04 PayadoraVolando
Payadora Tango Ensemble
Independent (payadora.com)

Payadora Tango Ensemble has made a memorable mark on the Canadian music scene with their accomplished ensemble playing and toe tapping energetic versions of the Argentinian tango, the form the world loves to listen, play and dance to. The group – Rebekah Wolkstein (violin, vox), Branko Dzinovic (accordion), Robert Horvath (piano) and Joe Phillips (double bass) – now expands its tango horizons with a wider compositional cross section.

The traditional tango is represented by the perfect performance of Adios Muchachos/I Get Ideas. The Adios portion is a more traditional performance with guest vocals by Elbio Fernandez. Then a walk on the jazzier side happens as Wolkstein sings the English words to great bass meandering explorations and piano tinklings. There are two original arrangements of Argentinian folk songs, but most fun is hearing Brahms step across the dance floor in the unique Horvath arrangement of Hungarian Dance No.1.

There are three original tunes. The slow reflective opening of Drew Jurecka’s Niebla Oscura features high accordion tones against a violin melody, and lower accordion tones against piano chords. Longer phrases and mood shifts lead into a sneaky final tango piano section. Horvath’s Tavasz goes from reflective opening piano to tango. Wolkstein’s Volando is more contemporary with accordion shots, metrical piano groove and a soaring build to the final violin glissando.

Each musician is a star soloist in their own right. Playing together has allowed them to develop and mature turning Payadora into a superstar group.

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06 Amici CanadaInspired by Canada - Notre Pays
Mireille Asselin; Amici Chamber Ensemble
Marquis Classics MAR 81485 (amiciensemble.com)

Whenever popular or folk songs are recorded in a classical arrangement and for classically trained voices, the dreaded word “crossover” raises its ugly head. But let us remember that Cantaloube orchestrated the folk songs of the Auvergne and Carmina Burana was nothing but an elaborate fake (Orff initially claimed inspiration from medieval music scores): today, both are great examples of much-beloved music from the concert stage. So it really boils down to how the song selections and arrangements are realized.

Here, Serouj Kradjian’s arrangements and the playing by his colleagues in the Amici Ensemble (clarinetist Joaquin Valdepeñas and cellist David Hetherington) are first rate. So is the voice of and interpretation by Mireille Asselin – she truly gets the spirit of French-Canadian music, which dominates on this disc. The song selection, however, may trigger some arguments. There are many other songs in the oeuvre of Leonard Cohen beyond the vastly overexposed and horribly abused Hallelujah, that would have been a better fit. Similarly, I cannot help but wonder, if River would not have been a better choice from the vast Joni Mitchell catalogue than A Case of You. The true standouts musically are La Vieux Piano by Claude Léveillée, a Canadian composer of some of Edith Piaf’s songs, and the Huron Carol (another controversial appropriation). These two pieces truly assert the rights of folk and popular songs to be given the “full treatment” and to safely dispense with the crossover label.

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07 Laila BialiLaila Biali
Laila Biali
Chronograph Records CR-060 (chronographrecords.com)

The intense emotional realms that the music of Laila Biali inhabits pay tribute to the ecstatic world of Sufi poetry, the kaleidoscopic one of pop metaphors and to one where her own enduring spirit prevails. Each of the 12 songs on this disc probes joyful and profound corners, allowing us to enter into these private worlds in which ebullience and hope are conveyed in striking terms. Biali evokes dramatic and psychological atmospheres as if both Jalaluddin Rumi and David Bowie were looking over her shoulder, but with her own sense of urgency, rhythm and colour.

The disc opens with the joie de vivre of Got to Love and closes with an equally exuberant version of Let’s Dance. In between, Biali evokes many-splendoured romantic images and daubs these vividly coloured recreations with a seemingly infinite array of vibrant and melancholy musical idioms – including the profound and the soaring gospel-driven. In Wind and Dolores Angel respectively, her captivating vivacity rules the roost among a stellar cast that includes vocalist Jo Lawry, drummer Larnell Lewis and trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire.

Individual listeners – depending on their familiarity with Laila Biali – will no doubt find a favourite track to latch onto here but each has its own charm. And every one of the 11 musicians’ performances – vivid and articulate – seize the attention as they exercise their skills alert to the expressive need of the vocalist and pianist’s bold and emphatic art.

08 Black ManhattanBlack Manhattan, Vol.3
Paragon Ragtime Orchestra; Rick Benjamin
New World Records 80795-2 (newworldrecords.org)

Years ago Rick Benjamin, the conductor of the Paragon Ragtime Orchestra, was thrilled to discover a rich horde of sheet music of African American composers working in New York City during the half century from the late Victorian era to the Harlem Renaissance.

Searching for their recordings however, he found remarkably few examples documenting this pioneering African American music. At the roots of ragtime, jazz, period social dance, musical theatre, silent cinema and the Great American Songbook, he felt this music was being unjustly neglected.

Three Black Manhattan albums later, PRO has recorded 60 pieces by 32 African American composers, using “carefully curated, new recordings of first-rate performances played from authentic scores.” Volume 3 contains theatre songs and instrumentals by 21 different composers. Some are relatively well known today (Scott Joplin), yet most have largely been relegated to music history’s back pages.

If I had to pick one selection, it would be the beautifully perfect ballad Love Will Find A Way from the Broadway show Shuffle Along (1921) by Eubie Blake and Noble Sissle. (I had the good fortune of chatting with Blake after his solo piano recital at York University in the early 70s. It’s one of my cherished early musical memories. Mr. Blake was in his 90s. I was… younger.)

It seems to me that Benjamin’s wish that his “efforts have started to close this gap in America’s cultural memory” and “enable the world to rediscover this magnificent music” is admirably served by this album.

Arguably the most important and least understood sound of the 20th century, Free Music, which combined jazz’s freedom with notated music’s rigour while aiming for in-the-moment creation, has now been around for almost six decades. With its advances now accepted as part of the ongoing sonic landscape, long out-of-print recordings are being reissued and reappraised for their excellence.

01 KaryobinOne of the most important, The Spontaneous Music Ensemble (SME)’s Karyōbin are the imaginary birds said to live in paradise (Emanem 5046 emanemdisc.com), has maintained its reputation since 1968. That’s because, like the first viewing of Jackson Pollock’s action paintings, it signalled that an entirely new sound had arrived from the United Kingdom. Karyōbin is also an all-star session, featuring players who would epitomize exploratory sounds for years: soprano saxophonist Evan Parker, guitarist Derek Bailey, drummer John Stevens and bassist Dave Holland from the UK, and Canadian Kenny Wheeler, already established as one of England’s most accomplished trumpeters. Amazingly Wheeler didn’t abandon the lyrical quality he developed, and his graceful bursts easily lock in with Parker’s slinky tone, which even this early is sui generis. With Stevens patting cymbals and faintly slapping drum tops and Holland pulsating, Bailey’s metallic plinks are most discordant, although his steel-guitar-like reverb isn’t upfront until Part 3. Twanging guitar licks intensify on the subsequent tracks, but the trumpeter’s hummingbird-like flutters and the saxophonist’s perceptive breaths cleanly fit into the spaces left by the others, with the bassist’s strong pulse suggesting why he was recruited by Miles Davis. Distinctively a group effort, by the CD’s defining Part 5, broken-octave guitar licks and slowly unfolding reed vibrations complement one another as the trumpet stutters out sour notes while moving the pitch upwards. Eventually clipped guitar strokes and thin saxophone trills adumbrate and complete Stevens’ rivet cymbal, gong and snare intrusions to reach a harsh polyphonic climax. Splattered percussion crackles, lengthening airy textures from the horns and a general diminishing of tone mark Part 6 as the CD’s coda and confirmation that a new sound has germinated.

