor Frey, accompanied by Mauro Valli (cello), Federica Bianchi (harpsichord) and Giangiacomo Pinardi (archlute) (Passacaille 1069 passacaille.be).

The music is Italianate and full of sunlight and brilliance. In her excellent and extensive booklet notes, Frey comments on Dall’Abaco’s experimenting with newly fashionable qualities that we now associate with galant or pre-classical music, and on the many characteristics which we identify with better-known cello music from later decades by the likes of Boccherini or Haydn.

It is indeed cello music that “remains fresh, audacious, alluring and often utterly beautiful,” and is a significant contribution to the early cello repertoire. Frey’s critical edition of the complete 35 cello sonatas of Dall’Abaco is due to be published by Edition Walhall this year.

Listen to 'Dall’Abaco Cello Sonatas' Now in the Listening Room

05 Barbora KolarovaImp in Impulse is the outstanding debut solo CD by the Czech violinist Barbora Kolářová. The title work was written for her by the American composer Pascal Le Boeuf and receives its premiere recording here, Jean Françaix’s Theme with 8 Variations for Solo Violin and Klement Slavický’s Partita for Solo Violin completing the disc (Furious Artisans FACD6822 furiousartisans.com).

Kolářová says that she loves searching for pieces that are generally unknown and unrecorded, and that speak to her artistically and emotionally; her desire to record these compositions and to be the first to share them with the world was the impetus for this CD.

Certainly all three works here have a great deal to offer, with the Slavický Partita particularly impressive. Kolářová plays with a remarkably strong, rich tone, terrific rhythmic drive and technical brilliance: you can watch her perform the title work on YouTube.

Listen to 'Imp in Impulse' Now in the Listening Room

06 chez les SchumannsOnly two of the three Schumanns featured on Un moment musical chez les Schumann, the new CD from cellist Cyrielle Golin and pianist Antoine Mourlas were related, but you’d never know it from the music (Klarthe K093 klarthe.com).

Robert Schumann’s Fünf Stücke im Volkston Op.102 is paired with sonatas by the German brothers Georg and Camillo Schumann, both gifted organists, pianists, conductors and composers. From a compositional viewpoint their not being well known may be due to the traditional style of their relatively late works, as well as the overwhelming influence of Johannes Brahms which indirectly unites their sonatas with the Robert Schumann work.

The Sonata Op.19 by Georg Schumann (1866-1952) is from 1897; the Sonata No.1 Op.59 by his brother Camillo (1872-1946) from the even later date of 1905. Both are impressive three-movement works in the strongest German Romantic tradition – sweeping, passionate writing which is way above the merely competent.

Fine and resonant performances make for a fascinating CD.

07 Beethoven MandolinThere’s more than just Beethoven Suites on the new mandolin and piano CD from Julien Martineau and pianist Vanessa Benelli Mosell that features works either by Beethoven or inspired by his fondness for the erstwhile folk instrument (Naïve V7083 naxosdirect.com). 

Beethoven is represented by four short works: the Adagio ma non troppo WoO43b; the two Sonatines in C Minor WoO43a and C Major WoO44a and the Andante con variazioni WoO44b. The Allegretto from Symphony No.7 is heard in a transcription by Hans Sitt.

The major work on the CD is by Beethoven’s direct contemporary Johann Nepomuk Hummel – his Grande sonate Op.37a, rightly described as a masterpiece. Fritz Kreisler’s Rondino on a Theme by Beethoven, an arrangement of Walter Murphy’s pop hit A Fifth of Beethoven and Corentin Apparailly’s Lettre à l’immortelle bien-aimée, written especially for this CD, complete the disc.

Martineau handles the technical challenges effortlessly and musically, with Mosell finding a nice balance between the original keyboard sound and the modern piano, never allowing the accompaniment to sound too heavy or overwhelming.

08 Vivaldi 63The remarkable Vivaldi Edition project created by musicologist Alberto Basso and the Naïve record label to record all 450 pieces in the collection of Vivaldi’s own personal scores in the National Library in Turin reaches Volume 63 with Vivaldi Concerti per violino VIII ‘Il teatro, with the French violinist Julien Chauvin and Le Concert de la Loge, the ensemble he founded in 2015 (Naïve OP 30585 backl.ink/107881253). 

