02 Laitman Scarlett LetterLori Laitman – The Scarlet Letter
Claycomb; Armstrong; MacKenzie; Belcher; Knapp; Gawrysiak; Opera Colorado; Ari Pelto
Naxos 8.669034-35

Nathaniel Hawthorne’s classic American novel, abridged into libretto form by David Mason, premiered in 2016 as a two-act opera composed by Lori Laitman. Strict and stifling moral codes in a c.1600 Puritan community result in the punishment of young Hester Prynne and torment the secret father of her child, Reverend Arthur Dimmesdale, as well as her long-lost husband (now returned under an assumed name). Operatic fodder indeed, but strangely juxtaposed with a rather dismal and restrictive setting.

Laitman’s challenge as a composer to reconcile the two is an interesting conundrum. She does indeed provide highly dramatic moments, such as the crowd’s raging at Prynne and the taunting of Dimmesdale by Mistress Hibbons, the town witch (sung by the formidable mezzo Margaret Gawrysiak). As Dimmesdale, tenor Dominic Armstrong’s talents are showcased with long, dramatic episodes of hysteria and guilt. Also remarkable is baritone Malcolm MacKenzie, as the husband bent on revenge. Prynne, on the other hand, proving to be much more stalwart of character, is given a much calmer, gentler musical portrayal. Soprano Laura Claycomb shines in the lullaby sung to daughter Pearl; as a singer, she manages some amazingly high notes without ever sacrificing Prynne’s aura of tenderness. The Opera Colorado Chorus does an excellent job standing in judgement of all. An interesting project indeed and well executed.

03 Thousands of MilesThousands of Miles
Kate Lindsey; Baptiste Trotignon
Alpha Classics ALPHA 272 (alpha-classics.com)

Kurt Weill may be correctly described as a misunderstood genius. He was very serious about his music, yet was (and still is by many) dismissed as a “cabaret composer.” Despite the success of his collaborations with Bertolt Brecht, these works were banned in Nazi Germany and took the better part of the 1970s to reclaim their place in the repertoire. Similarly, his American works (One Touch of Venus, Street Scene, Lost in the Stars) were judged to be “not American enough” and not sufficiently “jazzy.” Here is a pairing of two artists to put both of these myths to well-deserved rest.

Kate Lindsey, a classically trained mezzo, takes on Weill as if his works were more traditional German and Austrian lieder. In fact, when intermingled with songs by Alma Mahler, Erich Korngold and Alexander von Zemlinsky, the interpretative point is beautifully made. On the other hand, jazz pianist Baptiste Trotignon eschews often sketchy and reliably non-Weill arrangements and reductions and instead interprets the melodies in the best jazz tradition. The result is as fresh and surprising as you would expect: Weill the classical composer, and Weill the Gershwin rival! Although for many of us it may be hard to get the voice of Lotte Lenya out of our heads, the genius of Weill demands no less than that.

04 Musique SacreeMusique Sacrée en Nouvelle-France
Studio de musique ancienne de Montréal; Christopher Jackson; Réjean Poirier
ATMA ACD2 2764 (atmaclassique.com)

Review

This recording is a re-issue of a 1995 album originally titled Le Chant de la Jerusalem des terres froides on the French label K617. At the time, founding member Christopher Jackson (1948-2015) directed Studio de musique ancienne de Montréal. The program represents sacred music from the daily life of 17th-century French settlements in the New World. Books of plainchant brought to New France were utilized in church services, but also formed the basis of a new style, adopted in both new and old worlds, which added ornamentation borrowed from secular repertoire. Mass excerpts by Henry du Mont, based in Paris, serve as excellent examples of this practice.

In addition to Gregorian chant, books of petit motets were also brought to New France. Composed for soloists (or for no more than three voices) with chamber instrumentation, this proved much easier to realize in the colonies than the grand motet, which required large forces. Composers of the form such as Nicolas Lebègue and André Campra are represented on this recording, highlighting the divinely sweet persuasion of the small ensemble. Two of the pieces, Inviolata and Ego sum panis vivus, are examples of the petit motet translated into the Algonquin Abenaki dialect to abet religious conversion of the Native population. The choir and soloists’ exquisite renderings throughout the CD bring the history to life, enhanced by organist Réjean Poirier’s performances of pieces from Livre d’orgue de Montréal.

