09 Phoebe TsangButton Music
Phoebe Tsang
Off (phoebetsang.com)

Listening to multi-talented Hong Kong- born British-Canadian Phoebe Tsang’s Button Music one experiences her wide-ranging, idiosyncratic, poetic and musical gifts.

Two multi-movement works are featured. Unbutton is a six-part journey into the challenge of losing a button. Love the attention-grabbing No.1, opening with staccato echoing repeated notes on violin and a vocal on the word “button”, just like the popping sound of losing a coat button. Touches of Romantic-style sad tonalities surface in No.2. A nod to folk music in No.3 with a party mood jig-quality violin part until the abrupt vocal/violin stop. No.4 presents Tsang at her very best as atonal violin lines coupled with emotive held-note vocalizations create a unique personal sound. Use of the familiar song lyric line “Button up Your Overcoat” in No. 5 creates a toe-tapping musical theatre song quality complete with extended violin solo with numerous effects. No.6 is performed with perfect phrasing, tonal quality, sad mood and a building musical tension.

The theatrical three-movement Cards from the Tarot de Marseille features a tight ensemble feel created by one performer in King of Cups. Creepy spoken words supported by a high-pitched violin sets the spooky mood of The Hermit. Tsang shows off her violin virtuosity in Le Pape with fast lines and a repeated note marching effect.

In the final track, Tsang says “Music is Power”, perfectly describing Tsang the artist. Powerful!

Reissues of recorded music serve a variety of functions. Allowing us to experience sounds from the past is just one of them. More crucially, and this is especially important in terms of Free Jazz and Free Music, it restores to circulation sounds that were overlooked and/or spottily distributed on first appearance. Listening to those projects now not only provides an alternate view of musical history, but in many cases also provides a fuller understanding of music’s past.

01 TetterettLittle noticed in North America at the time of its 1977 release, Tetterettet (Corbett vs. Dempsey CvsD CD 060 corbettvsdempsey.com) by the Amsterdam-based ICP Tentet was a confirmation of the high quality improvised music gaining prominence in Europe. Listening to the 11 selections played by such subsequently renowned players as pianist Misha Mengelberg and drummer Han Bennink from the Netherlands plus saxophonist John Tchicai of Denmark and Germany’s Peter Brötzmann, the high level of musicianship stands out as well as the freedom composers had to inject broad or subtle humour into the tracks – a concept shied away from by deadly serious experimenters on this side of the Atlantic. Two of the emblematic tracks are Alexander’s Marschbefehl and Ludwig’s Blue Note. On the latter, Mengelberg cycles through an assemblage of properly inflected keyboard motifs from so-called classical music while around him the band, following the energetic lead of one of the saxophonists double-times a pseudo-tango. On the foot-tapping Alexander’s Marschbefehl a march-time variant is subverted with peeping and blaring horn parts as well as a clattering percussion display from Bennink, while the pianist provides pseudo-impressionism with one hand and honky-tonk inflections from the other. As much fun as these and other tracks are, the disc’s showpiece is Mengelberg’s five-part title suite. Managing to encompass echoes of Middle-European salon sounds, Latin dance rhythms and pure improvisation, the sequences encompass outer-space-like tweaks from Michael Waisvisz’s electronics, plunger spills from Bert Koppelaar’s trombone, fierce or furtive split tones from the four saxophonists and Bennink’s ruffs, rebounds and rattles while hitting every part of his kit to ratchet up excitement But the theme, which speeds up and descends in sections, maintains a steady pace due to Alan Silva’s bass holding the beat. As the reed players’ striated vibrations mock their earlier excesses and the drummer turns the beat around, surgically inserted keyboard clicks create a finale that references the introduction.

02 DetailLess brash and all-encompassing, but as remarkable a session, recorded in Norway in 1982, is Detail Day Two (NoBusiness Records CD 114 nobusinessrecords.com). The first trio iteration of that long-running group, it also demonstrates the pan-nationalist ethos of free music. That’s because this multi-layered, intricately balanced 42-minute improvisation was created by Norwegian saxophonist Frode Gjerstad, British drummer John Stevens and South African bassist Johnny Dyani. Practiced and matured in his percussion skills, the drummer never takes a solo, but allows his rattling drum tops and singing cymbal lines to intuit the rhythm so that the beat appears inevitable. Dyani, who had long established himself in Europe, boomerangs from volleying consistent plucks, which help push forward the narrative, to intricate stretches, picks and pulls to pinpoint individual string pressure or suction as he solos within his rhythmic functions. Adapting to this barrage from the bottom, Gjerstad starts off with tongue wiggles and intensity vibrations radiating from his soprano saxophone, and as the exposition becomes more pressurized switches to the deeper-toned tenor saxophone. Moving up from breathy snorts, his growling ghost notes and palindrome vibrations sound at various speeds and pitches to parallel Dyani’s strums and later bowed buzzes. Slowly, during the sequence’s second section, the saxophonist digs deeper into the theme and exposes all of its possible variables as he’s doubled by ricochets from the string set, with Stevens’ press rolls and bounces providing controlling and comforting accompaniment. Variations explored from all sides of the sound triangle, spidery fingering, positioned reed smears and drum clatter cease at the appropriate moment, never climaxing, but suggesting further trio explorations lie ahead.

03 GiuffreOne of the progenitors of free-form improvising that was little noticed at the time but proved highly influential for exploratory music’s future, was the European tour of American clarinetist Jimmy Giuffre3, his trio with Canadian pianist Paul Bley and American bassist Steve Swallow. A previously unreleased 75-minute Austrian radio broadcast, Graz Live 1961 (ezz-thetics 1001, hathut.com) shows what baffled, energized and/or influenced contemporary musicians. Running through 11, mostly Giuffre-composed tracks, encompassing multiple moods, speeds and pitches, the trio uses the concert setting to extend performances. A later classic like Cry Want, for instance, benefits as the heartfelt compassion in the title is made more palpable in the clarinetist’s a cappella introduction, framed by Bley’s dispassionate comping and Swallow’s swaying pumps, so that Giuffre’s ultimate shrills become that much more rending. It’s the same with the sequences that make up Suite for Germany. With a piano countermelody challenging the reedist’s initial high pitches, it’s Swallow’s unselfconscious walking which keeps the pieces together. Keyboard colouring helps slide the next section into an expression of carefully weighed tones from Giuffre with circular breathed continuum. Yet the subsequent fills Bley feeds into the narrative confirm an elaboration of mid-range swing. Reed peeps and piano slashes harden the following line but without compromising the rhythmic impetus, concluding with widening clarinet lows and double bass strums. Subverting the accusation of effete chamber-jazz, the set includes a collection of clattering from the plucked and stopped strings of a prepared piano; climbing shrills and soaring peeps from the clarinet; and guitar-like facility in expression and rhythm from the bassist. Pauses and hesitancy allow the trio to savour and stretch more beautiful motifs, yet at the same time, as on Trance, Bley backs Swallow’s string finesse with piano-lid slams that create extra percussiveness.

04 RaindancerAnother pianist, who like Bley has been thoroughly involved with a variety of styles and ensembles, is UK-native Keith Tippett, although there’s no record of him utilizing the back-fall for its rhythmic qualities. However on the title track of The Unlonely Raindancer (Discus 81 CD discus-music.co.uk), the sheer audacity of his improvisation reaches such a height that his vibrations on the keyboard and inner strings become so inadequate that he repeatedly smacks the instrument’s wood and lets loose with a couple of rebel yells. A reissue of his first solo set from 1979, the 78 minutes of what was a two-LP set, give him ample scope for full expression. Dynamically ranging through all layers of the piano with tropes that refer to bop, modal, swing and free playing, his interpretations range from sympathetic voicing, which presages intertwined stops and transitions (The Pool), to spun-out storytelling, expressed in widening spurts of emphasized textures and concentrated tonal colour-melding climaxing with echoing forward motion (Tortworth Oak). The key(s) to his creativity though are subsequent tracks that in execution and exploration are mirror images of one another – one centred around treble pitches, the second the ground bass. The latter, The Muted Melody, swiftly sweeps from kinetic to moderato as bouncing notes follow one after another in random rushes, often dipping into the deeper part of the soundboard. Further vibrating harmonics bolster and expose the playing which gallops to the end in speed mode. Concentrating on the harshest pitches that can be reverberated from highest keys in the first section of the more-than-19-minute Steel Yourself / the Bell, the Gong, the Voice, Tippett later creates Big Ben-like bongs from the wound string set. Ultimately reaching the midway mark, he switches strategies from chord plucking to sweeping to a groove that highlights strength as well as swing. As his power voicing reaches a point where the sequence can’t become any thicker or cramped, he sophisticatedly diminishes the pressure with responsive strumming that echoes even after the final pluck.

