01 New WorldsNew Worlds/Nouveaux Mondes; Canada’s National Arts Centre Orchestra; Alexander Shelley (Analekta AN 2 8873 analekta.com). It took a while to identify what sounded familiar in Ana Sokolović’s Golden slumbers kiss your eyes…, but eventually I realized it reminded me of that mid-20th century pillar of choral/orchestral repertoire, Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana. Reading the program notes revealed another parallel to that great work – this too is based on secular, vernacular texts, in this case primarily folk songs in French, English, Italian, German, Ladino and the composer’s native Serbian. The likeness to Carmina Burana is mostly one of scale – vocal soloist, multiple choirs, orchestral forces with prominent percussion – but there are a couple of movements that are particularly Orffian, including Mie mama mata mata with its alternating lines between the choirs, and later an anguished countertenor solo reminiscent of the dying swan of Orff’s masterpiece.

Conceived as a tribute to NACO (now CNACO)’s founding conductor and later, music director Mario Bernardi, it is a celebration of Canada’s multiculturalism and pays tribute to Bernardi’s Italian heritage in two of the seven movements. Although the texts are from folk songs they are surprisingly transformed in this presentation, sometimes to the point of non-recognition. À la claire fontaine begins with a haunting solo by countertenor David DQ Lee, eventually joined by dark chanting from the chorus more reminiscent of a satanic ritual than the coureur de bois chanson learned at French immersion camp. I was also reminded of some of the more dramatic scenes from Harry Somers’ Louis Riel and the movement Durme, durme, a Serbian lullaby, reminded me of that opera’s Kuyas. I don’t mean to say that this is in any way a derivative work. Sokolović has a unique voice and it is more a reflection of my own way of relating to new things, always happy to find touchstones.

Canada’s National Arts Centre Orchestra, better known for “viewing the past through rose coloured glasses” in recent decades, is marching bravely into the 21st century under Alexander Shelley, who succeeded Pinchas Zukerman as music director in 2015. I’m pleased to note that their last three CDs have all featured new Canadian compositions commissioned by the orchestra. In this most recent addition, Sokolović’s stunning work is paired with Dvořák’s New World Symphony. I think it is very effective programming, and any questions I had about whether this classical-size orchestra numbering 60-some players would be sufficient to do justice to this staple of the Romantic repertoire were allayed by listening to the performance on this beautifully recorded disc.

02 Juliet PalmerI believe several disclaimers are in order here for the sake of full disclosure. New Zealand-born Canadian composer Juliet Palmer’s music has been presented on several occasions by New Music Concerts (my “day” job), most recently last month on our program “The Lioness of Iran,” featuring settings of the poetry of Simin Behbahani. In addition, Palmer and her husband James Rolfe (another composer whose work we have presented), are frequent attendees at parties at my musical neighbour Gail’s house, where I’m often heard jamming with guitars and, on the best nights, mandolins and fiddles. But if I recused myself from writing about all the composers I have had the pleasure to meet over the past several decades, there wouldn’t be many left to mention. A further disclosure is that for the most part I don’t enjoy contemporary vocal music. So when Palmer’s new mostly a cappella disc Rivers (BR0343 barnyardrecords.com) arrived, I fully expected to be assigning the review to someone more at arm’s length and more appreciative of the genre. My curiousity got the best of me however and I decided to give it a listen. I must say I was smitten! The six tracks span a decade, with Simple Death from 2006 (from SLIP, a site-specific multimedia collaboration with lyricist Anna Chatterton which took place in Harrison Baths as part of that year’s X Avant Festival), to two selections first performed as part of another site-specific project, Singing River, on the Pan Am Path, Lower Don Trail in 2015.

The disc opens with the sounds of a babbling brook, or so it seems. It turns out to be blood flow, ultrasound recordings from the Sunnybrook Research Institute which, complemented by quiet chattering and disturbing interpolations from a chorus, provide a kind of ostinato under the anguished solo vocal by Laura Swankey on a text from Emily Dickinson’s The Heart has narrow Banks. Dreaming of Trees is a slow lyrical piece that begins with a very simple pattern on a metallophone which continues throughout under the solo voice of Alex Samaras and gentle, flowing tonal harmonies from a small mixed chorus. The text is by Nicholas Power. Dusk of Tears from Palmer’s opera Shelter is an unaccompanied duet – Felicity Williams and Samaras – with lyrics by Julie Salverson, which employs some close harmonies and clever counterpoint. This leads to the onomatopoeic and at times abrasive Burble, a lament for the Don River featuring Swankey with chorus. Litany (After the End) features post-apocalyptic lyrics of Christine Duncan recited in sprechstimme by the author with electronic treatments by Palmer. The closing track, Simple Death, uses a traditional Japanese folksong as its point of departure, with Aki Takahashi sounding hauntingly muezzin-like, juxtaposing an English lyric interwoven by Duncan over droning vocalise. It is an effective conclusion to a very satisfying recording.