There are six concertos here: in C Major RV187; B Minor RV387; D Minor RV235; D Major RV217; G Minor RV321; and B-flat Major RV366 “Il Carbonelli”. All are in the Fast-Slow-Fast three-movement form established by Vivaldi, with the D major concerto a particular stand-out with its lovely slow movement and dazzling finale.

Chauvin provides impeccable solo playing, with a bright, resonant clarity supported by a strong continuo and bass in works that the booklet essay rightly notes exhibit clear links with Vivaldi’s vocal music.

09 Johnny Gandelsman BachSilk Road violinist Johnny Gandelsman follows up his outstanding Sonatas & Partitas with JS BACH: COMPLETE CELLO SUITES Transcribed for Violin, including the first-ever recording of the Sixth Suite on a five-string violin (In A Circle Records ICR013 johnnygandelsman.com).

There’s no booklet, so it’s not clear exactly what Gandelsman means in the promo blurb quote: “In the violin pieces, I tried to follow the manuscript as much as I could. The cello suites feel different. What I see is an implication for infinite possibilities, the way an incredible improviser can find endless variation within the simplest form.” Cellos are tuned an octave and a fifth lower than violins – CGDA as opposed to GDAE – and with the exception of the Suite No.6 in D Major the suites here are transposed to the corresponding violin string, e.g. from G major to D major, or from D minor to A minor. Other than that, it’s difficult to discern any major changes without the benefit of a score.

Certainly Gandelsman brings the same effortless control and musicianship to these suites as he did to the Sonatas & Partitas, and once you get used to the much higher register and resulting lack of tonal depth it’s a truly engrossing and enlightening journey.

10 Healing ModesGandelsman is also the first violinist in the string quartet Brooklyn Rider, whose new 2CD set Healing Modes pairs Beethoven’s String Quartet No.15 in A Minor Op.132 with five short works written for the performers in an exploration of the power of music to heal body, mind and spirit (In A Circle Records IRC014 brooklynrider.com).

The lengthy central Adagio molto – Andante of Beethoven’s quartet reflected a period when he was recovering from a serious intestinal infection, and the new works address topics ranging from personal illness through mental health to current social issues. Compositions by Matana Roberts, Reena Esmail, Gabriela Lena Frank, Du Yun and Caroline Shaw are placed around and between the first three of the five Beethoven movements, which tends to weaken the impact of the latter without notably adding to that of the new works. 

How successful you feel this is will probably depend to a large extent on how comfortable you are with contemporary string works and their juxtaposition with traditional, albeit forward-looking masterpieces.

11 Great VIolins 3 StradivariViolinist Peter Sheppard Skærved continues his fascinating series The Great Violins with the 2CD Volume 3: Antonio Stradivari, 1685 – The Klagenfurt Manuscript (athene ath23206 naxosdirect.com).

The manuscript, which also dates from the mid-1680s was found in a Carinthian convent, and Skærved offers the opinion that the anonymous composer was probably one of the nuns or lay sisters. All 96 movements for solo violin are recorded here, the overwhelming majority of them only between one and two minutes in length. An astonishing 51 involve any one of six scordaturas – retuning of the strings – although it’s difficult to identify the resulting “striking changes in colour and timbre” that Skærved references in his extensive and extraordinarily detailed booklet essay that explores every possible aspect of the challenges and possibilities that he encountered in the project.

It’s a record of a quite remarkable personal journey of discovery, and while not a set for the casual listener, it’s an absolute mine of information for anyone interested in the violin music of the period. 

01 Beethoven GoodyearBeethoven – The Complete Piano Concertos
Stewart Goodyear; BBC National Orchestra of Wales; Andrew Constantine
Orchid Classics ORC100127 (naxosdirect.com)

Fond of storytelling, the dauntless Stewart Goodyear has long been associated with Ludwig van Beethoven, preferring a cyclic approach to the composer’s catalogue. Dubbed “The New Testament” of keyboard literature, Beethoven’s 32 sonatas have frequently been performed by Goodyear in a single day; he has also recorded the full cycle. 

Now, a recent release from Orchid Classics features yet another testament: the five piano concertos, spanning three full discs, in chronological order. In the opening essay of the liner notes, Goodyear recounts his first meeting with the concerti, at age nine: “…great theatre, great drama, great virtuosity, and most importantly, great merriment. I felt like I was hearing Beethoven the entertainer, the actor, the storyteller, the playwright.”