02 Steve LacyUnlike the UK-identified members of the SME, American soprano saxophonist Steve Lacy, primarily a jazzer, became a major force in Free Jazz once he expatriated and collaborated with European players. Free for a Minute (Emanem 5210 emanemdisc.com), is a two-CD set that bookends Karyōbin, with tracks recorded by several-sized combos in 1965, 1966, 1967 and 1972. Tellingly, the nine tunes from 1965, featuring bassist Kent Carter and drummer Aldo Romano, are Carla Bley, Thelonious Monk and Cecil Taylor compositions, as well as Lacy originals (which are the most tuneful of the lot). Bley’s Generous 1 for instance includes a walking bass line, over which the saxophonist squeezes out a melody that becomes a rhapsodic multi-note soprano showcase aided by echoing cymbals. There’s full-fledged triple interaction among string pulls, reed puffs and meandering drum beats on Lacy’s There We Were; however Taylor’s Tune 2 is the most impressive track. With bass and drums operating on slow boil, the saxophonist’s peeping and puffing provide the piece with timbral shading as it accelerates to emotive joy prodded by tongue percussion. Since most time-in at around the one-minute mark, the 13 subsequent tracks recorded as cues for the unreleased 1967 film (Free Fall) are utilitarian to the nth degree, despite the stellar lineup of Lacy, Carter, trumpeter Enrico Rava, drummer Paul Motian and vibist/pianist Karl Berger. Less than sketches and mostly consisting of drum rattles, vibes pops and reed shrills, only Cue 30 is enlivened with a pseudo-Dixieland beat, while Cue 24 and Cue 25, which together last six minutes, set up a broken-octave challenge with graceful tweets from Rava and choked blasts from Lacy, unrolling alongside metal bar slaps from Berger and focused rolls from Motian. This set’s highpoint is CD2, with a 1966 date where six Lacy originals are played by the composer, Rava, Carter and Romano, as well as three previously unissued 1972 tracks, with a lineup of Lacy and Carter with saxophonist Steve Potts, cellist Irene Aebi and drummer Noel McGhie. Still influenced by Monk, a 1966 quartet piece like Sortie judders and jumps as scrubbing bass strings and supple drum ruffs move in pseudo-march-time as frontline tones intertwine. Ebullient and sharp, the trumpet tones gradually ascend, where they’re met by effervescent saxophone patterns. Chromatically outlining Fork New York’s theme, seconded by a purring obbligato from Rava, Lacy’s supple tone has taken on the unique colouration it would maintain until his demise. As the trumpet pitch gets peppier and brassier, it mixes with the saxophone’s lubricated contralto tone to create the equivalent of smooth spreading mustard. Subsequent contrapuntal theme elaborations don’t prevent the track from cantering to a slick and satisfying end. Content with the quintet format he would maintain for several decades, Lacy’s compositional aims expanded synchronously and became more dissonant by 1972. Consummate Free Jazz, The Rush races by at steeplechase speed, with the cello’s staccato sawing setting off a paroxysm of reed split tones and roistering glossolalia. The two-part The Thing divides between Lacy’s pinched vibrations and Potts’ low snarls, which barrel along expressing polyphonic variations. With The Thing part 1 finally slowed down for slippery stops from the cellist and bassist, The Thing part 2 is extended with a multiphonic explosion that takes in the alto saxophonist’s hardened narrative, dog whistle-like shrills from the soprano and multiplied cymbal clashes plus resonating stropping from the strings. Like the ending of a romance novel, the finale features reed kisses and cello sighs.

03 Hans ReichelBailey’s string experimentation encouraged other guitarists, with Hans Reichel one of the most iconoclastic. Recorded in Hagen, Germany in 1973, Wichlinghauser Blues (Corbett vs. Dempsey CvsD CD 033), finds Reichel using a handcrafted 11-string guitar with three pickups and at points extending the sound with a wah-wah pedal, water-glass-on-strings pressure, and on Shaved Guitar working an electric razor along the strings to append a harsh drone to his picking. Less gimmicky, but just as radical, he often mixes simple folk melodies with more radical fare. Krampfhandlungen-1st Version for instance, could be from two guitarists, one slashing bottleneck-like whines and the other strumming quieter but offbeat harp-like arpeggios. Smacking the instrument’s wood at first, Reichel ends the piece with distorted rumbles that suggest a 1960s freakout. Krampfhandlungen-2nd Version is no more than a fraternal twin, with harsh vibrations accelerating to echoing note spills and string hand pumps, then descending to brief clinks without losing chromatic motion. Caustic and menacing, the title tune uses fills to advance the narrative without negating the melody, although every tone comes with an extended echo. Tellingly, the concluding Schlafflied demonstrates his offbeat finger-picking prowess, which stays dissonant even while frequently threatening to break into a folk-pop melody.

04 Roscoe MitchellToronto’s Sackville Records regularly documented jazz advances in the 1970s, including Roscoe Mitchell’s Duets with Anthony Braxton (Delmark/Sackville SK 3016 delmark.com). Each plays a woodwind factory’s collection of reeds and flutes while interpreting five Mitchell compositions and three by Braxton. Despite graphic score titles, it’s the Braxton pieces that are more approachable. In fact Composition 40Q finds two bass saxophones waddling in tandem to a march-like tempo. Weaving elephantine snorts and farts together, the circus-style theme is briefly interrupted by reed peeps and slides before ending with more basement pitches. Completed with full, rounded tones which complement one another’s output, Composition 74B manages to link curlicue wiggles and circular breathing from paired flutes while maintaining an underlying rhythm. However, Composition 74A, the third and longest Braxton line, depends on both players instantaneously switching from flute to baritone sax to alto saxophone and on to other horns, affiliating and breaking apart timbres as one limns the melody and the other decorates it. Mitchell’s lengthy Cards: Three and Open is another superior track, with the woodwind/flute assemblage constantly pivoting from decorous piccolo pitches or altissimo reed bites to the huffing and puffing of subterranean-pitched saxophones. Modulating forward, during which each player seemingly surprises with new information, this penultimate sequence is all bellows until a sudden swing section wraps things up. Additionally, while high-pitched microtonal harmonies undulate through Five Twenty One Equals Eight, the two versions of Seven Behind Nine Ninety-Seven Sixteen or Seven, one previously unreleased, scream and judder with the dissonant audacity of 1960s Free Jazz. Somehow though, the alternating foghorn snorts and altissimo overblowing mutate into definite statements. The value of reissues like these is that those who weren’t around to experience the music first-hand can now hear what caused all the excitement.

01 Karajan RingLast year some important omnibus editions did not reach us before the closing date of the December/January issue. Here are three outstanding productions of lasting interest that missed the boat: Wagner’s Ring Cycle conducted by Karajan on one Blu-ray audio disc from DG; The Complete Recordings on Deutsche Grammophon of the Amadeus Quartet and The Complete Piano Concerto Recordings of Vladimir Ashkenazy on Decca.

Karajan’s recordings of the Ring’s four parts were made one a year, beginning in August, September and December, 1966 with Die Walküre. Rhinegold followed in December 1967 and Siegfried was made in December 1968 and February 1969, followed by Götterdämmerung that October. The venue was the much vaunted Jesus-Christus Kirche in Berlin. Longtime associate Otto Gerdes was the executive producer and the ubiquitous Gunther Hermanns was the recording engineer. The LPs of Walküre appeared in 1967 with Gotterdammerung completing the cycle in 1970. In 1998 DG issued a boxed CD edition of the complete cycle in their Original Image re-processing. Now there is a third incarnation complete on one High Fidelity, Pure Audio Blu-ray disc (DG 4797354, slip-cased with a 400-page hardcover book). Let it be understood that the original recordings were all analog, made on magnetic tape. Certainly, there would have been backup tapes and microphones at various positions. Dynamic range was some 20db less than digital. Fifty years later audio engineers have newer technology at their fingertips that can, in the right hands, reveal but not create hidden information from the originals, resulting in “lossless high fidelity.” Does all this newer technology allow us to hear anything better than on the earlier Original Image CDs? What I had mainly hoped for was a more solid bass line on a firmer footing. Unencumbered by old technology the presence in the voices and exchanges between the protagonists are more convincing and the balances between instruments, top to bottom, is exemplary. Karajan paid meticulous attention to details, including the interaction between the characters to one another and the situation. As an example, in the first act of Walküre, as Siegmund, Jon Vickers’ declaration of love, Winterstürme wichen dem Wonnemond to Gundula Janowitz as Sieglinde begins very quietly, at first gently intimate before becoming quite impassioned, leading to her spontaneous response, Du bist der Lenz. Between them they now set in motion fateful events that set up the rest of the cycle right to the very end. One of the great scenes in opera. This disc displays and names an abundance of access points so that any scene, vocal or orchestral can be easily queued. If you wish you can start at the first note of Rheingold and finish at the last note of Götterdämmerung. Already very familiar with these performances, I am thrilled with the superiority of this transparent new edition.

