06 Wind ConcertosWind Concertos: Ticheli; Warnaar; Ranjbaran
James Zimmermann; Leslie Norton; Érik Gratton; Nashville Symphony; Giancarlo Guerrero
Naxos 8.559818 (naxos.com)

Three very different, recent (2010-2015), ear-catching concertos in the traditional fast-slow-fast three movements, by three composers born in the 1950s, each referencing earlier music, receive vibrant performances from Nashville Symphony principals James Zimmermann (clarinet), Leslie Norton (horn) and Érik Gratton (flute).

In his Clarinet Concerto, Frank Ticheli, who teaches at the University of Southern California, pays homage to American composers in movements titled Rhapsody for George, Song for Aaron and Riffs for Lenny, adding some recognizable quotations and paraphrases to flavour his original, engaging takes on his illustrious predecessors. It’s a pops concert natural!

Michigan native Brad Warnaar wrote his Horn Concerto for the instrument he played in the Toronto Symphony and other Ontario orchestras in the 1970s, before relocating to play in the Los Angeles Philharmonic and, he claims, “over a thousand film scores.” Warnaar says his concerto embraces everything from rock to atonality, but I hear only very accessible, enjoyable, tonal mainstream music in the minimalist-energized Tintinnabulations, the ruminative Elegies, Lamentations and the jaunty Tarantella, including subtle quotations from Mozart, Brahms and Richard Strauss.

Juilliard faculty member Behzad Ranjbaran, born and raised in Iran, emulates what he calls the “mystic, melancholic” tone of the ney (Persian end-blown reed flute), enhancing the exoticism of his hybrid Iranian-Western Flute Concerto. Extended meditative passages (the Adagio cantabile is a real beauty) are offset by the sparkling finale.

These world-premiere recordings should help all three very entertaining concertos become, deservedly, part of today’s active repertoire.

01 FalaiseLézardes et zébrures
Bernard Falaise
Ambiances Magnétiques AM 237 (actuellecd.com)

Guitarist Bernard Falaise is a significant contributor to Montreal’s musique actuelle movement, a member of the expansive Ensemble SuperMusique as well as the trio Klaxon Gueule and Quartetski, a group that regularly re-imagines high modernist composers like Bartók and Stravinsky. Lézardes et zébrures is a solo record, but one without solos, a series of pieces constructed from minimal materials. Each begins with short figures, intervals and arpeggios played on an acoustic guitar in open tunings to emphasize steel string resonance and ringing harmonics; these are then looped, with Falaise adding layers of other instruments, among them electric guitar, glockenspiel and melodica.

The opening Au zoo sets both a pattern for the music and an intermittent theme, one that’s reflected in titles like Langue de girafe and Mémoire d’éléphant, and even in the CD title – literally “cracks and welts” but with the bi-lingual suggestion in this context of lizards and zebras. These notions of other species’ consciousness are matched with alternative substances and spaces – Marcher sur la glace or Stalactites et stalagmites – all of them implicit in sounds that repeat and reconfigure. All of Falaise’s works here are at once immediate, luminous and strangely dream-like.

The oscillating figure of Le compas dans l’œil suggests Steve Reich’s minimalism, while the clicks and suspensions of Distillations reference the turntablist’s art, but it’s all part of Falaise’s bright, immediate, sonic universe, developed at greatest length in the imagination of another materiality in Porcelaine 360°.

02 Dan PugachPlus One
Dan Pugach Nonet
Unit Records UTR 4816 (unitrecords.com)

Israeli-born, Berklee-educated drummer Dan Pugach’s debut bandleader album, Plus One, recorded in Brooklyn and released on the Swiss label Unity Records, is a compelling offering that functions both as a celebration of diverse influences and as a unified statement of artistic intent. Plus One is a nonet record, and Pugach arranged (or co-arranged, with vocalist Nicole Zuraitis) all of the album’s nine tracks, the majority of which – with the exception of Jolene, Crystal Silence and Love Dance – are original compositions.

Brooklyn Blues, the opening track, is a fitting beginning for the album, as it showcases Pugach’s confluent interests: while the harmonic and textural choices may be Brooklyn, the song is anchored by a classic New Orleans second-line rhythmic feel. The influence of modern large-ensemble composers such as Maria Schneider is evident on the 7/4 Coming Here, a driving, lyrical Pugach original, which features a powerful trumpet solo from frequent Schneider collaborator Ingrid Jensen, as well as great solo work from tenor saxophonist Jeremy Powell and, in the song’s final section, from Pugach himself. Our Blues, an original 12/8 blues that recalls Bonnie Raitt as much as it does Charles Mingus, is a tongue-in-cheek piece that features Zuraitis’ strong vocals. The exciting, medium-up Discourse This! ends the album, with great solos from alto saxophonist Andrew Gould, trumpeter David Smith and Pugach. Plus One is a robust, intelligent debut, and is as notable for its arrangements as it is for its top-tier playing.

