11 ChimeraChimaera
Emmeluth’s Amoeba
Ora Fonogram OF149 (orafonogram.no) 

Emmeluth’s Amoeba consists of Signe Emmeluth, alto saxophone and compositions, Karl Bjorå (guitar), Ole Mofjell (drums) and Christian Balvig (piano). Their playing is tense and engaging. Chimaera was recorded in Trondheim, Norway in 2019 and features eight compositions which offer a great deal of improvisatory freedom: much of this album›s excitement comes from the contrasts between the improvised portions and the sudden interruption of composed ensemble sections. Emmeluth’s saxophone is lithe and delightfully erratic and Balvig is particularly impressive with his clusters of runs and staccato interjections.

Throughout the album, change is the main constant. For example, the first half of Squid Circles features Emmeluth’s skittering saxophone lines interspersing melodic fragments with quick multi-phonics. Then the drums enter with guitar and piano soon after. The last two minutes are a solid groove that builds towards an extremely abrupt ending. AB is a longer piece with a variety of sonic adventures, including a short section reminiscent of some zany music that Raymond Scott might have written. No. 1 begins with a slightly off-kilter lounge piano section and keeps this same nuanced mood as more instruments are added. It’s understated and beautiful. Chimaera is an excellent album that manages to be surprising, charming and edgy at the same time.

12 ColinLiving Midnight
Colin Fisher Quartet
Astral Spirits MF211/AS 107 (astralspiritsrecords.com) 

Leaving his guitar back in Toronto, Colin Fisher took his saxophones to New York and recorded this sometimes sage, sometimes savage, trio of exemplary improvisations with three of that city’s most accomplished free players: multi-instrumentalist Daniel Carter, bassist Brandon Lopez and drummer Marc Edwards. All four function as if they’ve worked together for years.

With Fisher on alto and tenor saxophones, while Carter roams among clarinet, flute, tenor, alto and soprano saxophones, the only disorientation occurs when both play saxophones. But on Valley Spirit for instance, the resulting layered reed affirmations create enough elasticized power to counter the rugged polyrhythms of Edwards, who is constantly aggressive, although his distinctive accents and patterns never disrupt the narratives.

Elsewhere Carter’s discursive trumpet flutters, breezy flute tones or fluid clarinet timbres create a calm oasis during the extended tracks, which Fisher joins with breathy lower-case vibrations. Meanwhile Lopez’s sprawling thumps maintain the tunes’ flow, except those times he joins the others for expressive intensity.

Overall, the horn players use chalumeau and clarion registers in double counterpoint to create packed tension or relaxed flow with frequent detours into split tones and irregular vibrations, as on Crescent Moon Furnace and Embryonic Breath. What this means is that Fisher, Carter and the others unite to productively vary sequences among light and dark, speedy and frantic, and high and low pitches. It also confirms that a Hogtown improviser can easily pull his weight when facing Big Apple challengers.

13 CafeCafé Grand Abyss
Jon Rose; Alvin Curran
ReR Megacorp ReRJRAC (rermegacorp.com) 

Busman’s holidays for American pianist Alvin Curran and Australian violinist Jon Rose; the two navigate a program of improvisations that also reference Curran’s experiments with electronics and Rose’s habit of stretching the fiddle’s expected characteristics for offbeat music-making.

Both are possessed of a sardonic sense of humour. For instance, they end the disc with a brief singing saw-and-keyboard-clipping variant on Tea for Two and precede that with a pseudo-blues, where at every turn, wide multi-string violin squeaks burlesque the jittery piano syncopation beside it. But this café’s main courses are extended duets, where amplified tenor violin sweeps expose unexpected techniques answered succinctly by keyboard colours plus wave-form drones or sampled sounds.

Curran exhibits percussion backing, brass-like pumps, electronic wiggles, and sampled vocals and music on Benjamin at the Border, without neglecting consistent piano note patterns. These merge with Rose’s kinetic glissandi and hoedown-like patterns that complement the exposition while mocking the pianist’s few lapses into romanticism. Dramatically intriguing, The Marcuse Problem is built upon thickening a narrative constructed from angled fiddle runs and keyboard clinking to reach such a level of echoed intensity that it appears the pressure can’t be further amplified – and then it is. Finally the theme is deconstructed, leading to an appealing conclusion.

Recorded in sessions two years apart in Rome and Sydney where each musician lives, the CD’s stimulating duo program should encourage the two to collaborate more frequently.

01 Ensemble VivanteLatin Romance
Ensemble Vivant
Opening Day ODR 7458 (ensemblevivant.com)

This is Ensemble Vivant’s 14th album. Founder, artistic director and pianist, Catherine Wilson, and her merry band of fellow world-class musicians, have been serving up a captivating mix of classical, Latin, jazz, ragtime and music from the Great American Songbook, in an intimate chamber music format for over 30 years!

Writing this, as I am, on Valentine’s Day, how very appropriate that so much of the music, and the music-making, on Latin Romance is absolutely stirring and heart-achingly beautiful; Wilson’s opening solo on Gismonti’s Memoria Y Fado is especially poignant. And speaking of matters of the heart, sadly, noted Canadian composer, John Burke, whose rich and rhythmic La Despedida for solo piano (a gift to Wilson, his longtime friend and colleague) graces track five, passed away on January 18, 2020. (Eerily, and perhaps fittingly, La Despedida – translated as “The Farewell” – was the last piece of his music Burke heard performed, live, before he died six weeks later.)

Wilson, along with bassist Jim Vivian, violinist Corey Gemmell, violist Norman Hathaway, cellist Sybil Shanahan, and guests Don Thompson, whose vibe work on Gismonti’s Lôro is an exhilarating tour de force, trumpeter Kevin Turcotte, and Juan Carlos Medrano and Luisito Orbegoso on Latin percussion, sparkle, shimmer, pulsate, yearn, beckon, move, tango and haunt in gorgeous (and often sexy) pieces by Piazzolla, Jobim, Lecuona, Albeniz, Mozart Camargo Guarnieri, Ernesto Nazareth, Leroy Anderson and Phil Dwyer.

Latin Romance is chamber music at its evocative best!

Listen to 'Latin Romance' Now in the Listening Room

02 Lynn HarrisonSomething More
Lynn Harrison
Independent (lynnharrison.ca)

Sometimes a low-key first impression leads, like the title of this CD, to Something More. Toronto folk singer Lynn Harrison’s finely crafted, penetrating lyrics and music become more and more intriguing as the disc progresses. In the title song I was at first concerned about plainness, but now I realize that, together with hollow-sounding guitar chord voicings, the repeated word “something” builds a sense of trouble effectively. Relentless lyrical uncertainty is appropriate enough in the song Riddle, yet in the closing guitar passage acceptance emerges non-verbally. In another song, Don’t Know How It Works, the line “To turn this anxious overflow into an easy grace” is especially memorable. In When I’m on the Water the continuation goes “… I’m above deep blue/When I hold my paddle I can glide on through.” With political and environmental themes, Protester and Pretty It Up become distinguished contributions in the social justice tradition.

Hope in the face of difficulty is pervasive, and this artist’s inner depth no doubt also supports her work as Unitarian Universalist minister. In Harrison’s folk style, her clear alto voice and confident acoustic guitar work are notable. Enriching influences from blues, rock and jazz in her songs are realized by stellar contributions from Noah Zacharin on guitars, including slide work on You Come to Me, and from too many other excellent instrumentalists to name individually. Production by Zacharin in association with Douglas September tops it all off professionally and imaginatively.

Listen to 'Something More' Now in the Listening Room

03 Simjone Baron Arco BeloThe Space Between Disguises
Simone Baron & Arco Belo
Independent GF0001 (simonebaron.com; arcobelo.com) 

American pianist/accordionist/composer/arranger Simone Baron created her self-described “genre queer” seven-member chamber ensemble Arco Belo to perform styles ranging from classical to jazz to folk to world to new music. This debut release is a grounded creative quasi-work in progress performed with expertise. Co-produced with bassist Michael Pope and percussionist/drummer Lucas Ashby, Baron’s music is eclectic accessible listening.

Baron is equally proficient in arranging and composing. Highlights include her opening track composition, Post Edit Delete, with lush string sounds opening, followed by her solo piano playing leading to a more jazz sound with solo violin. Its diversity is surprisingly not fragmented and introduces the listener to Baron’s self-described musical “worlds as different gestures.” Her Passive Puppeteer touches on many, never dissonant, ideas featuring her piano grooves and accordion runs supported by Pope’s electric bass virtuosity. Love her three short Disguise Interludes with static electronic sounds and voice.

Baron’s arrangement of Brazilian composer Tibor Fittel’s Valsa, which features a lyrical accordion part with bass, full string section and traditional harmonies, shifts from sad to upbeat rhythmic tango. Baron’s sensitive accordion performance here would benefit from more subtle dynamic variations but the high accordion pitches, trills and repeated notes at the end are colourful. World music sounds abound in her take on Béla Bartók’s Buciumeana/Kadynja.