02 Amadeus QuartetIt was a sad time for the music world when the Amadeus Quartet dissolved in 1987 after 40 years as one of, if not the world’s most esteemed string quartets. Their history is unique and is sure to remain so. Three of the four came together in an internment camp in Britain during WW2. Being Jewish, violinists Norbert Brainin, Siegmund Nissel and Peter Schidlof left Vienna for England after the Anschluss and, as aliens, were interned lastly on the Isle of Man. After their release they studied, free of charge, with violin teacher Max Rostal who introduced them to cellist Martin Lovett. Schidlof changed his violin for a viola and in 1947 the Brainin Quartet was formed. They changed their name to the Amadeus Quartet for their premiere concert in London’s Wigmore Hall on January 10, 1948. Upon the death of Schidlof in 1987, the surviving members simply disbanded.

DG honours this 30-year anniversary with a complete edition of all the recordings that they had made, plus all that Decca had, together with the early recordings that the quartet had made for Westminster: Amadeus Quartet – The Complete Recordings on Deutsche Grammophon (DG4797589, 70 CDs with a 170-page full-colour book). As some works were recorded more than once over the years, we can make comparisons for ourselves and look for any changes in their overall interpretations or execution. For instance there are three performances of Beethoven’s Third Razumovsky Quartet, 1959 (Hanover), 1983 (Wigmore Hall) and 1987 (St. Barnabas, for Decca): one work, three dates and venues, two recording philosophies. How about four different Mozart Hunt Quartet recordings: 1951, 1956, 1963 and 1982. The quartet excelled in the Austro-German repertoire so we find much Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert and Brahms. Favourites include works by Bruckner, Dvořák, Smetana and Tchaikovsky. Guest luminaries heard with the group include Cecil Aronowitz, Christoph Eschenbach, Karl Leister, William Pleeth, Andreas Brau, Lothar Koch, Gervase de Peyer, Walter Klein, Rainer Zepperitz, Gerd Seiffert, Clifford Curzon, Emil Gilels and Benjamin Britten. Unexpected entries include Sir Ernest MacMillan’s String Quartet in C Minor and Two Sketches on French Canadian Airs recorded in Canada’s centennial year. The 70th disc contains some surprises. If I tell you now they won’t be a surprise.

03 AshkenazyVladimir Ashkenazy has been performing for more than 65 years and is best known as a pianist, but he is also a world-class conductor. I recall around 1990 chatting over dinner with a well-informed gentleman from Decca and asking him when Decca will finish their Ashkenazy/Shostakovich symphony cycle. “Never,” he replied, explaining that a soloist cannot become a credible conductor to the record buying public. It just won’t happen. Years later Decca issued a box set of the 15 Shostakovich symphonies with Ashkenazy that is still an active title. Also an outstanding cycle of the Rachmaninov symphonies with the Concertgebouw Orchestra. Ashkenazy is much more than a pianist. He is a superb musician and this shows in his playing.

Is there a pianist other than Ashkenazy on whom his or her record company has expended the time and money to record four complete versions of the Beethoven concertos? At this moment I can’t think of one. All four, including a DVD cycle are included in Ashkenazy The Complete Piano Concerto Recordings (Decca 4831752, 46 CDs, 2 DVDs, hardbound 115-page book). As with the Amadeus set above, comparing versions is a collector’s pleasure. As well as the Beethovens, this set is a music-lover’s treasure chest including, in alphabetical order, the following concerti: Bach BWV1052, Bartók complete, both Brahms, both Chopin, the 27 Mozart, the five Prokofiev, the complete Rachmaninov twice, all Schumann’s concerted works, both Scriabin and, of course, the Tchaikovsky First. There are lots of orchestral fillers and some solo recordings. On several of the concertos he also conducts from the keyboard. Other conductors include Solti, Mehta, Haitink, Kertész, Previn, Fistoulari, Maazel, Kondrashin, Zinman and Schmidt-Isserstedt. The two DVDs contain concerts from the Royal Festival Hall during March and April 1974 broadcast and recorded by the BBC. The London Philharmonic is conducted by Bernard Haitink in inspired performances of, you’ve guessed it, Beethoven’s five piano concertos together with the overtures Leonore 2 and 3 and Egmont. Dated video but well worth enjoying.

04 Argerich RicciDoremi has, over recent years, issued an impressive resurrection of live performances of the young Martha Argerich from her earliest years. The latest is the second evening of a joint recital with the great violinist Ruggiero Ricci presented in Leningrad in 1961. The first from April 21 was issued by Doremi two years ago and here (Leningrad Recital II, DHR-8053) we have the following evening, April 22. Listening to this CD reminded me of what collecting recordings is all about. It’s about the ability to, at will, re-experience such sublime music-making as this that otherwise can be remembered only by those present or hearing the broadcast. Recordings such as this can resurrect, as they say, “immortal performances.” Not virtual reality but the next best thing. At this time Argerich was 19 years old, well before she won the Chopin competition in Warsaw and became an international celebrity. Ricci, at 42, was already well recognized as one of the leading violinists of the century. The result of two compatible intellects at work – at play – is evident. Their complete absorption into the music is profound. Quite extraordinary. You would need to hear it to appreciate it. Here is the repertoire with a comment or two. The Bach Chaconne BWV1004. Beethoven’s First Violin Sonata Op12, No1; the Franck Sonata for Violin and Piano in A Major; Bartók Six Romanian Folk Dances Sz56; Paganini, Introduction and Variations for solo violin on Nel cor più non mi sento from La bella molinara by Paisiello and finally Tartini Devil’s Trill Sonata. The Bach Chaconne is astonishingly majestic while the Paganini is humanly impossible to play… except that he does so, easily and with style. There are delights in every track. The very natural, textured recording was made by Leningrad Radio in the Great Philharmonic Hall. There’s some audience shuffling but the performances, all 82 minutes, shine through.

05 Bolshoi HallbergMany of us continue to be thrilled by the Bolshoi Ballet DVDs and Blu-rays that have arrived from their distributor over the last couple of years. The latest is The Art of David Hallberg at the Bolshoi (BelAir Classics BAC617, 2 DVDs). A performance of Auber’s Marco Spada choreographed by Pierre Lacotte from 2014 is slip-cased with the now ubiquitous Sleeping Beauty choreographed by Yuri Grigorovich from 2011. Both ballets are still available separately. Well worth owning, Marco Spada is a dashing performance, but you may not want another copy of Sleeping Beauty.

01 George CrumbLast month a CD of late works by Elliott Carter gave me occasion to muse about the brushes with greatness I have been privileged with, thanks to my relationship with New Music Concerts. A new CD – Complete George Crumb Edition Volume 18 (BRIDGE 9476 bridgerecords.com) – gives me that opportunity once again. Although it seems more recent, I realize it has been more than a dozen years since George Crumb was last in Toronto as the guest of NMC. For several decades after NMC’s founding in 1971, a tradition developed that Crumb’s new works would receive their second performances in Toronto; in the case of the celebrated Idyll for the Misbegotten for amplified flute and three percussionists, dedicated to Robert Aitken, this city was the location of its world premiere. That tradition continued in 2003 when the composer’s daughter Ann Crumb sang the Canadian premiere of the recently composed …Unto the Hills, Songs of Sadness, Yearning and Innocence, with the New Music Concerts ensemble.