05 O Gladsome LightO Gladsome Light
Lawrence Wiliford; Marie Bérard; Keith Hamm; Steven Philcox
Stone Records 506019278065 (stonerecords.co.uk)

That tenor Lawrence Wiliford’s voice is perfectly suited to English repertoire is clearly illustrated on this recording. In songs and hymns by Gustav Holst, his lesser-known student Edmund Rubbra and contemporary Ralph Vaughan Williams, Wiliford displays his gift for expressiveness, sensitivity to text and challengingly high tessitura. These qualities were assimilated through his experiences singing in the church since boyhood, roles in Canadian Opera Company productions and as co-founder of the Canadian Art Song Project along with pianist Steven Philcox (who also accompanies beautifully on this recording).

Because Rubbra is relatively unknown, we are grateful for the singer’s inclusion of transcendent modal songs such as The Mystery and Rosa Mundi as well as Meditations on a Byzantine Hymn for solo viola played sublimely by Keith Hamm and Variations on a Phrygian Theme for solo violin on which Marie Bérard displays her signature sweetness of tone. (Both Hamm and Bérard are members of the COC orchestra.) Also of note from Rubbra is Hymn to the Virgin and Jesukin. Upon first hearing, I spent several minutes searching through liner notes for the name of the harpist. In fact, Rubbra had cleverly composed his accompaniment by the use of spread piano chords, resulting in a “harp-like rendition” played so rockingly gentle by Philcox that one is easily lulled and thus bewildered, but happily so.

06 Donizetti FavoritaDonizetti – La Favorite
Elīna Garanča; Bayerische Staatsoper; Karel Mark Chichon
Deutsche Grammophon 073 5358 

This is indeed a superlative performance from Munich, to be remembered for a long time to come. It brings out all the glory that lay partly dormant in past performances, although the opera did well for the last 177 years since first performed in Paris with great success. This new production perhaps wouldn’t have happened without Elīna Garanča’s keen interest in the project; the role seems written for her and she even brought along her husband Karel Mark Chichon to conduct as if the score was written for him. A happy situation, as there is a symbiotic relationship here; the two inspire each other and it sparkles like electricity in the air.

The great mezzo towers over everything, vocally, artistically and even physically with tremendous vocal and emotional range and an incredible commitment to the character she plays. Léonor de Guzman is a beautiful woman literally enslaved by the King of Castile in 14th-century Spain, trying to break out by finding true love with a young man, only to be outwitted by the King, losing everything including her life. No less memorable are the men: American lyric tenor Matthew Polenzani, as Fernand the hapless lover, is glorious in his passionate love for Léonor and displays magnificent emotional and vocal fireworks in his grand scene at the third act finale when he finds out he’s been cheated by marrying the King’s mistress. Internationally famous Polish baritone Mariusz Kwiecien is perfectly cast as the charming, but utterly ruthless, powerful monarch who, also infatuated with Léonor but having to give her up, is thirsty for revenge.

Talented director Amélie Niermeyer has a well-thought-out konzept definitely centring on the woman. Sets are minimal but powerful and create intimacy as well as religious fervour, not to mention space and grandeur that works so well that it even invokes the Grand Opera in Paris.

Serenade
Thomas Hampson; Maciej Pikulski
Pentatone PTC 5186 681 (pentatonemusic.com)

Dominick Argento – The Adree Expidition
Brian Mulligan; Timothy Long
Naxos 8.559828 (brian-mulligan.com)

07a Thomas HampsonPoor baritone – the undisputed “viola of voices.” You see, among orchestral instruments, the violas get no respect. All the best jokes about musical instruments start with something like this: “What do you call 100 violas at the bottom of the ocean….” Seemingly, baritones get the same dismissive treatment. You’ve heard the Three Tenors, you know of the Celtic Tenors. There are superstar sopranos, diva sopranos – even an occasional mezzo star (Magdalena Kožená, Frederica von Stade and many others). But when, oh when, have you heard about a baritone superstar? A part of this neglect is rooted in the repertoire – baritones are usually the villains, scoundrels, humourless fathers or sour priests. But the true mystery to me is why a baritone (one of the loveliest voices you are likely to hear, and for me THE best voice for chanson, lieder and any other voice-and-piano music) has never reached the levels of adoration that other voices have.