05 LiberationWhile this search for the new was proceeding in Europe, North American free jazz musicians faced a commercial atmosphere that promoted soul-jazz and jazz-rock above all else. As fascinating sociologically as musically, 1973’s Sounds of Liberation (Corbett vs. Dempsey CvsD CD 057 corbettvsdempsey.com) details how one Philadelphia-based sextet attempted to affect a musical détente between progressive and pop. A song collection driven by fluid foot-tapping rhythms from drums, congas and percussion, the tracks often contrast power slaps from Khan Jamal’s vibes with glossy picking from guitarist Monnnette Sudler. Seconding both, Byard Lancaster’s silky flute puffs fasten onto poppy Herbie Mann-like tropes, while his alto saxophone split tones on tracks like Sweet Evil Mist are raunchy enough to fit any James Brown disc of the era. If this faceoff between funky and freedom wasn’t enough, Backstreets of Heaven, the longest track, goes a step further than the then-popular so-called spiritual jazz and the likes of saxophonist Pharoah Sanders and vocalist Leon Thomas, by adding unnamed male and female vocalists on top of the chugging guitar riffs, clanking vibes and overblowing reed snarls. With a call-and-response Motown-smooth delivery, the track seems aimed at the R&B singles market – that is if it wasn’t nearly 11 minutes long.

Listening anew to these discs provides a rethinking and better understanding of the musical currents of those times.

01a Coop Chamber MusicIn its halcyon years, listening to the CBC was a significant part of most everyone’s routine, featuring Canadian events from far and wide that were of necessity recorded for broadcast in the different time zones. Skylark Records (skylark-music.com) has negotiated a contract to reissue the highly respected recordings by Canadian pianist Jane Coop on CD. Coop has won many awards, including the Order of Canada. She was tutored by Anton Kuerti from 1968 to 1972 and from 1973 to 1976 studied with Leon Fleisher at the Peabody. Coop made her professional debut in 1973 at the St. Lawrence Centre in Toronto. If you are interested, YouTube has many, many videos of Coop in recital and in concertos.

01b Coop English Piano ConcertiThe CDs in this collection have been available since 2017 but few knew that they existed. We hadn’t noticed until Skylark Music sent us these discs for comment. Chamber Music of Brahms and Jenner (SKY1701) is a program of trios featuring Coop with Martin Hackleman, French horn; Martin Beaver, violin; and James Campbell, clarinet. The six songs by Brahms “sung” on Hacklemnn’s horn are a treat. English Piano Concerti (SKY1702) finds Coop with Mario Bernardi conducting the CBC Radio Orchestra. It contains entertaining concerti by Britten, Alan Rawsthorne, John Ireland and Gerald Finzi. These are, for want of a better word, captivating, and dismiss any expectation that these works are esoteric or obscure. The bravura passages present no strain on Coop.

01c Coop Piano ConcertiPiano Concerti Prokofiev/Bartók/Forsyth (SKY1703) once again has Bernardi on the podium, this time from Calgary. All three discs reveal the outstanding quality of performance and recording that was once the stock and trade of our national broadcaster. Kudos to Skylark for bringing them back into the catalogue. 

02 Great SoloistsGreat Soloists from the Richard Itter Archive (ICA Classics, ICAC 5199, 4 CDs naxosdirect.com) is a delightful little collection of performances of ten concertos recorded in the 1950s by the BBC of various soloists that will surely whet the appetite of music lovers. Itter was the owner of the by-now-legendary Lyrita Records and these recordings are from Itter Broadcast Collection.

The incomparable David Oistrakh is heard on November 29, 1954 in BBC Maida Vale Studios playing the Tchaikovsky with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Sir Malcolm Sargent. Oistrakh, although from Odessa in Ukraine, was considered to be the greatest Russian violinist. The Sibelius concerto is next, played by Ida Haendel. Her Sibelius, a specialty, was lauded far and wide. Here she is on August 16, 1955 before an appreciative audience in the Royal Albert Hall with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Basil Cameron.

Remember Gioconda de Vito? The Italian violinist was one of the many fine artists who emerged from Italy after WWII and was known mainly to the cognoscenti as she did not care to concertize widely and retired from the stage in 1961. She is heard on August 23, 1953 at the Edinburgh Festival playing the Viotti Concerto No.22 with Fernando Previtali and the Rome Radio Symphony. Alfredo Campoli plays Lalo’s most popular work, Symphonie espagnole accompanied by Alfred Wallenstein and the BBC Symphony on April 10, 1955. Tchaikovsky’s Rococo Variations from April 10,1955 features cellist André Navarra accompanied by the BBC Symphony Orchestra directed by Hans Schmidt-Isserstedt. Navarra and the BBC Symphony are also heard in the Lalo Cello Concerto with Jean Martinon conducting on October 27, 1954.

Another biggie: the Dvořák Cello Concerto with Zara Nelsova, who was born in Winnipeg and was dubbed by audiences worldwide “the Queen of Cellists,” dates from August 17, 1955 with Malcolm Sargent and the BBC Symphony. Just about everyone knows the Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini and here is a stunning performance from October 30, 1955 by Monique de la Bruchollerie with Eugene Goossens and the BBC Symphony. Hornist Dennis Brain plays the final three works in this singular collection of Goehr and the LSO and the fourth with Paul Sacher and the RPO followed by the Richard Strauss Horn Concerto No.1 (Boult, BBC, March 19, 1956). Of course, all the recordings are monaural but these are performances par excellence, eminently listenable and certainly more than simply of historic interest.

03 PresslerIn a new set from Doremi we hear the still active Menahem Pressler earlier in his career in the mid-1960s in a long-awaited Volume 3 of series devoted to the art of the universally admired pianist (Doremi DHR-8083-5, 3 CDs naxosdirect.com/). Pressler, born in Germany in 1923, won the Debussy International Piano Competition in San Francisco in 1946 leading to his Carnegie Hall debut with Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra. He made his chamber music debut in July 13, 1955 as junior member of the newly formed Beaux Arts Trio with Daniel Guilet, violin and Bernard Greenhouse, cello. Throughout the years the group, held together under the leadership of Pressler, was always a treat to watch. Although there were many changes in the strings, they remained one of the pre-eminent trios until they finally disbanded. They gave their last performance in Lucerne on September 6, 2008. Over the years, before and since, Pressler himself concertized and this new set embraces all the commercial recordings made by the young Pressler of Mozart and Beethoven. Now in his 90s he is continuing as a soloist and doing rather well.

Hearing Pressler on this set, recorded in Vienna between 1966 and 1968, we are witnessing a fabulously talented musician. Every phrase is shaped with impeccable taste. A natural Mozart player, we hear his classical approach in these concertos: No.14 in E flat Major, K449; No. 15 in B flat Major, K450; No.17 in G Major, K453; No.24 in C Minor, K491 all with the Vienna Chamber Orchestra conducted by Edgar Seipenbusch (K449, 450, 491) and Wilfried Böttcher (K453). Also, Piano Sonatas K331, K570 and K576. Finally, the Beethoven Piano Concerto No.1, plus the utterly charming Rondo in B flat Major, Wo06 for piano and orchestra, both with the Vienna Opera Orchestra under Moshe Atzmon. Pressler is a pianist second to none, making these recordings of great interest. The stereo sound of these recordings is of high quality, well recorded and transferred. Doremi promises there is more Pressler to come.