03 Shostakovich violin sonataDmitri Shostakovich composed his Violin Sonata, Op.134 in 1968 and it was premiered by its dedicatee David Oistrakh with Sviatoslav Richter in the spring of the following year. In 1975, the year of the composer’s death, a Melodiya/Angel LP recording of that performance and the premiere of the String Quartet No.13, Op.138 was released in North America, and for some months held pride of place in this avid young collector’s library. So it was with great interest that I received a new recording of the sonata featuring two young Russians, Sergei Dogadin and Nikolai Tokarev (Naxos 8.573753 naxos.com). Dogadin has won ten international violin competitions including the Tchaikovsky (2011) and the Joseph Joachim International (2015), so his credentials are impeccable. While his colleague’s accolades are perhaps not quite so prestigious, Tokarev nevertheless has been recognized with awards in Switzerland and Germany since completing his piano studies in 2007. Together they capture the essence of Shostakovich’s late sonata in a riveting performance. The disc also features the first complete recording of Shostakovich’s 24 Preludes, Op.34 in transcription for violin and piano: 19 by Dmitry Tsyganov (some from 1937 and some from 1963) praised by Shostakovich as sounding more idiomatic in this guise than even the piano originals; and five by composer/pianist Lera Auerbach to complete the set in 2000. These youthful and sometimes exuberant short pieces – 35 minutes in all – provide a welcome contrast to the darkness of the sonata, which is not to say that they are all bright and sunny. The preludes, which date from 1932-33, run the gamut of emotion and at times hint at the hard times to come in the composer’s troubled life. While not supplanting the Oistrakh/Richter, this new recording will also occupy a treasured spot in my library.

04 WinterreiseHaving taken the plunge into art song above, I will say that one of my favourite vocal cycles is Winterreise, that classic of the genre by Franz Schubert. One of the discs to cross my desk recently is a new version with the piano part transcribed for string quartet by cellist Richard Krug of the Copenhagen Quartet which is featured with bass-baritone Johan Reuter (Danacord DACOCD 759 danacord.dk). Reuter, who has been a soloist with the Royal Danish Opera for the past two decades, is touted as “one of the most in-demand classical singers of his generation” in the booklet notes, and with this recording as evidence I can see why. His rendering is powerfully dramatic and tenderly sensitive as required, and his tone is superb. I find the transcription to be quite convincing, although definitely a different sensibility from the piano original. Krug captures the different moods of the piece, and the playing is nuanced and well balanced. While this will not supplant my other recordings of the cycle – if you are interested in different transcriptions I encourage you to seek out Hans Zender’s rendering for a 30-piece contemporary chamber orchestra – it is a welcome addition to my collection. One reason for not suggesting this be your only recording of Winterreise is the booklet. This Danish production features English-only liner notes, but the texts are only given in German. I had to pull out my Fischer-Dieskau/Brendel performance (Philips 464 739-2), which has English and French translations of Wilhelm Müller’s poems, to be able to follow along.

05 Schumann quartetsBy all rights I should have sent the next disc (along with the Shostakovich) to Terry Robbins for his Strings Attached column, but once again I could not resist it. As a cellist I have played Schumann’s Piano Quartet and Piano Quintet, as well as works for piano trio and cello and piano, but have never had the opportunity to explore his string quartets in depth. So when Schumann Quartets Nos. 2 & 3 featuring the Elias Quartet (ALPHA 280 alpha-classics.com) arrived I decided to hold on tight. Written in 1842 when the composer was 32, his three quartets of Op.41 were presented to his wife Clara in celebration of her 23rd birthday and their second wedding anniversary. I particularly like the personal style of the introductory program note in this tri-lingual booklet by violinist Sara Bitlloch. In it she describes how the Elias approached the charming Quartet No.3 in A Major, one of the first works they played together, and how different it was to encounter the Quartet No.2 in F Major sometime later. “The enthusiasm of the first movement can easily turn into anxiety if you push it a bit too far. In the slow movement the texture is sometimes so bare that to convey its tenderness you have to sustain it with great fervour. The capacious Scherzo is bristling with rhythmic pitfalls […] while the Finale is an endless explosion of joy!” Hard to resist such a description and even harder to ignore the music it describes. The performance was recorded live at Potton Hall, UK in May 2016 and the excitement is palpable.

06 Selcuk SunaFurther on in these pages you will read reviews of new discs from David Buchbinder’s OdessaHavana and KUNÉ, Canada’s Global Orchestra, noting that both groups are featured in performance at Koerner Hall on April 7. I have also received – from restaurateur Oğuz Koloğlu, proprietor of Café 808 – a CD by Toronto-based Turkish clarinetist and saxophonist Selcuk Suna (selcuksuna.com), who will be performing with KUNÉ. The disc, Turkish Standards//Non Standard, is quite eclectic. From the lush but breakneck moto perpetuo opening track Hicaz Mandira it progresses through some smooth jazz (but still with busy, virtuosic melody lines), touches of funk and evocations of Turkish clubs replete with belly dance rhythms. The core band consists of familiars Eric St. Laurent, Tyler Emond, Todd Pentney and Max Senitt and is complemented by a number of guest artists from the Turkish community. I’m a bit frustrated by the lack of detailed information on the disc or on Suna’s website – for instance I tried to find out about the vocalist Dia, but the only hits I got online were for a South Korean Kpop girl group whom I’m pretty sure this is not. Nevertheless the disc kept me grooving in my chair.