On that occasion it was my great pleasure to spend several days in the company of the 74-year-old composer and his family. In the intervening years Crumb has not slowed down much, as this disc attests, with a new work from 2012 – The Yellow Moon of Andalusia, Spanish Songbook III for Mezzo-Soprano and Amplified Piano – and recently revised versions of 1979’s Celestial Mechanics, Cosmic Dances for Amplified Piano, Four Hands and Yesteryear, A Vocalise for Mezzo-Soprano, Amplified Piano and Percussion originally written in 2005. Central to the disc is a 2001 composition, Eine Kleine Mitternachtmusik, A Little Midnight Music, Ruminations on ‘Round Midnight by Thelonious Monk for Amplified Piano, a nine-movement tribute to both Monk and Mozart performed by Marcantonio Barone. Amplification is one of the key elements of Crumb’s music, not to make it louder per se, but to make audible some of the subtle effects that the performers are called upon to execute, be it whistle tones on a flute or plucked notes or pedalled washes of harmonics inside the piano. This is very much a part of the Mitternachtmusik, along with other Crumb signature sounds and techniques, from dramatic knocks on the piano’s frame to shimmering glissandi on the strings, gentle melodies juxtaposed with brash interjections – veritable explosions of sound – and vocalizations from the pianist. Crumb’s characteristically descriptive movement titles include Cobweb and Peaseblossom; Incantation; Golliwog Revisited (with a nod to Debussy) and Cadenza with Tolling Bells.

There is another personal connection for me on this recording. The soprano in the two vocal works is Tony Arnold, who performed a stunning rendition of György Kurtág’s Kafka Fragments with violinist Movses Pogossian for New Music Concerts at Gallery 345 last season. Arnold is no stranger to Crumb’s music – she received a Grammy nomination for her performance of Ancient Voices of Children – and is in fact the dedicatee of Yesteryear. That title was inspired by a line from François Villon, “Mais où sont les neiges d’antan,” rendered most famously into English by Dante Gabriel Rosetti as “But where are the snows of yesteryear?,” a line declaimed and later whispered in the original archaic French toward the end of the 11-minute work. As the composer’s preface tells us, “the singer is vainly searching for her lost youth and beauty and laments their inevitable erosion by the relentless passage of time.” There is some ritual involved in the performance, as is often the case in Crumb’s music. In this instance, over the duration of the piece the singer moves between nine stations – spread around the concert hall in the original version but restricted to the stage in the 2013 revision.

Both Yesteryear and The Yellow Moon of Andalusia are first recordings. In the latter, Crumb returns to the poetry of Federico García Lorca, which has been the inspiration for many of his works since the 1960s, including the above-mentioned Ancient Voices of Children. While the earlier works used the original Spanish, here Crumb sets English translations of the poems. The comprehensive booklet includes both the originals and the translations. We have to thank Bridge Records for their thoroughness, not only in the preparation of this recording, which also includes the piano duo Quattro Mani and percussionists David Nelson and William Kerrigan, but for undertaking such an exhaustive catalogue of works by one of the unique voices of our time.

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02 Jordan PalI am pleased to note that this month we have reviews of four Analekta discs, and that they all feature contemporary (or at least 20th-century in the case of André Mathieu) composers. I point this out because although this Quebec label is highly respected for its releases, for the most part they stick to more conventionally classical repertoire, even though some of their artists are renowned for their commitment to contemporary music. The Gryphon Trio has been a major “exception to this rule.” The Gryphon’s 19-title discography includes half a dozen Analekta releases of contemporary music, so kudos to them. The most recent of these is Into the Wonder (AN 2 9521 analekta.com), on which they join the Thunder Bay Symphony Orchestra under the direction of Arthur Post to perform the music of Jordan Pal. Described by Ludwig van Toronto as “the country’s current it-boy composer,” at 34, Pal is currently the RBC affiliate composer of the Toronto Symphony and his music has been performed by every significant orchestra across Canada.

Starling – Triple concerto for violin, cello, piano and orchestra was commissioned by the Gryphon Trio and the Thunder Bay Symphony in 2013. It is a scintillating work in three movements, opening with an orchestral flourish that develops into a 15-minute flight, a “murmuration” with only brief moments of respite, mostly in the form of lyrical cadenzas from the solo trio. It is exhilarating how Pal sustains the momentum throughout. The Largo second movement begins in dark brass timbres that once again give way to gorgeously lyrical passages from the soloists, especially in the cello lines. But one word of caution, or at least a cautionary tale for me. Many years ago I discovered how close the sound of a cello can be to that of a saxophone when I first heard Kabalevsky’s Cello Concerto No.2. About midway through, the solo cello gives way to an alto saxophone cadenza so seamlessly that it takes several seconds for the ear to recognize what has just gone on. I had a similar experience when I first listened to Starling, which I did on small computer speakers. I was convinced I was hearing saxophone at several points in the recording and emailed Pal to ask if this was the case because I did not see any saxophonists credited in the list of orchestra members. He assured me that he had not included saxophone in the instrumentation and subsequent listening on proper speakers has confirmed this. That’s why I make a point of listening on my stereo system before passing judgement on discs – basic computer systems simply don’t provide accurate sound. The finale, Presto – Electric and Wild is simply that, a moto perpetuo once again reminiscent of a thousand starlings soaring and swirling together in the sky.

I think I will let the composer speak for himself about the title piece, also commissioned by the TBSO, which at half an hour comprises just under half of the disc. “Into the Wonder celebrates the creative will of our universe. Evoking birth and death, creation and destruction, universal interconnectedness and the rapture of love, this piece seeks to capture the mystery, awe and wonder of life. Nature’s own great works of art are reminders that we are a part of this magnificent range of possibilities, that we are part of something much greater. This symphony celebrates all that is beautiful.” Is this simply the naïve vision of a young man couched in slick orchestral finery? This is certainly not “new music” in the sense of Carter or Crumb, but it is genuinely attractive, well-crafted and brilliantly executed. Does it succeed in its aspirations? I welcome you to judge for yourselves.

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03 Margaret MariaI’m not normally drawn to so-called new age music, and I think that’s the category cellist Margaret Maria’s Carried by an Angel would most naturally fall into, yet I find myself drawn to it. In 2011 Margaret Maria Tobolowska left the position she held with the National Arts Centre Orchestra for a dozen years to pursue a solo career as cellist and chamber musician, composer and producer. I must confess that I was a little off-put by the statement on the cover of the promotional copy of the disc I received: “The beauty of the Archangel Raffaele, the bringer of healing, comfort and compassion has been brought to me. The music is full of energy that heals, sings, dances on the edge of winged spirits and brings such indescribable beauty in colours that shimmer and are full of love.” I am not a believer in angels, nor spiritual healing and at first did not think I should be the one to comment on the disc. But as a cellist, and lover of many diverse sorts of music, I gave it a try, and then another. It is ostensibly a solo cello disc, but more accurately, a solo cellist disc. There are many layerings of lines that together produce dense and lush melodic textures, a lovely wash of sound that is warm and immersive. The overall effect is orchestral, but in a unique way since all of the sounds are made by cello, with some computer processing, so there is a welcoming homophony. To me it is reminiscent of the music of Arvo Pärt if you imagine a piece like Spiegel im Spiegel on an orchestral scale. If you are curious, you can check our Margaret Maria’s website (enchanten.com) and her Enchanten channel on YouTube.

04 George LiAnd a quick final note. 2015 Silver Medalist in the International Tchaikovsky Competition George Li has just released his inaugural CD, Live at the Mariinsky (Warner Classics 0190295812942). It was recorded in St. Petersburg one year ago and it features exactly the same repertoire the young superstar performed in Vancouver in October and will perform again in Toronto in February: piano sonatas by Haydn (Hob.XVI:32) and Chopin (Op.35), Rachmaninov’s Variations on a theme of Corelli, and Liszt’s Consolation No.3 and Hungarian Rhapsody No.2. I am a little surprised that the CD booklet, which includes an extended article about the repertoire by Jed Distler in three languages, contains not a word about this fabulous young performer. There is lots of information available on his own website however – georgelipianist.com – including such tidbits as he made his first public performance at the age of ten (2005) at Boston’s Steinway Hall, and in 2011 performed for president Obama at the White House in an evening honouring Chancellor Angela Merkel. If the disc is any indication, the concert will be a barnburner not to be missed by the cognoscenti. Now, if he could just find time to learn some new repertoire!

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David Olds, DISCoveries Editor

01 Sylvie ProulxLes Tendres Plaintes: Works by Jean-Philippe Rameau (Centaur CRC 3603) is the second solo CD from Canadian guitarist Sylvie Proulx; it’s a collection of transcriptions, mostly of dance movements, from harpsichord suites by the leading French Baroque composer.

