06 StephCD007 1Take the Neon Lights
Steph Richards
Birdwatcher Records 008 (birdwatcherrecords.com)

Accomplished quartet music played and composed by Canadian trumpeter/flugelhornist Steph Richards, who already excels in solo playing, Take the Neon Lights’ eight selections are melodic without neglecting timbral analysis, and moving without being shackled to a beat. Ably assisted by pianist James Carney, bassist Sam Minaie and drummer Andrew Munsey, New York-based Richards still experiments with singular diversions like mouthpiece oscillations, rapid capillary dot-dashes and evacuated plunger tones. But these dissonant rejoinders often now vibrate within passionate tone poems.

Internal body tube metal may be audible on Transitory (Gleams) for instance, but after subtle piano chords meet supple brass-tone outlines the result is a mellow chromatic showpiece. Featuring Carney’s keyboard shuffles and inner piano string plucks, Skull of Theatres extends the pianist’s mid-range voicing to meet Richards’ high-speed rubato trills plus plunger growls, so that together the two settle into unpretentious swing in the tune’s second sequence, allowing the lines to harden with more emphasis on bass and drums.

Richards’ experimental skills are highlighted on Brooklyn Machine, where she manages double counterpoint from both her horns – one with brassy thrusts and the other with crafty smears – in such a way that they seem to accompanying one another. Still, the well-constructed Stalked by Tall Buildings is the apex of the brass player’s art. The warm melody line is stretched, as elevated trumpet tones squeeze beauty from repeated tongue twists while dramatic piano flourishes and truculent percussion pops maintain the melody’s ingenious fluidity.

07 TotalityCD001 Copy 1Path of Totality
Quinsin Nachoff’s Flux
Whirlwind Recordings WR 4733 (quinsin.com)

Partially recorded when he was artist-in-residence at Calgary’s National Centre, using the studio’s keyboards and synthesizers, Torontonian-turned-New Yorker Quinsin Nachoff takes full advantage of Canada’s artistic resources to produce this notable two-CD set, Each of the soprano and tenor saxophonist’s six compositions cannily bolsters the intense textures created by his group Flux, which also features alto and C melody saxophonist David Binney, keyboardist and synthesizer player Matt Mitchell, and percussionists Kenny Wollesen and Nate Wood plus supplementary sound contributions.

March Macabre for instance adds the rhythmic slides and stomps of a tap dancer, plus layered vibrations from five additional horns to fill out the sequences, as Nachoff’s soprano buzzes and percussion splashes elaborate the narration. Craftily ambiguous, marimba, glockenspiel and vibraphone echoes replicate textures of the designated instrument on Toy Piano Meditation, contrapuntally challenging Mitchell’s precise or clamorous patterns on standard piano. While both saxophonists’ criss-crossing tones animate that composition with twittering screeches and end it with a spectacular penetrating trill, linear storytelling is never disrupted. Cleverly arranged, the remainder of Nachoff’s compositions otherwise add subordinate motifs arising from a laboratory full of electronics or Mitchell’s lucid harpsichord plucks to straight-ahead blowing from the core quintet. Overall this combination shows how well-thought-out composing and improvising can be adventurously matched without losing the allure of professional, swinging creativity.

08 Brad TurnerPacific
Brad Turner
Cellar Music CM090418 (cellarlive.com)

Released on Vancouver’s Cellar Music label, Pacific is a new album from trumpeter Brad Turner. Turner – who is also an accomplished pianist, drummer and, as attested to by Pacific’s liner notes, mixing engineer – is joined by organist/keyboardist Chris Gestrin, drummer Joe Poole and the American tenor saxophonist John Gross, who appears on three of the album’s nine tracks, all of which are composed by Turner. Although he may not be a household name to all listeners, Gross has had a long and illustrious career in jazz, playing, since the 1960s, with artists such as Lionel Hampton, Warne Marsh and Toshiko Akiyoshi.

Pacific begins with Not A Robot, a bouncy, medium-up song that showcases the group’s assured rhythmic sensibilities; it also eschews any chordal comping, with Gestrin sticking to synth bass throughout, including in a dynamic trading section with Poole in the tune’s back half. Pacific’s title track is a satisfying, hard-swinging affair that gives plenty of room to all four musicians to stretch out in their respective solos. Gross’ solo, which begins as a duet with Poole, is a highlight, as is Poole’s own brief solo over the vamp that precedes the melody.

In Pacific’s liner notes, Phil Dwyer writes that the album is, perhaps, evocative of the Larry Young album Unity, and the comparison is apt. But the album is made special by the band’s commitment to its constituent voices, to Turner’s compositions, and to honouring the unique musical moments found throughout this compelling album.

09 CounterfictionalsNo Hay Banda
The Counterfictionals
Good Music GMCD006 (counterfictionals.dk)

Rarely, if at all, do industrial and fine art come together in a package so well thought out (from concept and presentation to imaginative musical execution, and in the sheer invention and hyper virtuosity of the performing Danish musicians) than on the Counterfictionals production entitled No Hay Banda.

No Hay Banda has been conceived of and directed by Kristoffer Rosing-Schow, a multi-instrumentalist who plays everything from bass clarinet to invented instruments such as the hydrofonium, described here complete with diagram, how it works and, best of all, how ethereally beautiful it sounds. Speaking of which there is the not-so-small matter of the music itself. The ten songs, bring back to life key scenes in famously well-made and notoriously badly made films from David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive (Counterfictionals’ song: Club Silencio), Sergio Leone’s For a Few Dollars More (song: Lee Van Cleef) to Alan Parker’s Angel Heart (song: Looking for Johnny Favorite) and Lars von Trier’s Antichrist (song: The Three Beggars).

In each case, brilliant musicians get closer to the chilling, sardonic heart of the film – scenes depicted in the songs with immensely powerful performances combining cast-iron virtuoso discipline with heady imagination and sheer fantasy, all of which matches the originality of Rosing-Schow’s artistry and vision. Let neither the ironic band name nor the album title be lost in this magnificent mêlée of music either, for what could a name such as Counterfictionals suggest but No Hay Banda (There’s no band)?

10 Wadada Leo Smith Rosa Parks rgb 300dpiRosa Parks: Pure Love
Wadada Leo Smith
Tum CD 057 (tumrecords.com) 

Since 2012, trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith has created several powerfully elegiac suites: Ten Freedom Summers, Occupy the World, The Great Lakes and America’s National Parks. With Rosa Parks: Pure Love, he returns explicitly to the theme of the first, the African-American civil rights movement. Rosa Parks is an oratorio, with music and songs by Smith, employing his distinctive compositional method that focuses on contrasting durations and textures. Smith’s heterodox ensemble includes a string quartet, a trumpet quartet, drums, electronics, pipa and three singers.

From the dissonant fanfare, Smith has compounded his own idiom, at once intimate and multi-dimensional, in which strongly lyrical passages alternate with moody, atonal strings and sometimes harsh, flaring brass. Strong individual voices emerge out of the fissures opening in the collective sound: violinist Mona Tian, cellist Ashley Walters, drummer Pheeroan akLaff and Smith himself, soloing only in the penultimate movement. Smith has matched each song’s character, as well as range, to each singer’s voice: Karen Parks’ touch of gospel; Carmina Escobar’s hard-edged precision; and Min Xiao-Fen’s soaring command of microtones. Each brings a special presence to Smith’s multicultural palette.

Embedded in the oratorio are excerpts of early recordings by Smith and close associates Anthony Braxton, Leroy Jenkins and Steve McCall, musicians who first played free music together 50 years ago, and who are, by extension, partners in Smith’s ongoing commemorations of the necessary struggles for freedom, reinforced in his concluding quotation from Martin Luther King.