04 StarkerCellist Janos Starker is one of only a handful of cellists whose names are familiar to the general public. He rose to fame in the 1960s when he recorded for Mercury Living Presence. Since then he made over 150 recordings for multiple companies. Some outstanding performances and recordings made for broadcast have been issued by German Sudwestfunk (South West Broadcasting) whose SWR Sinfonieorchester stands with the finest anywhere. From their archives, Starker is heard with them in three interesting concertos. From Stuttgart on January 14, 1973 there is the Hindemith, written in 1940, conducted by Andreas von Lukacsy. Two works from Baden-Baden: on August 17, 1975, the Prokofiev Sinfonia Concertante in E Minor Op.125 conducted by Ernest Bour; and from February 5, !975, conducted by Herbert Blomstedt, we are treated to the rarely performed or recorded Cello Concerto No.1, Op.41 by Einojuhani Rautavaara. Rautavaara (1928-2016) was a Finnish composer who wrote eight symphonies, nine operas, 12 concertos and various chamber works and vocal works. This concerto was written in 1968 and really does showcase the cello. It is dramatic and, to my ears, thoughtful and thought provoking. An interesting work.         Over the many weeks, the three works on this disc have not strayed far from my player. Starker is in top form throughout all three and the orchestra is, of course, superb. The recordings from SWR’s archives are brilliant (naxos.com/catalogue/item.asp?item_code=SWR19418CD).

In the summer issue we published Alex Baran’s final column, which is sad news indeed for me and has made my job as assignment editor a bit more onerous. But as far as I know, there is no grave understory to his announced retirement, it was simply time to move on and focus on other things. During the past decade he contributed a variety of reviews to The WholeNote – his first pair appeared in December 2009 – but for the past four years he has focused on keyboard recordings under his own Keyed In masthead.

As with Terry Robbins’ Strings Attached, Alex’s column simplified my editorial duties by enabling me to ship out any and all applicable discs to him and leave sorting out their relevance to his discretion. It always amazed me how Alex could write about a dozen discs each month and make them all sound individual, finding positive aspects to each performer’s approach and describing them in terms as nuanced as the recordings he was writing about.

Although my WholeNote relationship with Alex goes back a decade, my professional association with him dates back to the early 1990s when I was a music programmer at CJRT-FM where he was an on-air host and later program director. I worked closely with him writing scripts for CJRT Concert and selecting recordings for Music for Midday for five years at what I still consider to be, New Music Concerts and The WholeNote notwithstanding, the best job I’ve ever had (and the only one that generated a pension thanks to its affiliation with Ryerson University).

So that being said, I will miss Alex’s insights and his diligence. For the moment you will find the Keyed In banner maintained, with a number of writers contributing their own insights, both seasoned WholeNote reviewers and some new voices. In this issue I’m very pleased that outstanding young Toronto pianist, Adam Sherkin, has taken on three discs in his WholeNote debut, and I think you’ll agree he is an excellent addition to our team. Welcome Adam!

To keep this “all about me” as is my wont, I’ll mention that some of the highlights of my career at CJRT included selecting the music for Peter Keigh’s Music before 1800, working with engineer William van Ree to record the live performances that aired on CJRT Concert, doing on-air interviews with celebrities such as Ben Heppner for This Week In Music and producing a week-long tribute to Tālivaldis Ķeniņš (a distinguished Latvian-Canadian composer mentioned in the Canadian Amber review later on in these pages). It was not all “days of wine and roses” however. Occasionally my penchant for contemporary music would land me in hot water for programming music a little too strident for the mainstream tastes of our core listeners (and the management). One notable instance was selecting Canadian composer Henry Kucharzyk’s Figure in a Landscape, a 32-minute orchestral work written for choreography by Christopher House at Toronto Dance Theatre. I thought its performance by the National Arts Centre Orchestra under Trevor Pinnock provided enough classical credibility, but it ultimately proved a bit “much of a muchness” for Music for an Afternoon and host Adriane Markow. I did not program it in isolation, however, and cleverly, I thought, had it follow Schumann’s Carnaval, a 30-minute piano suite whose opening chord sequence is exactly mimicked, although one tone higher, in Kucharzyk’s orchestral score. I’m not sure if anyone else noticed the similarity, but to me it provided a significant entry point into the modern work. It was this sort of jigsaw-puzzle placement of pieces that provided real satisfaction in my job as music programmer.

01 Sheng Cai SchumannAll this seems a long introduction to the first disc I’ll write about, but you’ll see the connection in a moment. In one of the eerie synchronicities that I have mentioned before, while editing this month’s Keyed In, I had just finished Roger Knox’s review of Sheng Cai’s ATMA release of Liszt etudes when I received an email from that distinguished young Chinese-Canadian pianist himself. He said he was writing at the suggestion of producer Keith Horner to tell me about his album Robert Schumann Piano Music that has recently come out on the Centaur label (CRC 3696 naxosdirect.com). I told him that seemed strange because we were reviewing his Liszt CD in the coming issue. He explained that although recorded at Glenn Gould Studio in 2017, Centaur had some problems with the release and it was delayed nearly two years.

Born in China, Cai studied at the Shanghai Conservatory where he was a top prizewinner of the National Competition in 1998. The following year, his family immigrated to Canada where he began studies at the Royal Conservatory in Toronto with Anton Kuerti. Cai later earned his bachelor of music degree under full scholarship at the New England Conservatory in Boston. Since his debut with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra in Chopin’s Piano Concerto No.1 – a performance for which the Toronto Star praised his “…subtle sense of rubato to a judicious choice of tempi...” – he has gone on to perform concerti by Bartók, Beethoven, Chopin, Liszt, Gershwin, Grieg, Mozart, Prokofiev, Rachmaninoff, Saint-Saëns, Schumann and Tchaikovsky, with numerous orchestras across North America and in Shanghai.

I’m sure that delay in the release of this disc was very frustrating to Cai, but as far as I’m concerned it was worth the wait. Opening with the brilliant Toccata in C, Op.7 where the interlocking lines are skilfully brought out, the disc continues with the extended Humoreske in B-flat Major, Op.20 with its contrasting, though mostly delicate movements. The one exception is the boisterous Sehr lebhaft in which Cai shines and is obviously having a great time. The gently rolling Arabeske in C Major, Op.18 provided an oasis of respite before the stately opening chords of Carnaval Op.9 brought back the flood of memories mentioned above. Subtitled Scènes mignonnes sur quatre notes (tender scenes on four notes), the 20 brief movements are musical cryptograms centred on the notes A, E-flat, C and B represented in German as AEsCH (with Es pronounced S). Asch is the name of the town where Ernestine von Fricken, Schumann’s then fiancée was born, and also are letters which appear in the composer’s own name Robert Alexander Schumann. The sequence of letters also appears in the German word fasching, meaning carnival, hence the title of the work. There are many more encryptions in the collection, but none of this is really necessary for enjoyment of the wonderfully playful, charming and, at times, dramatic work.

While I tend to avoid solo piano recitals and recordings because, as I may have said before, eventually to my ears it all seems like “just so much banging,” that was certainly not the case in this instance. My attention was held throughout the 72-minute performance by this exciting young pianist, a result of his choice of repertoire, his mastery of technique and his inherent musicality. Makes me wish I had listened to his Liszt disc before sending it off to Roger.