String players Aaron Malone, Bill Neri and Peter Kibbe, and percussionist Patrick Graney complete the band membership. Other special guests play here too and Baron’s musical forecast shines brightly!

04 WesterliesWherein Lies the Good
The Westerlies
Westerlies Records WST001 (westerliesmusic.com) 

The Westerlies are a brass quartet playing postmodern roots music with classical finesse while throwing in some down and dirty jazz licks and a few extended techniques. Wherein Lies the Good is their third album and the current members are Riley Mulherkar and Chloe Rowlands (trumpet) and Andy Clausen and Willem de Koch (trombone). The album is just over an hour with 18 songs and they run the gamut from Charles Ives to five gospel numbers transcribed from the Golden Gate Quartet’s arrangements, and an original from each member of the group.

One of my favourites is Robert Henry, written by Clausen for his nephew’s birth. It has a beautiful lilting melody played by the trumpets over pensive and moving trombone bass lines. It contains strains of minimalism with rapid fire exchanges between the trumpets and crisp articulation from everyone. Like many of the works, it has several sections which shift moods and keep the listener engaged. On the other hand, Entropy Part II becomes densely discordant and downright spooky. Wherein Lies the Good is a fresh delight and the arrangements make the four horns seem like a much larger ensemble.

With the trumpet’s traditional heraldic and heroic roles in most music, and construction which depends on only three valves, tubing and a bell, it would seem that distinctive brass innovation would be at a premium. Yet as the following discs demonstrate, those who mix innovative concepts and technical sophistication can create notable exploratory sessions.

01 EngageWhile American Dave Douglas’ Engage (Greenleaf Music GRE-CD-1074 greenleafmusic.com) is the performance closest to the jazz tradition, his choice of engaged song titles such as Sanctuary Cities and Living Earth confirms his political concerns, while the group lineup is unconventional. Besides drummer Kate Gentile and bassist Nick Dunston, it includes guitarist Jeff Parker, cellist Tomeka Reid plus Canada’s Anna Webber moving among alto and bass flutes and tenor saxophone. Engaged, not agit-prop though, challenges are expressed in sound. Orchestral, with a bass flute introduction for instance, In It Together splinters from anthemic to atonal due to trumpet gusts, swift cello string jerks and barbed guitar frails. One Sun, A Million Rays mates an exemplar of brass tongue jujitsu and valve hide-and-seek timbres propelled by guest trumpeter Dave Adewumi, with parade ground-like drumming and a chromatic counter line from the flutist. Meanwhile Living Earth could be a sleigh-ride melody reimagined by a Dixieland combo, although Webber’s tough tenor intensity, Parker’s colourful finger-picking and Douglas’ open horn work, backed by vamps from Adewumi and another trumpet guest, Riley Mulherkar, confirm its contemporary stance. This substantiates another Douglas concept. Like a concerned progressive who wishes society to evolve not rupture, his compositions cannily advance new textures that build on established ones. Faith Alliance and Free Libraries, Engage’s most advanced tracks, are instances of this. Faith Alliance slides Parker’s Jimi Hendrix-like squealing flanges and razor-sharp distortions within a layered horn vamp, culminating in a challenge from string pressure to brass expansion. Free Libraries could be termed roots music with the cello’s string swelling and the guitar’s blues licks never disrupting the harmonized horn part that, with gentling grace notes, instills concluding calm.

02 Dropping StuffTouching on roots music by inference is Dropping Stuff and other Folk Songs (Relative Pitch RPR 1094 relativepitchrecords.com) but the eight tracks don’t resemble any extant folk music. Instead they reflect the sounds made by instruments stretched to their technical limits during improvisations created by an unconventional line-up of Amsterdam-based violist Ig Henneman and flutist Anne La Berge plus American trumpeter Jaimie Branch. There are a few instances of the extroverted trumpeter producing bugle call-like vamps, ferocious yelps and an entire section on the concluding title track where her inner Bubber Miley is revealed via plunger mute snarls. But Branch generally mutes her output to match the others’ horizontal pitches. Meanwhile La Berge often concentrates on affiliating peeping and keening trills as Henneman’s spiccato string slices alternate between disruptive angled pings and flowing ostinato pulses. Although enough echoes within the trumpet’s body tube, narrow flute whines and dissected string drags are featured, a perverse lyricism sometimes peeks through. Branch’s arching brassiness is effective in meeting the pseudo-romanticism of Henneman’s sluicing buzzes on Gigging, while unexpected, though quickly cut off, trio elation characterizes Canal Rounds. However the defining track is the extended When bells stop ringing. Melding the violist’s sul ponticello swells with the trumpeter’s propelling triplets and smears at Flight of the Bumblebee speeds, flute peeps create the connective continuum. Finally harmonized whistles from the horn players match Henneman’s protracted string sawing for a downshifting conclusion.

03 ArthursAlso in the realm of close-knit tripartite improvisation, but intensified with programming, is Hangkerum (Clean Feed CF 533 CD cleanfeedrecords.com) involving trumpeter Tom Arthurs and electronic musician Isambard Khroustaliov both from the UK and Swiss percussionist Julian Sartorius. Vibrant and balanced, the disc consists of five tracks, which purposely reveal the distinct aspects of each instrument through separation and interaction until the trio’s parallel strategies cinch. Beginning with rounded trumpet notes, Arthurs’ pitches are held and framed by galloping pulsations from Khroustaliov’s electronics and Sartorius’ intermittent beats until the brass player’s muted lyricism, highlighted with note flurries, meets knob-twisting oscillations and sharp, unexpected peeps. By the time Herrgöttli is elaborated, midpoint digression has Arthurs timbre-stretching to piccolo trumpet-like pitches or fluttering growls, but without weakening the narrative thread which was advanced at the outset. While the electronic undulating continues in building tension, there’s a sudden realization that live processing has created a secondary brass line, whizzing alongside the first. Timed chimes echoes plus power ratamacues from the percussionist concentrate the textures of the subsequent Duch even further, until halfway through a nuanced melodic line from the trumpeter unexpectedly floats over the sound miasma, leading to Reréaux, the extended finale. Picking up on each of the sound properties propelled by the trio members, the piece is buzzy, bellicose and breezy in equal measures. While the programmer’s synthesized outer-space-like whooshes and juddering oscillations are audible, so are the drummer’s doorbell-like tolling, churning bass drum pumps and ascending cymbal pings. Yet as much as the percussion and electronics vibrate irregularly beside him, Arthurs not only excavates the nooks and crannies of his horn for unusual textures, but uses muted puffs to confirm the alluring beauty of the suite.

04 Electric greenStripped down even further in concept and execution is the duo of French bassist Benoit Cancoin and German trumpeter Birgit Ulher, who uses a radio, speakers and objects to further splinter her brass sound during Electric Green (Blumlein edition blumlein.net). Interestingly enough, despite the obvious differences between their instruments there are points at which the bassist’s arco string sweeps and the trumpeter’s sounding of wide projected textures make differentiation nearly impossible. Most of the time though, Cancoin propels his low-pitched stops and rubs to create an ongoing continuum, while Ulher manipulates her horn and add-ons to source unique vibrations. One second she can output fire-drill-like elevated pitches, while on the next inflate balloon-like blows from deep inside her horn or latterly produce gentle flute-like tones. In fact, the extended Seladon is one of the date’s most low-key tracks with brief sniffs and watery gurgles from the trumpet’s innards brushing up against the bassist’s string stretching and wood banging until her aviary bleats and his col legno string slaps move their strategies closer. Establishing individual real estate they can be discordant, as on Aureolin, contrasting jet-plane-like brass propulsion and powerful purported string shredding from the bassist. But overall the aim is to stretch expected timbres in the course of affiliation. By the brief, final Signal Blue, they establish an unshakable rapport so that the trumpeter’s note burbling and mouthpiece French kisses snugly align beside the closest Cancoin comes to pumping out a swing beat on the date.

05 PipSomething completely different is Possible Worlds (SOFA 575 sofamusic.no), a single track, 66-minute program of mesmerizing avant-ambient sound by Norwegian duo Pip. Consisting of Torstein Lavik Larsen on trumpet, sampler and synthesizer plus Fredrik Rasten who plays fretless electric and acoustic guitars, chimes and electronics in varied combinations, here the brass is used sparingly to infuse accents onto constantly repeated microtonal hooks propelled by Rasten’s slurred fingering. Subtly, the sequences gradually intensify as the track progresses while synthesized granular motifs including brass vibrations and organ-like sweeps inflate and take up more aural space. A defining diversion arrives at the three-quarter mark as the finger-picked guitar pulse is strengthened and turns upwards to meet synthesizer drones and percussive slaps. Meanwhile, inside horn growls from Larsen wash over the interaction. After fuzz tones, chime echoes and dripping water-like sound samples are introduced into the mix, the continuous guitar strums are reintroduced to slide through harsher drones and bond with the exposition.