11 Ivan MazuzeMoya
Ivan Mazuze
Losen Records LOS 209-2 (losenrecords.no/release/moya)

With his fourth album, Mozambique-born saxophonist and composer Ivan Mazuze, now based in Norway, continues his exploration of interrelations between traditional and contemporary music. The result is Moya, an elegant synthesis of the melodies and rhythms of African and Indian music with contemporary jazz elements. Mazuze is a polished and particularly sensitive saxophone player. His musical language is both delicate and passionate, his expression clear and meaningful. This album also features a wonderful crew of musicians from around the globe, including Olga Konkova (on piano), who has a great synergy with Mazuze, and Bjørn Vidar Solli (on guitar), who delivers some truly impressive solos.

Moya opens with contemplative Rohingya. Inspired by the Rohingya people of Myanmar who were recently displaced from their homeland, this piece has a melancholy feel driven by a rhythmical tabla pulse. It flows naturally into Mantra, a lively tune featuring an alluring combo of vocal chanting and instrumental discourse. The most interesting track on the album for me is Lunde, inspired by Norwegian folk music and highlighting cool vocals by Hanne Tveter. And there is Moya, the focal point of the album. It’s meaning in the Mozambican language is spirit/soul and it is immediately apparent that it holds special significance for Mazuze. The interplay between sax and piano captivates the listener with changing colours and meaningful dialogue.

This album has funky grooves, soulful melodies and, most importantly, a distinct and catchy sound. Highly recommended.

01 Fides Krucker VanishingVanishing
Fides Krucker; Tim Motzer
1k recordings 1K043 (1krecordings.com)

For 35 years Toronto-based classically trained vocalist Fides Krucker has explored contemporary vocal practice on the highest level as a singer in contemporary opera, interdisciplinary and electroacoustic works, as well as in chamber music and orchestral settings. Her career has taken her to numerous international stages. She’s appeared on diverse albums and film and video productions.

The phrase I found on my search engine while looking for Krucker’s website is, “emotionally integrated voice.” And her performance on the six Vanishing tracks powerfully delivers just that. She projects a wide palette of emotions through her voice alone, employing vocal techniques that move comfortably between classical Western and extended voices, often without lyrics.

Krucker is superbly supported on Vanishing by Tim Motzer a veteran Philadelphia jazz/improvising guitarist with 80 albums to his credit. He is best known for his textural acoustic-electro guitar playing utilizing looping, bowing, sampling, electronics and various prepared techniques, all richly displayed on Vanishing. The album is cinematic in scope. In its spontaneously composed sonic world each scene in the undefined – sometimes airy and melodically lush, sometimes unsetting – vocal storyline is created though the intimate musical dialogue between Krucker and Motzer.

My favourite track is the epic-length Density, which according to the liner notes, “Broods on the state of the world, gathers weight with each motif, steps the listener outside of civilized sound.” Some days taking a walk on the sonic wild side is what the doctor should order.

Listen to 'Vanishing' Now in the Listening Room

02 Fides Krucker In This BodyIn This Body
Fides Krucker; Rob Clutton; Tania Gill; Germaine Liu
Independent FK-01-2018 (fideskrucker.com/productions/in-this-body)

Anyone who knows the multi-dimensional and multi-disciplinary work of Fides Krucker is naturally going to wonder how much of the dance and – more importantly – the theatre that defines Krucker’s art this CD is going to capture. It is, after all merely audio. Fortunately, however, Krucker is a highly evocative vocalist and she spares nothing to imbue her music with atmosphere and even the nuanced auras of her often spiritual and always colourful work.

Even with the suggested stasis of the title, In This Body, one cannot help but imagine the body in motion. This is a work by Krucker, remember? True to form she creates a kind of series of one-woman operatic arias. Each is expressed in an inimitable manner which can only be associated by someone like Krucker. Her version of Leonard Cohen’s iconic piece Suzanne is turned from something almost impressionistic-Cohenesque into a work of extraordinary sensuality in an almost Nabokov-like (Lolita) manner. Another wildly sensual track – Striptease – follows this one.

But Krucker also rings in the changes of mood and emotion, structure and tempo with Mary Margaret O’Hara’s Body’s In Trouble, Leslie Feist’s Let It Die, k.d. lang’s Hain’t It Funny and, of course, the forlorn and classic song Helpless by Neil Young. Along the way, Krucker is magnificently aided by bassist Rob Clutton, pianist Tania Gill and percussionist Germaine Liu. Together the musicians propel Krucker into a rarefied artistic realm where she and her music truly belong.

03 Duggan TalismaTalismã
Mark Duggan
Independent (markduggan.com/talisma)

Percussionist Mark Duggan demonstrates his wide-ranging abundant musical talent in this project rooted in the Brazilian styles of samba, bossa nova and choro. Be it as a composer of four tracks, arranger of six Brazilian classics, and lead and chamber performer throughout, with outstanding musicians Louis Simão, contrabass and accordion, and Marco Tulio, violão (Portuguese guitar), Duggan’s understanding of vibraphone intricacies, compositional form/style and listening skills create music for everyone to enjoy, regardless of one’s stylistic preferences.

The trio plays the covers with respect and intelligence. Astor Silva’s Chorinho no Gafieira opens the recording with an upbeat happy start, thought-out vibraphone lines, good instrumental balances, and a simple yet colourful middle section. Antonio Carlos Jobim’s Triste has slight dynamic modulations and clear phrasing with the violão chords and contrabass keeping the faster vibes part grounded to the final Jobim chord. Duggan’s compositions are great. In his Above the Rain, the hypnotic two-note accordion start, with up-and-down melodic lines, is followed by vibraphone runs, which at times double and contrast the accordion chordal swells and staccato notes. Irresoluto is slightly more atonal yet rooted in rhythmic/melodic tradition, while Shifting Sands features a relaxing more traditional vibes melody with background bass groove, and instrumental dialogue throughout. Duggan’s firm grasp of the samba form in Samba des Nues is heard in its contrabass/violão rhythmic opening, florid lines and slower ending.

Perfect production values complete Duggan’s smart, nuance-abundant, Brazilian music-flavoured release.

Listen to 'Talismã' Now in the Listening Room

04 Vietnamese ZitherThe Art of the Vietnamese Zither – Đàn Tranh
Tri Nguyen

ARC Music EUCD2826 (arcmusic.co.uk)

This album features the subtly expressive Vietnamese plucked zither đàn tranh, which belongs to the widely distributed family of Asian long zithers. Its cousins are the Chinese zheng and qin, Japanese koto, Korean kayageum, as well as the çatkhan of the Khakass of southern Russian Siberia and the kacapi of the Sundanese of West Java, Indonesia.

Born into a family of literati in South Vietnam, Trí Nguyen began his music studies at an early age on the piano with French-trained teachers, eventually continuing them in Paris. His family however was strongly attached to its ancestral Vietnamese culture and also arranged đàn tranh lessons for Nguyen with the noted master Hai Bieu. Nguyen’s bi-cultural training positions him well to pursue his goal of taking traditional Vietnamese music to international audiences, combining Vietnamese musics with global genres and instruments. His approach has already garnered success: his 2015 debut album Consonnances won the Global Music Award Gold Medal for world music.

In The Art of Vietnamese Zither, Nguyen draws on this bi-musicality, presenting the đàn tranh in a transcultural context. The closing tracks are up-tempo nods to a world-music style aimed at broad audience appeal in which he adds other Vietnamese instruments, the oud and darabuka (goblet drum).

The most impressive aspect of the album however is the suite presented in the first nine tracks. Effectively arranged for his đàn tranh and Western string quartet, they feature melodies borrowed and adapted from the six schools of traditional Vietnamese music he inherited from his master Bieu.