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04 Jerry GranelliDance Hall
Jerry Granelli
Justin Time JTR 8606-2 (justin-time.com)

Listening to this marvellous recording by drummer Jerry Granelli, one cannot help but be seduced by the mood and atmosphere – sometimes genuinely spooky – and with the drummer’s sublime ability to coordinate shade and structure to a rare degree. Every one of the eight pieces here is played by Granelli with languid ease, each rhythmic variation following the other inexorably, from the bluesy brilliance of Boogie Stop Shuffle to the sinister elegance of Driva Man.

As if things could not get any more perfect, guitarists Bill Frisell and Robben Ford team up with Granelli and his son and bassist J. Anthony Granelli to sculpt and shape the sustained inventions of The Great Pretender, Caldonia and other pieces with endless craftsmanship, beguiling variety and sensuousness.

The power and stylishness of this music makes this a champagne disc, full of fizz and finesse. It is also music of enormous drama, full of glinting lights, mysterious depths, expectations, frustrations, hopes and doubts, like the shattered shadows of a sinister quasi-existential soundtrack to life glimpsed by moonlight in a forest. There’s an unhurried quality to this approach, a lived-in character to the rhythmic phrase-making that is endlessly engaging, as the fire and brimstone of youth is melded with the well-honed values of experience.

In sheer colour and variety, in the exceptional refinement of its musicianship, Granelli here imparts a monumental stature to the eternal blues, seemingly played in the shadows of the Dance Hall.

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05 Gord MowatGord Mowat’s Skeleton Crew
Gordon Mowat; Chris Gale; Rececca Hennessy; Jeff Halischuk; Tom Richards
Independent (gordonmowat.com)

Gord Mowat’s Skeleton Crew is, as the title suggests, the debut album from bandleader Gord Mowat’s band Skeleton Crew, which includes trumpeter Rebecca Hennessy, tenor saxophonist Chris Gale, trombonist Tom Richards, drummer Jeff Halischuk, and Mowat, who, in addition to playing upright bass, is the sole composer and arranger of the album’s six tunes. The group is notable for its lack of piano, guitar, or other traditional chord-playing instrument, aligning itself with a rich lineage of “chordless” small ensembles that hearkens back to the Gerry Mulligan/Chet Baker recordings of the early 1950s.

For Skeleton Crew, the choice of instrumentation is a winning one, as it foregrounds both Mowat’s compositional prowess and the individual voices of each band member, resulting in an engaging, nuanced approach to music-making that places the emphasis on communication and group interplay, rather than on individual heroism. Nomads, the album’s first track, begins with a rubato section in which all five band members gradually enter, exploring the space and bringing things to a small climax before Mowat plays a propulsive figure and Gale comes in with the melody, effectively setting the tone for the rest of the album. The through-composed Spinnaker is both the album’s longest song and one of its highlights: it features a beautiful melodic treatment by Mowat and Hennessy, strong solos from Gale, Hennessy and Halischuk, and is structured much like a suite. Skeleton Crew is a confident, well-executed album with a clear concept, ably realized by accomplished players.

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06 Peripheral VisionMore Songs About Error and Shame
Peripheral Vision
Independent STEP3-007 (peripheralvisionmusic.com)

More Songs About Error and Shame is the fourth CD release from Peripheral Vision. Group leaders, guitarist Don Scott and bassist Michael Herring, wrote all seven tracks and are joined by Trevor Hogg on tenor saxophone and Nick Fraser on drums. They state the title is a reference to an “iconic album by famously neurotic band, Talking Heads” and it illustrates their desire to mix genres and themes along with different types of jazz and popular music.

The tunes are as inventive as their titles (e.g. The Blunder, Syntax Error, Click Bait) and each track evolves through melodic statements, repeated riffs, solos, duets and solid ensemble playing. The music sounds like elaborate conversations which ebb and flow, growing heated and then reflexive. For example, Mycelium Running begins with a lyric sax melody, develops into a lively interchange among sax, guitar and drums, followed by a long, lilting guitar solo and a pensive solo saxophone; then the rest of the band enters and it builds to a loud and majestic ending.

Scott’s guitar mixes inventive lines, chord melody and even some grunge/fuzz tones. Fraser’s drumming is always inventive and here he provides an engaging and shifting background to the mix of ensemble and solo playing. Hogg’s playing is clean, focused and versatile while Herring’s bass work is subtle, grooving and complex. More Songs is an inventive album with unique performances and a sense of humour.

09 Robert DiackLost Villages
Robert Diack
Independent (robertdiack.com)

Lost Villages, a new album from drummer/bandleader Robert Diack, is named for a collection of nine communities in Southern Ontario that were permanently depopulated and submerged in 1958 as part of the construction of the Saint Lawrence Seaway. With song titles such as Displace, Bittered and Placed, the album takes a certain literary influence from the Lost Villages, but the metaphor seems to run deeper: from the eerie, atmospheric opening notes of Displace, the album’s first track, it becomes apparent that Diack’s goal is to synthesize his disparate influences into a unique musical language that evokes – much like a glimpse of underwater ruins – a compelling vision greater than the sum of its parts.