Each of these trumpeters chose to blow his or her horn in a unique fashion and all the strategies are equally valid.

01 BernsteinHow fondly remembered are Leonard Bernstein’s Young People’s Concerts with the New York Philharmonic as seen on CBS Sunday afternoons from 1958 to 1972 and held in the new Philharmonic Hall, Lincoln Center. Years later the videos were first issued by Sony on VHS but those are long gone. We now have some of them on a four Blu-ray video disc set from Cmajor as Volume Two of these concerts (Unitel Edition 800504 naxosdirect.com).

For these readers who may not be aware of these still-memorable concerts, the intention was to introduce younger people, and anyone else, and help them appreciate and hopefully understand classical music, new and old. Bernstein explained in easily understood language, with examples conducting the orchestra, what the music is all about and what the composer intended. Bernstein himself wrote all his scripts, over which he devoted enormous time and care. What we see and hear appears completely spontaneous, sharing information and never talking down to his audience.

In this collection there are 14 programs on subjects of interest upon which he elaborates and illustrates, each of which turn out to hold our attention even when presenting familiar works. For instance, Two Ballet Birds, aired on September 14, 1969, tells us that there are basically two kinds of ballet, one that tells a story and the other which does not. Les Sylphides is a perfect example of the latter. Bernstein illustrates a combination of both with music from Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake. All very beautiful Romantic music, but with an abundance of simply abstract dancing for our pleasure, choreographed to show what the dancers can do and not to advance the story. On the other hand, in Stravinsky’s thrilling ballet, The Firebird, what is unfolding on the stage is precisely described and reinforced by the orchestra in the pit. Bernstein treats the audience in the hall with Stravinsky’s own suite from the ballet.

The set includes a tribute to Shostakovich on the great composer’s 60th birthday, January 5, 1966, including a very interesting analysis and complete performance of the compact Symphony No.9. There is also a tribute to Sibelius with a discussion and performance of Finlandia on the composer’s 100th anniversary, February 19, 1965. I found What is a Mode? most fascinating and somewhat of a revelation concerning popular music of the time, including an appreciation of the Beatles. The last example in this concert illustrating modes is a smashing performance of Debussy’s Fêtes. In Berlioz Takes a Trip, we are treated to an examination of the idée fixe in the Symphonie fantastique all with the aid of the Philharmonic. Bernstein is very positive about the “flawed masterpiece” Fidelio, the opera that Beethoven wrote and rewrote. He explains the ins and outs of the whole opera with the plot and sub-plots which attract critical attention. In truth, according to Bernstein, the blame lies with the author who saddled the composer with a problematic libretto. Bernstein introduced four young voices to perform some “charming excerpts.”

The last of the 14 individual programs in this set is the Aaron Copland Birthday Party, celebrating his 60th on the evening of February 12, 1961, which ended with Copland conducting his well-known El Salón México. But there is more, much more! Plus, there are three episodes of “Young Performers” introducing, among so many of outstanding talents, pianist André Watts, violinist James Oliver Buswell IV and the 30-year-old Claudio Abbado. This is a unique, engaging collection; a pleasure to watch and listen to the articulate Lenny talk about music and music-making. Volume Three on Blu-ray has been announced and is imminent.

02 RosbaudHans Rosbaud was one of the few great conductors of his time who rarely performed beyond Germany, Switzerland and France. Undoubtedly, he would have been internationally recognized had he been active in the outside world. However, his name was somewhat familiar as the conductor in many records by Wilhelm Backhaus, Walter Gieseking, Pierre Fournier and various singers. DG issued their complete catalogue of Rosbaud recordings in 2004 but it is on SWR Classic CDs that he is now best represented. In addition to single CDs they have numerous composer-dedicated sets: Bruckner, Haydn, Tchaikovsky, Mozart, Brahms, Chopin and now a Schumann collection (SWR19085CD, 3 CDs naxos.com). Disc One has the First and Fourth Symphonies and an overture to Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, Op.128. Disc two has the Cello Concerto, Op.129 with Pierre Fournier and the Violin Concerto, WoO23 with Henryk Szeryng. The Third CD finds Annie Fischer playing the Piano Concerto in A Minor, Op.54. Schumann, as some readers may know by now, is my most cherished composer and I am critical of any performer, live or recorded, who skews the score by straying too far from what is written. Here are perfectly balanced performances, meticulously prepared but not for a moment sounding over-rehearsed or uninspired. Were it not that I have a copy, I would want this set.

03 BohmOn the other hand, Austrian conductor Karl Böhm (1894-1981) was recognized across the music world, emerging, in the 1930s with his superb recordings from Dresden with the then Saxon State Orchestra. After WWII he was a major maestro worldwide until his death in 1981. From the late 1930s on just about any station in the world that played any classical music even for only a few hours on the weekend, most probably would have a 78 rpm record or two of light classics by the Saxon State Orchestra. Conducted by Böhm, a part of their recorded repertoire consisted of overtures and entertaining concert pieces, the genre of music that Sir Thomas Beecham would refer to as “lollypops.” Their 78s were sold in stores around the world.

Today it is interesting to see some of the repertoire that did so well for Electrola, HMV, et al. being reissued by Profil as Edition Staatskapelle Dresden, Vol. 43: Karl Böhm (PH18035, 2 CDs naxosdirect.com). The performances are absolutely first rate and the recordings full bodied and dynamic. Do they have the same attraction all these years later? Here is the list of just the overtures: Die Fledermaus, Abduction from the Seraglio, Marriage of Figaro, Egmont, Leonore 3, Der Freischütz, Oberon and The Bartered Bride. That’s only CD1 of two. More overtures to follow plus the Rákóczy March, the Emperor Waltz, Eine Kleine Nachtmusik, Capriccio Italien, and more to a total of 24 complete little showpieces. Two and a half hours of “never-a-dull-moment.” A lot of contagious energy here. 

The 2020 JUNO Awards take place on Sunday, March 15.As always, come JUNOS time, there’s much for us at The WholeNote to be pleased by, looking at the lists of nominees and seeing how many of the albums in question our recording reviews editor David Olds and his industrious DISCOVERIES team managed to review – this year 25 out of 40 in the categories that are the closest musical match with what we do. There are, of course, some nominees in those categories who we missed out on reviewing (or simply haven’t got to yet…so keep the recordings coming).

There are also, of course, lots of other JUNO categories outside the musical genres we cover – and many of these other categories will be front and centre in the televised JUNO broadcast (which many of the categories we cover will not!). All the more reason to read about them here, as a reminder that the JUNOS are a bigger musical tent than what you will see on TV during prime time on March 15.

So, here for your interest, are all the nominees in categories of music we normally cover, with albums we reviewed over the course of the year highlighted, and with links to those reviews, including magazine section and month of the review, along with, in many cases, links to tracks from the albums in question.

Vocal jazz album of the year

Jazz album of the year: solo

Jazz album of the year: group

Instrumental album of the year

Classical album of the year: solo or chamber

Classical album of the year: large ensemble

Classical album of the year: vocal or choral

Classical composition of the year

Traditional roots album of the year

World music album of the year

Recording engineer of the year

  • George Seara: "If I Can't Have You"
  • Jason Dufour: "Push For Yellow,"
  • John "Beetle" Bailey: "Dividido (feat. Silvana Estrada)" (Alex Cuba, Sublime); "Shotgun" (Monkey House, Friday) 2019 – 10 Pot Pourri
  • Ryan Worsley: "2 Myself"
  • Vic Florencia: "Midnight," "Over Me" (Brooke Palsson, Midnight)

The 2020 JUNO Awards take place on Sunday, March 15, 2020. A complete list of nominees can be found here.

01 Luna Pearl WoolfThis month Tapestry presents the world premiere of American composer Luna Pearl Woolf’s latest opera, Jacqueline. Coinciding with this is the Pentatone release of Woolf’s Fire and Flood on the Oxingale label (PTC5186803 naxosdirect.com). This striking vocal disc features mostly recent works for a cappella choir (the Choir of Trinity Wall Street under the direction of Julian Wachner) with soloists in several instances and, in the most memorable selection, Après moi, le déluge, obbligato cello (Matt Haimovitz). After a virtuosic cello cadenza, this work develops into a bluesy and occasionally meditative telling of the story of Noah and the Flood which culminates in the gospel-tinged Lord, I’m goin’ down in Louisiana before gently subsiding. After a rousing arrangement of Leonard Cohen’s Everybody Knows for vocal trio and cello, comes a modern-sounding but fairly tonal Missa in Fines Orbis Terrae with the choir accompanied by Messiaen-like organ (Avi Stein). The vocal trio (sopranos Devon Guthrie and Nancy Anderson with mezzo Elise Quagliata) return for One to One to One, in this instance accompanied by the low strings (three cellos and three basses) of NOVUS NY. Having begun with the close harmonies, murmurs, shouts and extended vocal techniques of the a cappella To the Fire with full choir, the disc ends with the vocal trio once again joined by Haimovitz for a raucous setting of Cohen’s Who by Fire to close out an exceptional disc. A wonderful cross-section of Woolf’s vocal writing that bodes well for the new opera.