07b Dominick ArgentoHere to prove my point, two gentlemen poles apart in their careers. Thomas Hampson, arguably the “old guard” baritone, with several decades, and some 170 CDs to his name, is pitted against Brian Mulligan, a young and already accomplished graduate of the Juilliard School, here making his recording debut. Even their choice of music underlines the elegant divergence in their approaches: Hampson recorded his first record exclusively dedicated to French songs by opera composers, while Mulligan chose new vocal works by the American, Dominick Argento. Both are passionate, lyrical, thoughtful singers. Both fully understand the works they sing – no empty sound-making typical of some sopranos here. Both have the benefit of intelligent accompaniment by great piano players: Hampson with the phenomenal Maciej Pikulski, and Mulligan with the equally redoubtable Timothy Long. So maybe the recording quality will give one of them an edge? Alas, the PentaTone transparent recording is matched here by the more present Naxos studio job – both excellent. So the contest is a complete draw, as both singers are wonderful, unabashed, triumphant and resounding baritones!

The king of voices (in my small universe) proves again its power and beauty, showcased by both a seasoned and a novice singer, delivering the most satisfying vocal music of the past and the present and leaving the listener with an urgent need to hear more. Now, about those violas…

08 Aldridge Sister CarrieRobert Aldridge – Sister Carrie
Zabala; Phares; Morgan; Jordheim; Cunningham; Florentine Opera Chorus; Florentine Opera Company; Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra; William Boggs
Naxos 8.669039-40

Moby-Dick, The Grapes of Wrath, Little Women, The Scarlet Letter… The list of new operas based on classic American novels keeps growing. In 2012, the Naxos recording of Robert Aldridge’s Elmer Gantry, with a libretto by Herschel Garfein, won the Grammy for Best Contemporary Classical Composition. That same year, Aldridge and Garfein completed Sister Carrie, based on Theodore Dreiser’s novel. It was premiered and recorded in 2016 by Milwaukee’s Florentine Opera Company.

It’s 1900. Carrie (mezzo-soprano Adriana Zabala) leaves her job in a Chicago shoe factory, becoming the mistress of salesman Charlie Drouet (tenor Matt Morgan). Besotted with her, restaurant manager George Hurstwood (baritone Keith Phares) steals $10,000 from the restaurant safe, abandons his wife and children, and tricks Carrie into joining him on a train to New York.

Tracked down, Hurstwood avoids prosecution by returning $7,000, promising to repay the balance. Suddenly impoverished, he becomes depressed and reclusive. Carrie leaves him, finding work as an operetta chorister (the dress-rehearsal scene is hilarious). Hurstwood, unemployed and homeless, is severely beaten leading homeless replacement-workers during a labour strike. The opera ends with a chorus of homeless men, Hurstwood’s suicide and Carrie, now a star, singing in the operetta production-number, Why I’m Single.

Naxos describes Aldridge’s two-and-a-half-hour score as “richly melodic and unapologetically tonal.” Drawing upon the energy and bright colours of Broadway musicals (although a darker palette would have been more appropriate), Sister Carrie succeeds as very accessible, highly theatrical entertainment.

09b Joyce Love SongsThe Yeats Project
Sarah Jerrom
Independent SJ2016CD (sarahjerrom.com)

Love Songs of James Joyce
Donna Greenberg
Independent (donnagreenberg.com)

Lots of poetry to music here. Sarah Jerrom sets her sights on William Butler Yeats in The Yeats Project, while Donna Greenberg sets James Joyce’s words to music in Love Songs of James Joyce. Though both similarly use established poetry, each collection is original in setting, style and length.