French actress Simone Signoret titled her memoirs, Nostalgia Isn’t What It Used to Be, and the number of uninspiring salutes to earlier jazz heroes or heroines easily bears out this sentiment. However, when the right player selects the right material to record from a celebrated predecessor’s music and – most importantly – puts his or her own spin on it, the release becomes more than an exercise in nostalgia. Each of these sessions shows how this feat can be accomplished.

Ornette Coleman: Reflecting his influence on improvised music following his sudden arrival on the scene in the late 1950s, it’s no surprise that two of the sessions honour alto saxophonist Ornette Coleman (1930-2015). What is remarkable though is that neither group plays the same Coleman compositions. Plus each takes a diametrically opposite approach.

01a TizianoCD002Italian drummer Tiziano Tononi & the OrnettiansForms and Sounds: Air Sculptures (Felmay fy 7058 felmay.it) features an 11-piece band which, besides nine compositions by Coleman, interprets Tononi’s The Air Sculptures Suite. It’s not just Tononi’s indomitable rhythms from drum set and other percussion that animate his CD, but how soloists preserve their identities although immersed in Coleman’s sounds. Tracks such as the Tononi-composed Fireworks in N.Y.C and Fort Worth Country Stomp interpret aspects of Coleman’s music without copying. The latter track, for instance, is a country blues played with Italian panache featuring sharp staccato slurs and snorts from alto saxophonist Piero Bittolo Bon, spurred by backbeat drumming; while Fireworks in N.Y.C is straightforward swing, tempered by trumpeter Alberto Mandarini’s brassy and graceful solo plus hearty bass clarinet glissandi from Francesco Chiapperini. It climaxes with percussion outgrowths that are as African as American, highlighting Tononi’s cowbell and kalimba. This ingenuity remains with the Coleman compositions. The expected outlines of Peace for instance, are reconfigured when propelled by Tito Mangialajo’s walking bass line and penetrating twangs from Paolo Botti’s banjo (!). At breakneck tempo, Bittolo Bon’s high-pitched flute and Emanuele Parrini’s violin stops brighten the performance without losing the melody. Similarly Rushhour is played acoustically, but with a swelling sound reminiscent of Coleman’s electric band, and is led by Parrini’s sizzling double stops as Daniele Cavallanti’s bluesy tenor sax and the drummer drive everyone forward. Cavallanti brings the same intensity to Law Years paired with brassy upsurges from Mirko Cisilino’s trumpet. The lineup on Una Muy Bonita with Mangialajo and Silvia Bolognesi both playing bass plus Bittolo Bon and Chiapperini on alto saxophones, allows soloists to reconfigure Coleman with elevated tremolos or flutter tonguing as the dual basses propel the narrative.

01b ChrisCD005There are only six players on trumpeter Chris Pasin’s Ornettiquette (Planet Arts 301820 planetarts.org), but two of them, vibist/pianist Karl Berger and vocalist Ingrid Sertso worked with Coleman. Beside five Coleman tunes interpreted are two by Pasin and one by Albert Ayler.

Mostly concentrating on Coleman’s earlier works, Pasin’s take on Ornettiquette is low key but inventive. For instance, as Karl Berger’s vibes elaborate Jayne’s theme, the band plays up its blues underpinnings at the same time as Pasin’s clarion blasts are pitched Maynard Ferguson-like high. Michael Bisio’s slap bass adds rhythmic emphasis and the finale is a timbral battle between Pasin and alto saxophonist Adam Siegel’s supersonic slurs. Ingrid Sertso’s scatting in tandem with vibraphone clangs and burbling horns almost transforms When Will the Blues Leave into jittery bebop. But her recitation of the title and response of “never” reasserts solemnity. Pasin’s OCDC, saluting Coleman and his trumpeter Don Cherry is more linear than the dedicatees’ compositions. Plus the trumpeter’s quirky configuration of Cherry’s role is original. Walking bass and drummer Harvey Sorgen’s positioned whacks hold the bottom so that the horns can improvise freely. 

02 IngridCD004Someone who never stinted on the improvisational or melodic content of his own compositions was Canadian-born, London-based trumpeter Kenny Wheeler (1930-2014). Fellow Canadian, trumpeter Ingrid Jensen and American tenor saxophonist/clarinetist Steve Treseler lead a seven-piece band on Invisible Sounds for Kenny Wheeler (Whirlwind Recordings WR 4729 whirlwindrecordings.com) playing nine Wheeler tunes that are audible, not invisible. Bookended by a studio and a live version of Foxy Trot, which in its live incarnation trots along courtesy of Jon Wikan’s crisp drumming and an array of arpeggios spilling from Geoffrey Keezer’s piano, the set emphasizes Wheeler’s versatility. Expressive ballads like Where Do We Go from Here are buoyed by mellow saxophone swoops and upward puffs from the trumpeter, as piano chording brings out its swing underpinning. Meanwhile, Old Time is an out-and-out funk tune with a stop-time narrative, shuffle beat, slurs and snarls from the tenor saxophonist and acrobatic pitches from Jensen’s open horn. Still the most characteristic interpretation is of Wheeler’s best known tune, Everybody’s Song but My Own. A minor key lament, its essence is reflected in harmonic horn melding, slippery tremolos from Keezer and Jensen’s supple mid-range pitch slides.

03 AroundCD006Another composer who has a Canadian connection via her late ex-husband is 83-year-old Carla Bley. The 12 tunes played by Finns, pianist Iro Haarla and bassist Ulf Krokfors plus American drummer Barry Altschul on Around Again – The Music of Carla Bley (TUM CD 054 tumrecords.com) come mostly from her creative beginnings in the 1960s, coincidentally a time when the drummer was a member of Paul Bley’s bands that first played this music. Expressing the compositions’ inflections, performances are almost uniformly unhurried and dampened with percussion accents, double bass stops and focused on piano-led themes played respectfully. That way motion and melody are exposed at the same time. The exposition on Batterie, for instance, picks up sonic colours from keyboard jumps and is extended with low-pitched bass-string stops and indirect percussion clatters, and then slyly redirected to the head. Squirming and swaying, Haarla uses kinetic glissandi to turn the title track into a fantasia that gives the bassist enough space for plump pumps. Appropriately and subversively, both And Now, the Queen and Ida Lupino are spun out in processional fashion, with the latter balancing Krokfors’ heated string stabs and Haarla’s cooler key manipulation; and the former cleanly sweeping up tempo with double bass prods that lead to unstoppable forward motion, soon intensified with variable and emphasized voicing from the keyboard. The only track to feature a drum solo that is suitably understated, Ũtviklingssang, composed by Bley in Norway not Finland, opposes Altschul’s press rolls and bass drum booms with Haarla’s recital-ready formalism that preserves the narrative.

04 KrestenCD003Fealty to a single influencer isn’t the only way to express admiration and adaptation of the concepts pioneered by earlier musicians. That ‘s what distinguishes Danish drummer Kresten Osgood’s two-CD Plays Jazz (ILK Music ILK 28LP ilkmusic.com) from the other discs here. Working with a tight, balanced quintet of trumpeter Erik Kimestad, tenor saxophonist Mads Egetoft, pianist Jeppe Zeeberg and bassist Matthias Petri, the five roar with the same inventiveness and ferocity through familiar standards, lesser-known compositions and a few originals by the drummer. Although the band plays well enough on compositions by the likes of Eric Dolphy and Thelonious Monk (whose Friday the 13th, spurred by Osgood’s vigorous ruffs and pops, becomes more brawny and atonal than the original) notable triumphs result with its permutation on lesser-known gems. James Cotton’s Blues in My Sleep is revamped from bedrock blues to improv. A snaky bass line propels the theme, which is spangled with brass discord and strangled reed slurs and comes to an unexpected halt. Jerome Cooper’s Monk Funk emphasizes the second word in the title via raspy, Southwestern near-R&B from the saxophonist and rugged percussion slaps. Egetoft’s sour-sounding solo prevents Kimestad’s graceful modulations on Randy Weston’s Little Niles from becoming too slippery, as do Zeeberg’s clipped piano lines. Finally Osgood’s Tchicai in Heaven, named for the Danish New Thing saxophonist, not only shows off his percussion prowess with an introduction based around press rolls and hi-hat smacks, but also includes sparse piano emphasis that highlights Monk’s influence on the avant garde and through it, contemporary European and American jazz.