02 ConcurrenceLast April I wrote about a solo recording by Icelandic cellist Sæunn Thorsteinsdóttir called Vernacular which included Afterquake by Páll Ragnar Pálsson, a rock musician who has recently come to the world of art music. That solo piece was directly linked to his earlier Quake for cello and chamber orchestra, a concerto in all but name and his first collaboration with Thorsteinsdóttir. On a new disc from Sono Luminus, Concurrence (DSL-92237 sonoluminus.com) Thorsteinsdóttir is heard performing this forebear with the Iceland Symphony Orchestra under the direction of Daniel Bjarnason, the orchestra’s principal guest conductor. While I find Afterquake a stunning tour de force with its virtuosity and subtlety, I welcome this opportunity to hear the original Quake with its expanded palette of timbre, texture and colour. It is no surprise that it was a selected work at the International Rostrum of Composers in Budapest in 2018. The disc also includes Metacosmos, an atmospheric work by Anna Thorvaldsdóttir, Haukur Tómasson’s Piano Concerto No.2 and María Huld Markan Sigfúsdóttir’s Oceans. In the booklet essay by American critic Steve Smith we are urged to contemplate the human dimensions of the music and not just hear it as scenic paintings. I must confess though, from the opening strains of Metacosmos I found myself remembering the stark landscapes of Iceland and thinking that yes, “You can hear a country in its music.” Tómasson’s concerto is seemingly all about timbre, the dynamics range from delicate pianissimos to forceful fortes, but the music is never bombastic. As Smith says, “the soloist [Víkingur Ólafsson] is first among equals, a frolicsome force in continual conversation with lively choruses of counterparts, never overshadowed but also rarely isolated.” Sigfúsdóttir’s Oceans begins in near silence, gently evoking sunrise on a quiet sea. The seven-minute piece remains calm and serene throughout, setting the stage for Pálsson’s Quake, which concludes the disc. The recordings were made in the main Eldborg concert hall and the Norðurljós recital hall of Reykjavik’s five-star waterfront cultural centre Harpa, using Pyramix software, with the orchestra seated in a circle around the conductor. Production values are superb, with both CD and Blu-ray Pure Audio discs included in the package. Highly recommended.

03 AfterimageThe String Orchestra of Brooklyn (SOB)’s conductor Eli Spindel says of the group’s debut CD release afterimage (Furious Artisans FACD6823 furiousartisans.com) “The featured works […] take as their starting point a single moment from an older work and – through processes of repetition, distortion, and in the case of the Stabat Mater, extreme slow motion – create a completely new soundscape, like opening a small door into an unfamiliar world.” The disc begins with Christopher Cerrone’s High Windows, based on Paganini’s Caprice No.6 in G Minor. Scored for string quartet and string orchestra, the SOB is joined on this recording by the Argus Quartet. The 13-minute work examines a fragment of the Paganini as under a microscope and also draws on material from an earlier Cerrone piece for piano and electronics. The title refers to the windows of the church in which the premiere performance took place. Although this is the SOB’s first recording, they were founded in 2007 and the second work is Jacob Cooper’s Stabat Mater Dolorosa which was written for them in 2009. Taking Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater as its point of departure, the 27-minute work incorporates two singers as does the original. It takes patience to listen to the extremely slow unfolding of this careful examination of one of the most gorgeous works of early 18th-century vocal repertoire. If you are able to suspend your disbelief, it’s well worth the journey. The disc also includes the original works that inspired Cerrone and Cooper. Violinist Rachel Lee Priday performs Paganini’s solo caprice and soprano Mellissa Hughes and mezzo Kate Maroney shine in a more traditional interpretation of the first movement of Pergolesi’s masterpiece to complete the disc. My only quibble with this recording is the order of presentation. I’m sure much thought went into the decision to put the new works first and the old works last, but after several listenings I find I prefer to hear the Paganini first to set the stage for Cerrone’s tribute, then the Cooper, with Pergolesi last to really bring us home.

Listen to 'afterimage' Now in the Listening Room

04 Matt SargentI thought I had all the material I needed for this month’s column when, just a few days before deadline, we received a shipment from the label Cold Blue and I found one of the discs so similar in approach to Cooper’s Stabat Mater that I decided to add it to my pile. Although new to me, it seems that Jim Fox originally founded this label in 1983, producing 10- and later 12-inch vinyl discs of primarily California-based contemporary and avant-garde music. When both of its distributors closed their doors in 1985 the label ceased operations for a time, but Fox later re-established it and began producing CDs in 2000. The catalogue now includes some five dozen titles by a host of composers including Fox himself, John Luther Adams, Charlemagne Palestine, Larry Polansky, Kyle Gann and Daniel Lenz to name but a few (i.e. the ones I’ve heard of). The disc that captured my attention is Matt Sargent – Separation Songs (CB0055 coldbluemusic.com), a set of 54 variations on selections from William Billings’ New England Psalm Singer. Composed between 2013 and 2018, Sargent has scored these four-voice hymn tunes, originally published in 1770, for two string quartets. On this recording the Eclipse Quartet accompanies and interacts with itself through overdubbing. Sargent says: “Throughout the piece, hymns tunes appear and reappear in ever-expanding loops of music passed between the quartets. Each time they return, the tunes filter through a ‘separation process’ whereby selected notes migrate from one quartet to the other. This process leaves breaks in the music that either remain silent or are filled in by stretching the durations of nearby notes, generating new rhythms and harmonies.” To my ears, the effect is like listening to a Renaissance consort of viols through a layer of gauze, or filtered by the mists of time, much like when ghostly strains of Schubert’s Death and the Maiden appear in George Crumb’s Black Angels. If I said you would need patience for Cooper’s protracted Stabat Mater, that is more than doubly the case for this 73-minute, one-track composition, but again, it rewards every moment of attention. I look forward to exploring the Cold Blue back catalogue, and to future releases.

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05 Shuffle DemonsWell, all that listening to atmospheric and mist-shrouded ambience left me needing an injection of backbeat and rhythm, so when I found the latest from the Shuffle Demons in my inbox I knew the remedy was in hand. I’ll admit I may not be the ideal candidate to take on this review as it’s somewhat beyond my usual purview, but having spent some of my formative years in funky Queen St. W., I have fond memories of watching this outstanding (and outrageous) band playing on the streets of the neighbourhood. It came as a bit of a surprise to me that the Demons were still active some 35 years later, but it was a pleasant one indeed. Their ninth album Crazy Time (Stubby Records SRCD 1703 shuffledemons.com) features the classic three saxes and driving rhythm of bass and drums the Demons are known for. It includes two new members, Matt Lagan on tenor sax and bassist Mike Downes alongside stalwarts Richard Underhill, Kelly Jefferson and Stich Wynston, but in honour of their 35th anniversary, original members Mike Murley and Jim Vivian appear on five of the ten tracks. As in the past, hot instrumentals are interspersed with topical vocal tracks reminiscent of the classic Spadina Bus – be sure to check out the YouTube videos of that defining song – including the title track with its commentary on Ontario’s current leadership among other things: “We live in a crazy town, in a crazy world, in a crazy time.” All tunes were penned and arranged by Underhill with the exception of Jefferson’s smooth instrumental Even Demons Get the Blues and the retro rap vocal Have a Good One which Underhill co-wrote some years ago with interim Demons Eric St-Laurent, Mike Milligan and Farras Smith. The signature swinging unison horn choruses and individual solo takes are as strong as ever, and the infectious beat goes on. It’s great to find this iconic Canadian jazz institution alive and well, with no signs of aging or decay; long may the Shuffle Demons reign!

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01 Shostakovich 13 15The Fitzwilliam String Quartet was formed in October 1968 in Fitzwilliam College, Cambridge and celebrates its 50th anniversary with a quite remarkable 2CD set of Shostakovich Last Three String QuartetsNo.13 in B-flat Minor Op.138, No.14 in F-sharp Major Op.142 and No.15 in E-flat Minor Op.144 (Linn CKD 612

After graduating from Cambridge the quartet accepted a residency at the University of York in 1971, and in early 1972 violist Alan George (now the only original member still with the group) wrote to Shostakovich requesting the material and permission to play his 13th quartet, which still hadn’t been performed in the UK. Shostakovich not only supplied both but travelled to York for the November concert, the Fitzwilliams also playing three of his earlier quartets for him in his hotel room.