While Lost Villages doesn’t restrict itself to the traditional, essentially acoustic format of a conventional jazz recording, it is a quartet album: bassist Brandon Davis, guitarist Patrick O’Reilly and pianist Jacob Thompson round out the group. O’Reilly often takes on the lead melodic role, as in Pluterperfect, which features an adventurous, overdriven guitar solo on a tightly controlled 11/8 vamp. Other noteworthy tracks include the laid-back, 4/4 Idyll, which features Thompson, whose articulate, clear playing serves as an effective foil for O’Reilly, and Sap, the album’s longest (and probably most open) song, in which all four band members gradually layer in new textures before Davis and O’Reilly play a short, repeated melody that ends the tune. Overall, Lost Villages offers an interesting, worthwhile listen, and functions as a thoughtful, unexpected bandleader debut for Diack.

10 Kurt Elling The QuestionsThe Questions
Kurt Elling
OKeh/Sony Masterworks 886446753768 (okeh-records.com)

The stark dramatic intro to the first track, Dylan’s A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall, sets the tone for Kurt Elling’s latest album. A response to the widespread anxiety of the times we’re living in now, The Questions brings together a collection of songs that are sometimes cynical, sometimes hopeful and all thoughtful.

The jazzy and powerful singing we’ve come to expect from Elling is in abundance here. I should note that people fall into two camps when it comes to Elling – love him and hate him. I’m solidly in the love-him camp, but I can understand how some may not enjoy his vocal tone, which can be strident at times. His technical skills, big range and beautiful handling of ballads override any cringe-making bits for me though. His bandmates turn in equally powerful and emotive performances. Jeff “Tain” Watts is particularly strong on drums on A Secret in Three Views, a revamp of the Jaco Pastorius instrumental Three Views of a Secret that Elling has set lyrics to, with help from the 13th-century Persian poet, Rumi. This is just one of three songs on the album for which Elling has adapted existing poetry. The others are Endless Lawns – Carla Bley’s Lawns with lyrics from a poem by Sara Teasdale (with a gorgeous trumpet solo from Marquis Hill) and The Enchantress, a beautiful new song by pianist Joey Calderazzo with a bit of a bossa nova feel, and lyrics using lines from a Wallace Stevens poem. A lovely, swooping take on Skylark, with sensitive piano solo by Stu Mindeman, closes out the album with an appropriate sense of expectant longing.

11 CurranSchFrom The Alvin Curran Fakebook
Curran; Schiaffini; C. Neto; Armaroli
Dodicilune Dischi Ed 886 (dodicilune.it)

Turning the use of a “fakebook” on its head, instead of improvising on famous standards’ lead sheets, Rome-based American composer Alvin Curran and his Italian associates use 13 of his compositions as the basis for creativity. Known for his pioneering electroacoustic soundscapes for Musica Elettronica Viva, Curran, plus trombonist Giancarlo Schiaffini, multi-reedist Alipio C Neto, vibist/percussionist Sergio Armaroli, bassist Marcello Testa and drummer Nicola Stranieri, creates two CDs of music that sounds both aleatoric and arranged.

Although the brief final tracks on CD2 could be performed by a lounge combo, the disc’s crucial concepts occur when the first CD foregrounds the composer’s talents on computer (Max’d Out) and piano (Why Is This Night Different from All Other Nights). Electronic oscillations and circular-breathed saxophone sluices on Max’d Out contrast with plunger trombone vibrations and bell-shaking tones until climaxing as a balanced narrative. On the second tune, wolf-whistle-like reed lines and theatrical keyboard cadenzas are not only expanded, with soothing trombone burrs and delicate vibes’ resonation, but also dissembled, with granular synthesis that dissects pre-recorded voices into backwards-moving mumble and mysterious textures.

These machine-instrument explorations, plus other unique challenges, are resolved on the over-33-minute The Answer Is. With vibraphone pings maintaining the melody, computer crackles, tailgate trombone and gibberish vocal mutations move aside, as polyphonic cacophony or perfectly performed cool jazz are tried on for size then regularized into a tonally fluctuating finale. Technical mastery and dazzling sonic surprise are never faked on this session.

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12 MudderstenPlaymates
SOFA 565 (sofamusic.no) 

Despite the photo of a muscle man flexing on the CD cover, musical exercises by the Danish trio Muddersten are anything but broad and powerful. In fact, microtonal tubaist/electronic manipulator Martin Taxt, Håvard Volden, who plays guitar and tape loops, and Henrik Olsson, whose equipment includes objects, piezo and friction, wouldn’t reach the podium in an artistic weight-lifting contest. Instead the band’s programmed continuum, distant object lacerations and intermittent blares add up to featherweight strategies that subtly score, literally without fanfare.