02 Kernis DebussyI see that I’ve pretty much used up my allotment of words for the month already, but there is another disc that I’ve been enjoying and wanted to mention. The Kernis Project: Debussy (Sono Luminus DSL-92233 sono-luminus.squarespace.com) is the culmination of the Jasper String Quartet’s “decade-long journey with Aaron Jay Kernis’ music for string quartet… [during which] we realized his special voice and our connection to his music’s ability to capture both the complexity of the world and the simplicity of the moment.” Having recorded Kernis’ first quartet, paired with Beethoven in 2011 and his second, paired with Schubert the following year, the Jaspers commissioned Kernis to write a third, which he subtitled “River” and completed in 2015. The American composer (b.1960) says it “is a significant departure from my earlier two quartets, which looked to the distant past for form and inspiration. Instead, this new work dispenses with classical structure and influences almost completely, touching continually on processes of change and flux.” That being said, it is an extended work lasting more than 35 minutes and showing the influence of both Beethoven’s Op.131, particularly in the sombre Cavatina fourth movement, and Bartók’s String Quartet No.4, with “night music” aspects in both the second movement Flow/Surge and third Mirrored Surface – Flux – Reflections, and from which it takes its five-movement form.

I have mentioned the overlap of literature and music in my life, and I was intrigued to read in the program note to this quartet that it was influenced by two books that both had a profound effect on me: Jean-Christophe by Romain Rolland, and My Struggle (actually a series of six books) by Karl Ove Knausgaard. First read at an age when “3/4 of the [Rolland] book would’ve been incomprehensible to me,” Kernis says that the central image of the Rhine River and “its inexorable flow” were indelibly etched in his memory. “While the Romanticism of the book does not have any parallel in the music at all, its intense emotions do, and the River and its continual movement became central to the conceptualization of my work.” Regarding My Struggle, Kernis says it was “vitally influential for my musical processes… The book sets forward the trajectory of one man’s life, the flow of the quotidian along with meditations on the psychological underpinnings of the center of existence.” As with Schumann’s Carnaval, knowledge of the backstory is not essential to enjoyment of the work. I listened to this compelling piece a number of times before I read the liner notes and discovered the serendipitous connection to my own life interests.

The companion piece is a beautifully nuanced performance of one of my favourite pieces of music, Debussy’s String Quartet in G Minor Op.10. As an amateur cellist I’m proud of the fact that I’ve advanced to the stage where I can reasonably attempt, and obtain satisfaction from, performing with friends some of the great chamber works that influenced me in my formative years. This has included trios, quartets and quintets by Beethoven, Mozart, Schubert, Borodin, Felix and Fanny Mendelssohn, Robert and Clara Schumann, and even a few movements from the modern canon by Ravel, Webern, Shostakovich and sometime WholeNote contributors Colin Eatock and Daniel Foley. One that I’ve not yet tried is this Debussy quartet, and I’d like to thank the Jaspers for inspiring me to rectify this situation in the near future. Incidentally, although I don’t see any mention of a Canadian connection in the members’ biographies, the group, which was formed at the Oberlin Conservatory in Ohio, takes its name from Jasper National Park in Alberta. 

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

David Olds, DISCoveries Editor
discoveries@thewholenote.com

01 Eybler Beethoven 2The much-anticipated second and final volume of the Beethoven String Quartets Op.18 (Nos.4-6) in groundbreaking performances on period instruments by Toronto’s Eybler Quartet is finally here, and it was well worth the wait (CORO Connections COR16174 eyblerquartet.com).

Beethoven’s metronome markings, viewed by many as impossibly fast, have long been the subject of heated debate, and the Eybler’s decision to take them head-on and see what they revealed created quite a stir when the first volume was released last year (reviewed here in April 2018). The astonishing speed of some of the movements had some reviewers shaking their heads even while acknowledging the brilliant playing, Gramophone going so far as to call it – in a not entirely negative way, given the wit and humour the Eybler Quartet found in Beethoven’s writing – “straight-up hilarious.”

The three works on this second volume don’t seem quite as radically fast, perhaps because our ears know what to expect this time, but the performance standard remains consistent – technique, clarity, intonation and ensemble playing are all stunning in performances full of depth and life.

Violist Patrick Jordan’s intelligent and insightful booklet notes add a great deal to an understanding of the performance approach, in particular his illuminating comments on tactus, the sense of a relatively steady and consistent pulse within a movement.

It’s not often that you encounter performances that challenge your preconceptions and radically and permanently change how you hear certain core repertoire works, but this indispensable set does exactly that.

Listen to 'Beethoven String Quartets Op.18 (Nos.4-6)' Now in the Listening Room

02 Kremer WeinbergWhen he was a student in 1960s’ Moscow, Gidon Kremer frequently saw and heard the composer and pianist Mieczysław Weinberg in performance although, despite his interest in composers negatively affected by Soviet ideology, he never met him. Kremer has done more than most in recent years to promote Weinberg’s music, and now adds a personal contribution with his brilliantly successful arrangements for solo violin of Weinberg’s 24 Preludes for Violoncello Solo, Op.100 (Accentus Music ACC 30476 naxosdirect.com).

The preludes, written in 1969 but only premiered in 1995, were dedicated to Rostropovich, who never played them. They are complex pieces full of quotations from works in Rostropovich’s repertoire as well as referencing other composers and folk songs. The transfer from cello to violin apparently presented few major challenges, Kremer noting that “only a few of the pieces needed to be put into a different tonality.”

His superb performance befits such a towering achievement, one which is a monumental addition to the solo violin repertoire.

03 Hattori scanThe young Japanese violinist Moné Hattori was only 16 when she recorded her astonishing debut CD. Released in Japan in late 2016 it has now been given a world-wide release on International Classics Artists (ICAC 5156 naxos.com).

It features outstanding performances of the Shostakovich Violin Concerto No.1 in A Minor Op.77 and Franz Waxman’s Carmen-Fantasie with the Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin under Alan Buribayev. Hattori is dazzling in the Waxman and is quite superb in a commanding performance of the Shostakovich. She has a sumptuous tone, flawless technique, emotional depth and physical strength, and wrings every drop of emotion from this deeply personal work.

Hattori has been active mostly in Japan and Asia, although she is making inroads in Europe this year. She is clearly one to watch.

04 Duo Fantasyduo 526, the pairing of Canadian violinist Kerry DuWors and Japanese pianist Futaba Niekawa, is in fine form on Duo Fantasy, a CD featuring works by Heitor Villa-Lobos, Arnold Bax and William Bolcom (Navona NV6231 navonarecords.com).

Villa-Lobos’ Sonata Fantasia No.2 was completed in 1914 although not published until the early 1950s. It’s a lovely work that reflects many of the musical influences of the period.

The English Bax is represented by the substantial four-movement Violin Sonata No.2, completed in 1915 and revised in 1920. It’s another very attractive and compelling work, full of contrast and with much writing of great beauty.

Bolcom’s Duo Fantasy from 1973 is exactly what you would expect from this wonderfully eclectic American musician – a kaleidoscope of popular styles leading to a quite unexpected ending.

DuWors plays with a commanding combination of strength, sweetness and brightness, fully supported by Niekawa’s rich, expansive piano playing.

05 Hindemith violinOn Hindemith Complete Works for Violin & Piano violinist Roman Mints and pianist Alexander Kobrin give quite superb performances of the four violin sonatas – in E-flat Op.11 No.1 and in D Op.11 No.2 (1918), in E (1935) and in C (1938) – together with the Trauermusik from 1936, the Meditation from the ballet Nobilissima Visione (1938) and the Sonata for Viola d’amore and Piano, “Kleine Sonate” Op.25 No.2 from 1922 (Quartz QTZ 2132 quartzmusic.com)

Mints in particular plays with tremendous strength, power and brilliance in music that clearly has special meaning for him. The Sonata in D was “the first window into contemporary music” for the 13-year-old Mints; later Hindemith was his ”window into Romantic music” and the composer continues to hold a special place in Mints’ heart. It’s certainly difficult to imagine better performances of these fascinating works.

Listen to 'Hindemith Complete Works for Violin & Piano' Now in the Listening Room

06 Hindemith Viola RodolfoThere’s more terrific Hindemith playing on Hindemith Sonatas for Viola Solo by the Spanish violist Jesus Rodolfo (IBS Classical IBS52019 naxosdirect.com)

The three numbered Sonatas for Viola Solo – Op.11 No.5 (1919), Op.25 No.1 (1922) and Op.31 No.4 (1924)together with the Sonata for Viola Solo from 1937 are challenging and extremely difficult works by a composer who was himself a world-class violist. They are often strident and dissonant, but there is more than enough lyrical and tonal writing to make them compelling listening.