Goodyear’s considerable success at performing the complete cycle of sonatas has led him to this point: the concertos. He continues to probe the multifaceted nature of Beethoven’s craft – as he’s outlined in the observation above. With evolving depth of knowledge and stylistic insight, Goodyear celebrates these cornerstones of the concerto catalogue, aiming for a kind of narrative arc, from the youthful first, Op.15 to the fifth, Op.73, the “Emperor.” Choice of orchestral collaborator for this ambitious project has been apt: Andrew Constantine and the BBC National Orchestra of Wales coexist with Goodyear’s musical vision, offering an attractive kind of vigour and dedication.

Like the impressive lineage of Beethoven exponents before him, Goodyear retains a pianistic perspective that is invariably clear and pronounced. If anything, he seems galvanized by the past achievements of great artists who have recorded this repertoire – Alfred Brendel, Wilhelm Kempff and Artur Schnabel, to name but a few: mighty company indeed! 

Adding various touches of his own, Goodyear experiments with early Romantic rubato, often shaping musical lines in unusual ways. His choice of tempi can tend toward surprise, as he takes characterful liberties and rests, seldom ventured by others. He does prove master of quicksilver textural changes; at best, these sharp turns offer rushes of excitement, steering the listener headlong from one structural pillar to the next, leaping – bounding – along the way. The manner is particularly effective in cadenzas and freer passages which are delivered with the utmost control and technical tang.

Goodyear’s approach is consistently individual, finding niches to exploit for his own particular brand of music-making. Sometimes, the curious ebbs and flows of inflection betray unusual rhythmic pacing. Nevertheless, within such melodic curves, microstructures of motivic design are revealed – that very well might be Goodyear’s intention! Omnipresent is a low-fi, headlong sense of chase: a playful, almost childlike glee detected in much of the fast, rhythmic material, particularly in the early concertos, Nos.1 and 2

There are moments of tenderness and cajoling here that tug at our hearts – a side of Beethoven one should hardly forget about. As faithful soloist, Goodyear opens up to us with valiant vulnerability. As per his own claim, this “vulnerability” is a quality learned from Beethoven’s 32 sonatas and apparently, one he continues to enshrine.

Adam Sherkin

02 Mathieu Gaudet Schubert Late Inspirations COVERSchubert – Late Inspirations
Mathieu Gaudet
Analekta AN 2 9182 (analekta.com)

Mathieu Gaudet has recently embarked on a Schubert project, presenting the lion’s share of the composer’s works for keyboard. While themed Late Inspirations, the latest disc (Volume 2) opens with an early sonata, followed by two other works: the curious Ungarische Melodie, D817 and the Drei Klavierstücke, D946.

Gaudet’s artistry is quintessentially suited to Schubert: it possesses a tender, inward nature that, while personal, is never furtive; Gaudet consistently cherishes every miraculous musical turn, sharing them generously with his listener (and even ornamenting certain melodies and harmonies along the way!). The music of Schubert – clearly a lifelong vocation for Gaudet – seems the perfect platform for his aptly controlled, cultivated musicianship. When it comes to the Austrian master, sung indelibly from Gaudet’s piano, we are at once nourished and enlightened. 

The five-movement Sonata in E major is rarely played. In the hands of Gaudet, this surprising – even quirky – piece glistens and bubbles with a delightful lack of self-consciousness, justly suited to such early essays in the form. (Schubert wrote the sonata when he was 19.) Gaudet introduces this music to us like an old friend he’s been hobnobbing with for decades. One meets wondrous things: humour, juvenility and even a bit of Viennese buffoonery – a notable feat of Schubertian interpretation!

Perhaps it is worthy to note in these trying times of the COVID-19 pandemic that Gaudet is also a full-time emergency physician. We eagerly await the future instalments of his recording project once the current crisis has abated. Our world will need more Schubert like this.

Adam Sherkin

03 Wosner SchubertSchubert – Piano Sonatas D845; D894; D958; D960
Shai Wosner
Onyx ONYX 4217 (shaiwosner.com)

While Schubert succeeded in publishing only three piano sonatas during his lifetime, the depth of his world is fully revealed in this genre, especially in the late sonatas presented on this album. Shai Wosner, considered to be one of the most prominent Schubert interpreters, is so intimately connected to that world that he becomes a guide of sorts, leaving no corners of Schubert’s musical mind untouched. A beautiful essay Wosner wrote in the liner notes for this album brings these intimate explorations to the next level.