09a Yeats ProjectSarah Jerrom has an almost otherworldly approach to her ethereal compositions, combining jazz, improvised, contemporary and classical music. These are detailed, well-thought-out settings to ten Yeats’ poems, which fit her vocal stylings with complex melodies, wide pitch jumps and subtle tonal colours. She has arranged her work for an all-star nine member chamber band of strings, woodwinds, brass and rhythm section, each member an improvising star in their own right. By treating her instrumentalists as equals, Jerrom creates perfect poetic musical settings. The opening of He wishes for the Cloths of Heaven is a heart-throbbing introduction to an exploration of love through words and sound. In sharp contrast, A Coat / That Reed-Throated Whisperer features a more wide-ranging vocal line effectively matched by a very low pitched clarinet. I love the exciting free improvisation atonal section at the beginning of Meru leading to an almost spooky melody with shots and held-note band backup. The Lake Isle of Innisfree/Stream and Sun at Glendalough is as epic as its poetry in length, meandering improvisations and moods. Sailing to Byzantium is a more traditional jazz tonal tune with bouncy drum and piano groove, clarinet solo and vocal line swells and scat. So much reflection, talent and respect for music, words and performers make The Yeats Project a memorable concentrated listening experience.

Review

09b Joyce Love SongsDonna Greenberg has chosen 13 unrelated poems from James Joyce’s Chamber Music (1907) to compose a song cycle that tells the story of unrequited love. She too touches many styles from classical to jazz to folk to tell her musical story, creating interesting accessible music. Her songs complement her voice perfectly, while superstar jazz pianist Mark Kieswetter performs and arranges for piano, voice, strings, winds and harp. The vocal and piano performances are extremely musical, especially in My Love is a Light Attire where the subtle piano introduction leads to straightforward singing about the splendours of love, setting the stage for an emotional wash of strings and shifting harmonies. Greenberg seems to be the most in her element in the jazzier O Cool, which features an extended piano solo and nice doubling of voice and clarinet against the bass line. It is great to hear Greenberg vocalize at low pitches against low instrumental timbres in Sleep Now, about insomnia and betrayal. Though not as dense as Jerrom’s, Greenberg’s song cycle is moving, smart and lyrical.

01 Beethoven Trios 260Beethoven: Piano Trios Vol.5 – “Archduke” Trio, Kakadu Variations
Xyrion Trio
Naxos 8.572343

Just like the Emperor Concerto, Beethoven’s Piano Trio in B-flat, Op.97 is also aptly named. Apart from Archduke Rudolf, Crown Prince of Austria to whom it was dedicated, it is also the grandest, most noble of the six works in this genre, a real Archduke of trios. It has an unforgettably beautiful opening theme that Beethoven breaks down into small fragments with ever-changing instrumental combinations and moods so they become sources of further surprises. My love affair with it began in my youth after hearing the legendary Cortot/Thibaud/Casals recording on EMI; it reverberated in me so much that I resisted listening to any later version. Until now that is, when I came across this new recording by three young women from Germany who have recorded all of Beethoven’s trios as their debut with Naxos, winning some prestigious prizes and world acclaim thereafter.

I was immediately surprised by the upbeat tempo, a bit faster than I remembered, and quite taken by the youthful, exuberant and fresh spirit, where the strong personalities and virtuosity of the individual artists add a new insight, achieving a “vibrant and glowing” (Fono Forum) and intense performance.

The Archduke Trio is flanked by two lesser works. First is the earlier (1803) Kakadu Variations, where Beethoven’s sense of humour is evident with its long, gloomy slow G-minor introduction that abruptly bursts into a popular ditty and a set of bravura variations. At one point one can even hear the kakadu (cockatoo) shrieking on the violin. The even earlier Trio in E-flat Major, WoO 38 from 1790 closes and adds further richness to this delightful recording.

Programs 13 & 14; Programs 15 & 16
All-Star Orchestra; Gerard Schwarz
Naxos 2.110561 and 2.110562

02a All Star 13 14It’s been three years now since the American conductor Gerard Schwarz embarked on an ambitious project: assemble 95 leading musicians from top orchestras across 22 states and record an annual series of concerts without an audience over a brief four-day period using high-definition video cameras. The undertaking has garnered considerable critical acclaim, and since 2014, the All-Star Orchestra has made a significant name for itself both through television performances on PBS and WNET and by means of a series of DVDs on the Naxos label. The recording sessions made during the third season have been captured on two DVDs – programs 13/14 and 15/16 respectively – and together they present eclectic programs of music from the late Romantic period to the 20th century.