Listen to 'Turkish Standards//Non Standard' Now in the Listening Room

07 Food ForagersThe last disc I will mention takes me even further afield and I don’t even know what section I would have put it in – Contemporary? Improvised? Pot Pourri? – if I wasn’t covering it here. Food Foragers came to us from Unit Records in Switzerland (unitrecords.com). The press release says this is the first Duo release of Mark Lotz (flutes and effects) and squeakologist Alan Purves. “Music that sparkles with imagination and is free from conventions.” It certainly is that. One might ask what exactly a squeakologist is. A partial answer is in the list of the instruments Purves employs: toy accordion; DADA bells; balaphon, sruti boxes; toy horns; klaxon; tin whistle; brim bram; and one of my favourites, toy pigs. Although Lotz’s arsenal is more traditional, he also pushes the envelope, focusing on the extreme end of the flute family: bass flute headjoint; bass flute tongue slaps; concert flute body; prepared flute; bamboo flute; piccolo and even PVC contrabass flute. As for the music, I simply don’t know how to describe it. From melodic flute lines floating over kalimba-like ostinati in Abu in the Sky, to rhythminc grunting in Hog Time, deep heartbeat-like pulsations in the meditative Echoes Of A Life Hereafter and the playful piccolo/toy accordion duet Piepkuiken, to mention just the first four tracks, there’s never a dull moment. Some of the influences listed include traditional songs from Mali, Chick Corea’s Children’s Songs and Sir Ernest Shackleton’s Antarctic Expedition (1914-17). After a truly wondrous journey a final highlight is the concluding I’m So Sorry Blues, a standard 12-bar riff pairing the contrabass with tin whistles. Intriguing!

There are two Beethoven string quartet issues this month, featuring works from both ends of the canon.

01 Miro BeethovenThe Miró Quartet, now in its 24th year and with two original members still playing, gives an excellent performance of the remarkable String Quartet No.14 in C-sharp Minor, Op.131, part of its ongoing series of the complete cycle (Miró Quartet Media MQM 2909 2 miroquartet.com). It’s a deeply satisfying recording, but in an extremely competitive field not necessarily one which challenges your perceptions of the music or forces you to re-evaluate them.

02 Eybler BeethovenThat, however, is exactly what Toronto’s Eybler Quartet does with its simply stunning CD of Beethoven’s first efforts in the genre, the String Quartets Op.18 Nos.1-3, on instruments appropriate to the period (Coro Connections COR16164 eyblerquartet.com).

In his perceptive booklet essay violist Patrick Jordan notes that the Eybler’s emphasis on pre-Beethoven repertoire meant that they approached the early Beethoven quartets as “new music,” with the aim of re-learning how to play them to Beethoven’s exact specifications. This entailed not only sorting out issues with the various sources but also – and most importantly – deciding to adhere to Beethoven’s tempo markings, which at times are excessively fast or slow and have long been the subject of animated discussion, though rarely followed.

The results, particularly with the faster movements, are quite astonishing, from the brisk opening of the F Major Op.18 No.1 through to the dazzling Presto finale of the D Major Op.18 No.3. Technical virtuosity doesn’t begin to do justice to the playing here – there’s jaw-dropping agility, clarity and accuracy in the playing, allied with terrific dynamics and nuance, outstanding ensemble work, a lovely warm tone with a judicial use of vibrato and an unerring sense of period style.

I doubt if you’ve heard these works sound like this before – it’s absolutely essential listening. Volume 2 with Op.18 Nos.4-6 is apparently in preparation. I can hardly wait!

Listen to 'Beethoven String Quartets Op.18 Nos.1-3' Now in the Listening Room

03 New Orford QuartetFast forward 210 years or so and there’s Canadian string quartet music from the 21st century on Par quatre chemins, the latest CD from the New Orford String Quartet (ATMA Classique ACD2 2740 atmaclassique.com).

The CD takes its title from the five-movement work by François Dompierre that opens the disc. It’s a really attractive and strongly tonal work with decided dance influences. Commissioned by the Orford Arts Centre, it was premiered by these performers in 2015.

The other two works on the CD were both commissioned by the New Orford quartet. Airat Ichmouratov wrote his String Quartet No.4 Op.35, “Time and Fate” in 2012, following the sudden death of his close friend Eleanor Turovsky, the first violinist of I Musici de Montréal. Again, it’s an extremely attractive four-movement work with a particularly lovely third movement.