With an electronic ostinato perpetually bonding sequences from below, air whooshes and metronomic friction occasionally minutely recede so that guitar flanges and twangs or brass bites and whistles can be heard. Watery, baleful and somewhat threatening, the tracks’ challenges are met and enlivened as near-static tones suddenly open up to reveal unique juddering counterpoint. Seemingly plodding, in spite of many short episodes of commotion, compared to noisier, flashier programs, Muddersten ultimately impresses by the realization that the trio’s bursts of musical quality are presented in such a way that they can be appropriately savoured. Plus no matter how many ring-modular-like gongs, menacing object scratches or distanced brass buzzes appear and vanish along the way; the tale of these Playmates never ceases long enough to disrupt a stable chronology that also highlights a strapping contest of timbral strength.

01 Minor EmpireUprooted (Turkish traditional music reimagined)
Minor Empire
World Trip Records WTR002 (minorempire.net)

Minor Empire, the Toronto group at the vanguard of Turkish-based world music in the country, is led by singer-songwriter Ozgu Ozman and electric guitarist and synth programmer Ozan Boz. Founded in 2010, the band attracted kudos early on for its debut recording Second Nature. It garnered several significant Canadian Folk Music and Independent Music awards. It’s been touring ever since. The same qualities which propelled the band to the top of the Canadian world music radio charts – Ozman’s limpid renditions of traditional Turkish folk songs and her own compositions with Turkish lyrics, accompanied by Boz’s electro-funk soundscapes – also serve Minor Empire very well in Uprooted. Exclaim! cited the music’s “slinky, duby… rhythms” while other reviewers have tagged it dreamy, trip-hop-inspired and stylishly hip.

However you categorize it, the star here is Ozman’s voice. Her use of characteristic Turkish vocal ornamentation in the songs, sung in Turkish, is relaxed yet focused, warm and expressive even to those unfamiliar with the language. A large part of this music’s accessibility to general Canadian audiences is no doubt due to Boz’s studio-savvy vernacular-infused settings. The presence of notable band members in Uprooted – guitarist Michael Occhipinti, bassist Chris Gartner, drummers Ben Riley and Mark Kelso, percussionist Patrick Graham and several other guest musicians – also confirms those positive assessments.

Even if you don’t understand a word of Ozman’s lyrics, you’re still in trusted, satisfyingly hip musical hands here.

02 Polka DogsThe Bee
Polka Dogs
Happy Day Records HDR 404 (thepolkadogs.com)

It’s been nearly 25 years since the category-defying Polka Dogs first burst onto the Toronto scene with their unique mashup of irresistible tunes, made all the more magical by their non-standard instrumentation of banjo, accordion, tuba, trombone and drums. Following their debut, the group soon became an integral part of the downtown entertainment scene, and they joyously oompah-ed, sang, blew and strummed their way into the nostalgia of post-80s hipsters.

On the venerable ensemble’s brand new offering, producer/banjoist/vocalist John Millard has once again composed the majority of the material, with additional contributions from Martha Ross and Tom Walsh. The talented Polka Dogs include Colin Couch on tuba, Tiina Kiik on accordion, Millard on banjo, Walsh on trombone and Ambrose Pottie on drums. This project has been beautifully recorded by Mike Haas in Toronto, and also by John Dinsmore and Andrew Penner at the Lincoln County Social Club.

The opener, Beardy Boy, has a joyous melody, snappy arrangement and clever, heart-warming lyrics. Of special note is tubaist Couch, who has superb intonation and articulation, and provides a steadfast yet pliant and swinging bass line throughout. Standout tracks include Peaceful and Quiet – rife with Brechtian nuances; The Bells, a feverish, tango-inspired tour-de-force for trombonist/vocalist Walsh; and also the sweetly nostalgic (and totally schmaltz-free) 1981. Millard’s masterful arrangement of the title track begins with an eerie brass drone and skeletal banjo riffs, until the group creeps in with intervals of fourths, embodying contemporary existential angst and a general disconnect from nature. This is a truly satisfying recording that captures vital and relevant musical artists in motion – engaging the future.

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03 SoarSoar
Catrin Finch; Seckou Keita
bendigedig (bendigedig.org)

Listening to the music of Welsh harpist Catrin Finch and the Senegalese kora player Seckou Keita on their disc Soar, you immediately become part of a soundscape that mixes beauty and visceral energy. It seems as if the multitude of fingers – and the voice of Keita – combine with an ethereal sense of harmonic delineation so that Téranga-Bah (for instance) unfolds with visceral passion and musicality, overt embellishments oscillating between insightful amplification of emotions and mellifluous distractions. Finch’s supple facility for rapid passagework is also to the fore in Bach to Baïsso, as is Keita’s contrapuntal communicative articulacy, and there is pathos aplenty in Listen to the Grass Grow.

The virtuosic performances by both musicians are breathtaking during the three-quarters of an hour of music, as it continues to echo in the perfection in the strings’ intonation as their youthful volcanic talents play with theatrical tautness and élan. Combining ancient modal drones, classical elegance and avant-garde subversion, this duo creates a compelling sound-bed for what often appears to be a myriad of voices of contrasting character. Finch and Keita masterfully work the music of their respective – Welsh and Senegalese – traditions that have seldom come together so gloriously.