The first of these, subtitled “Russian Treasures” and “Northern Lights,” features Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition, excerpts from Prokofiev’s ballet Romeo and Juliet and the Symphony No.2 by Jean Sibelius. Prior to each performance, Schwarz provides an informal commentary, while various members of the orchestra offer their thoughts on the music as well, all of which makes for an engaging personal touch – and the myriad of effective camera angles throughout gives the ensemble a strong sense of presence. The performances of all three works are uniformly excellent. The individual movements from Pictures are finely crafted, while the familiar segments from the ballet – Capulets and Montagues, Portrait of the Young Juliet, Minuet and Death of Tybalt, are in no small way aided by the warm strings, a full and well-rounded brass section and woodwinds with impeccable clarity. Sibelius’ grand and expansive symphony from 1902 is treated with much aplomb, from the gentle opening movement to the jubilant finale.

02b All Star 15 16Programs 15 and 16 take the viewer from Northern Europe to England and America of the 19th and 20th centuries. “British Enigmas” presents Elgar’s noble and dignified Enigma Variations and Britten’s Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra. Less well known are the ethereal Symphony No.2Mysterious Mountain” by American composer Alan Hovhaness and the Jubilee Variations, a collaborative work by English composer Eugene Goossens and ten American composer friends. The final movement of the variations, written by Goossens himself, is a true tour de force requiring the ensemble to pull out all the stops, thus bringing the work – and the DVD – to a fitting conclusion. The viewer is left almost wishing there was a live audience present to offer a round of well-deserved applause!

So to Gerard Schwarz and the ASO, a big bravo – here’s hoping this ambitious undertaking will be around for many years to come, bringing fine music-making to home audiences around the world.

03 Tchaikovsky ManfredThe Tchaikovsky Project – Manfred Symphony
Czech Philharmonic; Semyon Bychkov
Decca 483 2320

This CD is the second release in Decca Classics’ orchestral Tchaikovsky Project that features the Czech Philharmonic and conductor Semyon Bychkov. For a lonely Romantic symphony needing advocacy, this loving version of the much-criticized Manfred Symphony (1886) is the answer. An hour long and very difficult, the work here receives extraordinary endorsements in both performance and program notes. In the Lento lugubre movement, action begins with Manfred’s gloomy descending theme in B-minor, a key associated with tragedy (as in Swan Lake). The drama is well-paced, with the orchestra holding nothing back. The music of Manfred’s beloved Astarte is an abrupt contrast, delicate strings in delightful interplay with enticing woodwinds. But the mood is temporary; through a controlled build-up, brass forceful but not blaring, Bychkov ushers in her climactic death.

In the accompanying booklet, Bychkov’s rebuttals to criticisms of repetitiveness and episodic structure emphasize the work as drama. While he compares it to opera I think of ballet, for example in the light-on-its-feet second movement where grieving Manfred spots a water spirit; tremendously fast woodwind runs precede strings of supernatural virtuosity. In the following movement the ländler’s dance rhythm along with instrumental drones portray the Alpine people’s rustic life, Manfred looking on sadly. The Czechs’ idiomatic playing makes me want to get up and dance! The orchestra’s energy and aplomb through the bacchanal and ensuing fugue are remarkable, though only in heaven are the lovers reunited. Strongly recommended.

01 Shostakovich Golden AgeShostakovich – The Golden Age
Bolshoi Ballet
BelAir BAC443

A friend and I watched this video of, as we used to call it, The Age of Gold, with neither of us knowing the story nor what they were dancing about. Nevertheless, it was so brilliant that we watched it with delight for quite some time, simply revelling in the joyous and boisterous music while captivated by the goings-on onstage.

Shostakovich had a gift for musical satire, as his opera The Nose exemplifies. This story plays out on the floor of the Golden Age, a restaurant in the south of Russia and a favorite haunt of petty criminals in the 1920s. Interlaced with a floor show in progress at the restaurant, a young girl, Rita, now known as Mademoiselle Margot, is desired both by Boris, a young fisherman and aspiring actor and Jacques, Rita’s dance partner, in reality Yashka, the leader of a local gang of bandits. Inevitably, as in any good melodrama, eventually someone is stabbed to death. The librettist and choreographer is the legendary Yuri Grigorovich, well known and adored in ballet circles. Thanks to Shostakovich and Grigorovich the action is vibrant and non-stop. There are a few familiar tunes, including the Polka and Tea for Two. For those in the know, the principal dancers are Nina Kaptsova (Rita), Ruslan Skvortsov (Boris), Mikhail Lobukhin (Yashka), Ekaterina Krysanova (Lyuska, Yashka’s accomplice) and Vyacheslav Lopatin (variety show compere at the Golden Age). The high-definition video is, as expected, breathtakingly real, as is the usual astonishing virtuosity of the Bolshoi orchestra as heard in earlier releases.  For fans of Shostakovich and/or Grigorovich this is a self-recommending must-have.