Each of these discs salutes earlier innovators, but in such a way that matches individuality with influence.

01 BrucknerUniversal Music, owner of DG, Decca, Phillips and others has been reissuing existing sets and creating new ones for re-release together with everything on an included single Blu-ray disc. Early releases included the complete Solti Ring Cycle, soon followed by the complete Karajan Ring from Berlin. Then the Complete Beethoven Symphonies under Karajan from 1962. Just to hand are The Complete Symphonies of Anton Bruckner played by the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra (Decca 4834660, 10 CDs plus one Blu-ray disc).

These are the versions plus the Te Deum in distinguished performances with Bernard Haitink conducting issued by Phillips, recorded between 1963 and 1972. The Te Deum dates from September 1966 with soprano Elly Ameling, contralto Anna Reynolds, tenor Horst Hoffmann, bass Guus Hoekman and The Netherlands Radio Choir. Bruckner collectors like to know what performing version is employed, so for them, No.1 uses the Linz 1866; No.2 the Haas 1938; No.3 the second version 1877; No.4 the 1878 with the 1880 finale; No.6 original 1881 version; No.8 the Haas 1939 and No.9 the original 1894 edition. At the time of these recordings Philips’ producer Jaap van Ginneken did not care to employ the then-latest noise reduction circuits. Instead, if I recall correctly, he increased the level of high frequencies’ overall volume where the hiss lay, taking it back down on replay. That he was correct is amply demonstrated by these discs that display natural dynamics, a wide frequency response and are free of any sonic manipulations. As usual, Haitink is predictably professional and without editorializing allows the music to speak for itself.

02 RostropovichWe always have the greatest expectations of any new film from biographer Bruno Monsaingeon. His 2017 biography of Mstislav Rostropovich, The Indomitable Bow, has just been released by Naxos on both DVD and Blu-ray video (Naxos 2.110583 DVD). Rostropovich is visited over the span of his life, first as a baby in his father’s cello case. His adult years include playing with Prokofiev and Shostakovich and standing by them when they were totally banned. Prokofiev introduces him to Sviatoslav Richter with whom he developed a long association. Conductor Gennady Rozhdestvensky tells of Rostropovich’s first visit to Prague where he played the Dvořák concerto conducted by Václav Talich, “That was the great breakthrough which launched him onto the international scene. He became famous worldwide.” As Rostropovich states, “In that system going abroad was like a breath of fresh air, a great privilege. I was the third musician, after Gilels and Oistrakh, to go to America. It was amazing! From that point on, I was a ‘somebody.’” There were later political dictates from Moscow that stood in his path and also blocked soprano Galina Vishneskaya, his wife. His Russian citizenship was revoked but later reinstated through the intercession of his friend Yehudi Menuhin.

There is so much more here to learn and enjoy. Rich with interviews and great music, this is video is not to be missed. There are bonus in-concert tracks: The Rococo Variations, variation VII through the end (Paris, Ozawa, 1986), Beethoven’s Archduke Trio with Wilhelm Kempff and Yehudi Menuhin (Paris,1974) and the Sarabande from the Bach Cello Suite No.2 (1969). Also, there are 40 minutes of unique conversations with Olga Rostropovich, Elena Rostropovich, Natalia and Ignat Solzhenitsyn elaborating on the extraordinary, poignant friendship and bond between Rostropovich and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. 

03 Berlioz SargentIn this 150th anniversary year of the death of Hector Berlioz (1803-1869) the flood of new issues and even more re-issues is about to flow. One such is a live performance from 1953, the 150th anniversary of Berlioz’ birth, of The Damnation of Faust conducted by Sir Malcolm Sargent (Cameo Classics, CC9108, 2CDs). Intriguing, as two names rarely mentioned in the same sentence are Berlioz and Sargent. This is an English-language performance using a singing translation by Paul England. Berlioz composed this Dramatic Legend as he called it, for three soloists, Faust, Marguerite and Mephistopheles, to be performed in a concert setting. Faust is sung by the ubiquitous tenor of the day, Richard Lewis; Marguerite is Australian mezzo-soprano Joan Hammond; and Mephistopheles is the great Polish bass Marian Nowakowski. The three fit their roles convincingly. A fourth character, a student named Brander, sung by bass-baritone Hervey Alan seems to have nothing to do with the plot.

I was most interested in hearing Joan Hammond as I was quite a fan and had not heard her for years. She was still in fine voice here, aged 41, but ten years later an operation affected her hearing and she retired to Australia. In addition to the Berlioz there is a live performance of Dvořák’s Te Deum from 1954 (the 50th anniversary of the composer’s death) also recorded in Royal Festival Hall. The soloists are Elizabeth Schwarzkopf and baritone Bruce Boyce. In this performance Sargent conducts the BBC Symphony and Choral Society. Ah, Schwarzkopf. 

One of the most deserving artists resurrected from the archives that I had not heard in a long time is the late Greek pianist Vasso Devetzi. Born in 1927 in Thessalonica, her outstanding talents were recognized at a young age, giving her first recital aged seven. Her international career began in Paris playing the Schumann Piano Concerto under Albert Wolff. In the Soviet Union where she remained for several years in the 1960s and 70s she was associated with classical music superstars David Oistrakh, Rostropovich and Rudolf Barshai with whom she performed and recorded extensively in a repertoire including Haydn, Mozart, Shostakovich, Beethoven, Bach, Fauré and others. Back in France she was a close friend of fellow Greeks Maria Callas and Mikis Theodorakis. Devetzi died in 1987.

Devetzi’s keyboard artistry is a harmonious combination of style, control, transparency and touch. To elaborate somewhat, she demonstrates a most sympathetic affinity with the unique style of the each composer. Her control is manifested by a magic blend of energy and purity. Her level of performance transparency and clarity is reminiscent of Glenn Gould (without mannerism or arrogance) and Dinu Lipatti. She is providing us with a personal measure of humour and communication. Her touch has a rare versatility, the ability to transform her instrument into an organ, a harp, a clavichord or a mandolin. In addition, with captivating lightness she can almost make the piano a non-percussive instrument. In summary, a delightful treat for the listener.

04a Vassp Devetzi BachVolume 1 of the Doremi projected Vasso Devetzi / Rudolf Barshai collection (DHR-8063/4 naxosdirect.com) presents the six solo keyboard concertos, BWV1052 to BWV 1058 with the Moscow Chamber Orchestra. In addition there are works for solo keyboard: Partita No.1 in B flat Major BWV825; Chromatic Fantasy and Fugue BWV903; French Suite No.6 in E major BWV817 and the Prelude and Fugue No.5 BWV850 from The Well-Tempered Clavier.

04b Vassp Devetzi HaydnVolume 2 (DHR-8069) is all Haydn, with the same cast playing the Concerto in D Major Op.21, (Hob. XIII:11) in addition to four solo piano sonatas: C Major, Hob.XVI:35; F Major Hob.XVI:23: D Major, Hob.XVI:51 and A-flat Major, Hob.XVI:46.

The series is off to an exuberant start with the remarkable synergy between all concerned. There is lots of Mozart promised for the coming months. 