Three of the transcriptions, including the title track, are by Proulx, with the remaining 12 being by other guitarists including John Duarte and Andrés Segovia. Given the inherent difficulties in transcribing harpsichord music for guitar – the reduced range, the unavoidability of playing fewer notes, and in particular the handling of ornamentation – everything here works extremely well, helped no doubt by the guitar’s greater capabilities for expressive playing.

Proulx’s performances are clean and clearly defined, with a complete absence of extraneous noise and a lovely range of colour, tone and contrast. It’s terrific playing.

02 Campion GuitarThere’s more excellent – and fascinating – guitar playing on François Campion Music for Baroque Guitar (Brilliant Classics 95276), with Bernhard Hofstötter playing a Baroque guitar attributed to Matteo Sellas of Venice, from about 1640.

The colour booklet photos show an astonishingly beautiful instrument. It’s a five-course guitar, tuned the same as the top five strings of the modern guitar, with the top E a single string and the other four doubled, either in unison (A, G and B strings) or at the lower octave (D string).

In 1705 Campion published one of the last five-course guitar books, and continued to add handwritten pieces to his own personal copy throughout his life. These manuscript pieces often exceeded the published works in size and difficulty, and form the basis of this recital.

In the excellent booklet Hofstötter remarks on the instrument’s “…full-bodied and velvety dark sound which radically differs from comparable modern instruments” and is “round, fully resonating and at the same time subtle and fragile.” It’s exactly that. Hofstötter is a lutenist, and it shows; the sound here seems like a bridge between the lute and the classical guitar. It’s meticulously clean playing of some very intricate and technically demanding music – the Bach-like fugues and dance forms in particular – and a simply fascinating CD.

03 Haimovitz TroikaWhenever you see a 2CD box set from the wonderful cello and piano duo of Matt Haimovitz and Christopher O’Riley you know you’re in for something special, and so it proves with Troika, their latest release of Russian music by Shostakovich, Prokofiev and Rachmaninoff on the Pentatone Oxingale Series label (PTC 5186 608).

CD1 is devoted to Shostakovich and Prokofiev, with the former’s Waltz No.2 and Cello Sonata in D Minor Op.40 and the latter’s Troika from Lieutenant Kijé and Cello Sonata in C Major Op.119.

CD2 has Rachmaninoff’s Cello Sonata in G Minor Op.19 and his famous Vocalise before the duo takes a customary left turn into contemporary Russian music with two of their own arrangements: Kukushka, by the singer-songwriter Victor Tsoi; and Pussy Riot’s Punk Prayer – Virgin Mary, Put Putin Away, complete with Haimovitz’s use of a glass slide on the strings and a crushed Styrofoam cup behind the bridge to achieve some grunge punk bass distortion!

The duo’s arrangement of Lennon & McCartney’s Back in the U.S.S.R. completes a terrific set.

04 Dubeau RichterAngèle Dubeau and La Pietà are back with another CD in their Portrait series, this time featuring music by Max Richter, who has been particularly active in film, theatre and television (Analekta AN 2 8745).

Previous Portrait CDs featured Philip Glass, Arvo Pärt, John Adams and Ludovico Einaudi, and Dubeau says that the more she listens to composers gravitating around the minimalist movement the more she wants to interpret their music: “I enjoy the moments of introspection that these works bring.”

Those moments are possibly the result of the lack of any real development: each of the 16 short pieces here (15 are less than five minutes) essentially sets a mood and keeps it, with little opportunity for anything other than “Here’s an idea…”

Apart from the really lovely Mercy for solo violin and piano, and Winter II, recomposed by Richter from Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons, all tracks are arrangements by François Vallières and Dubeau of pieces from Richter’s solo albums Memoryhouse, The Blue Notebooks – Disconnect, Songs From Before and From Sleep, the films Waltz with Bashir and Perfect Sense, and the television scores for The Leftovers and Black Mirror-Nosedive.

As always, playing and recording standards are absolutely top-notch. It’s essentially easy, pleasant – and, yes, introspective – listening that will be warmly welcomed by Dubeau’s many regular admirers.

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05 Nune MelikViolinist Nuné Melik makes an impressive recording debut with the CD Hidden Treasure: Rediscovered Music from Armenia with pianist Michel-Alexandres Broekaert (DOM Forlane FOR 16886 domdisques.com).

Born in Siberia of Armenian/Georgian/Jewish heritage, Melik moved to Montreal in 2009 and began to explore the music of composers from her upbringing; this recital program grew out of the resulting Hidden Treasure project. Judging by her playing here, it’s clearly been an emotional and rewarding journey.

The central work on the disc is the Violin Sonata in B-flat Minor by Arno Babadjanian, written in Russia in 1959 and criticized as “formalist” by the Soviet authorities. Babadjanian’s close friend Dmitri Shostakovich thought highly of it, and his influence is clearly felt; there are hints of Prokofiev in the slow movement, too.

Lovely short pieces by Komitas Vardapet, Aram Khachaturian and Alexander Spendiarian complete the disc. There’s passionate, rhapsodic playing from Melik and sympathetic support from Broekaert, who also has a short solo.

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06 Fewer KnoxJ.S. Bach: Sonatas for Violin and Harpsichord BWV 1014-1019 with violinist Mark Fewer and Hank Knox (Leaf Music LM 216) is the third set of these works I’ve received in recent years, following the outstanding releases from Catherine Manson and Ton Koopman (harpsichord) and the Duo Concertante pairing of Nancy Dahn and Timothy Steeves (piano).

Although there is accomplished playing here the harpsichord is prominent and rather heavy, and its lack of dynamic range tends to give the performances a somewhat mechanical feel, with the violin sounding more like a separate voice than an integrated partner. Koopman’s sound is much softer and much more attuned to Manson’s playing.

There are occasional significant differences in interpretation too, notably in the Adagio of the F minor sonata, where Fewer – unlike Manson and Dahn – opts to separate and shorten the eighth note double-stops.

As always, it comes down to personal taste. If you prefer these works strong and bright and with harpsichord there is much here you will enjoy, although Manson and Koopman and Duo Concertante both offer more sensitive readings.

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07 Akiko MeyersFantasia is the 35th studio album from violin superstar Anne Akiko Meyers, this time with the Philharmonia Orchestra conducted by Kristjan Järvi (Avie Records AV2385). The title track is by the Finnish composer Einojuhani Rautavaara, written in 2015 at the request of Meyers, who worked on it with the composer in Helsinki only months before his death in July 2016. Meyers describes it as “transcendent” and having “the feeling of an elegy with a very personal reflective mood.” It’s a lovely work that clearly has great emotional significance for her.

The Violin Concerto No.1 Op.35 by Karol Szymanowski dates from 1916, and was one of the first works to reflect the life-changing influence of his 1914 trips to North Africa and to Paris, where he met Debussy and Ravel. It’s a simply glorious single-movement work full of sensuous and exotic melody and lush orchestration, and with an extremely demanding solo part that rarely leaves the stratosphere.

Ravel’s dazzling Tzigane, in the orchestral version, completes a simply outstanding CD.

08 Kinga AugustynIn the old LP days the Bruch and Mendelssohn Violin Concertos were frequent companions, and the tradition continues on a new CD from the Polish-born violinist Kinga Augustyn, with the Janáček Philharmonia Orchestra under Jakub Klecker (Centaur CRC 3585).

The Bruch Concerto No.1 in G Minor has a lovely opening, with Augustyn displaying a big, bright tone. Tempos are never rushed, and there is beautiful orchestral support.

The performance of the Mendelssohn Concerto in E Minor follows the same pattern, with unhurried tempos, accuracy in the details and some lovely orchestral moments. There’s sweetness and warmth in the playing, but never a hint of superficiality: these are thoughtful performances that bring delightful playing from all concerned.

Massenet’s Meditation from Thaïs is the final track, and again it’s a performance that leans toward the understated – a sensitive, simple reading with great depth that makes for a very effective ending to an impressive CD.