The visit started a relationship and correspondence which lasted until the composer’s death in August 1975 and also resulted in Shostakovich trusting the ensemble with the Western premieres of his 14th and 15th string quartets. The Fitzwilliam gained international recognition by becoming the first quartet to perform and record the complete cycle of Shostakovich string quartets.

Now, 43 years after those early recordings, the quartet revisits the momentous relationship, Alan George’s extensive, deeply personal and moving booklet essays underlining just what a life-altering experience it was. These are not easy quartets, George noting that they are strongly coloured by an aura of death and personal despair, and by musings on his own mortality by a composer for whom faith held no meaning, and who saw death as absolutely final – “existence passing into the infinity of oblivion.”

Not surprisingly, given the circumstances, the performances here are outstanding, with every phrase, every note, every dynamic and every gesture reflecting the depth of understanding the players have of these remarkable works.

02 Beethoven Miro QuartetThe Miró Quartet – violinists Daniel Ching and William Fedkenheuer, violist John Largess and cellist Joshua Gindele – was formed in 1995, and has become one of the most celebrated American string quartets.

They started recording the Beethoven quartets in 2004, releasing the first volume featuring the six Op.18 quartets (with then second violin Sandy Yamamoto) in 2005 on the Vanguard Classics label. Four subsequent CDs starting in 2012 covered the Opp.59, 74, 95, 130, 131 and 133 works, with the final recordings completed by February 2019.

The complete cycle is now available on eight CDs in a special box set of Beethoven Complete String Quartets (Pentatone PTC 5186 827 naxosdirect.com), marking both the ensemble’s 25th anniversary and the 250th anniversary of Beethoven’s birth in 2020. It’s quite superb. The quartets were recorded in numerical sequence over the years, so the listener can travel the same journey as the performers. And what a journey it is, with the astonishing late quartets in particular receiving superb performances. Slow movements are achingly beautiful, and the fast movements taken at breathtaking but perfectly balanced speed.

The insightful booklet notes by violist John Largess add another touch of class to a quite outstanding issue.

03 Schumann Dover QuartetThe Dover Quartet swept the board at the 2013 Banff International String Quartet Competition, winning every available prize, and if you needed any proof of their continuing rise to the very top of their field then their latest CD The Schumann Quartets (Azica ACD-71331 naxosdirect.com) should more than suffice.

Schumann wrote his three Op.41 string quartets – No.1 in A Minor, No.2 in F Major and No.3 in A Major – in a six-week period in 1842, never to return to the genre. They are quite lovely works, richly inventive and with more than a hint of Mendelssohn, to whom they were dedicated.

The Dover Quartet gives immensely satisfying performances of these brilliant works on a generous CD that runs to almost 80 minutes.

04 Barton PineThe latest CD from the always-interesting Rachel Barton Pine Dvořák Khachaturian Violin Concertos with the Royal Scottish National Orchestra under Teddy Abrams (Avie AV2411 naxosdirect.com) – is apparently not what it was meant to be, the originally planned “very different” album having to be changed at the last minute when the conductor became unavailable. These two concertos immediately struck the soloist as an attractive alternate project: she learned both works at 15 and had played each of them a few times during the previous concert season.

Tied as they are by each composer’s use of his own ethnic music they do make a good pair, but although there’s much fine playing here it feels somewhat subdued at times and never quite seems to really hit the heights the way you would expect, possibly due to the last-minute nature of the recording session but also possibly because Barton Pine seems to take a more lyrical approach to works that are strongly rhythmic as well as strongly melodic. The Khachaturian fares better in this respect, with a particularly fiery cadenza from the soloist.

04 Perspectives Dawn WohnPerspectives is a fascinating CD by violinist Dawn Wohn and pianist Esther Park that explores the differing cultures and perspectives of women composers, reaching back to the 19th century and into the 21st (Delos DE 3547 naxos.com)

The nine works are: Jhula-Jhule by Reena Esmail (b.1983); Episodes by Ellen Taaffe Zwilich (b.1939); the particularly lovely Legenda by the Czech composer Vítěslava Kaprálová, who died at only 25 in 1940; Star-Crossed (commissioned for the CD) by Jung Sun Kang (b.1983); the remarkable solo violin piece, ProviantiaSunset of Chihkan Tower,” by Chihchun Chi-sun Lee (b.1970); Deserted Garden and Elfentanz by Florence Price (1887-1953); the lovely Nocturne by Lili Boulanger (1893-1918); Portal by Vivian Fine (1913-2000); and Romance by Amy Beach (1867-1944).

Wohn plays with warmth, a crystal-clear tone and a fine sense of line and phrase in an immensely satisfying recital, with equally fine playing from her musical partner Park.

The outstanding cellist Daniel Müller-Schott is back with #CelloUnlimited, an impressive recital of 20th-century works for solo cello (ORFEO C 984 191 naxosdirect.com).

A passionate reading of the monumental and challenging Sonata Op.8 from 1915 by Zoltán Kodály makes a fine opening to the disc.

Prokofiev’s Sonata in C-sharp Minor Op.134 from 1953, the year of his death, is really only based on a fragment of the first of four projected movements; using a contrasting theme apparently partly sourced from Mstislav Rostropovich it was made into a performing version by the composer and musicologist Vladimir Blok in 1972.

Hindemith’s Sonata Op.25 No.3 from 1922 and Henze’s 1949 Serenade both consist of short but effective movements – nine each less than one minute long in the latter.

Müller-Schott’s own Cadenza from 2018 is followed by the early and surprisingly tonal 1955 Sonata by George Crumb; and Pablo Casals’ brief Song of the Birds, with which he always used to end his concerts, provides a calm and peaceful ending to a solo CD full of depth and fire.

07 Bach Piccolo CelloIt’s not unusual to encounter performances of both the Bach Sonatas & Partitas for solo violin and the solo Cello Suites in transcription: viola players, for instance, have available arrangements of both, and the Cello Suites can be found transcribed for violin. Less common, though, are performances of the violin Sonatas & Partitas on cello, but this is what Mario Brunello provides on Johann Sebastian Bach Sonatas & Partitas for solo violoncello piccolo (ARCAN A469 naxosdirect.com).

Brunello says that he tried playing the works on a four-string (not the usual five-string) smaller violoncello piccolo with no particular intention, and found that with the smaller body and the same tuning as a violin (but an octave lower) in effect the instrument felt like a larger or tenor violin, allowing him to read the Sonatas & Partitas as a cellist without having to resort to near-impossible technical virtuosity.

He also points out that the natural tendency for a cellist to first apply the bow to the lowest string leads to what he calls a “looking-glass” reading and a “seen from the bass line” approach in his playing, the instrument’s resonant body encouraging lingering on the low notes. Brunello certainly does that, even in the dance movements, but although it occasionally threatens to compromise the pulse it never really feels like more than just taking a breath and not rushing.

The instrument he plays is a 2017 model by Filippo Fasser of Brescia, after Antonio and Girolamo Amati of Cremona, 1600-1610. The pitch employed is a’ = 415 Hz, so down a semi-tone from the printed violin score.

It all works really well, although obviously the trade-off is that the brightness of the violin is lost, especially with the octave drop. There’s an interesting effect in the Andante of the A minor Sonata No.2, where Brunello plays the first half of the movement pizzicato and then changes to arco for the repeat, reversing the pattern for the second half.

There’s a fine resonance to the recording, and Brunello’s playing is admirable.

08 Vivaldi Seasons CelloThere’s another cello arrangement of a well-known violin work on Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons, an arrangement for cello and string ensemble by cellist Luka Šulić, who is accompanied by the Archi dell’Accademia di Santa Cecilia (Sony Classical 19075986552 sonymusicmasterworks.com).

This also seems to work very well, giving the music a slightly darker tinge than usual, although with the lower register the solo line is difficult to distinguish in places. When it’s clearly audible it’s really impressive playing, with Šulić displaying terrific facility and agility and handling the intricate solo line with apparent ease.

Full-blooded and committed ensemble playing, especially in the Allegro and Presto movements, where tempos are never on the slower side, makes for a really enjoyable CD.

09 Sor GuitarWe still tend to think of Andrés Segovia as being the guitarist most responsible for establishing the classical guitar in the concert hall, so Fernando Sor The 19th-Century Guitar, a new CD from the Italian guitarist Gianluigi Giglio (SOMM SOMMCD 0604 somm-recordings.com) is an excellent reminder of similar efforts from 100 years earlier.

As Michael Quinn points out in the booklet notes, the Spanish composer and guitarist was a pioneering advocate for the guitar as an instrument that belonged in the concert hall, building on the successes of Mauro Giuliani and Ferdinando Carulli in the first decade of the 1800s and producing the seminal Méthode pour la Guitare in 1830 along with a stream of compositions that extended both the instrument’s vocabulary and technique.