Tim Brady’s Journal (String Quartet No.2) was written in 2013, 33 years after Brady’s previous work in the genre. Inspired simply by “the opportunity to write music for such amazing players,” it has seven sections played without pause, the composer likening this to turning pages in a diary or journal. It’s a tougher work than the other two, with a cinematic feel to the music at times, but is another very strong and extremely well-written composition.

The NOSQ’s playing throughout is exemplary in what can be viewed as definitive performances.

04 Danielpour quartetsThere’s also American string quartet music from the current century on Richard Danielpour String Quartets Nos.5-7, performed by the Delray String Quartet in the Naxos American Classics Series (8.559845 naxos.com). The second violinist in the group is Tomás Costik, whose Piazzolla and Mozart solo CDs were recently reviewed here.

String Quartet No.5, “In Search of La vita nuova” (2004) deals with the composer’s longstanding relationship with Italy. String Quartet No.6, “Addio” (2009) deals with the string quartet as a metaphor for family, and how families are eventually broken apart through distance, time and loss. Both works were written in Northern Italy, and are about what Danielpour calls “letting go.”

String Quartet No.7, “Psalms of Solace” (2014) is about a “search for the Divine.” The last movement features a soprano part written specifically for Hila Plitman, the excellent soloist here.

All three works are very much in a late-20th-century style, strongly tonal and very accessible, and with some truly beautiful writing and lovely textures.

05 Sybarite5The American string quintet Sybarite5 was formed in 2006, since when it has commissioned, premiered and promoted over 60 new works. Its new CD Outliers (Bright Shiny Things BSTC-0121 sybarite5.org) debuted at No.1 in the Billboard Traditional Classical Album charts in February.

There was no booklet with the digi-pak we received and no information on any of the composers or the 13 works, virtually all from the period 2012 to 2015 and all quite short; the brief information on the cover says that “each track has been carefully selected to demonstrate a decade of musical growth and the relationships developed between Sybarite5 and these accomplished American composers.”

Those represented here are: Jessica Meyer; Shawn Conley; Eric Byers; Dan Visconti; Andy Akiho; Mohammed Fairouz; Kenji Bunch; Daniel Bernard Roumain; Michi Wiancko; and Lev “Ljova” Zhurbin. It’s a fascinating selection of solid and appealing compositions with nothing too challenging aurally.

06 Francesca DegoThe Italian violinist Francesca Dego signed with Deutsche Grammophon in 2012, and following her debut albums of the Paganini Caprices and the complete Beethoven Violin Sonatas the label has released her first orchestral CD, Paganini/Wolf-Ferrari Violin Concertos with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra conducted by Dego’s husband Daniele Rustioni (DG 4816381). It’s quite outstanding.

If you’re going to play Paganini’s Concerto No.1 in D Major Op.6 then you need not only impeccable technique so that the sheer difficulty is never the focus of the performance but also musical sensitivity and intelligence to make any criticisms about empty virtuosity redundant. Dego has all these qualities in abundance and is clearly well aware of the operatic vocal nature of the music; Paganini was a close friend of Rossini, and his concertos make much more sense when heard with the contemporary Italian opera style in mind.

The Violin Concerto in D Major Op.26 of Ermanno Wolf-Ferrari is little known and seldom performed. It’s a late work, completed in 1944 a few years before the composer’s death and written for the American violinist Guila Bustabo, who revised a subsequent edition after the original copies were destroyed in an Allied bombing raid. Dego correctly likens it to “an Italian opera for violin” – albeit opera from an earlier period than Wolf-Ferrari’s – in which respect it shares much with the Paganini. A long but very attractive four-movement work, it has much to recommend it.

Dego is absolutely superb in both works, but particularly in the lengthy first movement of the Paganini; Rustioni draws excellent support from the CBSO. The Wolf-Ferrari was recorded live in Birmingham in March 2017 at its UK premiere, the lengthy applause well deserved.

Contemporary American composers are featured on two new CDs.

07 Into the SilenceThe husband-and-wife team of violinist Nicholas DiEugenio and pianist Mimi Solomon are the performers on Into the Silence, a tribute to the late Steven Stucky (who taught at Cornell University in Ithaca, NY from 1980 to 2014) and the three generations of composers associated with Cornell (New Focus Recordings FCR 188 newfocusrecordings.com).

Stucky’s 2013 Sonata for Violin and Piano is surrounded by works by two of his students: 2013’s . . . in dulcet tones, by Jesse Jones; and 2014’s Plush Earth in Four Pieces by Tonia Ko. Stucky himself studied at Cornell with Robert Palmer, who founded the doctoral composition program and taught there from 1943 until 1980. Palmer’s excellent Sonata for Violin and Piano from 1956 closes the CD.

The Ithaca “sound” is described as “a blend of east coast modernism with neo-romantic and neo-classical sensibilities, with a rich sense of colour,” an accurate description of these premiere recordings.