09 Saint Saens CelloThe outstanding German cellist Gabriel Schwabe is the soloist in the complete Saint-Saëns Works for Cello and Orchestra with the Malmö Symphony Orchestra under Marc Soustrot (Naxos 8.573737).

The two Cello Concertos – No.1 in A Minor, Op.33 and No.2 in D Minor, Op.119 – are the major works here, although the lesser-known five-movement Suite in D Minor, Op.16bis from 1919 has much to recommend it. It was written for cello and piano and later orchestrated by the composer, as were the two other short works here: the Romance in F Major, Op.36 and the Allegro appassionato in B Minor, Op.43. Paul Vidal’s orchestration of The Swan from Carnival of the Animals completes the CD.

With his great tone and terrific technique Schwabe easily negotiates the difficult challenges of the second concerto, with some particularly lovely playing in the simply beautiful central Andante sostenuto. There is fine orchestral support from Soustrot and the Malmö orchestra. All in all, an outstanding disc.

10 Ashley WaltersThere’s cello playing at the complete opposite end of the spectrum on Sweet Anxiety, the first solo CD from the American cellist Ashley Walters featuring new works for cello from 2002-2013 (populist records PR014 populistrecords.com). Walters says that she seeks “to challenge your perception of what the cello… is capable of,” and she certainly succeeds.

Nicholas Deyoe provides two tracks: For Stephanie (on our wedding day) and the title track another anxiety, the latter drawing some astonishing playing from Walters. Luciano Berio’s Sequenza XIV is predominantly percussive; it’s heard here in a performing edition created by Walters.

Wolfgang von Schweinitz’s Plainsound-Litany is a hypnotic sequence of precisely tuned double stops; Wadada Leo Smith’s Sweet Bay Magnolia with Berry Clusters includes improvisational sequences. Andrew McIntosh’s Another Secular Calvinist Creed provides a serene, contemplative end to the recital.

Walters is simply brilliant throughout the disc, and the short printed examples of the scores (other than the Berio) give some idea of the challenges she faced.

11 Madeleine MitchellOn Violin Muse the British violinist Madeleine Mitchell presents a program of world premiere recordings of works by British composers (Divine Art dda 25160).

The major work here is the two-movement Violin Concerto “Soft Stillness” by Welsh composer Guto Pryderi Puw, commissioned by Mitchell and heard in a live BBC Radio recording from 2016. It’s an effective piece, with Mitchell accompanied by the BBC National Orchestra of Wales under Edwin Outwater.

Mitchell is joined by Cerys Jones in Judith Weir’s delightful Atlantic Drift – Three pieces for two violins, based on Gaelic folk tunes.

Pianist Nigel Clayton is the accompanist in the remaining works: Geoffrey Poole’s Rhapsody; David Matthews’ Romanza Op.119a; Sadie Harrison’s lovely Aurea Luce; Michael Berkeley’s Veilleuse; and Michael Nyman’s Taking it as Read.

There’s excellent playing throughout by all concerned.

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01 David JalbertDavid Jalbert already has five recordings in the ATMA catalogue. His newest is Stravinski – Prokofiev Pétrouchka, L’oiseau de feu, Roméo et Juliette – Transcriptions pour piano (ATMA Classique ACD2 2684). It shows why he’s considered one of the younger generation’s finest pianists. His performance of Danse russe from Pétrouchka explodes into being with astonishing speed and alacrity. Jalbert possesses a sweeping technique that exudes ease and persuasive conviction.

The three extracts from L’Oiseau de feu require, and Jalbert obviously has it, complete command of the keyboard for the Danse that begins the set. Equally demanding is the introspection necessary for the following Berceuse. The Finale builds to a colossal orchestral finish that loses nothing in this transcription for piano.

According to the disc’s informative liner notes, the ten pieces from Prokofiev’s ballet Romeo and Juliet Op.75 are from Prokofiev’s original piano score, and owing to the composer’s facility with the instrument, are highly idiomatic. One of the set’s most engaging pieces is The Montagues and the Capulets, driven rhythmically by its relentless bassline. Jalbert has a complete understanding of these three stage works and the contemporary language their composers used to tell their stories.


02 MathieuAlain Lefèvre has recorded an intriguing work with the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra under Joann Falletta: André Mathieu – Concerto No.3 (Analekta AN 2 9299). Written at age 13 while marooned with his family in North America by the outbreak of WWII, unable to return to France where he had been studying on a scholarship from the Quebec government, the work was intended to launch Mathieu’s career with the influential decision makers of the New York music scene. Unfortunately, not much came of it until 1946, when a newly created Quebec production company approached Mathieu for the rights to use his Concerto No.3 in a film (La Forteresse/Whispering City) to be shot entirely in Quebec. As things turned out, only major portions of the second movement were used in the film score. Until recently, this had been the only record of the work. Mathieu himself recorded it in 1947, and this same version, revised by Marc Bélanger, was recorded by Philippe Entremont in 1977 and made famous by Alain Lefèvre in 2003. Eventually renamed the Concerto de Québec, the recording by Jean-Philippe Sylvestre with the Orchestre Métropolitain and conductor Alain Trudel was reviewed here in October.

In 2008 the original autograph score for two pianos was discovered in Ottawa. Since then, composer and conductor Jacques Marchand has prepared a critical edition that is faithful to the original manuscript. This is its first full recording. It has all the sweeping gestures of its period and a devilishly difficult piano part. Lefèvre’s performance at the keyboard is masterful. He and the BPO perform the work with astonishing authenticity, restoring a fascinating chapter to Canadian music history of that period.


03 David Glen HatchAmerican pianist David Glen Hatch exploits his pianistic link to Brahms in Brahms & Rubinstein (Centaur CRC 3565/3566). Brahms’ student Carl Friedberg taught at Juilliard in the late 1940s; Hatch’s own teacher Joanne Baker won an audition to study there with Friedberg. Hatch recalls numerous instructions from Baker, handed down by Friedberg from Brahms, about his intentions for various passages in the Piano Concerto No.1 in D Minor Op.15. It’s fascinating to consider the extent to which Hatch’s performance is connected to the composer in this way. Hatch’s approach overall is quite deliberate in his slightly slower tempi. The second movement in particular reveals numerous opportunities to dwell on phrases and Brahms’ characteristic harmonic shifts.

As substantial as the Brahms concerto is, the Rubinstein Concerto for Piano and Orchestra No.4 in D Minor Op.70 seems an even grander conception. It may have to do with Rubenstein’s orchestrations, but somehow Hatch seems truly in his element with the composer’s great pianistic gestures. The concertos are an excellent pairing for this two-disc recording.


04 Piano a deuxRobert and Linda Ang Stoodley style themselves as Piano à Deux. Their new disc, France Revisited – Music by Onslow, Debussy and Poulenc (Divine Art dda 25132) is an example of piano four hands performance at its very best. One of the disc’s many treats is the appearance of music by George Onslow. Because his oeuvre is largely for chamber strings, his very few piano works tend to be overlooked. The unique voice of this 19th-century composer is deeply intriguing as heard in the Sonata for Piano Four Hands No.1 in E Minor Op.7. It’s surprisingly forward looking despite its early catalogue entry.

Petite Suite delivers all the rich impressionistic orchestrations with which we associate Claude Debussy, and Piano à Deux are consistently excellent in how they portray the composer’s lightly programmatic intent.

The duo has also transcribed the Poulenc Chansons de l’amour et de la guerre, and done so with a gifted ear that preserves the wistful nostalgia that Poulenc infused into each song.

05 Jose MenorJosé Menor is an extraordinary pianist with a fearsome technique and unrivalled fluidity of touch. His new recording Goyescas – Enrique Granados (IBS Classical IBS-82017) demonstrates how he brings these gifts to his exploration of this major composition of Spanish piano music. Menor goes to considerable effort in his liner notes to explain how this music captured his imagination and compelled him to study it from a composer’s perspective rather than just a pianist’s. His study of the original manuscripts recommended by the Granados family helped him profoundly in discerning the composer’s intent in writing the suite, which deals with the course of love and death.