Rodolfo plays with a deep, rich tone and a commanding technique in performances that hold you from beginning to end. 

07 Janet SungOn Edge of Youth, her first recording for the Sono Luminus label, violinist Janet Sung presents a program of works that she feels were significant in her development of a more mature musical voice (DSL-92230 sono-luminus.squarespace.com).

Two 20th-century masterpieces – George Enescu’s astonishingly original Impressions d’enfance Op.28 and Benjamin Britten’s early Suite for Violin and Piano Op.6 – are paired with three recent compositions: Missy Mazzoli’s Dissolve, O My Heart (2011) and Gabriel Prokofiev’s Sleeveless Scherzo (2007), both for solo violin; and Dan Visconti’s Rave-Up for violin and piano (2012). William Wolfram is the excellent pianist in the duo pieces.

Sung’s technique and musicianship are quite superb, hardly surprising for someone who studied with both Josef Gingold and Dorothy DeLay.

09 Mozart Mi Sa YangFour violin sonatas from the middle of Mozart’s canon are featured on Mozart sonates pour piano et violon, with violinist Mi-Sa Yang and pianist Jonas Vitaud (Mirare MIR420 mirare.fr). The two Sonatas in E Minor K304 and D Major K306 are from the six sonatas finished in Paris in 1778 and known as the Palatine Sonatas, while the two Sonatas in G Major K379 and E-flat Major K380 are also from a set of six, the Viennese sonatas of 1781.

There’s a lovely balance here, with a clear, resonant sound. Yang’s tone is warm and sensitive with a judicious use of vibrato, and there is equally fine playing from Vitaud. The two Palatine sonatas feature particularly strong playing, with excellent articulation and intelligent nuance.

The CD doesn’t appear to be intended as part of an ongoing series, but as a one-off with almost 80 minutes of music it’s certainly a very worthwhile release.

08 HenriquesFini Henriques Works for Violin and Piano features 21 short pieces plus two multi-movement collections from the period 1899-1923 by a composer who was one of the most popular Danish musical figures of his time. Violinist Johannes Søe Hansen and pianist Christina Bjørkøe are the performers on Denmark’s national record label (Dacapo 8.226151 naxos.com).

Henriques enjoyed a stellar career as a virtuoso violinist, and clearly knew how to write for his instrument. He was at his most effective with short recital pieces, the excellent booklet notes describing him as “almost unrivalled in his ability to compose small pieces with a sharp characterisation – works with charm and warm-heartedness.” And they are exactly that – lovely works, light but never trivial, and beautifully played and recorded on an absolutely delightful CD.

10 Haydn scanJoseph Haydn String Quartets Op.71 is the excellent new CD from Scotland’s Maxwell Quartet (LINN CKD 602 naxosdirect.com).

The quartet’s perceptive booklet notes make it clear that they have a strong affinity for Haydn’s quartets, and it really shows in warm, sympathetic performances of the quartets No.1 in B-flat Major, No.2 in D Major and No.3 in E-flat Major. Each quartet is followed by a “Scottish epilogue” – Gaelic folk and fiddle tunes by the likes of James Scott Skinner and Niel Gow, arranged by the quartet members and with one written by Maxwell violinist George Smith. It’s an extremely effective addition, fully supporting the ensemble’s view that “just like Haydn’s quartets, this is music that is capable of speaking to everyone.” All in all, a lovely CD.

11 KovarovicThe three string quartets of the Czech composer Karel Kovařovic (1862-1920) were never published, the source material for the world premiere recordings of The Complete String Quartets by the Czech Stamic Quartet being the manuscripts in the National Museum – Czech Museum of Music in Prague (Supraphon SU 4267-2 supraphon.com).

There is much to remind you of Smetana and Dvořák here, so consequently much to enjoy, from the 17-year-old composer’s Quartet No.1 in D Major from 1879, through the substantial Quartet No.2 in A Minor from 1887 (dedicated to Dvořák and admired by him) to the unfinished Quartet No.3 in G Major from 1894 – there is no fourth movement and the third remains incomplete but performable.

The Stamic Quartet was formed in 1985 – the second violin and viola are original members – and is clearly in its element here on a generous (at over 80 minutes) and beautifully played and recorded CD

12 Atma QuartetPoland’s Ãtma Quartet chose relatively brief but engrossing works by three 20th-century Polish composers for their debut CD, Penderecki Szymanowski Panufnik String Quartets (CD Accord ACD 252-2 naxosdirect.com).

Karol Szymanowski’s Quartet No.2 Op.56, written in 1927 for a Philadelphia competition (it lost out to quartets by Bartók and Casella) was actually the first he completed. Its three movements total less than 18 minutes, but it’s a very attractive work amply demonstrating the composer’s distinctive style and sound.

Andrzej Panufnik’s Quartet No.3 Paper-Cuts from 1990 is even shorter at less than 11 minutes despite having five sections which explore various aspects of string playing. Krzysztof Penderecki’s Quartet No.3 Leaves of an Unwritten Diary is a single-movement but episodic work lasting 18 minutes.

The performances of these fascinating works are top-notch on a very impressive debut album.

13 Raphael FeuillatreClassical guitarist Raphaël Feuillâtre, the winner of the 2018 Guitar Foundation of America Competition, is simply outstanding in a recital of transcriptions and original works on the Naxos Laureate Series (8.574127 naxos.com).

The transcriptions are of works by Ariel Ramírez, Rameau, Scriabin and Rachmaninov, with Feuillâtre’s own transcription of the Granados 8 Valses poéticos particularly dazzling, while the original works are by Agustín Barrios Mangoré, Heitor Villa-Lobos and – a particularly virtuosic showpiece – Miguel Llobet Solés’ Variations on a Theme of Sor, Op.15.

Feuillâtre’s playing is technically superb – clean, sensitive and nuanced, and with a sense of style and phrase to match the virtuosity. There’s a complete absence of left-hand noise in the resonant recording, engineered and produced by the always reliable Norbert Kraft and Bonnie Silver in Florida. 

01 Jae Hyuck ChoBeethoven & Liszt Piano Concerti No.1
Jae-Hyuck Cho; Royal Scottish National Orchestra; Adrien Perruchon
Sony Classical S80403C (amazon.com)

The most recent collaboration on disc between pianist Jae-Hyuck Cho and conductor Adrien Perruchon directing the Royal Scottish National Orchestra offers first piano concertos by both Liszt and Beethoven. This recording exhibits poise, candour and marked esteem for the well-worn music at hand.

Cho approaches Beethoven’s youthful first piano concerto with a Haydnesque profile, achieving this with his own earnest brand of pianism, both tactile and circumspect. The lighter side of Beethoven’s early period is revealed here, as is the German composer’s debt to neoclassical attributes such as a Mozartian savvy for crafting melodic lines. Cho’s faithful – at times predictable – reading of the score contains just enough bravura to affirm that we are experiencing a concerto.

With conductor Perruchon’s background as both percussionist and bassoonist, one hears vividly planned out orchestral accompaniments, laser-precise and metrically refined. This kind of rhythmic cultivation is what Leon Fleisher so often refers to as performative “irresistibility,” and Perruchon’s orchestra and Cho’s keyboard both seem to have it in ample measure. Crisp and carefully wrought woodwind lines squint through the textures in classical and Romantic scoring alike, with Perruchon’s prizing of oboe and bassoon parts enhancing this effect.

With affectionate, palpable exchange between soloist and conductor, (especially in the Liszt concerto), this disc is also aided by a notably high standard of audio recording. Producer Michael Fine and engineer Jin Choi are to be applauded for such a balanced and crystalline achievement.