DiEugenio and Solomon were Ithaca neighbours of Stucky, who introduced them to Palmer’s music and supported this project prior to his death in 2016.

08 Peter DaytonNotes to Loved Ones features music for strings and piano by Peter Dayton (Navona Records NV6143 navonarecords.com).

The brief but lovely Fantasy for Viola and Piano is followed by Morceaux des Noces for String Quartet, another work with a quite beautiful sound.

The Sonata “Los Dedicatorias” for Violin and Piano reflects Dayton’s relationship with the art and family of Peruvian painter Fernando de Szyszlo. Variations for String Quartet, a tougher and darker work, resulted from an exchange program with the Royal Academy of Music in London, the virtuosic violin cadenza inspired by the program leader, violinist Peter Sheppard-Skærved.

An abrasive and edgy two-movement Sonata for Violoncello and Piano (the second movement marked “Stark, Percussive”) ends an interesting and promising Navona debut CD.

Yang Guo (viola), Sarah Jane Thomas (violin), Lavena Johanson (cello) and Michael Sheppard (piano) are the soloists.

Listen to 'Notes to Loved Ones' Now in the Listening Room

09a Monteiro SchulhoffFor some reason, three CDs received this month are way past their initial release date. Two of them are from the Brilliant Classics label (brilliantclassics.com), both Complete Works for Violin and Piano – one by the Polish composer Karol Szymanowski (2 CDs 94979) and the other by his contemporary, the Czech composer Erwin Schulhoff, who died in a concentration camp in 1942 at the age of 48 (95324). The performers on both are the Portuguese duo of violinist Bruno Monteiro and pianist João Paulo Santos.

Critical opinion of Monteiro’s playing was mixed when the Schulhoff CD was released in 2016, with opinions ranging from praising his golden tone and interpretations to Gramophone magazine’s noting his “effortful and sometimes insecure” playing. Personal taste probably played a large part: Monteiro’s often slow and wide vibrato does tend to make the intonation sound suspect at times, and his tone in the highest register can sometimes sound tight and thin. There are moments in the Sonata for Solo Violin when his playing seems a bit tentative. Still, there is much to enjoy here. In particular, the piano playing in the Suite and the Sonatas Nos. 1 & 2 is outstanding, with a rich, resonant sound and an excellent balance with the violin.

09b Monteiro SzymanowskiThe Szymanowski set fares much better, especially CD2 with Mythes Op.30 opening the disc and the Nocturne and Tarantella Op.28 providing a strong finish. The Sonata in D Minor Op.9, the Romance in D Major, the Three Capriccios of Paganini Op.40 and the lullaby La Berceuse Op.52 are the other original works in the set, with the remaining five tracks either transcriptions by the composer’s compatriot, the violinist Pawel Kochanski, or – in two cases – joint compositions by them.

10 ForestareThe third latecomer is Forestare Baroque, a program of works by Bach, Vivaldi and Jean Baptiste Lully arranged for guitar ensemble and performed by the Montreal group Forestare with their 12 guitars, two contrabasses and – in the Lully – percussion (2xHDFO1043 forestare.com).

The works are Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No.3 and Fantasia on Komm, heiliger Geist, Vivaldi’s Sonata Op.1 No.12, “La Folia” and the Concerto for Two Violins and Cello Op.3 No.2, and Lully’s suite Le Bourgeois gentilhomme. The Vivaldi concerto was arranged by the Swiss guitarist Jürg Kindle, the other works by Forestare’s music director Dave Pilon and guitarist David Ratelle.

Recorded in l’Église St-Augustin in Mirabel, the sound is full and warm throughout a thoroughly enjoyable disc.

01 Stewart GoodyearStewart Goodyear’s new CD For Glenn Gould (Sono Luminus DSL 92220 sonoluminus.com) is an expression of Goodyear’s deep admiration of Gould’s music and his peculiar take on just about everything. The disc includes a generous amount of Bach, some Sweelinck, Gibbons, Brahms and Alban Berg. The pieces represent a selection of works that Gould chose for his debuts in Montreal and Washington. Far from being an imitation of Gould’s keyboard style, Goodyear’s recording seeks to recognize the genius behind the programming, by which Gould included works that bore some relationship to each other.

The striking feature of Goodyear’s playing is the authenticity and stylistic confidence he brings to each piece. From the early Baroque through Bach, Brahms and Berg, Goodyear plays with a keen ear for clarity, whether structural or melodic. The Bach Sinfonia No.8 in F Major, BWV 794 is an excellent example of this. His technique is crisp, incisive yet fluid.

The two Brahms Intermezzi, Op.118, No.2 and Op.119, No.3 come from what Goodyear believes was Gould’s best recording. In it, Gould reveals himself as the salon artist looking for the most intimate expression of his music. The recording studio became the ultimate refuge for Gould’s flight from the public stage. Accordingly, Goodyear admits that his studio time with this disc was largely intended to recreate that intimacy. Like Gould, Goodyear is careful with his tempi and always lets the forward movement of a phrase govern the amount of hesitation and drama he applies.