In contrast to the preceding period of songwriting, Schubert’s late piano sonatas opened up a different microcosm, putting on full display the unique ingredients of his musical mode – the uncanny combination of intimate gestures in a large setting. Four sonatas on this album show different aspects of that mode – dark, melancholy momentum in Sonata No.16 in A Minor, transparent stillness in Sonata No.18 in G Major, relentless fire in Sonata No.19 in C Minor, and yearning introspection in his last major work, Sonata No.21 in B-flat Major. All four seek to deconstruct the conventional sonata structure and do it with the vulnerability of distinct musical expressions. 

I love Wosner’s sound, the manipulation of colours and his control over the smallest of details. Equally convincing in lyrical language as he is in bold, fiery passages, Wosner brings in wholesome devotion to this remarkable music.

Ivana Popovic

04 Louise FarrencLouise Farrenc – Etudes & Variations for Solo Piano
Joanne Polk
Steinway & Sons 30133 (naxosdirect.com)

The name Louise Farrenc is practically unknown today, but during her lifetime, she was a respected composer and pedagogue at a time when the professional artistic world was very much male dominated.  Born in Paris in 1804, she was an almost exact contemporary of the novelist George Sand. Like Sand – and also Clara Schumann and Fanny Mendelssohn – she was forced to overcome societal biases of the time, but ultimately enjoyed a long and successful career. Her compositions include symphonies, overtures, chamber, choral and vocal music, and a great many pieces for solo piano. These latter are well represented on this Steinway & Sons recording featuring American pianist Joanne Polk.

The first three tracks on the disc are sets of variations; the first on a Russian song; the second on an aria from Bellini’s Norma; and the third, the Lutheran chorale Ein Feste Burg used in Meyerbeer’s successful opera Les Huguenots. The music is elegant and well crafted, with the original themes creatively varied. Throughout, Polk demonstrates a real affinity for the music, approaching it with considerable fluidity and élan.

The two sets of Etudes Op.26 making up the remainder of the disc were so highly regarded that they were ultimately adopted by the Conservatoire as required repertoire. There is much to appreciate in these musical gems – do I hear echoes of Mendelssohn and even Chopin? Many of them pose considerable technical challenges that surely only advanced pupils could have handled.

Despite its obscurity, Farrenc’s music should never be dismissed as secondary. There is evidence of fine creativity, matched here by an equally fine performance. Kudos to Joanne Polk and to Steinway & Sons for helping bring to light repertoire that might otherwise have been overlooked. Recommended.

Richard Haskell

05 Prokofiev ArgentieriRussian Piano Music Series Vol.14 – Sergei Prokofiev
Stefania Argentieri
Divine Art dda 25156 (divineartrecords.com)

Prokofiev began his career as a concert pianist; hence it comes as no surprise that piano music comprises a significant part of his output – three concertos, nine sonatas and more than 100 pieces of various types written over a 40-year period. His continual quest for freedom from typical 19th-century styles resulted in a particular eclecticism, clearly evident in this attractive program on the Divine Classics label, performed by Italian pianist Stefania Argentieri.

This disc is the second in the Russian Piano Music series devoted to Prokofiev and includes his first and sixth sonatas, Six Pieces from Cinderella Op.102, Four Etudes Op.2 and the Suggestion Diabolique.

The Piano Sonata No.1 from 1907 – but later revised – owes more than a passing reference not only to Schumann, but also to Rachmaninoff and Scriabin, the style lushly Romantic. In contrast, the sixth sonata, written in 1940, is pure pianistic gymnastics, technically beyond the capabilities of many pianists. Here, Argentieri demonstrates a true command of this daunting repertoire, meeting the challenges with apparent ease. Equally demanding are the Four Etudes, music of a confident 18-year-old pianist/composer eager to demonstrate his skills. The set was originally intended as a “slap in the face” to conservative audiences, but it also earned him a loyal following.

Cinderella is one of Prokofiev’s most popular ballets and while the set of piano transcriptions from 1944 is equally delightful, it’s the youthful Suggestion Diabolique where Argentieri once again proves her pianistic prowess. Aptly marked Prestissimo Fantastico, the piece demands extraordinary virtuosity – a true perpetuum mobile, with a surprisingly calm conclusion that brings the disc to a subdued, but most satisfying conclusion.