The eight works featured here all date from the period 1822-1836, when Sor had returned to Paris after spending eight years in London. They include the Introduction and Variations on a Theme by Mozart Op.9, the Easy Fantasy in A Minor Op.58, the Elegiac Fantasy in E Major Op.59 and the Capriccio in E Major, Le calme, Op.50. The Introduction and Variations on “Malbrough s’en va-t-en guerre” Op.28 – a tune better known now as “For he’s a jolly good fellow” – opens the disc, followed by Les folies d’Espagne and a Minuet Op.15a. Two movements from Mes Ennuis – Six Bagatelles Op.43 and the E Major No.23 from 24 Progressive Lessons for Beginners Op.31 complete the recital.

Giglio plays with a full, warm and clean sound redolent of a modern classical instrument, but is in fact performing on a narrow-waisted but quite beautiful 1834 guitar by René Lacôte of Paris, illustrated in colour on the booklet front cover. 

01 Scarlatti ClementiDomenico Scarlatti; Muzio Clementi – Keyboard Sonatas
John McCabe
Divine Art dda 21231 (divineartrecords.com)

The erudite composer and pianist John McCabe left his mark on British music-making in the 20th century. His gifts as interpreter at the keyboard were very much equal to his abilities as composer. Discographic focus for the majority of his life centred upon neglected composers of old: Haydn, Clementi and Nielsen, among others. A recent reissue of two LPs that McCabe recorded in the early 1980s is a welcome one, pairing well-loved sonatas by Domenico Scarlatti with somewhat obscure works by the Italian-born English composer, pianist, pedagogue, conductor, music publisher, editor and piano manufacturer(!) Muzio Clementi.

McCabe brings a muscular, cerebral approach to these pieces. One immediately detects a scrupulous composer behind the studio microphones, carefully etching formal structures for the benefit of the listener with accuracy and intellectual rigour. It is evident that McCabe delights in this piano music yet never indulges, electing for efficient lines and tasteful embellishment, reflective of both style and substance.

Among the various highlights of Disc Two (Clementi) is the Sonata in G Minor, Op.50 No.3, subtitled “Didone Abbandonata” and composed in 1821. Expressive and probing, this music is liberated from the confines of continental neoclassicism, at once mournful and forlorn in prophetic anticipation of 19th-century music yet unwrit. From the last of his opuses for piano, Clementi marks the final movement of this sonata Allegro agitato e con disperazione. Such qualifiers were few and far between, even in 1821!

Adam Sherkin

02 OConor Hadyn 2jpgHaydn Piano Sonatas Vol.2
John O’Conor
Steinway & Sons 30110 (steinway.com)

Celebrated for his characterful, refined interpretations of Beethoven, Schubert and – rather notably – John Ireland, Irish pianist John O’Conor has recently ventured into the 52 sonata-strong catalogue of Franz Joseph Haydn. The second in a projected series of such recordings with Steinway & Sons, this most recent release generally features late sonatas, varied in their formal structures yet irresistible in their innovations. O’Conor brings his customary warmth and tasteful approach to these classical essays: quirky, unexpected works at a good distance from the tautly balanced sonatas of Mozart and Schubert.

Haydn’s experiments in the genre offer a wide spectrum of musical personality. They brush boisterously with folk idioms of the 18th century, skewing phrasing and lyrical gesture in a ribald quest of mirth and merriment. Their slightly rough-and-tumble profile is not always captured by O’Conor. He appears to prize refined voicing and sculpted colour over a bit of pianistic fun. (Once in a while however, he does let himself loose amongst this music’s rustic urgings.) Despite the craft and polish, one detects a faint lack of familiarity with these works; figures and flourishes sound half-hearted, almost glossed over.

It is in the slow movements on this record where O’Conor sounds most at home. He brings a sincerity to Haydn’s melodic lines born of an intimate, semplice mode of expression. O’Conor’s ear for colouristic subtlety delivers harmonic poise and vocal nuance, begetting interpretations that would surely have made the old Austrian composer smile.

Adam Sherkin

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03a Beethoven Concertos Kodama

Beethoven – The Piano Concertos
Ronald Brautigam; Die Kolner Akademie; Michael Alexander Willens
BIS BIS-2274 SACD (bis.se)

Beethoven – Piano Concertos 0-5
Mari Kodama; Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin; Kent Nagano
Berlin Classics 0301304BC (naxosdirect.com)

The arrival of 2020 commences a year of celebration for classical music presenters and aficionados across the globe, who will celebrate the 250th anniversary of Beethoven’s birth with innumerable concerts featuring the master’s greatest works. In advance of this significant anniversary, two recordings of Beethoven’s complete piano concertos were released late last year: one features the husband and wife duo of pianist Mari Kodama and conductor Kent Nagano; while the other presents fortepianist Ronald Brautigam, who is no stranger to Toronto, having performed with Tafelmusik at Trinity-St. Paul’s Centre in 2010.

Although these collections contain nearly identical musical contents (in addition to the standard five concertos, the Kodama/Nagano release includes the Rondo in B-flat, Eroica Variations, Triple Concerto, and the reconstructed Piano Concerto “0”), the end results are strikingly similar yet could also not be more different. Both recordings are of the highest musical quality, starting with the sound of the orchestras. Each ensemble is sleek and streamlined, with an overall transparency of sound that is now expected from both modern and period orchestras alike; no longer is the Beethoven standard one of deep, heavy, vibrato-filled tone, but it is rather characterized by its agility and precision, as players and conductors attempt to apply historical principles to their modern instruments and ensembles.

Both discs feature thoughtful and precise interpretations that are themselves similar in many ways. Beethoven intended to be quite clear about his expected tempi and dynamics and years of scholarly investigation and research have resulted in scores that are more faithful to the composer’s wishes and intentions than at any other time in post-Beethoven history. We should, therefore, expect overall consistency between slightly differing interpretations, as we discover with these two discs.

What is far more worthwhile to uncover are the differences between these two Beethovenian essays, the most apparent of which is the choice of keyboard instrument. Kodama, as one might expect, plays a grand piano and has the backing of a full symphony orchestra, the Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin, to provide balance. This is a standard modern approach in which “loud” is loud and “soft” is soft, and we hear this on disc as we would in a concert hall.

03b Beethoven Concertos Brautigam

Brautigam, however, plays a fortepiano, which began a period of steady evolution in Beethoven’s time, culminating in the late 19th century with the modern grand. It is perhaps easiest to think of the fortepiano as a harpsichord-piano hybrid, for it bridged the gap between these two instruments. The sound is closer to that of a modern piano due to the strings being struck rather than plucked, but its lack of size and power results in a timbre that is far more subdued and subtle than any modern piano. Brautigam’s fortepiano is, therefore, a perfect match for the Köln Academy Orchestra, a period instrument ensemble, whose own instruments are significantly less strident than their modern counterparts.

If Nagano and Kodama’s concertos are built for the concert hall, Brautigam’s are conceived for the chamber hall or theatre. While this decrease in overall volume is not perceptible over a mastered audio disc, it is noticeable that the “loud” is not as loud and the “soft” not as soft, simply due to the fortepiano’s reduced size and inherent limitations; it increases one’s desire to focus as it cuts out the dynamic extremities of the modern piano and shifts one’s attention to subtle changes in volume and articulation.

Choosing or recommending one of these recordings over the other is an impossible task. When viewed through the widest lens, both are superb studies featuring exquisite playing and impeccable musicianship, and the differences become almost secondary. Perhaps the best approach is to acquire both and absorb the slight stylistic differences produced by the instrumental choices, especially if one is familiar primarily with either modern or historical performances. In the end, these discs demonstrate one irrefutable truth: after 250 years, Beethoven’s music is still vibrant and thrilling, even to those who have heard these works many times before.

Matthew Whitfield

05 HohenriederPiano Works by Clara and Robert Schumann
Margarita Hohenrieter
Solo Musica SM312 (naxosdirect.com)

I am quite a fan of pianist Margarita Höhenrieder, particularly playing the Schumanns. However, my immediate and continued focus of attention on first hearing this disc was not on the repertoire, not on the pianist, but on the piano. Attending to its authenticity, Höhenrieder tells the story of how this recording came to be. “After just a few notes on the exceptionally fine Pleyel grand piano in Kellinghausen, north of Hamburg, in a collection of Eric Feller’s, I found myself plunged into a different century. The pianoforte was built in Paris in about 1855 and professionally restored using historical materials and methods. It is absolutely uniform with the instrument that Chopin possessed and of typically French elegance – in sound as well as in appearance. It reflects the soul of the Romantic era. Apart from that, it offers an authentic testimony to the sound of the instruments that Fryderyk Chopin and Robert and Clara Schumann played.”

The technique then required to play this piano differs from today’s. The sound from this old instrument is finely articulate and does not produce the same overtones and resonance, nor the volume. Such instruments were expected to be heard in a room or salon having only a fraction of the volume of today’s concert halls. Moreover, a suitable room for a perfect recording is certainly essential. In this case a private salon in Zug, Switzerland from January 16 to 18, 2019 was just that.