Adam Sherkin

 

02 Sheng Cai LisztLiszt – 12 Etudes d’exécution transcendante; 2 Etudes de concert
Sheng Cai
ATMA ACD2 2783 (atmaclassique.com)

Sheng Cai is a Canadian pianist with a growing international reputation. The playing on this disc is remarkable. In Franz Liszt’s 12 Transcendental Etudes (1852), what stand out are clear voicing, fine control of dynamics and a sense of expressive freedom. For example, in Paysage (No.3) pacing is flexible and there are several grades of softness. Ricordanza (No.9) opens with comparable expressiveness in movement and dynamics but on an expanding scale, meeting this longer work’s more dramatic and extreme demands. In other words, Cai is fully up to the Etudes’ diverse challenges! We haven’t yet considered that he successfully matches such technical demands as the fearsome leaps in Mazeppa (No.4), the colouristic intricacies of Feux follets (No.5), or the tremendous approaching storm tremolos in Chasse-neige (No.12). Throughout the disc, effective groupings of pedalled notes and precise phrase cut-offs are among the ways this pianist has avoided the banging and noisiness I have heard in some well-known artists’ Liszt renderings.

Through the artist we meet the composer, and I have enjoyed Liszt’s humour in the characterization of the Eroica (No. 7) and the composer’s artistry with what seem like painters’ brush strokes in Waldesrauschen (Forest Murmurs), one of the Two Concert Etudes (1862-63) also included on this recording. Do not fear for lack of variety among all of these etudes, no two are alike and Cai makes the listening experience a distinct pleasure.

Roger Knox

Listen to 'Liszt: 12 Etudes d’exécution transcendante; 2 Etudes de concert' Now in the Listening Room

 

03 Donna VoceDonna Voce (Fanny Mendelssohn; Amy Beach; Clara Schumann; Cecile Chaminade; Lili Boulanger; Chia-Yu Hsu)
Anna Shelest
Sorel Classics n/a (sorelmusic.org)

It is unfortunate that to record an entire album featuring beautiful and stylistically diverse music from a well-chosen program of women composers is still, in 2019, an inherently political statement, but here we are. Unlike both piano playing and pedagogy which have long been gendered activities coded as “safe” or “acceptable” entrees into the music business for women, historically composition was seen as the realm of men. Upon occasion, as featured on the recording, some who are related to better known male figures (i.e. Fanny Mendelssohn’s brother Felix and Clara Schumann’s husband Robert) were allowed to “dabble” in the form, but not encouraged, nor taken particularly seriously.

Anna Shelest, a Ukraine-born pianist who graduated from Juilliard and who currently lives in New York City, is a wonderfully expressive and talented musician who unites these composers, some of whom are separated by multiple centuries, with her deft touch and clear lyricism on this Sorel Classics release. Partially, this is exploration of lost histories, in the sense that some of this music has not been given its rightful place in canon of Western art music due, undoubtedly, to antiquated views on what constituted “acceptable” activities for married women (in the case of American composer Amy Beach); patriarchally established family responsibilities that curtailed artistic practice and output (Clara Schumann) and outright sexism masquerading as musical criticism (Cécile Chaminade, who was undermined in a New York Post review of her 1908 Carnegie Hall recital that stated, in part, “on the whole this concert confirmed the conviction held by many that while women may someday vote, they will never learn to compose anything worthwhile,” this recording is no mere historical exercise.

Through Shelest’s clear musicality and performance prowess, Donna Voce is an extremely musical and satisfying contemporary classical release that will hopefully (and deservedly) present this collection of music, as well as Shelest’s many talents, to a wide audience of listeners around the world.

Andrew Scott

 

04 Artur SchnebelArtur Schnabel – Complete Works for Solo Piano
Jenny Lin
Steinway & Sons 30074 (steinway.com)

Some wonders will never cease, as evidenced by the latest Steinway & Sons disc of Artur Schnabel’s Complete Works for Solo Piano with pianist Jenny Lin. That’s right: Artur Schnabel, composer.

Amongst the great 20th-century pianists, Schnabel was the first to record the entire cycle of Beethoven sonatas, a practice now well-entrenched – and a yardstick oft’ attained – by numerous keyboardists on a regular basis. But the legacy of Schnabel’s pianism remains sacrosanct, as does his pedagogical lineage. So then, how well-perceived is his compositional output? Not well, it would seem. Consequently, Steinway & Sons and intrepid pianist Jenny Lin “aim to correct this imbalance of perception.”

A new double album presents Schnabel’s works in chronological order, an edifying curatorial decision and one that reveals the breadth of his compositional development, starting with the Three Fantasy Pieces of 1898 – written when the composer was just 16 years old – and ending in 1947 with seven austere, Webern-like miniatures.

It is in the early pieces that we glimpse a refined era of waltzes and foxtrots, elegantly wrought with an audible fondness for the Austro-Hungarian imperial ballroom. Schnabel’s Dance Suite of 1920/21 is beguiling in its invitational charm and expressivity; quirky and yet intriguing in a slightly mangled mode. How delighted his audiences might have been, after hearing him stride through late Beethoven piano sonatas in recital, to finish the evening with encores of the pianist-composer’s own! The Sonata of 1923 probes a darker, dissonant world. Shadowy spectres of Charles Ives seem to rush in at the resolute opening. Now far off from waltzes-of-old, Schnabel’s oeuvre can proclaim a newfound dimension.

Jenny Lin is a contemporary titan of the keyboard, already boasting an impressive discography. This latest addition only reaffirms her bravery and fierce commitment to all things new and different. Possessing a truly unique pianistic skill set, Lin manages the character and style of old Europe remarkably well in this recording, considering how distant Schnabel’s music sits from the sights and sounds of 2019.

Lin’s singular devotion to Germanic literature, (she has an undergraduate degree in the subject), must come to bear when interpreting these pieces. There’s a lingua franca here that few artists of today would comprehend and, moreover, command with such conviction. Not many could pull off a feat of one such disc, let alone two. Such accomplishment urges the question: what will she tackle next?

Adam Sherkin

 

05 Stefan WolpeStefan Wolpe Volume 8 – Music for Two Pianos
Quattro Mani
Bridge Records 9516 (bridgerecords.com)

German, Jew, Communist, American, activist, modernist and eminent teacher, composer Stefan Wolpe and his impressive catalogue of works should probably be better known today. Volume Eight from Bridge Records’ projected complete recordings forms the most recent release to date, featuring Wolpe’s music for two pianos.

This disc runs the gamut of styles, presenting Wolpe’s stern and structured March and Variations and Two Studies on Basic Rows, (both from the 1930s). These works are punctuated by the Ballet Suite in Two Movements: The Man from Midian, (1942) which is filled with rousing populist gestures and extramusical inspiration. These two extremes of Wolpe’s art – aptly represented and admirably executed by pianists Steven Beck and Susan Grace of Quattro Mani – lend themselves well to the dual keyboard medium.

The most arresting and remarkable work on the record, Two Studies on Basic Rows, is delivered with analytical focus and an informed musical intelligence. The complexity of the Passacaglia, (the final track on the album), is so well conceived that the brightness and fury at the heart of Wolpe’s art can distinctly shine through.

The Man from Midian ballet suite serves as a welcome bit of fun – nearly 30 minutes in length – that takes the listener on a kind of mid-century musical romp through various styles, political commentary and Judaic narrative, all channelled via the mind of a relatively unknown 20th-century composer who just might have something important to tell us in our 21st-century reality.

Adam Sherkin

02 Schone MullerinSchubert – Die Schöne Mullerin
Thomas Meglioranza; Reiko Uchida
Independent 004 (meglioranza.com)

Thomas Meglioranza is a young American baritone with an impressive background of recitals, oratorio singing, even opera, and together with California pianist Reiko Uchida has formed a duo mainly for lieder recitals. To date they have issued three recordings with considerable success and international acclaim. This new disc of Die Schöne Müllerin is their fourth recording and comes with a recommendation from the legendary Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau praising their “healthy and beautiful sounding way of performing these difficult songs”.