01 PommesRatamacue! is one of the exclamations that the percussionist is called upon to ejaculate during Chanter la pomme (to flirt/to seduce) for snare drum. This is the first of eight short pedagogical exercises in the collection Pommes by Robert Lemay recently recorded by Ryan Scott and released by the Canadian Music Centre’s digital arm Centretracks (CMCCT 11218 musiccentre.ca/node/154883). The digital EP is the result of an ongoing collaboration between the Sudbury-based composer and one of Toronto’s leading percussion soloists. Pommes is a series of études for solo percussion instruments, four for snare drum, one for temple blocks, one for toms, one for tam-tam and one for bass drum. The title refers to the percussion sound POM, but also to the apple (the fruit). Each piece has a title that includes the word “apple” in French (pomme). Only the exuberant first includes vocalizations by the performer, but all require dexterity, precision and control. One might wonder whether a solo percussionist using just one (non-pitched) instrument for each exercise could sustain interest over the cumulative duration of roughly 20 minutes. I’m pleased to say that it is indeed possible, and in fact the result is quite entertaining. Of particular note are the delicacy of Tomber dans les pommes (to pass out) for temple blocks, the deep gong’s resonance of Pomme d’Adam (Adam’s apple) for tam-tam and the intensity of La grosse pomme (The Big Apple) for bass drum, which juxtaposes the low rumble and “pomming” of the skin of the drum with rhythmic patterns of rim shots. All in all, an exuberant adventure leading me to believe, as I have always suspected, that being a drummer must be a lot of fun!

02 John PsathasSticking with a theme, John Psathas – Percussion Project Vol.1 (navonarecords.com/catalog/nv6204) is the culmination of another composer/percussionist collaboration that began in 2013 when Omar Carmenates arranged Psathas’ piano and gamelan piece Waiting: Still for percussion trio. Psathas is a Greek-New Zealand composer and in the past five years a number of his chamber works have been arranged for percussion ensemble by Carmenates, an American, who directs this project and is the featured soloist in a number of the works. There are 10 members of the nameless percussion ensemble involved throughout the disc, so there is no question of monophony in this instance – just about every sound imaginable from a percussion instrument turns up somewhere on the disc. But a few of the pieces employ fewer, similar instruments such as Musica scored for two players, Carmenates on vibraphone and a different partner on marimba in each of the three movements: Soledad, Chia and El Dorado.

The disc begins with the full ensemble work Corybas which started out in life as a traditional piano trio. It opens with a gentle ostinato of mallet instruments overlaid by a lovely vibraphone melody. This eventually gives way to a raucous section where unpitched instruments come to the fore before gradually subsiding into a calm finale with low marimba notes, bowed vibraphone drones and a high chiming melody. The second work, Piano Quintet, also began as a piece for the standard formation named in its title, but in this instance the piano (played by Daniel Koppelman) is retained in the transcription, and the strings are replaced by percussion instruments. Again there is a wealth of ostinati, but not in the minimalist sense of strict repetition with minor variations. The work is multilayered in the extreme with different voices rising out of the murky textures, often to beautiful effect. Drum Dances, commissioned by Dame Evelyn Glennie for drum kit and piano, features Justin Alexander in the starring role, with the piano accompaniment here transcribed for mallet instruments and a variety of other pitched and non-pitched beaters. Psathas says he was “greatly inspired by the drumming of Dave Weckl, the very different piano styles of Keith Jarrett and Chick Corea, and the enormous energy in the music of guitarists like Steve Vai.” There is great energy and great beauty in these dances, and all throughout this disc.

John Psathas: Percussion Project is a good reminder that the modern percussion arsenal is vast and varied, and that although studies may begin with intriguing exercises like those devised by Robert Lemay as mentioned above, this merely scratches the surface of a wild and wonderful world that can include anything that can be struck, bowed or beaten, sometimes including the kitchen sink.

A good example of this will be seen at New Music Concerts’ April 28 presentation “Luminaries,” a tribute to two masters of 20th-century composition who passed away in recent years, Pierre Boulez and Gilles Tremblay. Ryan Scott will be one of three percussionists involved in the concert along with Rick Sacks and David Schotzko. Both Boulez’s Le Marteau sans maître (with mezzo Patricia Green) and Tremblay’s piano concerto Envoi (with soloist Louise Bessette) are scored for three percussionists, although in very different ways. In the Boulez, one player is assigned the rare xylorimba throughout (Scott), another vibraphone (Sacks), and only the third (Schotzko) plays on a variety of instruments from the percussionist’s “kitchen.” In the Tremblay all three have extensive set-ups. It should be quite a sight.

03 LourieAnd speaking of New Music Concerts as I am wont to do – I’ve been general manager there for the past 20 years – I am writing this the morning after a stunning performance at Gallery 345 by young German pianist Moritz Ernst. The evening was NMC’s annual benefit concert, in this instance a recital that included music of Sandeep Bhagwati (who was in attendance and gave an insightful introduction to his complex work Music of Crossings with examples provided by the pianist), Karlheinz Stockhausen, Michael Edward Edgerton (a piece written for Ernst), Miklós Maros and Arthur Lourié.

In 2016 Ernst’s recording of the complete Solo Piano Works of Arthur Lourié was released by Capriccio (3CDs C5281 naxos.com/catalogue/item.asp?item_code=C5281). Lourié played an important role in the earliest stages of the organization of Soviet music after the 1917 Revolution but later went into exile, failing to return from an official visit to Berlin in 1921. His works were thereafter banned in the USSR. His music reflects his close connections with contemporary writers and artists associated with the Futurist movement. In 1922 he settled in Paris where he maintained a close relationship with Igor Stravinsky, and then fled to the USA in 1940 when the Germans occupied the city. He settled in New York and wrote some film scores but gained almost no performances for his more serious works.

Lourié wrote extensively for the piano, as these three discs attest, but although he lived until 1966, in the last 25 years of his life after fleeing Europe he did not compose any solo keyboard works. The collection includes his early Soviet period (in which his interests included Futurism, somewhat experimental forms, micro- and expanded- tonality, and even some work with 12-tone techniques, albeit not in the Schoenbergian manner) and the output of his two decades-long residency in France. Despite the long association with Stravinsky, Lourié’s piano writing does not involve the percussive aspects so prominent in that of his countryman. It is much more subdued and gentle, tinged by the Impressionist sensibilities so prominent in his adopted land. Nocturne, the work that Ernst performed here in Toronto, with its quiet left-hand clusters gradually building and then receding under the right-hand musings, is a prime example. Written in 1928, it is one of the last solo pieces Lourié would compose. Two short final solo works complete his piano oeuvre, the little Berceuse de la chevrette (1936) and the Phoenix Park Nocturne (1938), “to the memory of James Joyce.”

An exception to the chronological order of the first two CDs, the third disc of the set concludes with a 1917 setting of an “absurdes dramolette” for piano and speaker entitled Der Irrtum der Frau Tod (Death’s Mistake), a half-hour-long monodrama by Velimir Chlébnikov. For this dramatic recitation Ernst is joined by Oskar Ansull. Although narrated in German, there is a full translation in the accompanying booklet. Ansull is also featured on CD2 in the peculiar Nash Marsh (Our March) from 1918 which is a strangely lilting “march” in 3 / 4 time.

This collection is an important addition to the discography, and to the awareness of an innovative and once-influential composer whose legacy virtually disappeared after falling out of favour with the Soviet regime. Congratulations to Moritz Ernst for embracing lesser-known repertoire. His discography also includes music of Walter Braunfels, Viktor Ullmann, Norbert von Hannenheim and Sir Malcolm Arnold. Also Joseph Haydn! As Ernst explains in an interview with composer Moritz Eggert in the notes for Volume One of a projected 11CD edition of the complete solo piano works of Haydn (Perfect Noise PN 1701), the keyboard music of Haydn remains surprisingly under-recorded with the exception of a very few sonatas.