Menor admits being attracted by the work’s many, deep contrasts and its expressive intensity. This is most powerfully evident in El amor y la muerte. It’s astonishing to imagine that this century-old work contains such modern tone clusters and rhythmic freedom. Under the hands of Menor it becomes a revealing expression, ahead of its time, and potently magical. The suite is slightly abridged for lack of recording space but the disc does include a rare performance of a single short manuscript, Crepúsculo, that may have been Granados’ first draft of some of the suite.


06 MathiesonHarpsichordist Gilbert Rowland has completed a substantial project with his recording Johann Mattheson 12 Suites for Harpsichord (Athene ath 23301.1 divineartrecords.com). The three-disc set is a valuable document shedding some light on the music of a hitherto obscure composer. Mattheson was a contemporary of Handel and came to know him well as a friend and colleague. He is said to have written numerous operas, oratorios, sacred works and music for organ. Most of these manuscripts were kept in Hamburg, where Mattheson lived and worked for much of his life. Allied bombing of the city during WWII destroyed most of the Mattheson documents, leaving little for modern scholars to study. Fortunately, the 12 Suites for Harpsichord, dating from 1714, have survived. They are well-conceived mature works written in the French dance suite style. Rowland plays a 2005 copy of a French instrument from 1750 by Goermans.



07 Operatic PianistAndrew Wright has recorded a second disc in his series of operatic transcriptions, The Operatic Pianist II (Divine Art dda 25153 divineartrecords.com). Opera transcriptions were, in their day, the equivalent of pop song covers. They also provided travelling pianists with ample popular repertoire for performance. Liszt may be the best-known contributor to the form, although a great many composers dabbled in the genre. Wright clearly has a wonderful working grasp of this repertoire and knows how to bring forward the vocal line as well as how to portray the orchestral colour that any given emotional moment requires. His playing is consistently fabulous, whether he’s pounding out Liszt’s Rienzi Fantasy or Saint-Saëns’ Concert Paraphrase on Thaïs. It’s easy to understand how these transcriptions achieved “hit” status in the time before the gramophone and digital access to opera performances.


08 Janacek BachMisuzu Tanaka has, at first blush, twinned a pair of unlikely composers in her new release, Janáček, Bach - In concert (Concertant Classics CD PR201601 concertantclassics.com). She admits, however, that in the process of the recording she discovered that both were having the same effect on her. Tanaka’s performance of the Bach Partita No.6 in E Minor BWV 830 reveals her strict adherence to the perfection of Bach’s structure. It also uncovers the emotional richness of the minor key. This last consideration is where she makes the link to Janáček. His Moravian heritage and his links to Czech folk music are reflected in the emotional content of On an Overgrown Path, Books 1 and 2. Minor keys are prevalent. Melancholy is pervasive. In its own way, this shared feature is, for Tanaka, the point of connection.

Tanaka approaches Janáček with an intent to uncover the inspired simplicity of his music. She moves through the numerous parts of Books 1 and 2 with thoughtful deliberation, capturing the essence of the composer’s evocative titles: Words Fail, Unutterable Anguish, In Tears, for example. Her playing is as perfect for Janáček as it is for Bach. What a wonderfully unlikely pair.


09 WeisgallMartin Perry’s third recording Martin Perry Piano – Hugo Weisgall, Piano Sonata & Paul Hindemith, Ludus Tonalis (Bridge 9467) continues his artistic focus on contemporary piano music, and specifically on substantial forms. The disc opens with a three-movement Sonata for Piano by Hugo Weisgall, a Moravian immigrant to the US in 1920 whose serious pursuit of music study at Peabody and Curtis, and privately with composers like Roger Sessions, helped form the rigorous approach he developed in his own writing. His language tends towards a 12-tone, relaxed serialism where the musical ideas are rather long. There’s a good deal of highly contrasted emotional content that Perry handles beautifully, giving the sonata what the liner notes call an “operatic” quality.

In the same vein, the Hindemith Ludus Tonalis has an illuminating subtitle: Studies in Counterpoint, Tonal Organization and Piano Playing. Hindemith writes a fugue in each of the 12 major keys, joined by interludes that help establish the new key. The opening Praeludium is played inverted and in reverse as the Postludium. It’s all rather cerebral, but Perry uses the distinct character of each fugue and interlude to colour the work in the most creative way. It’s a very engaging performance.

10 Villa LobosAndree-Ann Deschenes describes herself as a “French-Canadian pianist specializing in the passionate music of Latin and South America.” Currently doing doctoral work at California State University in LA, her latest recording Villa-Lobos / Castro (191061746096 aadpiano.com) is a rich program revealing the skill and artistic mastery of this very gifted pianist. Opening with the Villa-Lobos four-part Ciclo Brasileiro W374, Deschenes establishes her credentials as a serious student of these Latin composers. With an unerring sense of rhythm for every turn of phrase and ornament, she navigates through the Villa-Lobos and the five Tangos para Piano by Juan José Castro, finishing with a brilliant performance of Festiva by José Maria Vitler. It’s a terrific recording with a tremendous amount of energy, humour and astonishing talent.

11 Norman KriegerNorman Krieger puts two wonderful standard repertoire items on his newest CD: Beethoven Piano Concertos No.3 Op.37 & No.5 Op.73 (Decca DD41154 / 4815583). The Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra under Joann Falletta performs beautifully with Krieger. They appear to have an agreement that the Concerto No.3 will not be overly furious and that the “Emperor” will similarly not be too imperiously grand. The outer movements of the concertos are sufficiently strong and emphatic where they need be, and the middle, slow movements are given ample space to breathe. The Concerto No.5 is especially effective in this way. The playing throughout is excellent. To top things off, the recordings are live concert performances that bring their own unique energy to the music. It’s a successful collaboration that shows promise.

01 Boccherini ConcertoLuigi Boccherini - Arie da Concerto
Amaryllis Dieltiens; Capriola di Gioia; Bart Naessens
Evil Penguin Records Classic EPRC 0023 (eprclassic.eu)

This is an ensemble on a mission – what it calls rehabilitating Boccherini. Overshadowed by Mozart and Haydn and receiving mixed comments in Grove’s Dictionary, Boccherini’s few vocal compositions – few because Boccherini’s patrons overwhelmingly demanded instrumental music – convey, according to Capriola di Gioia, a rare insight into the potential of the human voice. And so to the seven pieces selected by the Capriola di Gioia. Caro padre, a me non dei is a worthy introductory piece with an almost jaunty interpretation by Dieltiens – an approach repeated in Se non ti moro allato.

And yet, the heart of this CD is its intense concentration on classical themes. As perhaps might be expected from a piece with an inspiration of this nature, Caro luci, che regnate begins with a more stately character, a tone taken up by Dieltiens as she sings of Jason’s predicament in Issipile. Misera, dove soni is a worthy combination of a classical theme with a text and instrumental scoring for strings which could have been written by any of the great Baroque composers who preceded Boccherini.

Capriola di Gioia’s varied choice of Boccherini’s Arie da concerto allows the listener to make up his or her mind as to whether the composer has actually been rehabilitated. This CD from Dieltiens and Naessens means Boccherini does deserve to be listened to. Indeed, the final track Se d’un amor tiranno with its sprightly string playing, deep continuo and pleading voice encapsulates all the reasons for doing just that.

03 Ottawa Bach Choir’Twas But Pure Love
Ottawa Bach Choir; Lisette Canton
Canto 2016 (ottawabachchoir.ca)

The splendid choral offerings on this recording range from Renaissance to contemporary works and it was recorded just in time for the holiday season last year in celebration of the Ottawa Bach Choir’s 15th anniversary. It includes recording premieres for two Canadian works. The first, Sailor’s Carol by Matthew Larkin (director of music, Christ Church Cathedral, Ottawa), is based on a text by Cornish poet Charles Causley. With a lovely harp intro and simple chordal accompaniment, three descriptive verses lead to the chant Ave maris stella, creating a sense of great awe at the everlasting guidance of a star. The Darkest Midnight in December by Kelly-Marie Murphy again features lovely passages by harpist Caroline Léonardelli, while the women of the choir present a gentle, yet sublimely shimmering interpretation of a 1728 text by Irish priest, Fr. William Devereux. Early works performed beautifully by the full choir include Tomás Luis de Victoria’s O magnum mysterium, an unaccompanied motet realized in all its haunting splendour. Bach’s Lobet den Herrn, alle Heiden, BWV 230 provides a lively contrast with its double-fugue passages, showcasing each of the choirs’ sections and their superb tonal and rhythmic agility, as well as deftness of hand (and foot) by organist Jonathan Oldengarm.