For Glenn Gould is a unique, creative project, and played brilliantly.

02 Sudbin RachmaninovYevgeny Sudbin has an impressive performance CV that includes nearly every major European orchestra. His newest recording Rachmaninov – Piano Concertos 2&3; BBC Symphony Orchestra; Sakari Oramo (BIS 2338 SACD bis.se) offers a truly exciting performance of these two repertoire stalwarts. The orchestra is, as expected, reliably superb. Sudbin, for his part, brings some new ideas to these two familiar works. With the Concerto No.2 Sudbin introduces several brief tempo pullbacks in unusual places, very subtle but arresting nevertheless to all who know these pieces well. He plays a few passages in the second movement with a speed more daring than is usually heard, but his unerring musicianship makes these small unconventional moments entirely convincing.

Sudbin makes an immediate impression of technical brilliance in the Concerto No.3. He skillfully navigates the opening movement, replete with high emotional contrasts. The second builds on this energy and Sudbin rides it right into the Finale where he and the orchestra build to a spectacular conclusion that is hard to describe. Anyone who loves these Rachmaninov concertos must have this disc.

03 Herten BrahmsDirk Herten is a pianist who marches to the beat of a different metronome. His latest recording Johannes Brahms – Opp. 76, 79, 116-119 (White Records white-records.com) introduces an approach to Brahms not often heard. Herten puts his music into a freely modern context. His principal tool is to slow down works that are usually played at considerably faster tempi. And while he does this with several pieces, the most dramatic effect is on the Rhapsodie Op.119. The reduction in speed takes much of the traditional turmoil out of the music. The boiling Romantic cauldron is reduced to a simmer. This suddenly puts the music into a stricter rhythm, forcing the ear to listen for new things, and this is how Herten makes his point with Brahms. The usual dramatic changes in speed are curtailed and Brahms’ bold key changes and harmonic wanderings suddenly become more noticeable.

The Steinway D that Herten plays is very closely miked and possibly specially voiced for this session. In any case, he plays the instrument with a heightened intimacy that will make this Brahms repertoire a new experience for many. His touch can be mechanistically perfect as in the Intermezzo Op.117 No.1 or lusciously fluid as in the Intermezzo Op.118 No.2. Herten pedals very lightly if at all, and uses the instrument’s natural resonance to fill the newly created microseconds of time. It’s a courageous and provocative disc.

04 Lika BibileishviliLika Bibileishvili has been playing piano since age four. Her debut recording Prokofjew, Ravel, Sibelius, Bartók (Farao Classics B108099 farao-classics.de) introduces a powerful and versatile pianist who takes her vocation very seriously. Now 30, she is a fireball of energy that approaches Prokofiev and Bartók piano sonatas fearlessly. Prokofiev’s Sonata No.6 Op.82 is a work of considerable variety in which the outer movements, especially the finale, are extremely demanding. The two inner movements are much more wistful and humourous. Throughout this piece, Bibileishvili never falters or surrenders control of the material. She combines an inherent sense of the composer’s melodic purpose with the raw power that he demands be used at the keyboard.

This same energy fuels Bibileishvili’s playing of Bartók’s Sonata for Piano Sz80. Somewhat less bombastic than the Prokofiev and more elemental, it demands a different contemporary sensibility that she demonstrates convincingly. Here, Bibileishvili focuses intensely on Bartók’s smaller-scale ideas, as if to turn the work in on itself. Her playing is astonishingly good and conveys impressive concentration.
This pianist-as-spectre appears in Ravel’s Gaspard de la nuit, where Scarbo lives up to its devilish reputation for difficulty. Ondine, by contrast, flows and shimmers beautifully and shows Bibileishvili’s lighter touch to perfection.

The Sibelius 13 Pieces for Piano Op.76 (of which Bibileishvili selected ten) adds another dimension to her debut recording. Sounding deceptively simple, some very challenging keyboard work combines with Sibelius’ gift for melody to give this extraordinary pianist a chance to prove that she’s as adept with beauty and frivolity as she is with fire and brimstone.

05 Van Raat StravinskyRalph van Raat has an extraordinary keyboard technique. He is powerful, articulate and capable of extended physical demands bordering on the impossible. His latest recording Stravinsky – Rite of Spring; Debussy – La Mer (arr. for solo piano) (Naxos 8.573576 naxos.com) is demonstrable proof of this.

It’s sufficiently awe-inspiring to hear a performance of Stravinsky’s official piano duet version without imagining the work further condensed into a score for solo piano. Still, such a score exists and van Raat has now recorded it. Pianist Vladimir Leyetchkiss transcribed the duet into a solo version in 1985. It’s every bit as dense and rhythmically maniacal as the orchestral score. The familiar passages of the sacrificial dances aptly capture what Stravinsky first conceived at the keyboard before he orchestrated the ballet. In addition to the work’s elements of savagery, van Raat portrays beautifully those fewer moments of calmer, mystical darkness that occur in both Introductions as well as the Mystic Circles of the Young Girls.