Thanks also to Ernst for gracing a very appreciative audience at Gallery 345 with his insights and extraordinary skill. 

We invite submissions. CDs and comments should be sent to: DISCoveries, WholeNote Media Inc., The Centre for Social Innovation, 503 – 720 Bathurst St. Toronto ON M5S 2R4.

David Olds, DISCoveries Editor

01 PEMIPAULL CDOn Musicum Umbrarum, his debut solo album, the Canadian violist Pemi Paull presents five solo works that he feels show the interplay between past and present – “how the past speaks to the present and how the present responds.” (Metis Islands Records MI-008; metis-islands.com).

George Enescu’s Menetrier is actually the opening movement of his Impressions d’enfance for violin and piano; adapted here by Paull, it provides a great start to the CD. The Two Wölfli SketchesHorror Vacui and Musicum Umbrarum, from 2011 by the Canadian composer Scott Godin (b.1970), take their inspiration from works by the early 20th-century Swiss painter Adolf Wölfli, who spent much of his later years in psychiatric care and therapy. The brief Obrecht Motetten III, from 1980 by the English composer Michael Finnissy (b.1946), looks anew at the polyphony of the Flemish Renaissance composer Jacob Obrecht.

The central work on the CD is the towering Sonata for Viola Solo by György Ligeti. A relatively late work from 1991-94 it has a fascinating and original construction: a first movement played entirely on the low C string; a second of frantic double stops; a third movement of torment and struggle; a muted perpetual motion fourth; a fifth mostly in parallel seconds and sevenths; and a Chaconne chromatique to finish. Paull meets every challenge with ease and authority.

The final track is one that makes you look twice at the track listings to make sure you read it correctly – the Adagietto from Mahler’s Fifth Symphony, written as a love song to his then-new wife Alma. It’s an intriguing possibility, but the reality is even more intriguing, the piece being played entirely pizzicato as performed (and notated for Paull) by Ljova, the Russian violist Lev Zhurbin. It’s really quite beautiful, and a lovely ending to an outstanding debut CD.

Listen to 'Musicum Umbrarum' Now in the Listening Room

02 Pogossian coverLinks between past and present are central to another solo recital, as violinist Movses Pogossian follows up his 2017 release of the Bach Solo Sonatas and Partitas with Inspired by Bach (New Focus Recordings FCR206 newfocusrecordings.com/catalogue/movses-pogossian-inspired-by-bach), a CD that features three new works that he feels “follow in the inescapable shadow of Bach’s music for unaccompanied violin… connecting the listener with Bach and extending the legacy of the unaccompanied string works.” The connection with Bach may be a bit tenuous at times, but they certainly do fulfill the latter aim.

Kaija Saariaho’s four-movement Frises starts with the final D of the Bach D-Minor Chaconne, and each of the movements is focused on one historical ostinato-variation form – passacaglia or chaconne, for instance. In a concert setting, prepared sound materials are triggered by the soloist during the performance, together with real-time processing of the violin sound. Not here, though: Pogossian recorded the violin part alone, with Jean-Baptiste Barrière adding the electronics afterwards. It’s a tough listen at times, but always engrossing.

The American composer and pianist Gabriela Lena Frank’s Suite Mestiza was inspired by South American Andean culture, in particular sights and sounds remembered from trips to Peru with her mother. Described as programmatic and colourful, the seven movements depict scenes and characters from the Andes region. It’s imaginative and wide-ranging writing that draws quite remarkable playing from Pogossian. You can watch his performance on YouTube.

The American composer and violinist Andrew McIntosh says that his seven-movement work was partly inspired by the idea of juxtaposing different, clearly defined but unconnected shapes and colours. Certainly his Shasta starts that way, a fast and bustling opening that recalls the bariolage passages in the Bach works, followed by a still, long-held single note. An unexpected addition is the scoring for eight wine glasses bowed by four performers; they make their most noticeable contribution in the final movement, giving the work a peaceful ending that sounds like gentle breathing

Whatever the technical or musical challenges, nothing seems to create problems for Pogossian, who is quite superb throughout a terrific CD.

Listen to 'Inspired by Bach' Now in the Listening Room

03 Crozman CavatineCavatine is the really impressive debut CD from Canadian cellist Cameron Crozman, ably accompanied by pianist Philip Chiu (ATMA Classique ACD2 2787; atmaclassique.com/En/Albums/AlbumInfo.aspx?AlbumID=1619). Having studied at the Paris Conservatoire for six years Crozman says it was inevitable that his first album would be filled with French music, and the multi-faceted program here includes Debussy’s Cello Sonata from 1915 and works that the soloist feels emerged from the new wave that Debussy created.

The delightful Cello Sonata by Francis Poulenc really deserves to be heard more often; completed in 1948, its four movements are full of the lyrical charm so typical of the composer.

In the early 1930s Charles Koechlin set 20 Breton folksongs for cello and piano, the first two of the three sets being published in 1934 as Chansons bretonnes sur des thèmes de l’ancien Folklore Op.115; four short pieces from the first collection and two from the second are heard here.

Jean Françaix’s Variations de concert date from 1950, the ten brief variations displaying a wide range of mood, style and tempo, and ending with a dazzling final variation.

The Louange à l’éternité de jésus, the fifth movement from Olivier Messiaen’s astonishing Quatuor pour le fin du Temps completes the disc. A calm, soaring and meditative cello melodic line over quiet piano chords, it perhaps loses some of its effectiveness outside of the context of the complete work, but nevertheless is a beautiful ending to a highly commendable CD.

04 Haydn CelloThere’s more outstanding cello playing on Haydn Cello Concertos Nos. 1 & 2 with the American cellist Robert deMaine and the Moravian Philharmonic Orchestra under Joel Eric Suben on Nova Scotia’s Leaf Music label (LM 222; leaf-music.ca/product/lm222).

The soloist, an original member of the Ehnes Quartet, is principal cello of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, having held the same position with the Detroit Symphony for over a decade, as well as a stint as guest principal cellist for the Toronto Symphony Orchestra. His playing in both concertos – No.1 in C Major and No.2 in D Major – is strong and vibrant, with great agility and touch, especially in the long and often virtuosic first movement of the D-Major work.

Both works were written for cellists in the Esterhazy court orchestra, the C Major in the early 1760s (although not known to us until the discovery of a copy of the score in 1961) and the D Major some 20 years later for the cellist Antonín Kraft, a player noted for his beautiful singing tone, expressive phrasing and an explosive technique, especially in the cello’s upper register. Qualities, indeed, displayed here by deMaine. The excellent and idiomatic cadenzas are by the soloist.

I’m not sure whether or not this is a re-issue: the recordings were made in the Czech Republic in September 2009, but are listed on deMaine’s website as a projected release on the Sono Luminus label with a release date that is earlier than the recording dates. There’s no mention of this current Leaf Music issue.

Listen to 'Haydn Cello Concertos Nos. 1 & 2' Now in the Listening Room

05 duportThis is certainly a good month for cellists. The French cellist Raphaël Pidoux is the stellar soloist on Jean-Louis Duport Concertos pour Violoncelle, with the Stradivaria – Ensemble Baroque de Nantes under Daniel Cuiller (Mirare MIR394; mirare.fr).

The Duport brothers – Jean-Louis (1749-1819) and Jean-Pierre (1741-1818) – were both brilliant cello virtuosi in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Jean-Pierre eventually pursued a career in the Prussian court, leaving Jean-Louis to take over his position in Paris where he eventually became more celebrated than his older brother. Sensing the dangers of the coming French Revolution in 1789, Jean-Louis followed his brother to Prussia, returning to Paris in 1806 where, despite being well-received and teaching at the Conservatoire, he never fully re-established himself. He remains little-known as a composer, although his Essay on the fingering of the violoncello and on the conduct of the bow, completed in 1806, was a seminal treatise on cello technique.