Our pianist was right; what we hear here takes to us back to a different century. I hope that Solo Musica plans to record Chopin with Höhenrieder playing the same instrument. That would be something to hear.

Bruce Surtees

06 Chopin RussoChopin – Late Masterpieces
Sandro Russo
Steinway & Sons 30125 (naxosdirect.com)

Italian pianist Sandro Russo revives the elegance and grandeur of the 19th-century piano tradition in this recording of late Chopin works. Having previously recorded several major piano works from the Romantic repertoire (as well as those of lesser-known composers), on this album Russo highlights every aspect of Chopin’s inner world. A selection of pieces that includes both intimate forms such as the mazurka and berceuse and the monumental Third Piano Sonata, this album feels like a personal memento. Noble forces are at work here, generating the sound aesthetics of beauty and adroit virtuosity, a combination that is well suited to Chopin’s music and is the essence of Russo’s artistic expression.

Three mazurkas on this album are a perfect example of Chopin’s mastery of expressing the grand gestures in small-scale works. Mazurka in C Minor Op.56 in particular is a microcosm of understated emotions of melancholy and surrender, yet it contains innovative musical language that at times seems different than anything Chopin had written previously. As a contrast, the Sonata in B Minor Op.58 is as big as it can get. This complex piece is a macrocosm of amplified emotions, an unrestricted cascade of brilliant phrases that command attention and challenge the performer both musically and technically. Sandro Russo is immaculate in both, bringing a fresh approach while keeping with the tradition of the grandiose Romantic era.

Ivana Popovic

07 AlkanAlkan – Symphony for Solo Piano; Concerto for Solo Piano
Paul Wee
BIS BIS-2465 SACD (naxosdirect.com)

Charles-Valentin Alkan (1813-88) was a true maverick amongst the great French musicians of the mid-19th century. A child prodigy from a family of exceptionally talented Jewish musicians (the Morhanges), Valentin, using his father’s given name of Alkan as his surname, performed brilliantly in fashionable Parisian salons beginning in 1826, a practice that soon attracted an invasion of foreign pianists including Liszt and Chopin. In 1838, having unwittingly fathered an illegitimate son, he withdrew from the concert circuit for some time, raising his child and devoting himself to composition. He briefly returned to the stage before becoming a total recluse for some 20 years, involving himself with creating a now lost French translation of the Bible from Hebrew sources and publishing numerous compositions.

Alkan’s legacy was largely neglected until a revival of interest in the 1960s brought forth a flood of recordings. Among the five Alkan discs issued in 2019 we have this release by the admirable pianist and barrister Paul Wee, who delivers insightful and riveting accounts of the gargantuan Symphony and Concerto for Solo Piano that form the bulk of Alkan’s Douze études dans tous les tons mineurs Op.39. This is music of extraordinary energy whose obsessive rhythmic profile sweeps all before it with a Beethovenian grandeur. Alkan’s daunting technical demands are never merely gaudy examples of pianistic prestidigitation; they are rather an integral architectural component of his unique and strangely compelling voice.

Daniel Foley

09 Ravel Jeux de MiroirsRavel – Jeux de miroirs
Javier Perianes; Orchestre de Paris; Josep Pons
Harmonia mundi HMM902326 (harmoniamundi.com)

As the clever title indicates this most enjoyable, adventurous undertaking by harmonia mundi sets the piano works of Ravel side by side with their orchestral versions as if they were mirrored. Coincidentally one set of Ravel’s piano works is entitled Miroirs from which we hear the fourth piece Alborada del grazioso, inspired by Spain, one of his main influences.

Ravel was a tremendous orchestrator and he orchestrated many of his own works plus the works of others. Here we can see why and the pianist chosen is Javier Perianes, a young Spanish pianist who has already conquered many of the world’s concert stages and worked with some of the greatest conductors. An artist with unbounded imagination and a special affinity towards French impressionisme, he has beautiful touch and unlimited technical skill.

The main work is Le Tombeau de Couperin, Ravel’s highly personal tribute to 18th-century French Baroque composers, Couperin, Rameau and Lully. The set of six pieces first appears in the piano version and my favourites are Forlane with an infectious, incessant and very catchy melody that’s almost hypnotic, Rigaudon an explosive, high-spirited French courtly dance and the final Toccata where the pianist literally plays up a storm. Later on come the orchestral versions of these and we will be surprised how much additional richness a brilliant orchestration can produce.

The disc opens with the orchestral version of Alborada del grazioso followed by the original solo piano Tombeau. Cleverly set in between the mirrored versions of these pieces is an absolutely astounding reading of the very popular, forward-looking and jazzy Concerto in G characterized by “subtle playing of Javier Perianes and the refined sonorities of the Orchestre de Paris, conducted by Josep Pons.”

I’ve listened to this disc over and over again and hopefully so will you.

Janos Gardonyi

11 Jenny Lind IcebergThe Etudes Project Volume One – ICEBERG
Jenny Lin
Sono Luminus DSL-92236 (sonoluminus.com)

Another marvel of a record hits our ears from the enviable, masterful pianist – a paragon of the 21st-century keyboard – Jenny Lin. Lin has long been fascinated with the “intricate history of piano études,” examining the current state of the genre and charting its near 300-year lineage. She has themed this journey and its transpiring narratives, The Etudes Project.

Aligning with composers of ICEBERG New Music, Lin gave its ten members absolute freedom of style and pianistic approach when crafting new etudes for her. The exceptional results were not only premiered by Lin this past October in New York but also published by NewMusicShelf in complete score, released on the same day.

In addition to her Herculean playing, the fearless pianist brings curatorial prowess to bear in pairing each new etude with an existing work from the canon. Seminal music by Ligeti, Chin, Glass, Crawford Seeger, Debussy, Scriabin and – of course – Chopin is featured. Accordingly, the record frames ten diptychs, (old meeting new), as it delivers a novel focus and perspective. The staggering array of textures and colouristic effects – not to mention the technical demands – here demonstrate Lin’s utter virtuosity at the piano, founded upon tireless application of intellect, study, two ultra-keen ears and a generous musical heart worthy of any audience’s patronage and awe.

Have a listen to this disc and then have another; purchase a copy of the score. The Etudes Project will repay you manifestly.

Adam Sherkin

12 Janelle Fung AubadeAubade – Music by Auguste Descarries
Janelle Fung
Centrediscs CMCCD 27519 (cmccanada.org)

The rarely performed and underrepresented Quebec composer, Auguste Descarries (1896-1958) is the focal point of a new solo disc by ambitious young pianist Janelle Fung. The composer’s piano sonata was only just given its premiere in 2017, 64 years after its composition! Fung has retrieved six of Descarries’ keyboard works from the proverbial dustbin of musical history, offering forthright and impressive attention to every last note on this recording.

Descarries was an industrious pianist/composer, penning the Rhapsodie Canadienne for piano and orchestra in 1936. His style seems indebted to the Russian and French schools, further enhanced by an apparent meeting with Sergei Rachmaninoff and close relationship with Nicolai Medtner, (carried out during the 1920s). In the end, Descarries lived his latter days in Montreal, the city of his birth.

Opening with the poetic, fantastical Serenitas, this album lures us into a seemingly familiar yet recondite soundworld. Romantic gesture and pastoral vignette meld in such offbeat North American pieces from a bygone age. Fung manoeuvres every turn and lyrical leap with virtuosic aplomb. Her eager, communicative style reveals a pianistic maturity. Such assuredness is most remarkable and one can only muse about Fung’s next projects and newfound devotions to unduly neglected keyboard works by Canadian composers.

The sound quality itself is bright and vivid, the record expertly produced. The team behind the project runs an impressive list, complementing the fine liner notes and poignant artist statement from Fung.

Adam Sherkin

13 Poul Ruders 15jpgPoul Ruders Edition Vol.15 – Piano Concerto No.3; Cembal d’Amore, Second Book; Kafkapriccio
Various Artists
Bridge Records 9531 (bridgerecords.com)

Illustrious Danish composer Poul Ruders seems to have been blessed with abiding compositional fluency. He pens work after work in a consistent outpouring of top-notch pieces, adding to a lifelong musical catalogue that is both communicative and compelling. A most recent album featuring his music for keyboard is no exception.

With a rather eclectic mix of concerto, harpsichord/piano duo and operatic paraphrase, this record begins with Ruders’ newest piano concerto – the third – written in 2014. Pianist Anne-Marie McDermott tackles this demanding, mesmerizing single movement with her habitual panache. The dizzying acrobatics sound only a sheer delight under her steadfast command. Subtitled “Paganini Variations,” Ruders here takes a timeworn tune – long pillaged and mined by others – turning music afresh. Variation after variation offer up surprises, highlighting the mark of a true craftsman still at the height of his powers.