The solo transcription of La Mer is a wonderful example of how such a work can be more than a mere reduction of the orchestral parts. Debussy originally set out to avoid imitative seascapes and instead chose to write music capturing the essential emotions of the sea experience. This 1938 solo version is by Lucien Garban, a director with Debussy’s publishing firm Durand. Garban uses the composer’s choices for orchestral colouration as a guide for his rewrite of the score. Van Raat instinctively draws out the heavily arpeggiated effects of massive oceanic movement and masterfully depicts what Debussy achieved so brilliantly in his orchestral score.

06 Horvath Satie 2Nicolas Horvath plays Cosima Liszt’s 1881 Érard in his latest recording: Erik Satie – Complete Piano Works 2 (Grand Piano GP762 grandpianorecords.com). In doing so, Horvath provides an example of how Satie would have heard his music in the late 19th century. This particular instrument is in surprisingly good playing condition and delivers tremendous power in the lower range.

The main work on the disc is Le Fils des étoiles, incidental music to a drama in three acts. The three preludes are brief and each is followed by a more substantial Autre musique in which Satie explores, invents and generally does the kind of thing that earned him a reputation for being unconventional. Horvath is quite comfortable with this music. He himself is a strong promoter of contemporary music and has commissioned more than a hundred works. His familiarity with modern keyboard language makes him adept at working with Satie’s material, since the composer was among the earliest to toy with minimalism, atonality and other new approaches.

The recording is a serious, weighty examination of Satie’s work by a highly capable and credible pianist. There’s nothing casual about this – it’s an all-or-nothing performance.

08 William BolcomWhen Naxos proposed to William Bolcom that they record the entire body of his piano works, he countered with the suggestion to record only those pieces not already available on disc. After agreeing on the project, they approached four pianists – Constantine Finehouse, Estela Olevsky, Ursula Oppens and Christopher Taylor – to collaborate in recording this three-disc set: William Bolcom – Piano Music (Naxos 8.559832-34 naxos.com).

The repertoire includes unrecorded material from Bolcom’s teen years right up to 2012. There’s tremendous variety in this program, reflecting the broad creative expression that has marked Bolcom’s career. The works are neither arranged chronologically nor given in any large block to a single pianist. Instead they’re laid out as an intellectual progress that’s as entertaining as it is stimulating.
It’s a credit to the four performers that their interpretive approaches are so similar, allowing Bolcom to appear consistently as a composer whose language is bold and clear. Equally comfortable with swinging rags as with contemporary forms, Bolcom emerges from this recording project as a rich creative spirit capable of both profound iteration and light-hearted humour.

07 McEnroe Musical Images Yoko HaginoMusical Images for Piano (Navona NV6144 navonarecords.com) is a two-disc set of works by Australian composer Mark John McEnroe, performed by pianist Yoko Hagino. The set is subtitled “Reflections & Recollections Vol. 1 & 2” and is written in an introspective mood. McEnroe’s style shows, at least in these works, the strong influence of Debussy and Satie. In his liner notes, McEnroe describes a desire to capture the increasingly reflective moments that occur in later life. He draws further similarities between Monet’s inspiring gardens and his own as a stimulus for this collection.

The French impressionist style is a perfect vehicle for what McEnroe sets out to achieve. Serenity is the immediate feeling conveyed in this music, although the composer also ventures very effectively into dark corners for variety and balance. This well-planned tension and release is occasionally punctuated by touches of humour with pieces like A Fish with the Blues. Jazzy harmonies recur through the set, giving an eclectic sound to McEnroe’s voice.

He writes with a strong affinity for melodic line and this feature has attracted a number of orchestrations of his piano works, resulting in subsequent recordings by several European orchestras.

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01 Marie Josee LordFemmes (Verdi; Puccini; Massenet)
Marie-Josée Lord; Orchestre symphonique de Laval; Alain Trudel
ATMA ACD2 2758 (atmaclassique.com)

Canada is a frustratingly large place. Despite having sung professionally since the early 2000s, Marie-Josée Lord did not conquer the country until 2012, when her first recording (from 2010) was nominated for the JUNO award in the best classical vocal album category. Personal disclosure here: I was one of the judges, voting, albeit unsuccessfully, for that album. To say that Lord’s voice stunned me would be an understatement. She has proved to be an elusive singer – appearing mostly in Quebec, and not gracing operatic stages frequently enough. In addition, Lord holds a deep conviction that she must be a popular singer – in her concerts and on record – mixing Quebec chanson, spirituals and classical pieces. That is why her new album is such a rare gift: a full CD of operatic performance. And what a performance it is! As her voice matures, she relies more on vibrato. What may have been lost in agility is more than compensated for in power and range. She can easily become one of Verdi’s heroines – I would give my proverbial eye tooth to see her on stage as Violetta! The music of Massenet and Puccini, especially as gracefully presented here by Maestro Trudel, suits her well too.