Duport’s were the first French cello concertos; six are extant, of which three are presented here: No.1 in A Major; No.4 in E Minor; and No.5 in D Major. The first concerto predates 1789; the other two were apparently written while he was in Prussia. They are played here “according to the composer’s wishes” with a string orchestra, horns and oboes being added for Nos. 4 and 5. All follow the same pattern, with a substantial and well-developed opening movement, a short slow movement and a virtuosic rondo finale.

These are really attractive works that bridge the gap between the late classical and early Romantic periods, their fast scales and arpeggios in thirds, sixths and octaves from the lowest to highest registers offering proof that the cello was already in a highly developed state as a solo instrument.

Pidoux plays a 1680 Gioffredo Cappa cello with a William Dodd bow from 1790/95, handling the technical challenges with grace and ease and always displaying a warm, bright tone. The idiomatic support from the Stradivaria ensemble is of the highest quality on an extremely satisfying CD.

06 Mind and MatterThe American composer Paul Lombardi describes the five duets for strings on the CD Pieces of Mind & Matter – String Duets as chronicling a 13-year-long refinement of his compositional voice (Ravello RR8804; ravellorecords.com/catalog/rr8804). Presented in chronological order, they are: Holocene (2004) for violin and viola; Acquiesce (2006) for violin and cello; Persiguiéndose (2007) for two cellos; Phosphorescent (2008) for cello and double bass; and Fracture (2017) for two violins.

The performers – who vary from track to track – are Megan Holland, Roberta Arruda and David Felberg (violins); Kimberley Fredenburgh (viola); Joel Becktell, Lisa Collins and David Schepps (cellos); and Mark Tatum (bass).

The works are difficult to describe, although not difficult to listen to; Lombardi says that he likes to explore self-similar and recursive patterns. They’re modernistic with some strong melodic lines, taut rhythms, dissonance, motivic structure and some interesting textures and harmonies. Overall they’re strongly individual pieces, well-written and extremely well-played. 

07 Spanish MiniaturesIt’s been five years since we saw a CD from the Canadian guitarist Warren Nicholson (his Latin American Guitar Favourites issued in September 2013) but he’s back with Spanish Miniatures, a selection mostly of works by Fernando Sor, Francisco Tárrega and Isaac Albéniz (Independent WAN Records WANCD60918; warrennicholsonguitarist.com).

Federico Moreno Torroba’s Madroňos opens the disc, followed by four Studies and two Lessons selected from Fernando Sor’s Opp.6, 35, 44 and 60 works. Tárrega is represented by six works: his Preludes Nos.1 and 2; Lagrima; Maria; Adelita; and the famous Recuerdos de la Alhambra with its constant right hand tremolo.

Mallorca, Asturias and the Tango from Espaňa are the Albéniz selections, and the CD ends with two items from more recent but lesser-known composers: Waltz No.1 by Bartolomé Calatayud (1882-1973); and Cancion y Danza No.1 by Antonio Ruiz-Pipó (1934-1997).

The playing is again technically accomplished, clean and thoughtful. The only reservation I have – and one I had about his previous release as well – is that there is a tendency for the playing to come across as a bit too measured and carefully considered at times, with the result (in the Recuerdos in particular) that it can sound a bit pedestrian and fail to fully engage the listener.

Still, there’s fine playing overall and much to admire here in a well-produced and nicely-presented CD. 

01 Jan Lisiecki Cover PhotoCanadian pianist Jan Lisiecki’s recording career continues with his latest issue of Mendelssohn (Deutsche Grammophon DG 4836471; deutschegrammophon.com/en/artist/lisiecki), the sixth time his name appears on this prestigious label. Lisiecki plays the Concerto No.1 in G Minor Op.25 and No.2 in D Minor Op.40 along with the Variations sérieuses, Op.54 and a couple of shorter pieces. His earlier recordings set expectations very high and he has no difficulty in exceeding them. At age 23, his towering technical ability and the blazing speed and accuracy of his playing promise to propel him for a good many years toward some still distant pinnacle. It would all be something of a meteoric flash were it not for his maturity.

The willingness and ability to forgo the energized brilliance of a youthful performance is the early mark of a musician with something to say, something worth hearing. Lisiecki’s fast playing is so impressive it’s a wonder the piano is mechanically capable of keeping up. But the middle movements of both concertos along with the more pensive sections of the Variations are the places where the artist becomes subsumed in the art. In the moments of pause and suspense, where so little seems to happen, so much is conveyed. Lisiecki shows how completely he is able to surrender to this music, to lift away from it and let it speak. It’s a beautiful recording that promises as much and more for what Lisiecki will still do.

02 Levinston CitizenBruce Levingston’s new CD Citizen (Sono Luminus DSL 92228; sonoluminus.com/m-175-bruce-levingston.aspx) finds its inspiration in his invitation to perform at the opening of the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum. Being his home state, it occasioned considerable reflection for him on the deep questions at the core of his community’s history and conscience. Two of the works are world premiere recordings from composers commissioned to write music for the same opening. They, along with the four others represented on the disc, speak with a remarkably similar voice. Levingston has programmed his recording to be this way – a reflection of the higher ideals the Civil Rights Museum enshrines.

The opening track is Nolan Gasser’s An American Citizen. It’s inspired by one of Marie Atkinson Hull’s portraits of Mississippi tenant farmers and sharecroppers. Gasser uses many recognizably American idioms to build a highly complex work that nevertheless offers immediate and sustained emotional access. A more contemplative work is David T. Little’s Accumulation of Purpose inspired by the Freedom Riders, the civil rights activists who rode buses across the South in 1961. The final tracks go to Price Walden whose Sacred Spaces is a profoundly moving remembrance of the countless churches where African-Americans gathered and contributed to their sense of community. His arrangement of Amazing Grace closes the recording. It’s a straightforward structure that uses some extraordinary harmonic transitions to make this iconic hymn even more meaningful in the context of the disc.

This recording by Bruce Levingston is far more than a simple CD. It’s a meditation on one of the central issues of our time and can only benefit from being heard and experienced in that way.

03 Liszt TiberghienCédric Tiberghien focuses on the closing years of one of the 19th century’s greatest musical figures in his latest recording Liszt – Années de pèlerinage, troisième année & other late works (Hyperion CDA68202; hyperion-records.co.uk). It begins with a handful of shorter works from the last five years of Liszt’s life. Tiberghien’s posture in these works is hard to describe but a valiant effort might yield something like “micro-playing.” The understated pianissimos seem to come from a distant instrument in another place. It’s a remarkable technique that can extract so small a whisper from such a powerful instrument. But Liszt is contemplating another world and Tiberghien transcendentally plays from there. The voice he creates at the keyboard speaks a language free to be atonal and arrhythmic as Liszt so daringly intends in the Bagatelle sans tonalité and the Fourth Mephisto Waltz. Contemplation of what lies beyond the threshold of mortality is nearly, but not entirely, without hope. The simple beauty of Wiegenlied and En rêve are sparingly applied to the dark certainties of La lugubre gondola II and Schlaflos! Frage und Antwort. Tiberghien’s playing in these late works may be the most beautiful you have ever heard.

The Années predate this period and are freer of the later works’ darker contemplations. There is much grand-scale writing and brilliant pianistic conception in these pages and Tiberghien dominates with power and dexterity. His Les jeux d’eaux à la Villa d’Este is a breathtaking portrayal of Liszt’s fountains. And his interpretations of Angelus! and Sursum Corda are convincing evocations of their spiritual and liturgical roots.