This is perfect stuff from Finch, a celebrated harpist whose firm lithe voice and Olympically agile technique allow her to combine dazzling virtuosity with dramatic expression. The same can be said of Keita, whose accuracy and ethereal falsetto seem perfect for this musical collision.

04 Elon TurgemanClimb Up
Elon Turgeman
Independent (elonturgeman.com)

The music on Climb Up by the Israeli guitarist Elon Turgeman oozes youthful impetuosity and yet is remarkably poised, bereft of empty pyrotechnical displays or sentimental indulgence. Rather, it is rigorous and driven throughout by architectural acuity, which is why for those of us who have not heard of the guitarist it will come as a welcome surprise to hear how well integrated this work sounds, for the most part at least.

Turgeman’s approach to the electric guitar is well-formed and despite his young years it sounds very erudite. The guitarist plays in a style that for all its frequent rambunctious phrases and lines is deceptively limpid, as if his wrists were almost disconnected from the rest of his arms – held together by hyperactive nerve ends that, in turn, control hyperactive fingers that could be urged to dart up and down the fret board almost at will. This is wonderfully displayed on the title song Climb Up and, again, on Paco, a song presumably dedicated to the late Andalusian flamenco-style genius Paco De Lucía.

With the added support of Avi Adrian on piano, Yorai Oron on bass, together with Mark Rozen on tenor and soprano saxophones and the percussion colourist Adam Nussbaum on drums, Turgeman raises the level of his game to a rarefied realm with these painterly, impressionistic studies. Throughout this program Turgeman plays with insightful colours, translucent introspection and fantasy – and instrument and recording are beautifully married too.

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Just as definitions of various forms of music have changed over the decades, so has the interpretation of what exactly constitutes a large jazz or improvised music orchestra. Sure, there are still plenty of bands that stick to the popular Ellington-Basie mode with a fixed number of players and tunes. But that’s no longer the norm. As music becomes more open and global, orchestral and so-called exotic instruments beef up the sections; a pre-determined number of players in each section is ignored; and the use of electric instruments and electronics has soared. Equally outstanding in execution, here are some instances of how uniquely constituted large ensembles operate.

01 LargeUnitIn this context, the Scandinavian Large Unit is the most traditional. The group on Fluku (PNL Records PML 038 paalnilssen-love.com) includes three reed players, three brasses and a rhythm section. The reed players double or triple among saxophones and clarinets; the brass section is a trumpeter, a trombonist and a tubaist; rhythm is divided among an electric guitar, two acoustic/electric bassists, and two percussionists, including leader/composer Paal Nilssen-Love; plus there are electronics from Tommi Keränen. Using the ensemble’s elements to maximum effect, the band creates passages that rebound from presenting everyone in full flight to individuals, such as Thomas Johannson’s clean trumpet leads or the gnarly this-side-of-metal shronk from guitarist Ketil Gutvik. Extended tracks such as Playgo and Fluku emphasize divergent aspects of the band. A Latin-inflected swinger, Playgo highlights contrapuntal reed-brass textures, and then divides into duets: almost human vocalized smears from trombonist Mats Äleklint matched with slap percussion; heraldic trumpeting with rippling sax riffs; and finally, crying alto saxophone vibrations challenging vigorous ruffs from drummers Nilssen-Love and Andreas Wildhagen. Keeping the theme consistent is one of the Unit’s three alto saxophone players; a Bolero-styled counterline intersects, and synthesized wave form crackles finally subsume the narrative. Almost 27 minutes long, the title tune develops in several seemingly incompatible directions, initially suspended between Gutvik’s rough twangs and Keränen’s twisted drones. Interjections from other instruments make the performance murkier, until a distinct theme appears one-third of the way through and stays audible until the end. As Per Åke Holmlander’s tuba burbles open and shut, petal-like, to add or subtract low-pitch ballast to the creation, dollops of swing infuse the narrative via patterning vamps from baritone and tenor saxophones plus near-funk drumming. Concentrated riffs are finally pushed into a crescendo of polyphonic solidness pierced by harmonized brass flutters moving up the scale and latterly pulled aside to allow for a slurred showcase from the guitarist, accompanied by subtle drum beats that eventually harmonize with the theme that has been there all along.