04 SiegfriedWagner – Siegfried
O’Neill; Goerne; Cangelosi; van Mechelen; Melton; Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra; Jaap van Zweden
Naxos 8.660413-16

Siegfried is the real McCoy of the Ring Cycle, the epicentre packed with scenes of high drama, superhuman achievement and much of the Ring’s most beautiful music. And it’s also the most optimistic part of the Cycle; each act ends on a high note, reserving the best to the end with the most unusual love duet ever written. There is a fairy-tale atmosphere, a happy ending as well as unforgettable musical and dramatic highlights that usually translate into a glorious night at the opera.

This dramatic new Ring is the brainchild of Dutch conductor Jaap van Zweden, former concertmaster of the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra. Discovered by Leonard Bernstein, he is now music director of four major orchestras, fulfilling a dream to record his own Ring Cycle with an orchestra he would whip into a Wagnerian superpower and pick the best possible singers available today. Each opera was recorded as a live concert performance, one per year beginning in 2015, so this is the third installment.

The title role, Siegfried, is the biggest casting problem of any Ring attempt, but fortunately New Zealand heldentenor Simon O’Neill, a young, athletic fellow who could look good even on a rugby field, solves this problem wonderfully. He is a natural, not only powerful, enthusiastic and tireless, but also sensitive and tender. Wotan, here called the Wanderer (as he is no longer in charge of things), is Matthias Goerne, another excellent choice, one of the greatest baritones in the world today. David Cangelosi became the audience favourite with his characterful, incisive singing as Mime, the evil dwarf. In closing, it’s worth buying this set for the famous Forging Song alone. There were sounds coming out of the Hong Kong Cultural Centre never heard before!

05 MacMillan Stabat MaterJames MacMillan - Stabat Mater
The Sixteen; Britten Sinfonia; Harry Christophers

James MacMillan gained his early prominence with the orchestral piece The Confession of Isobel Gowdy. Since then he has generally been recognized as the leading Scottish composer of his generation. He is a Roman Catholic in a largely Protestant country. Sacred music has always been central to his creative work. In the last half decade he has developed a close relationship with the outstanding chamber choir The Sixteen (conducted by Harry Christophers). This CD gives us a sense of that collaboration. The Stabat Mater is an anonymous 13th-century Latin poem that depicts the Virgin Mary at the foot of the Cross and proceeds to meditate on her sorrow and appeals to her as an intercessor with her son.

There have been a number of previous attempts to give musical shape to the text. The versions by Josquin and Pergolesi are especially notable. On this CD the hymn is given in the form of the Medieval plainsong. The following four tracks give us MacMillan’s elaboration. It is a brilliant work, dazzlingly performed by the full choir, the soloists (all of them members of the choir) and the accompanying chamber orchestra, the Britten Sinfonia. In a prefatory note in the CD booklet, Christophers ranks MacMillan as one of the three great composers of religious music, along with Victoria and Poulenc. If one is only looking at the Catholic world, it is hard to disagree with that.

06 James RolfeJames Rolfe – Breathe
Suzie LeBlanc; Alexander Dobson; Monica Whicher; Toronto Consort; David Fallis; Toronto Masque Theatre; Larry Beckwith
Centrediscs CMCCD 24517 (musiccentre.ca)

The title track, Breathe, in its performance here, is by far one of the most extraordinarily beautiful recordings experienced in recent memory. The blending of texts, ancient (Hildegard von Bingen, Antonio Scandello) and modern (Anna Chatterton), is mirrored by the use of period instruments for new music. Composer James Rolfe infuses the work with connections between human emotion and the natural world represented by the four elements – water, earth, air and fire – so exquisitely. For example, we enjoy the sensation of love overflowing (as water does) with undulating chordal textures and an abundance of cascading note sequences as Suzie LeBlanc, Katherine Hill and Laura Pudwell magically intertwine their voices.

The two masques on the recording further demonstrate this Toronto composer’s exceptional gift for intermingling qualities of early music with contemporary techniques whilst coaxing subconscious elements to seep through in performance. In Europa, the roles of the title character (Suzie LeBlanc) and her long-searching fiancé Hiram (Alexander Dobson) are both composed and sung with an extraordinary measure of pathos as they submit themselves to the will of the gods. And a refreshing new interpretation of the mythical Aeneas and Dido provides a much more intimate view of the doomed romance. As Dido, Monica Whicher is both stately and vulnerable, Alexander Dobson both bold and conflicted as Aeneas, while characters such as the spritely Mercury (Teri Dunn) and the Goat (Vicki St. Pierre) provide comic relief, if somewhat malevolent. Kudos to Larry Beckwith and David Fallis for their direction of these performances.

07 John GreerSing Me at Midnight - Songs by John Greer
Tracy Dahl; Kevin McMillan; Delores Ziegler; John Greer
Centrediscs CMCCD 24717 (musiccentre.ca)

This Canadian Art Song Project CD features works for voice and piano by noted Canadian accompanist, conductor and pedagogue John Greer. Spanning the past 30 years, the four song cycles comprise 20 songs with a variety of genres, voice types and moods. I am particularly partial to the cycle Sing Me at Midnight (1993) sung by lyric baritone Kevin McMillan, whose rich sound and ringing top suits these dramatic settings of sonnets by Wilfred Owen. Adept chromatic harmony conveys the pain of How Do I Love Thee, while percussive clusters accentuate the Anthem for Doomed Youth’s white-hot anger. Greer offers effective settings of evocative, religiously based poetry by Marianne Bindig in the cycle The Red Red Heart (1995). Tracy Dahl’s agile soprano handles the high tessitura well and is also attractive at the lower end in the opening, dancing song The Beginning.

The late Romantic style of The House of Tomorrow (1986) raised my eyebrows, till I tuned in to the evocation of childhood in these songs. The centrepiece, Midnight Prayer, a setting of the pensive poem by Aleksey Khomyakov in translation, is given a rich, expressive performance by American mezzo-soprano Dolores Zeigler. Finally, A Sarah Binks Songbook (1988) brings us mock-serious ditties wittily set by Greer, with allusions to various vocal genres. Tracy Dahl becomes the Canadian “prairie songstress,” her operatic persona elevating the work with perfect diction and much humour. John Greer’s collaborative pianism is exemplary throughout.

01 Lestro dOrfeoAltri canti d’amor - 17th Century Instrumental Works
L’Estro d’Orfeo; Leonor de Lera
Challenge Classics CC72760 (lestrodorfeo.com)

This is a CD with two pleasant surprises. One is a track from undervalued Renaissance composer, Barbara Strozzi. The other is a contemporary set of divisions on a Renaissance theme composed by the present-day artistic director of the CD, Leonor de Lera. Instrumental this collection may be, but the traditional description of the cornetto as being the closest instrument to the human voice is borne out by Josué Meléndez’s playing of Monteverdi’s Sinfonia; it is as if an ethereal choir is in attendance. Meléndez’s cornetto returns in L’Eraclito Amoroso by Strozzi, here as an example of diminuzioni, or extemporixed ornamentations.

The contribution from de Lera is her own diminuzioni on Apollo’s Lament, originally by Francesco Cavalli. De Lera’s playing probes the qualities of her Taningard violin built in Rome in 1739. She is admirably complemented by the plucked instrument playing of Josep Maria Martí.

The selection on this CD is enhanced by the inclusion of variations on popular tunes from the Renaissance. Fuggi dolente core is one such set, again played on Baroque violin; while this piece is often scored for voice, listeners to this particular variation will not miss that human aspect.

L’Estro d’Orfeo’s choices are centred on Venice’s prolific output and yet there is still room for pieces by Marco Uccellini of Modena. Listen once again to the brilliance in every sense of the word of the Baroque violin and basso continuo in Uccellini’s Ninth Sonata. And in his Aria Quarta sopra la “Ciaccona.”

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