Cembal d’Amore, Second Book (a duo for piano and harpsichord) from 2007 is perhaps more novel in its conception, at once celebrating the disparity and similarity between two keyboard instruments. Quattro Mani masters the blend and kinship of the diverse sound pallets throughout the eight movements. With the help of Ruders’ quicksilver, pugnacious score, this performance reaches an impressive benchmark, refined and exacting in its artistry. The work was commissioned by New York’s Speculum Musicae; it is feasible that not since Elliott Carter’s Double Concerto for piano and harpsichord (1961), has this unique instrumental combination been employed so successfully.

Adam Sherkin

15 Hostman HarbourAnna Höstman – Harbour
Cheryl Duvall
Redshift Records TK473 (redshiftrecords.org)

Composer Anna Höstman and Toronto-based pianist Cheryl Duvall collaborate effectively on Harbour. Born in Bella Coola, British Columbia, now teaching at the University of Victoria, Höstman has earned significant residencies and performances. Her sense of the Pacific coastal environment is congenial, at least to my Vancouver-raised sensibilities. Also, I applaud her composing of the short, slow piano-left-hand piece, late winter (2019), for a musician whose right hand was temporarily disabled, having this condition myself and having done musical work with people with disabilities. In this composition, two recurring but long-separated high tones sound over a texture of arpeggiated chords. The note A becomes important, while one high E now recurs. Gradual change, peaceful though somewhat uneasy moods, and expertise with piano writing and sonority seem characteristic for this composer.

There is much variety among other works: allemande (2013) begins sparely, reminding us of the voice. Subtle textural changes begin with two- or three-note sonorities, followed by register shifts and larger clusters. Harbour (2015) is full and more turbulent yet clearly layered – Duvall’s refined but powerful pianism brings sonorous appeal throughout this longer work. If we lose our way isn’t it enough to become attentive to sounds, allowing the piece to grow on us? darkness … pines (2010) begins with complex chords; later a few triads glint through. Yellow Bird (2019) moves fitfully, topped with high chirping; Adagio (2019) pulsates slowly. A disc to be experienced – gradually.

Roger Knox

16 Hope LeeAcross the veiled distances – Music by Hope Lee
Yumiko Meguri; Stefan Hussong
Centrediscs CMCCD 27219 (cmccanada.org)

Canadian composer Hope Lee’s unique music with its self-described ancient Chinese influences is heard in four piano compositions and one piano/accordion duet from four decades (1979-2017).

Brilliant Japanese pianist Yumiko Meguri performs Lee’s technically challenging, dramatic works perfectly. The four-section Across the veiled distances (1996) is part of a larger multimedia project inspired by a Marguerite Yourcenar short story based on Chinese legend. Played as one movement, the loud chordal opening leads to mystical musical conversations between the hands, with ringing string resonances, trills and contrasting driving and reflective repeated notes. The more atonal new-music-sounding Dindle (1979) opens with very soft percussive banging, followed by contrasting dynamic chords, pitches and single lines separated by silent spaces. These same ideas resurface in Lee’s later piano work in o som do desassossego (2015).

In Entends le passé qui march (1992), recorded sound files add unique sound and exact time dimensions to the intense live piano part. In 2017’s Imaginary Garden V. (renewed at every glance) – part of a seven-section chamber piece for unusual instruments – superstar German free bass accordionist Stefan Hussong joins Meguri. Effective use of each instrument’s inherent qualities can be heard in such soundscapes as a piano percussive marching riff against long-held accordion tones, accordion held-note swells and vibratos against piano high note lines, accordion air button-created whispers and simultaneous two-instrument high pitches.

Across the veiled distances provides a great, in-depth cross-section of Lee’s piano works.

Tiina Kiik

Listen to 'Across the veiled distances - Music by Hope Lee' Now in the Listening Room

01 Vivaldi Musica sacraVivaldi – Musica sacra per alto
Delphine Galou; Accademia Bizantina; Ottavio Dantone
Naïve Vivaldi Edition Vol.59

Unlike Bach and Handel, Vivaldi’s instrumental works continue to be better known and more frequently performed than his vocal and choral music, though this imbalance is slowly being rectified. History is partly to blame for this, as even the renowned Gloria was only reintroduced in 1939; but Vivaldi is now considered a versatile and highly innovative composer of vocal music, a reflection of his ambition to become a universal composer who excelled in every aspect of his art.

One significant contributor to the propagation of Vivaldi’s vocal music is the Vivaldi Edition, an ambitious project to record 450 of the Italian composer’s works, many of them unknown. Musica sacra per alto is volume 59 in their collection and features four sacred pieces for alto with orchestral accompaniment, ranging in size from small-scale mass segments lasting only a few minutes (such as the two introdutioni, which resemble solo motets in a form unique to Vivaldi) to the five-movement Salve Regina.

Contralto Delphine Galou and the Accademia Bizantina give convincing performances of each work on this disc, whether a languid aria or compelling allegro, uncovering the distinctly Vivaldian characteristics on the page and translating them into spectacular sounds. Although the material may be unfamiliar to many listeners, the style is unmistakable and this disc provides a fine example of why Vivaldi’s reputation as a composer of vocal music is continuing to grow, due in large part to the work of organizations such as the Vivaldi Edition.

02 Mozart EntfuhrungMozart – Die Entfuhrung aus dem Serail
Soloists; Chorus and Orchestra of Teatro alla Scala; Zubin Mehta
Cmajor 752008 (naxos.com)

This production is a replica of a 1965 Salzburg performance designed by famous Italian director Giorgio Strehler which was so successful that the audience refused to leave the theatre. Since then it has been revived periodically and now again to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the director’s death. A young firebrand, Zubin Mehta, conducted then and now, at age 80, is conducting it again.

It certainly lives up to expectations: an impressive, monumental and symmetrical set bathed in sunlight suggests an atmosphere of dreaminess. The singers are lit alternately from the front and the back creating silhouettes as if we are watching a shadow play such as was fashionable in the Vienna of 1782 when this singspiel, Mozart’s first breakthrough success, was premiered. There is strong artistic control over all elements, e.g. costumes, colours, carefully choreographed movements and gesticulations, all coming together beautifully; the mark of a great director’s work.

The crowning achievement however is the singers and they all are of the highest quality. First and foremost, Dutch soprano Lenneke Ruiten, as Konstanze, is simply unbelievable in the three concert arias that follow one another and culminate in the magisterial, defiant and very difficult Martern aller Arten, sung with sustained, powerful high notes and without any trace of vibrato. This is a focal point of the opera, photographed from every possible angle, conductor’s included; it’s worth buying the video for this one aria alone. 

Swiss tenor Mauro Peter as Belmonte, her lover, is a revelation. He is referred to as a ”real discovery, a classic Mozartian tenor with warmth and style.” And there is Osmin, the basso profundo malevolent palace guard portrayed hilariously by Tobias Kehrer. An eye candy of a production.

03 Rossini RIcciardoRossini – Ricciardo e Zoraide
Soloists; Coro del Ventido Basso; Orchestra Sinfonica Nazionale Della Rai; Giacomo Sagripanti
Cmajor 752608 (naxosdirect.com)

The Barber of Seville, La Cenerentola, La Gazza Ladra – familiar Rossini titles, but La Gazzetta? Ermione? Bianca e Faliero? All these, along with Ricciardo e Zoraide, were among the 14 operas emerging from Rossini’s conveyor belt during his busiest four years, 1816-1819. Most were soon forgotten amid this superabundance; Ricciardo e Zoraide, here making its DVD debut, was unperformed for almost 150 years until its revival at the 1990 Rossini Opera Festival in Pesaro, Rossini’s birthplace. 

Agorante and Ircano are warring kings in medieval Nubia. Agorante lusts after his captive, Zoraide, Ircano’s daughter, who yearns for Ricciardo, her Christian-crusader lover. Disguised, Ricciardo attempts her rescue, but is captured. Zomira, Agorante’s jealous wife, plots the lovers’ downfall.

This 2018 Pesaro production boasts a fabulous international cast, headed by lustrous South African soprano Pretty Yende (Zoraide), phenomenal Peruvian high-C wizard, tenor Juan Diego Flórez (Ricciardo), sturdy Italian bass Nicola Ulivieri (Ircano) and two powerful, beefy voiced Russians, tenor Sergey Romanovsky (Agorante) and mezzo Victoria Yarovaya (Zomira). There’s a major Toronto presence, too: Opera Atelier’s co-directors, Marshall Pynkoski and Jeannette Lajeunesse Zingg are, respectively, the stage director and choreographer, their familiar predilections for mannered stage movements and bare-chested men further undermining the far-fetched scenario’s minimal dramatic verisimilitude.

I won’t call this opera a neglected masterpiece. However, conductor Giacomo Sagripanti and the truly spectacular singing provide plenty of Rossinian thrills over its nearly three-hour duration, making this a must-have for all opera-on-DVD enthusiasts.

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