The selection of the piano was of paramount importance as Meglioranza’s personal preference for this cycle was an early keyboard sound. After much research and deliberation the final choice was a Zierer, a Viennese fortepiano from 1829 that had a “rustic twang” and a lovely, crisp and non-intrusive tone.

The Schöne Müllerin is a particular favourite of mine being the most melodious, very emotional and probably the happiest of all of Schubert’s cycles. My first acquaintance with it was hearing the song Wohin? (Where to?) as a child and it made a tremendous impression on me. The story is very romantic: boy gets girl, boy loses girl. The water motive runs through the entire cycle; the brook (lieber bächlein) becomes a friend and confidante of the young man and some of the most beautiful songs are dialogues with the brook (e.g Die Neugerige and Der Müller und der Bach). My favorite moment is in the song Ungeduld where the young lover sings his heart out, declaring Dein ist mein Herz in glorious fortissimo, that’s certainly understood by anyone who has ever been in love!

Meglioranza’s fine baritone, intelligent singing and impeccable German diction, thoroughly inside the poetry, with sympathetic and stylish accompaniment by Ms. Uchida, does deserve Fischer Dieskau’s praise and mine too.

03 DonizettiDonizetti – Il Castello di Kenilworth
Pratt; Remigio; Anduaga; Pop; Orchestra/Coro Donizetti Opera; Riccardo Frizza
Dynamic 37834 (naxosdirect.com)

A double rarity: an all-but-forgotten opera and a non-updated production – the Tudor-era costumes actually reflect the period of the opera’s events. Andrea Leone Totolla’s libretto, derived from Walter Scott’s novel Kenilworth, pits the Earl of Leicester’s love for his secret wife, Amelia, against his ambition to gain the throne by exploiting Queen Elizabeth’s love for him. When Elizabeth arrives at his castle, Leicester has his squire, Warney, confine Amelia in a remote room. Warney professes his love for Amelia; spurned, he plots her death.

Leicester’s and Warney’s separate schemes begin to unravel when Amelia manages to escape and encounters Elizabeth (foreshadowing the confrontation of Mary and Elizabeth in Maria Stuarda). All four principals, together, then express their anguish at the sudden turn of events. Unlike Scott’s novel, in which Warney kills Amelia, and unlike Donizetti’s other Tudor operas, this one eventually ends happily. Warney’s murder attempt is foiled; Leicester’s love for Amelia leads him to confess his deception to Elizabeth; she forgives him and blesses his marriage.

This production from the 2018 Donizetti Festival in Bergamo, Donizetti’s home town, features a bare-bones set, minimal props and no scenic backdrops, all on a postage-stamp-sized stage. What makes it very worth watching is Donizetti’s melody-drenched, rhythmically energized score, ably sung by sopranos Jessica Pratt (Elizabeth) and Carmela Remigio (Amelia), and tenors Xabier Anduago (Leicester) and Stefan Pop (Warney). The Donizetti Opera Chorus and Orchestra are energized, too; bravo to conductor Riccardo Frizza.

04 As OneLaura Kaminsky – As One
Sasha Cooke; Kelly Markgraf; Fry Street Quartet
Bright Shiny Things BSTC-0127 (brightshiny.ninja)

In the five years since As One was premiered, it has been performed, apparently, more frequently than any other new opera in North America (though it has yet to reach Toronto). No surprise there, judging by this recording. For one thing, it’s timely, following the journey of a young woman, Hannah, as she transitions from male to female. It’s concise, just 75 minutes long. The cast is minimal – two singers, a string quartet and a conductor. The music is alluring, if unprovocative, ranging from lyrical to sharp-edged, and the libretto is at once poetic and hard-hitting.

The role of Hannah is split between Hannah before, a baritone, and Hannah after, a mezzo-soprano. Both sing throughout, an inspired twist which allows composer Laura Kaminsky and librettists Kimberly Reed (whose real-life story this is) and Mark Campbell to present Hannah’s transition as an ongoing process.

This recording, the first of the complete opera, assembles the terrific musicians from the original production. Kelly Markgraff is endearingly open-hearted as Hannah before, and Sasha Cooke makes a powerfully convincing Hannah after. The Fry Street Quartet responds with irresistible immediacy to Hannah’s fraught challenges. Conductor Steven Osgood effectively balances Hannah’s hard-won moments of tranquility with dramatic urgency.

As One is a deeply moving tale of one rather extraordinary transgender woman’s complicated path to self-discovery, yet its appeal is universal. It will surely resonate profoundly with anyone who has ever grappled with who they are and where they belong.

05 VireoVireo: The Spiritual Biography of a Witch’s Accuser – An opera by Lisa Bielawa
Various Artists; Lisa Bielawa
Orange Mountain Music OMM7017 (orangemountainmusic.com)

Composer Lisa Bielawa conceived the idea of the young teenage heroine Vireo, who is lost in the world of visionaries, witch hunters, psychiatrists and artists in her auditory and visual hallucinations. Set to the libretto by Erik Ehn, the 12-episode, over-two-hour opera directed by Charles Otte was originally made for television and online viewing. There is no stage here – sets include forests, indoors, a monastery, and even the Alcatraz Prison. The singers and musicians share the action locations equally, all shot by a single camera as the opera weaves almost cryptically from 16th-century-France witchcraft all the way to the present day.

Bielawa’s dense score includes tension-building interval repetitions, nods to minimalism, descending chromatic lines, percussion effects, piano chords and even touches of familiar children’s songs. The Kronos Quartet sets the opening musical stage with violin solo to full quartet to the San Francisco Girls Chorus singing to the clear, beautiful voice of Rowen Sabala as Vireo. Sabala was herself still a teenager performing in this production and her work is amazing, from her troubled gyrations and twitches, interchanges between her mother (Maria Lazarova), Doctor (Gregory Purnhagen), teenage cohort Caroline (Emma MczKenzie), and real/imaginary witches. Though too numerous to mention, all the singers and musicians perform and look convincing.

Highlights include piano clunks as the Doctor moves his scary, lengthy medicinal needle towards Vireo; the piccolo making bird sounds sets the stage as the action moves back in time in Beginner: The Cow Song segment, though distressing, breaks into humour as a hilarious horn band performs in front of a cow while the others grab a grilled meal. Up to nine identical frames at once visually build the girls’ tensions in Boarding School. Sharp bright and dark lighting, atonal music, and hurdy-gurdy solo in Alcatraz build tension and grief. Orchestra members dressed in lab coats and characters in circus costumes fuel the busy Circus, featuring a successful stereotypical Queen-of-Sweden operatic performance by Deborah Voigt until the calming final solo departure of Vireo into the forest in My Name is Vireo.

The libretto is shown on the DVD yet the clear CD production makes understanding words with music manageable. Whether one watches the DVD film or listens to the CD, the detailed intense magic of music, sound, and visuals are uniquely compelling, troubling and entertaining! Everyone involved in the production and performances deserves a standing ovation.

01 Bach Trio Sonata ProjectJohann Sebastian Bach – The Trio Sonata Project
Tripla Concordia
Arcana A114 (naxosdirect.com)

What would Bach think? It’s the question with which the recorder virtuoso Walter van Hauwe began his proverbial quest to re-imagine Bach’s sonatas and a partita as if they were written for his instrument. Van Hauwe also takes comfort from the fact that Bach’s contemporary, the composer and writer, Johann Mattheson deemed “the elaboration of an idea” by another composer “does not harm the original inventor” and, one must assume, his original inventions as well.

It is with this in mind that one must approach this wonderfully irreverent music, which is still Bach, but with an iconic twist in articulation and dynamics. While the keyboard remains ubiquitous throughout this repertoire, the viola da gamba has been replaced by a violoncello and both have been embellished by recorders. Most notably, Bach’s basso continuo is replaced, quite ingeniously, by the contrapuntal lines of the bass recorder.