02 LeTombeau PoulencWith the same number of players but different instrumentation, Le Tombeau de Poulenc (Yolk Records J2069 yolkrecords.com) provides a contrasting view of ensemble orchestration. Invoking the Concerto for Two Pianos and Orchestra by French composer Francis Poulenc, the group’s three composers – pianist Jean-Christophe Cholet, saxophonist Alban Darche and Mathias Rüegg – created 12 themes which slyly interpolate swing into formalist concepts, ending with a tight, rhythmic program, making this group sound twice the size of Large Unit. Tracks reflect each composer’s perceptions. For instance, the exposition of the supple and multi-hued 2nd Convergence by Cholet, who shares piano duties with Nathalie Darche, is a keyboard continuum that melds with munificent string harmonies as backdrop to laughing saxophone vibrations and graceful trumpet tones, with the parallel counterpoint climaxing as it’s pushed by bass string rubs and prodded by drum pulses. Meanwhile, the chromatic gusts propelled by Pascal Vandenbulke’s flute on Cholet’s 3rd Convergence are as formal as a chamber piece, until cabaret-style keyboard clipping and a low-key alto saxophone solo alter the moderato theme to animate pastel-like orchestral colours. Rüegg is most interested in instrumental layering. On Dans les Idées de Poulenc, a matching three-dimensional sonic picture is created though speedy keyboard bravura plus ascending saxophone counterpoint. Layering the tones of trumpet, trombone and tuba on Dans le Sens de Poulenc (with Matthias Quilbault’s tuba as prominent as the others), proves that such instruments can swing without expected call-and-response patterns. Closest to mainstream jazz, the blues inflections which enliven the choppy piano lines of the Darche-composed Le Tombeau de Poulenc 1 find violinist Marie-Violaine Cadoret’s contributions sliding from precise romanticism to silent-movie-like melodrama to double-stopping dissonance. Clanking claves and Latinized piano-fills on the concluding Le Tombeau de Poulenc 4 (another Darche piece) extend the polyphony enough so that subsequent showcases for saxophones and brass can trade orchestral strictness for musical freedom. This CD banishes the spectre of a jazz-classical pastiche and confirms the group’s and the composers’ ability to create rousing sounds that don’t stray that far from European precision.

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03 EnsembleSupermusiqueLarger than the former group and more obvious in its use of strings, percussion and electronics is Montreal’s Ensemble SuperMusique (Ambiances Magnétiques AM 239 CD actuellecd.com). The tracks on Les porteuses d’Ȏ are also less homogeneous than on other discs. Although these single compositions by ensemble founders, percussionist Danielle Palardy Roger and saxophonist Joane Hétu (plus one from Vancouver’s Lisa Cay Miller) utilize a mixture of notation and improvisation, the results are undeniably divergent. Ostensibly about Canadian drinking water rights, Miller’s Water Carrier is multi-sectional, with strident tutti interludes. Otherwise, the narrative depends on contrasts between upbeat concert band-like melodies from the horns and Guido Del Fabbro’s delicately formal violin elaboration, with the churning rural landscape characterized by Bernard Falaise’s clanking guitar effects, plus primitivist slashes from Alexandre St-Onge’s electric bass and electronics. Additional strength is given to the track’s political message by repeated scrapes on bare acoustic strings plus Ida Toninato’s gusty baritone saxophone. Describing a journey among the planets, Roger’s En arrivant par le nuage de Oort uses electronic crackles and pops to underscore the extraterrestrial journey. With echoing percussive swats from her kit and that of Isaiah Ceccarelli, rugged reed smears and sprung sul ponticello pressure from Del Fabbro, violist Jean René and cellist Rémy Bélanger de Beauport, plus some snarls and growls from trombonist Scott Thomson, the composition reflects the energy and turbulence of the heliocentric world. And like the predicted end of the universe, the tremolo piece doesn’t climax, it just ends. Based on mumbled vocalese, Hétu’s Préoccupant, c’est préoccupant is more problematic since her gargles, whoops and whines are often incomprehensible. Melodramatic and dissonant string section swipes, guitar flanges, buzzing wave forms and unfocused drum beats contribute to the verbal commotion, rather than framing or defining it.

04 Glasgow Improvisers OrchVoices in plural or solo (Maggie Nichols) are also featured on the Glasgow Improvisers Orchestra’s The Word For It Now (FMR CD 458-0817 fmr-records.com). Although its selections are text based, the improvisational skill of Nichols and four backing voices mean that phrases are so swaddled in gurgles, gargles and growls that only the occasional word slips through. Designed to highlight the gamelan-like reverberating clanks from specially fired ceramic sculptures, A Bit in the Air also reduces the 30 instrumentalists (including eight string players and four guitarists) to interpolate with yelping tenor saxophone trills or bolstered triple-tongued trombone slurs, as Nichols’ agile soprano sashays around the sculptures’ crystalline timbres. With the vocalist(s) as capable at actualizing pseudo choking as lyrical warbles, the result is distinct energetic music that yokes metallic scrapes and distinct cries into a unique commentary. The two variations on A Peculiar Slumber are designed to showcase spatial and word-based response to the concert location, but with Nichols’ quirky scatting reigned in, there’s more pure instrumental space available. Highpoints include a duo between Marilyn Crispell’s studied piano pressure and emotional slurs from one of the trombonists; a swirling near-bop exposition from alto saxophonist Raymond MacDonald and one of the tenor saxophonists; and an undulating line from one of three double bassists that provides scope for Nichols’ mercurial syllable swallowing. In contrast, A Peculiar Slumber’s climax jams enough electronic-stressed clicks, reed slurs and brass flutter tones into the orchestral frame, so that the track reaches a crescendo of massed exuberance before subsiding. 