Richard Haskell

06 Frank HorvatA Little Dark Music 2
Frank Horvat
IAM who IAM Records (frankhorvat.com)

Toronto composer and pianist Frank Horvat’s passionate concern for social and environmental issues has long been a core theme in his music. His 2010 album, A Little Dark Music, for example, featured Earth Hour, an hour-long solo piano improvisation performed in the dark. In it, the composer-pianist passionately advocated for a sustainable approach to the environment. A decade later, Horvat’s follow-up solo grand piano release, A Little Dark Music 2, his 11th album, continues to expresses his extra-musical concerns for the health of our planet.

The title theme of the opening hour-long track Earth Hour 2 is confirmed by the explicit program notes. Horvat renders a personal commentary on the state of our global environment in this expansive solo. The liner notes suggest we take the time “to become grounded within [ourselves]” to reflect on positive change we can imagine while we listen. And the episodic and programmatic nature of this explicitly tonal work leaves plenty of time and sonic space for contemplation

The much shorter Heat Island continues the theme of man-made climate change. “The rumbly and murky start of this composition attempts to emulate the world oozing heat from pavement,” states the composer. As the piece progresses, “it gradually works its way up to the higher registers with a more calm tone.”

The album concludes with the optimistic Life for Mars, a (mostly) major key “soothing statement on the positive impact of connecting to ourselves and our surroundings.” It’s a message of hope many of us can use during this dark time.

Andrew Timar

07 Richard Valituttonocturne & lullabies
Richard Valitutto
New Focus Recordings FCR243 (newfocusrecordings.com)

Contemporary keyboard exponent Richard Valitutto has released a timely, meditative new record that features seven premiere recordings of works by six composers. (The penultimate track on the album – Linda Catlin Smith's A Nocturne – was first recorded by Eve Egoyan in 2012.) each written within the last 35 years. Valitutto claims to have been “focused on cultivating a sort of pianistic ‘anti-virtuosity’... performing music that seems simple on the surface but in actuality affords a great many challenges.” The tracks are, generally, connected to the theme of night and its various dimensions: dream-haunting nocturnes and lullabies, uncertain of – or anachronistic in - their 21st century functions.

Admirable ranges of expression are displayed here through experimental modes of resonance. The disc’s chronology is well curated, moving through dark soundscapes to brighter moments of lucidity and repose. Immediately striking is Valitutto’s intimacy with each of these works, collected and considered from a specific time and place with fortitude and explorative zeal.

Amongst the many highlights of the disc is shadow (2013) by Rebecca Saunders, a study in so-called “acoustic shadows.” Valitutto relishes this music’s intensity and sculpture, urging a keen ear when listening to every last brilliant moment of the score. 

Another intriguing track is Philip Cashian’s Nocturne (1984). Modelled on Oliver Knussen’s Sonya’s Lullaby, Cashian’s newer piece supersedes Knussen’s, grabbling its way to overcome all aches and sighs. Now morbid and jazzy, now contemporary and timeworn, this entire album grips both performer and listener alike, glimpsing a hazy yet urgent future where nocturnes and lullabies still haunt our dreams.

Adam Sherkin

Listen to 'nocturne & lullabies' Now in the Listening Room

01 Handel AlmiraHandel – Almira
Emöke Barath; Amanda Forsythe; Colin Balzer; Boston Early Music Festival; Paul O’Dette; Stephen Stubbs
cpo 555 205-2 (naxosdirect.com)

Besides being Handel’s first exercise in operatic composition, Almira (1704) is a notable, if slightly eccentric work for several reasons. Various styles and languages are mixed, with the opera including both German and Italian arias, as well as vocal dance numbers, da capo pieces and instrumental ballet inserts. The result is a colourful and surprisingly unified mixture, and the melodic signatures that we consider so typical of Handel are already recognizable.

This recording features an expert interpretation of this middle-Baroque work, as the Boston Early Music Festival Orchestra and soloists manage to synthesize Almira’s Venetian, German and French influences into a cohesive and convincing musical and dramatic product. The use of harpsichord and lute in the basso continuo section provides a temporal reference point, between theorbo-based Monteverdi and the later harpsichord- and organ-grounded works of Bach.

Although Handel’s later operas and oratorios receive the vast majority of modern performances, it is worthwhile to encounter an expertly performed edition of such an early work from such an esteemed composer. Much like Bach’s early chorale preludes, Almira reflects the effort of an already extraordinarily gifted musical mind, which continues to be developed and refined as the years progress. This opera’s apparent eccentricities aside (largely due to the traditions of the Hamburg opera, rather than Handel’s own innovation), Almira is a rewarding listen for all who appreciate the style and evolution of Baroque opera.