As if by magic, Bach’s original trio sonatas – the C Minor BWV1029, G Major BWV1039 (1027), F Major BWV1028, D Minor BWV527 and the Partita in D Minor BWV997 – are reborn in subtle shifts in colour as the music moves from one key to another. It is a refreshingly forthright and decidedly wide-awake performance on bright-sounding instruments by Tripla Concordia. Tempi tend to be wonderfully brisk and bright changes in the dynamics let the leading recorders do the work with verve, in crisp and buoyant style and vivid articulation.

02 PlattiPlatti – Flute Sonatas, Op.3
Alexa Raine-Wright
Leaf Music LM224 (leaf-music.ca)

There are five outstanding musicians whose contributions to this wonderful recording all deserve recognition. First and foremost, of course, is the Baroque/rococo composer, Giovanni Benedetto Platti (1697-1763), whose six Opus 3 flute sonatas have not, until recently at least, been part of the standard flute repertoire, unlike those by some of his better-known contemporaries. The obscurity of these works, as this recording demonstrates, is due not to any defects but rather to the unavailability of the printed music. The fecundity of Platti’s musical imagination, from joie de vivre to pathos to artfully crafted lyricism is evident throughout the CD.

Then there is, of course, the soloist, Baroque flutist Alexa Raine-Wright, whose playing is full of vivacity, exquisite phrasing, breathtaking virtuosity, definite and confident articulation and all-round sensitivity to the voice of the composer. You know from the first seconds of track one that her first priorities are to be musical, that is, to play the phrases, the musical sentences, so that their meaning can be heard, and to be more than just a soloist but also part of the ensemble.

Her team (Camille Paquette-Roy, Baroque cello, Rona Nadler, harpsichord, Sylvain Bergeron, archlute and Baroque guitar) are worthy collaborators, who, while always keeping a rock-solid steady tempo, seem also able to allow space for rhapsodic freedom to the flute. Worth mentioning too are the several truly exquisite duo moments for flute and cello, as in the first movement of Sonata 4 and the second movement of Sonata 5.

Bravissimi to our musical colleagues in Montreal.

Listen to 'Platti: Flute Sonatas, Op.3' Now in the Listening Room

03 Mozart Last 3 SymphoniesMozart – The Three Last Symphonies
Ensemble Appassionato; Mathieu Herzog
Naïve V 5457 (naxosdirect.com)

A contemporary pace of living, especially in the metropolis, must include small pleasures in the form of art. Mozart’s music might be one of those necessary delights in the lives of many. Although there are countless recordings of his works, it is exciting to discover new aspects of Mozart’s music and this recording undoubtedly brings some new thoughts and sounds. I loved the spirited energy and the clear sound on this recording as well as the candour of the interpretations. Playfulness is interwoven with drama and expressed through resonant simplicity of sound – a perfect formula for bringing out the essence of Mozart’s music.

What attracted French conductor Mathieu Herzog to this triptych is the fact that there is a certain mystery surrounding these symphonies – all three were written in the summer of 1788, when things were not looking too bright in Mozart’s life. There is no evidence to suggest any of them were ever performed during the composer’s lifetime and Mozart never again returned to this genre. No.39 and No.41 are warm, expansive and buoyant and No.40 is unusually dark and melancholic. There is a common thread though – all three are powerful masterpieces.

Ensemble Appassionato, founded by Herzog and comprised of leading French musicians, is on fire here – both bows and sparks are flying and the joy of the performance is thrilling. This recording is worth hearing, not because it might be perfect but because it just might surprise you.

04 Berlioz TSOBerlioz – Symphonie fantastique; Tempest Fantasy
Toronto Symphony Orchestra; Sir Andrew Davis
Chandos CHSA 5239 (tso.ca/watch-listen)

Do we really need another Symphony fantastique? Not an unreasonable question. Many more than a few decades ago when the question was asked by a neophyte record producer, “How do you know what to record?,” the experienced answer was “Look through the Schwann Record Catalog, find the most recorded work and make another one.” That proved to be sage advice then.

There are countless recordings of the Symphonie fantastique available now, some outstanding performances and some sonic spectaculars. As far as performance is concerned, this new one is high in the outstanding category. The entire string section is splendid, “singing” immaculately together. The winds are a joy, from serene to bustling. The brass is burnished and the percussion can have fearful presence and power.

Davis’ beat is steady, without being carried away emotionally, and ever true to the score, observing every nuance. I enjoyed it cerebrally as well as viscerally. Sonically, this is what audiophiles dream of. From piccolos to the lowest notes in the basses and thumping bass drum, to articulate strings and winds this is nirvana.

Equally impressing is the Tempest Fantasy with the orchestra and the Mendelssohn Choir in this Berlioz 14-minute showpiece in four parts: Prologue, The Tempest, Action and Dénouement. Those who know their Berlioz will recognize quotations from Lelio: the return to life, the sequel to the Symphonie fantastique.

If one were buying a Fantastique this could very well be it. It stands up to repeated hearings for, as I listened for some passages to critique, there were plenty of positives but no negatives that I heard.

This disc creates a gorgeous reality in an acoustic better than any seat in Roy Thomson Hall where these recordings were made on September 20-22, 2018.

05 DvorakAntonin Dvořák – Piano Quartets Nos.1 & 2
Dvořák Piano Quartet
Supraphon SU 4257-2 (naxosdirect.com)

Czech composer Antonín Dvořák’s music, presented here in a piano quartet form, is beautifully brought to life in this capture on Supraphon Records. Featuring the somewhat unusual instrumentation of piano, violin, viola and cello (inspired by both the public’s interest in his work at the time and by Dvořák’s hero Brahms’ employment of the same musical aggregation), the Dvořák Piano Quartet, a current ensemble based in the Czech Republic, performs this music in a thoughtful, and at times playful manner, bringing out, as great classical music and performance will do, the range of human emotion and expression.

A violinist and violist himself, Dvořák’s writing here places a premium on string virtuosity and the accomplished string performers, Štěpán Pražák, Petr Verner and Jan Žďánský, are more than up for the masterful task. While Dvořák is certainly known for his dramatic scope and the power of his fulsome symphonic works, the intimacy of the chamber group context heard here brings out the range of his grand musicianship and empowers listeners towards a quiet reflection of his beautiful musical ideas. This is easy, lyrical music best listened to intently, that combines the beauty of the Western art music tradition in which Dvořák worked so well, with the native folk music influences that the composer so skillfully researched and incorporated into his music. Captured with beautiful clarity and fidelity, this 2018 recording would be a welcome addition to the collections of both Dvořák and chamber music fans alike.

06 Tchaikovsky SixthTchaikovsky – Symphony No.6 “Pathétique”
Berliner Philharmoniker; Kirill Petrenko
Berliner Philharmoniker Recordings BPHR 190261 (berliner-philharmoniker-recordings.com)

Honestly, from the first bar of this performance I really felt aware of hearing the notes of this familiar symphony for the first time. After decades of hearing so many fine enhanced performances interpreted by a parade of esteemed conductors, I know the work well. None ever like this one. The essence of this performance comes from within the score and not from a conductor’s opinion as to what should be added or left out to enhance the composer’s wishes. What we hear here is a performance reflecting and respecting Tchaikovsky’s printed score as it opens out. The interesting aspect of this version with Kirill Petrenko recorded on March 22-23, 2017, one of the first two published recordings from those sessions with his new orchestra, is that, until it is heard, one doesn’t know what such a performance as this evokes. The saying that “you don’t know what you’re missing” is so true here.

No fiddling with the printed page, no shattering fortes nor wrung out tensions imposed by a creative, well-meaning interpreter to improve this perfect score. Petrenko displays a total empathy with the composer, making this debut an excellent choice for both conductor and orchestra.

Credit for this perfect CD/SACD/DSD recording must go to the regular Berlin Philharmonic team, recording producer and editor Christoph Franke and sound engineer René Möller. One could not imagine better sound in whichever mode you are listening. We know exactly who was playing and quite where they sat. Particularly telling are the textures of the just audible opening bassoon and the closing plucked basses. All with no spotlighting or enhancement. Repeated dedicated listening over the last few weeks confirms the first impressions.

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