04 Melisande McNabneyMélisande McNabney’s new release Inspirations (Atma Classique ACD2 2780; atmaclassique.com/En/Albums/AlbumInfo.aspx?AlbumID=1620) offers an intriguing twist on expectations of harpsichord repertoire. These works are transcriptions of music originally for lute. As such, they lack the conventional form that keyboard works devised for two hands would ordinarily display. Instead, these reveal a kind of hybrid piece, principally adapted for keyboard but still revealing much of the lute’s character in the way brief solo thematic ideas alternate with great strum-like keyboard arpeggios. Even the lutenist’s finger plucking is recreated as clustered staccato patterns by the harpsichordist. It takes some careful listening but the ear begins to hear what the music might have sounded like as a lute piece. It sounds terribly difficult at times with endless cascades of keyboard notes that would have been easier on the lute. Still, 17th-century demands for repertoire for the popular emerging keyboard instrument made transcription a necessary composer’s skill. McNabney herself transcribed two works by Rameau, Tendre amour and Air de la Folie. On this recording, she performs on a 1981 instrument built by Keith Hill after an original by the builder Blanchet.

05 Messing AroundHakan Toker’s latest recording is aptly titled Messing Around (Navona Records NV 6202; navonarecords.com/catalog/nv6202). Yes, this is one of those lists of familiar tunes jazzed up by a talented and creative player. But wait, this inventive and, frankly, brilliant pianist takes the practice to a new level. Imagine Henry Mancini’s Moon River being reconceived as a Bach invention or a Satie Gnossienne as a Czardas; or how about Beethoven’s Für Elise as Elise’s Got The Blues! This is beyond simply clever, it’s genius. The Bach Toccata and Fugue in Blue, like the other tracks, shows Toker’s understanding of the original forms and his fluency with the modern ones that enables his fusion (or maybe it’s fission?) of ragtime, blues, jazz and seemingly any other musical style. It’s a little comic at first but very quickly becomes stunningly impressive. The disc includes Paul Desmond’s Take Five and Mozart’s Rondo alla turka rethought in the most entertaining ways

Toker is the master of everything he plays, regardless of style or technical difficulty.

06 Deschenes OvalleAndree-Ann Deschenes is a California-based French-Canadian pianist. Her new 2CD set The Ovalle Project (aadpiano.com/the-ovalle-project) celebrates the music of Jayme Ovalle, a Brazilian composer of the first half of the 20th century. Ovalle wrote a modest body of works that include some songs, instrumental pieces and 24 compositions for piano. They are varied in style and length but generally conform to classical Western forms and tend toward character pieces and dances but also include several virtuosic works. Deschenes’ website describes her attraction to the music and its harmonic richness, density and chromaticism. She has spent some time searching for scores and assembling the manuscripts to be able to record the 24 piano pieces.

The most substantial items in the set are the three Legenda Opp.19, 22 and 23. These are conceived on a larger scale than most of the other material. Massive chords and a wider dynamic make these stand out quite impressively. By contrast Album de Isolda Op.27 is simple and at times seems to have been written in the spirit of a Baroque exercise.

Ovalle’s writing takes a few risks with tonality but only rarely. Rhythm is his principle tool and Deschenes uses this masterfully. She has a natural affinity for the Latin spirit of this music and Ovalle’s harmonic language. There’s a surprising amount of very satisfying variety in this program, aided significantly by Deschenes’ obviously passionate interest in Ovalle’s work.

07 David WittenThe Eclectic Piano Music of Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco (Albany Records Troy 1732; albanyrecords.com) is David Witten’s new recording treating listeners to an exotic and luscious program of music not often heard. Despite the familiarity of Castelnuovo-Tedesco’s name, his piano music is infrequently performed or recorded. Witten’s selection of works highlights the modal nature of Castelnuovo-Tedesco’s writing and demonstrates his impressive ability for caricature and programmatic writing.

The Seasons Op.33 is a wonderful example of how Witten works the subtle emotional elements used to portray the feel of each season. Similarly, Sonatina Zoologica Op.187 carries titles like Dragonflies, The Snail, Little Lizard and Ants that match the musical portraits the composer paints of the garden creatures. Witten plays the Sonatina beautifully, seizing every opportunity to exploit the composer’s picturesque devices. Witten’s liner notes offer an instructive reminder of the composer’s successful career as a Hollywood film composer and suddenly it all makes sense. This is music for the imagination as much as the ear.

On a higher level, however, Castelnuovo-Tedesco writes Greeting Cards Op.170 in which he devised his own coding system to convert the alphabet into musical notes in order to compose tributes to musicians he admired. Three such pieces on this disc pay homage to Walter Gieseking, André Previn and Nicolas Slonimsky. Witten’s playing throughout this disc is consistently superb. He exhibits an abiding curiosity that drives him to explore the reaches of Castelnuovo-Tedesco’s language, and a musical intelligence that guarantees the highest fidelity to the composer’s intention.

08 Prokofiev KholodenkoVadym Kholodenko has more than a half dozen recordings to his credit and now adds his new release Sergei Prokofiev Concertos No.1, 3 & 4 (Harmonia Mundi HMM907632; harmoniamundi.com). Having recorded Piano Concertos 2 and 5 on a previous disc, he completes the cycle with the remaining three. These three come from very different circumstances in Prokofiev’s life. The well-known story of Concerto No.1 in D-flat Major, Op.10 has Prokofiev as a 21-year-old pianist winning the Rubinstein Piano Competition performing it. It’s a short work played through without movement breaks. Kholodenko immediately captures the boldness and youthful optimism of this work with his opening statements of the main idea, and drives through the rest of the work with undiminished energy.

Concerto No.3 in C Major, Op.26 comes from nearly a decade later, after Prokofiev had left the Soviet Union. Kholodenko plays this in a way that reflects the more confident modernity the composer found in a new environment that encouraged some careful flirtation with atonality. Kholodenko maintains the sense of rhythmic drive that underscores the strong dance impulse of this music.

Concerto No.4 for the left hand in B Flat Major, Op.53 was written in 1931 for Paul Wittgenstein who disliked it and refused to play it. He was kinder to Ravel who also wrote him a similar work. It’s a very difficult piece that Kholodenko plays flawlessly.

01 Bach BWV21JS Bach – Cantata BWV 21
Bach Choir of Bethlehem; Greg Funfgeld
Analekta AN 2 9540 (analekta.com/en)

Of all the musical commentaries on the biblical texts used in service – most importantly on the Gospel reading – the cantatas of Johann Sebastian Bach are not only the most famous, but are also as pious as they are magnificent. These are the works that foretold the choral masterpieces such as the mighty St John and St Matthew Passions that came in 1724 and 1727 respectively.

The repertoire on this disc, Ich hatte viel Bekümmernis, Cantata BWV21 (1714) precedes those two great Passions as well as Bach’s B-Minor Mass (1749). The cantata marks a transition from motet style on biblical and hymn text to operatic recitatives and arias on contemporary poetry; and Bach characterized the work as “e per ogni tempo (and for all times),” indicating that due to its general theme, the cantata is suited for any occasion. On this disc it is bookended by two arias: Heil und Segen from Gott, man lobet dich in der stille (God, You are praised in the stillness) BWV120 and Liebt, ihr Christen, in der Tat from Die Himmel eräzhlen die Erhe Gotte (The heavens tell the glory of God) Cantata BWV76.

These gentle works get suitably sensitive performances from the Bach Choir of Bethlehem with sopranos Cassandra Lemoine and Rosa Lamoreaux, countertenor Daniel Taylor, tenor Benjamin Butterfield and baritone William Sharp investing everything as they solo with heartfelt intensity. Conductor Greg Funfgeld points up the drama of Bach’s choral works with eloquent restraint, seriousness and joy.

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