03 Other CleopatraThe Other Cleopatra, Queen of Armenia – Il Tigrane Arias
Isabel Bayrakdarian; Kaunas City Symphony; Constantine Orbelian
Delos DE 3591 (naxosdirect.com)

Yes, there was another Cleopatra and thanks, in part, to Isabel Bayrakdarian the wife of King Tigranes (140-55 BCE) has a bright new light shone on her. These arias are, of course, from composers who knew of her and first glorified her in opera: Hasse, Vivaldi and Gluck. What Bayrakdarian has also done as with many of her recordings, is to shed light on the historical riches of Armenia. More remarkably, however, on The Other Cleopatra: Queen of Armenia Bayrakdarian seems to sing as if with real, lived experience.

Bayrakdarian is a bright lyric soprano, but she can also swoop really low into what must clearly be the edge of a soprano’s comfort zone. One such example comes with Baroque smokiness in Hasse’s elegant aria Strappami pure il seno; also a wonderful example of her breathtaking eloquence and range. Chronologically Vivaldi’s version of Il Tigrane (1724) was premiered first, followed by Hasse’s (1729) and finally Gluck’s (1743). All three operas were based on the same libretto by Abate Francesco Silvani. 

Most interesting, however, is the subtle differences in the music by each of the composers. Vivaldi delivers characteristic vivacity, dazzling vocal solos with dashes of acute characterization. Gluck’s demands a complete balance between music and drama and Hasse’s is a highly lyrical blend of style and emotions. Meanwhile, Baryakdarian’s artistry enables her to deliver each style absolutely masterfully.

04 Karina GauvinNuits Blanches – Russian Opera Arias of the 18th Century
Karina Gauvin; Pacific Baroque Orchestra; Alexander Weimann
ATMA ACD2 2791 (atmaclassique.com/En)

Johann Sebastian Bach’s ambition of becoming a musician at the Imperial Russian Court never materialized but that disappointing fact – plus the unfortunate reputation of 18th-century Russian music – has not deterred recent musicologists from discovering some very accomplished composers. Combine that with the artists listed above and Nuits Blanches is the pleasing result. 

As might be expected, Karina Gauvin’s soprano voice dominates this CD. Listen to the variations in her voice as she literally runs a gamut of emotion in determining Armide’s relationship towards Renaud in Gluck’s Armide. And then there is the opera Demofoonte by the tragically short-lived Maxime Sozontovitch Berezovski (1745-1777). This is a work which does not survive in completeness; what does survive is a disturbing unravelling of events which is deeper in intensity than many better-known and complete operatic works. The two arias recorded here bring home not just this complexity of plot but also the extent to which Gauvin’s expertise is tested. 

In fact, Gauvin’s singing does not monopolize this CD. Listen to the Ouverture from Le Faucon by Dimitri Stepanovitch Bortnianski. It offers a genteel introduction to the subsequent complexities of the relationship between Don Federigo and Elvira. 

This CD introduces listeners to music which is almost unknown. Enjoy, incidentally, not just its soprano and instrumental qualities but also some deeply researched and sometimes rather amusing program notes.

Listen to 'Nuits Blanches: Russian Opera Arias of the 18th Century' Now in the Listening Room

05 Wagner WalkureWagner – Die Walküre
Soloists; Orchestra of the Royal Opera House; Antonio Pappano
Opus Arte OA 1308D (naxosdirect.com)

Ever since Patrice Chereau’s centennial revival in Bayreuth in 1976, dozens of Ring productions have proliferated all over the world. In fact every major opera house has created one, all different concepts exploiting every possible angle: historic, sociological, psychological, philosophical etc. Rings are named after the various cities and/or the directors or the conductors. Now we have a Met Ring (Lepage/Levine), Berlin Ring (Kupfer/Barenboim), Stuttgart Ring (Zagrosek), St. Petersburg Ring (Gergiev), Vienna Ring (Rattle/Adam Fischer), Valencia Ring (Zubin Mehta), not to mention our own from Toronto. This production from London (2018) heralds a new, and judging by this Walküre, a momentous one directed by Keith Warner.