05 TheDorfExuberance also engulfs Lux (Umland Records 53 umlandrecords.de) with the 27-member, Essen-based The Dorf orchestra pumping out nearly opaque sound pieces. Their squirming timbres are directed as much by rhythm – including Theremin, synthesizer, three electronic players, two drummers and three guitarists – as by the comparable reed, brass and string tones. Infused with coagulated sequences that blend Wagnerian and metal densities, the characteristic tracks are Jour and Mill. The first augments seemingly without breathing space, through hardened guitar torque and drum beats like the thump of hobnailed boots, until a noisy climax gives way to the aural equivalent of afterimages. More attuned to orchestral colours from the acoustic instruments which tint the grisaille-like narrative, Mill mixes the crackles and smacks of programming and percussion, with whinnies and bellows from brass and reeds. As a commanding backbeat directs the narrative in a linear manner, trumpet grace notes and tongue splutters from the reeds provide the humanity and calm to the otherwise over-the-top creation. Finally, with all 25 players joined in a crescendo of muddied ecstasy, the ending explodes and is quickly cut off. With other tune variations on these themes, The Dorf demonstrates that rawness can be expressed and then tempered into a draining but dramatic program. So it is with all the ensembles here, whose similarities relate only to group size and the performance’s musical sophistication. 

A new release from Doremi of performances by Tossy Spivakovsky deserves attention. The opening work, Bach’s Chaconne, is so magnificently played and recorded that arguably it is worth the price of the whole set. Spivakovsky is using the curved Vega Bach bow and with it, instead of arpeggios the violin affects organ-like sonorities. The result is breathtaking and hypnotic. Spivakovsky was not only an impeccable virtuoso but a thorough musicologist. As we learn from his spoken introduction immediately preceding the performance recorded by Swedish Radio in 1969, his use of the Vega Bach bow followed years of research and study of Bach’s original manuscripts. In his day, he was one of those elite soloists such as Heifetz, Casadesus and Stern who were regularly invited to perform with the New York Philharmonic, not only for the standard repertoire, Beethoven, Mendelssohn, Brahms, but many contemporary works such as Bartók, Martin, Sessions, Menotti and William Schuman. He was a close friend of Bartók and premiered his Second Violin Concerto in 1943 in Cleveland, followed that year by a performance with the Philharmonic in New York.

Nathan “Tossy” Spivakovsky, born in Odessa, a part of Imperial Russia in 1906, was an outstanding child prodigy. As teenagers he and Jascha, his pianist older brother (himself also considered a prodigy), played throughout Europe to great acclaim. On tour, he was heard by Wilhelm Furtwängler who engaged him at 18 to be concertmaster of the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, where he worked with the greatest conductors of the era. With Hitler’s rise to power he left Germany, going to Australia and New Zealand before coming to the United States. His brother Jascha stayed in Australia where he was a lauded pianist, concertizing extensively. 

01 SpivakovxkyTossy SpivakovskyLive Performances with the New York Philharmonic Orchestra 1943-1966 (Doremi DHR-8025-8, 4 CDs) contains eight concertos of various styles and periods, all brought to life in authoritative and impressive performances. According to critics of the day, Spivakovsky had one of the most formidable techniques of all and flawless musicianship. He was one of the busiest soloists, guesting with the great orchestras of the world. The works on these four CDs, except for the Tchaikovsky from Stockholm (Nils Grevillius, 1960) and the Schuman from Buffalo (Lucas Foss, 1966), are all with the New York Philharmonic. Heard are the Prokofiev Second (Schippers, 1959), Beethoven (Amerigo Marino, 1963), Frank Martin (Robert La Marchina, 1963), Bartók No.2 (Rodzinski, 1943), Brahms (Josef Krips, 1961) and the Mendelssohn E Minor (Paul Paray, 1956). The very good sound throughout (except for the Bartók 1943 acetates) comes from master tapes from various sources. The enclosed booklet includes a beautifully written, informative seven-page biography of the artist who died at 91 on July 20, 1998 at his home in Westport CT. 

02 DebussyAs 2018 is the centenary year of Claude Debussy’s death, record companies are assembling Debussy performances from the archives and, provided that the sound quality is reasonably acceptable, producing an anniversary set. It goes without saying that based on the calibre of the artists involved, some of these anniversary compilations are bound to be more attractive than others. To hand is Debussy Complete Works from Deutsche Grammophon (4798642, 22 CDs, 2DVDs + 206 page booklet) containing “at least one version of all the composer’s music published in his lifetime as well as some posthumously issued juvenilia and fragmentary works.” The edition is arranged as follows: volumes 1-4 Orchestral; 5-11 Piano Solos and Duets and Chamber Music; 12-15 Mélodies; 16, 17 Pelléas et Mélisande; 18, 19 Staged Works and 20-22 Historical Bonus. Finally, two DVDs of a different performance of Pelléas et Mélisande. Disc one of the orchestral works contains the Bernstein/Santa Cecilia Images, Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune and La mer. The other 16 titles including concerted works are offered in proven performances from conductors Pierre Boulez, Daniel Barenboim, Iván Fischer, Jean Martinon, Bernard Haitink, Eduard van Beinum, Ricardo Chailly and Charles Dutoit.