As we are getting to that time of year, here are two apropos serious gift suggestions: The Great Bolshoi Ballets: four Blu-ray discs in one package – Nutcracker, Sleeping Beauty, Giselle and The Flames of Paris (BelAir BAC610), breathtaking in every respect; and Shostakovich: The Complete Symphonies & Concertos with Valery Gergiev and the Orchestra and Chorus of the Mariinsky Theatre & six soloists (Arthaus Musik 107552, four Blu-ray discs plus hardbound book). These are definitive live performances recorded over the span of a year in the Salle Pleyel in Paris. Unique.

02 Antheil 4 5George Antheil – Symphonies 4 and 5
BBC Philharmonic; John Storgårds
Chandos CHAN 10941

Best remembered for his futuristic Ballet mécanique of 1926, the New Jersey-born pianist and composer George Antheil (1900-1959) was in his youth the darling of the Parisian avant-garde and a rising star of American music. Alas, his attempt to replicate his Parisian acclaim with an ambitious, high-profile American remounting of this work at Carnegie Hall in 1927 was a disaster from which the self-proclaimed “Bad Boy of Music” was slow to recover. His scandalous score (originally conceived for an orchestra of player pianos, percussionists and airplane propeller) was not to be heard again for 60 years. Dejected, the pugnacious, pistol-packing composer eventually found work in Hollywood, where he scored films and worked as a journalist. The patriotic fervour of wartime 1940s America brought him back into the spotlight with a catalogue of works radically more conventional than those of his youth. Antheil’s Symphony No.4 (subtitled “1942”) was broadcast nationwide by Stokowski in 1944 to great acclaim and received numerous subsequent performances. Later Eugene Ormandy would come calling to commission his “Joyous” Symphony No.5 (1948) for the Philadelphia Orchestra. Throughout the 1950s however, the quest for the “Great American Symphony” faded along with Antheil’s career. He died suddenly in 1959 of a heart attack.

The numerous tempo changes noted in the track details to the movements of these two symphonies hint at Antheil’s problematic sectional approach to composition. It is a challenge for any conductor to tie so many mood swings together coherently, a task that Storgårds for the most part achieves, though to my mind Hugh Wolff’s CPO recording of the same symphonies with the Frankfurt RSO from the year 2000 is superior in this regard. Despite the patchwork nature of Antheil’s music there is never a dull moment; the listener, though perhaps a tad confused, will find the music consistently engaging and effectively orchestrated. Surprisingly, despite the self-consciously upbeat all-American profile of these works, both symphonies exhibit strong influences from the leading Soviet composers of the era, notably the obsessive dactylic rhythms of Shostakovich and the harmonic twists of Prokofiev. A bonus track brings us the first recording of Antheil’s Over the Plains (1945), a cinematic evocation of the landscape of Texas. All told, an intriguing and enjoyable album, quite plushly recorded and very keenly played.

03 Facets Cline duoFacets
Cline/Cuestas Duo
Independent (clinecuestasduo.com)

There are many fine flutists in the world these days, and Jenny Cline of the Cline/Cuestas Duo is definitely one of them. She and guitarist Carlos Cuestas have put together a terrific program which combines four substantial contemporary compositions balanced by music from the late 19th and the early- and the mid-20th centuries.

At 15 minutes, Maximo Diego Pujol’s Suite Buenos Aires is the longest of the four contemporary pieces. Composed in 1995, its four movements depict different parts of the city after which it is named. The slow second movement is particularly exquisite, opening with a guitar solo beautifully played by Cuestas, setting up Cline for the heartrending solo which follows. The last movement too, is particularly noteworthy, bristling with excitement and precise teamwork.

Among the earlier compositions are six of Bartók’s Romanian Dances and Enrique Granados’ Danza Española No. 5: Andaluza, from which the duo draws haunting nostalgia for times past in pre-cataclysm Eastern Europe and Spain respectively.