From the staging point of view it is a sound and light extravaganza, using all possible audiovisual technology culminating in the third act Ride of the Valkyries with films in the background combined with shadow play of the warrior maidens and superb choreography. The magic fire that envelops the stage is a spectacular finale. Pappano’s conducting is nothing less than magnificent. He absorbs himself thoroughly in the score, and no detail is missed.  There are moments of ecstasy like the first act love-duet between Siegmund (Stuart Skelton) and Sieglinde (Emily Magee) in waves and waves of passion as the “world never heard before” (Sir Simon Rattle), and at the climax when Siegmund triumphantly pulls out the sword from the ash tree, wow!  Or Wotan’s final embrace of his daughter Brünnhilde, a moment at which I almost cried when I first heard it.

The entire cast is phenomenal headed by John Lundgren as a powerful, larger-than-life Wotan, a very complex character, a god torn between his duty to the law he created and the love for his daughter, Brünnhilde (the wonderful Nina Stemme) whom he has to punish. A gripping Walküre, highly recommended.

06 Contes dHofmannOffenbach – Les contes d’Hoffmann
Soloists; Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra; Carlo Rizzi
Cmajor 752808 (naxosdirect.com)

Often spoken of disparagingly in his day, Jacques Offenbach clearly knew what he was doing. With equal measure of sardonic humour and lyricism, he triumphantly invented the whole idea of the operetta, paved the way for Lehár and Sullivan, and eventually came to be called (by Rossini, no less) “the Mozart of Champs Élysées.” Fusing dialogue and show-stopping pieces, Offenbach also created the can-can dance and laid the ground for the modern musical. But in 1881 he also produced his first and last opera – Les Contes d’Hoffmann – his only through-composed work without spoken dialogue; replaced by a sombre libretto instead. 

Three acts recount three tales by the German Romantic writer E.T.A Hoffmann. Tobias Kratzer’s spectacular staging adds a prelude and background to the story (Act 1) followed by the three acts conceived by Offenbach. The first concerns the inventor and his mechanical doll, Olympia who seduces Hoffmann. The second involves Hoffmann’s other passion, the consumptive singer Antonia, preyed upon by the evil Dr. Miracle. The third tells of Giulietta, who tries to trick Hoffmann into selling his soul. The final act presents Hoffmann, liberated, returning to his muse.

The sweep of Offenbach’s score is supremely caught by Carlos Rizzi in a reading that tingles with frenetic energy while bringing out the lushness of Guiraud’s recitatives. John Osborn is in his richest voice, summoning the impetuous ardour of Hoffmann. Nina Minasyan excels in the bravura arias. Overall, the casting is inspired and outstanding.

07 Respighi BellaRespighi – La bella dormente nel bosco
Soloists; Orchestra e Coro del Teatro Lirico di Cagliari; Donato Renzetti
Naxos 2.110655 (naxosdirect.com)

The legendary Ottorino Respighi’s La bella dormente nel bosco (The Sleeping Beauty) was first conceived in 1922. The version presented here by the Teatro Lirico di Cagliari has been enhanced from the original by Respighi’s inspired orchestrations. Although he died in 1936, this fresh, emotional and fantastic rendering of the original fairy tale about the Princess who pricks her finger on a spindle, and falls into a comatose state until she is awakened by her Prince, is as new and exciting as if presented on Broadway today. Brilliantly directed by Leo Muscato (with video direction by Tiziano Mancini, Donato Renzetti as conductor and a lively book by Gian Bistolfi), this production features a broad-palleted mis en scene, which is a delectable feast for both the eyes and ears.

Featured performers include the versatile Veta Pilipenko (the Queen, Old Lady and Frog); the impossibly lovely Angela Nisi as the Princess; baritone powerhouse Antonio Gandia as the Prince and the venerable Vincenzo Taormina as the King. Clever, bombastic and magical costumes (perhaps reflecting a bit of the Comedia Del’Arte) by Vera Pierantonio Giua and choreography by Luigia Frattaroli complete this thoroughly entertaining and spiritually uplifting operatic pastiche.

Written in three acts, the piece opens with a conceptual, almost surreal appearance of birds on swings and frog-like ladies (or lady-like frogs!), and ends with the expected kiss as the diaphanous princess rises up from her crescent moon bed, and into the arms of her Prince, followed by a joyous, dance-infused number by the entire cast. Huge kudos to the Teatro, for not only presenting this nearly lost treasure of one of the world’s foremost 20th-century composers, but also doing it to perfection!

Back to top