Debussy’s ever-fascinating and seductive piano music comprises the 24 Preludes, the 12 Etudes, Images, Suite bergamasque, Children’s Corner, two Arabesques and so many familiar and unfamiliar exquisite jewels. This repertoire is given to Pierre-Laurent Aimard; Maurizio Pollini; Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli; Jean-Yves Thibaudet; Rafał Blechacz; Zoltán Kocsis; Támas Vásáry; Seong-Jin Cho, et al. The chamber music is played by musicians of the calibre of Reginal Kell (clarinet), the Emerson String Quartet, the Kontarsky brothers, Brooks Smith, Anne-Sophie Mutter and Lambert Orkis, Hélène Grimaud and Wolfram Christ. Singers in the four CDs of Mélodies include Véronique Dietschy, Gérard Souzay, Elly Ameling, Mady Mesplé, Christine Schäfer and Pierrette Alarie. There are four CDs of stage works, namely Le gladiateur, L’enfant prodigue, Le chûte de la maison Usher, Trois chansons de Charles d’Orléans; Salut printemps; Invocation and Le printemps. Plus, of course, Le Martyre de Saint Sebastien and two different performances of Pelléas et Mélisande: the 1991 Vienna recording conducted by Abbado with Maria Ewing and François Le Roux, José van Dam, etc. on two CDs, plus a two-DVD set conducted by Boulez with Alison Hagley and Neill Archer from Cardiff in 1992.

Historical Bonus CDs contain many treasures performed by Ansermet, Karajan, Dervaux, Gulda, Monique Haas, Richter, Arrau, Ciani, Oistrakh, Souzay and others. Altogether, 26 discs of first-class performances, all in the best DG sound.

I recently attended the Toronto Symphony concert conducted by Bramwell Tovey that included the Brahms Second Piano Concerto, billed to be played by Lars Vogt. Substituting for the indisposed Vogt was Inon Barnatan, a young man with a favourable reputation and a fluid technique. The monumental Brahms concerto demands a soloist with a big sound but, to my ears, Barnatan as brilliant as he was, did not have the essential horsepower to fit the occasion.

03 BackhausOn recordings, an outstanding pianist who most certainly did have that power was Wilhelm Backhaus (1884-1969) who recorded the work several times from 1939 with Karl Bohm in Dresden and finally in 1967 with Böhm again with the Vienna Philharmonic. He had recorded the First Concerto in 1932 with Adrian Boult and the BBC Symphony. He was renowned as a Brahms pianist… also Beethoven, Grieg, Mozart, Schumann, etc. The latest releases from SWR, Beethoven Brahms Recital/Concertos (SWR 19057CD, 3 CDs) includes a set of performances by Backhaus including his final encounter with the Brahms Second Concerto. These discs contain performances by Backhaus recorded live with the SWR, the Südwestrundfunk (Southwest Broadcasting) Symphony Orchestra. The first two discs are all Beethoven beginning with three sonatas, the Third (Op.2 No.3), the Waldstein and the Hammerklavier all recorded in the Ludwigsburg Schloss, Ordenssaal in 1953. The Emperor Concerto follows with the SWR Symphony conducted by Joseph Keilberth recorded in the Liederhalle in Stuttgart in 1962. Finally again from the Liederhalle in 1959 the Brahms Second conducted by Hans Mûller-Kray followed by three Brahms waltzes as encores. The sound quality throughout is astoundingly clear within a marvellous acoustic and correctly balanced from top to bottom, effortlessly handling the tuttis. Backhaus’ performances are all in the grand manner, once accepted and expected, now a thing of the past. Nonetheless, these are confidently committed accounts.

04 CallasFinally, a Blu-ray video centred on the only surviving footage of a Maria Callas operatic performance. Callas Magic Moments of Music – Tosca 1964, A Film by Holger Preusse (Cmajor 745104, also on DVD). After a two-year hiatus she returned in the second act of Tosca at Covent Garden in 1964. The set was designed expressly for the occasion by Franco Zeffirelli. Her Scarpia was Tito Gobbi, who sang this role in the still-outstanding 1953 recording from Milan under Victor de Sabata. Gobbi was Callas’ close friend and admirer who wrote that “with Maria it was not performing but living.” Gobbi is Scarpia, from head to toe the grand personification of evil and lust. Together with pertinent interviews and comments by Antonio Pappano, Rolando Villazón, Thomas Hampson and others, this is an absorbing release. 

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