Daniel Dorff’s Serenade to Eve, After Rodin (1999), beginning passionately lyrical and moving to an astonishing virtuosic conclusion, is yet another great addition to the contemporary repertoire for flute and guitar. So too is Gary Schocker’s Silk Worms, music of great refinement commissioned by the duo in 2013 and interpreted here with warmth and conviction.

Credit also goes to Oscar Zambrano, who mastered the recording, for really getting the balance between the two instruments just right. Congratulations to all who were involved for an excellent first CD.

04 Klezmer DreamsKlezmer Dreams
André Moisan; Quatuor Molinari; Jean Saulnier
ATMA ACD2 2738 (atmaclassique.com)

Review

Originating hundreds of year ago, the roots of klezmer, the instrumental party music of Ashkenazi Jewish communities, were enriched by contact with the music of the people of Central and Eastern Europe and beginning in the early 20th century, with jazz. The performance of klezmer music generally declined as the last century progressed. Beginning in the 1970s a grassroots revival spread out from its North American base, today’s klezmer scene (re)embraces the globe. Arab, Indian, Celtic and Korean musicians are getting in on the act. Earlier this year Amalia Rubin’s performance of a 1927 Yiddish song on Mongolian TV’s version of American Idol, accompanied by six Mongolian instrumentalists, garnered thousands of likes on social media.

Despite its transnational appeal, there are, however, essential features which distinguish klezmer music. Glissandi and syncopation that evoke laughter or sobs, ornamentation of the melody reflecting the inflections of the human voice, and melodies moving within the tonal modes of Central/Eastern Europe are just three. Emotional mood is also often sharply delineated, ranging from deep melancholy to dancing exuberance.

Classical concert composers have been attracted by klezmer’s vibrancy too. Five are represented in the very satisfying album Klezmer Dreams, including two Canadians, Srul Irving Glick (1934-2002) and Airat Ichmouratov (b.1973). Sergei Prokofiev’s Overture on Hebrew Themes (1919) for clarinet, piano and string quartet is the oldest composition on this disc. Prokofiev retains the folkloric flavour of the Jewish melodies he borrowed while maintaining his idiosyncratic composer voice, this time rendered in a light tone. At over 35 minutes The Dreams and Prayers of Isaac the Blind (1994) for Klezmer clarinet and string quartet, by Argentinian-American composer Osvaldo Golijov (b.1960), is by far the longest and stylistically most adventurous score here. It features the brilliant and stylistically spot-on Klezmorim clarinet solos of Montrealer André Moisan. Starting and ending with a prayer, “Thou pass and record, count and visit, every living soul, appointing the measure of every creature’s life and decreeing its destiny,” this substantial work definitively demonstrates the reach of klezmer – once considered folk party music – deep into the concert hall.

05 Toy Piano ComposersToy Piano Composers
Toy Piano Composers Ensemble; Pratik Gandhi
Redshift Records TK452 (toypianocomposers.com)

Review

There can be few more reliable guarantees of contemporary music that is both thoughtful and entertaining than when the name Toy Piano Composers (TPC) appears on the tin. Founded by pianists and composers Monica Pearce and Chris Thornborrow, and now with a decade of growth in performance that has included over 120 new works in various formats from chamber and orchestral to operatic, TPC, fronted by its ensemble, has grown exponentially in performance and in creativity.

Fuelled as much by Reich, Riley, Glass and Pärt as by the unfettered creativity of young questing minds, the composers in the collective as well as its performing ensemble have continually pushed the proverbial envelope and the ceaselessly receding horizon, with music that has swelled with classical elegance and avant-garde subversion. This album – simply bearing the collective’s name – appears to be the first by a group that has focused so far solely on performance.

In keeping with the mission to create something new and remain in the continuum of the classical tradition, these seven works, written by various composers from 2010 to 2014, are performed by the TPC Ensemble, a group of nine instruments of contrasting character. Together they are famously at ease with the most testing new music for traditional acoustic instruments plus toy piano. From Clangor (Pearce) to Hermes’ Lure (Ruth Guechtal) and Modus Operandi (Nancy Tam), the TCP Ensemble may seem stretched to the limit but are equal to the challenge.

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