Her self-titled debut CD became a bestseller – over 30,000 copies sold, which in the world of classical music is massive. This one has a potential of beating that record – and bringing an extraordinary performer to full triumph over the Great White North.

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02 Schnittke PartSchnittke – Psalms of Repentance; Pärt – Magnificat & Nunc Dimittis
Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir; Kaspars Putnins
Bis BIS-2292 (bis.se)

In the final years of his life Alfred Schnittke became increasingly interested in religious music and in the relationship between his music and the Russian orthodox tradition, both religious and musical. The Psalms of Repentance, which date from 1988, consist of 11 penitential psalms followed by a final wordless humming movement. Some movements are intensely dramatic; others are more lyrical. It is to the latter kind that I found myself especially drawn. The Russian poems which Schnittke set are anonymous; they date from the 16th century. The central narrative event to which the work alludes is the murder of the youngest sons of Grand Prince Vladimir by their brother in 1015, but many of the psalms are penitential in a more general way.

The Schnittke work is complemented by two shorter works by Arvo Pärt, both in Latin: the Magnificat (1989) and the Nunc Dimittis (2003). Both are very moving. The very fine Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir has performed in Toronto several times and many readers will have heard the choir in concert. The choir was founded in 1981 by its first conductor Tönu Kaljuste and has, since 2014, been led by Latvian conductor Kaspars Putnins.

03 ArnesenKim André Arnesen – Infinity: Choral Works
Kantorei; Joel Rinsema
Naxos 8.573788 (naxos.com)

Kantorei, a greatly admired ensemble with international tours, workshops and major commissions to its credit, is an elite choir based in Denver, Colorado and led by artistic director Joel Rinsema. This recording of compositions from the past eight years by Norwegian composer Kim André Arnesen (b.1980) places it in the front ranks. Rich, clear tone, balance and expressiveness characterize recordings of these religious and meditative pieces, four of which are commissions by Kantorei and Rinsema. Some Arnesen works show the influence of composers like Morten Lauridsen and Eric Whitacre, with long-sustained tones, division of the chorus’ sections and high clusters of soprano voices that produce radiant effects. Of these, I found the adventurous title work Infinity and the Holocaust-inspired Even When He is Silent especially moving. The lullabies Dormi Jesu and Cradle Hymn (the latter of which was sung for President Obama in the White House) are among the more appealing simpler works. Here babies and parents could perhaps provide the most authoritative reviews! When simplicity ventures into harmonic cliché, though, my inner music theory cop is triggered, as in The Gift I’ll Leave You.

In its mastery of textures and vocal registers, Arnesen’s compositional craft is remarkable. The choice of works and the disc’s overall smooth sound also suggest its potential for meditation; in any case I found myself taking long, even breaths. This serene and attractive disc is recommended for both secular and religious listeners.

04 Daniel TaylorThe Path to Paradise
The Trinity Choir; Daniel Taylor
Sony Classical 19075801822 (theatreofearlymusic.com)

The Trinity Choir was founded in 2015 by countertenor and conductor Daniel Taylor. It is a chamber choir (with, on this recording, 32 singers); they sing a cappella. The centre of their repertoire is the 16th century (Thomas Tallis, John Sheppard, Orlando di Lasso, William Byrd, Nicolas Gombert) but they make a point of also including more modern works. This recording includes the Miserere of the 17th-century composer Gregorio Allegri (much the most familiar work on this disc) and Arvo Pärt’s Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis (which coincidentally appear on the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir’s 2017 Schnittke/Pärt release, also recently reviewed by me for The WholeNote).

Most of the singers are young and at the beginning of their career, although several, like the soprano Ellen McAteer and bass-baritone Joel Allison, are beginning to make a name for themselves through their participation in other choirs. The singing is very fine throughout. I was particularly taken with Gombert’s Media Vita with its long melodic lines.

05 Barbara HanniganCrazy Girl Crazy
Barbara Hannigan; LUDWIG Orchestra
Alpha Classics ALPHA 293 (alpha-classics.com)

As internationally celebrated Canadian soprano and conductor Barbara Hannigan said in a 2015 CBC radio interview: “I love taking risks as a performer …” Her risk-taking paid unexpected dividends when her Crazy Girl Crazy CD was awarded the 2018 GRAMMY for Best Classical Solo Vocal Album.

In fact, Hannigan went well beyond the solo vocalist category. She not only sang but also conducted the Amsterdam-based LUDWIG Orchestra. She even had a hand in the newly minted orchestral arrangement of songs from Gershwin’s 1930 musical Girl Crazy in collaboration with Bill Elliott.

Sequenza III (1965) for female voice serves as the album’s spectacular curtain-raiser. Originally composed for the legendary American diva Cathy Berberian by Luciano Berio, Hannigan puts her own vocal and intellectual stamp on this vocal tour de force. Berio opened the door to multiple renderings of his score, noting, “In Sequenza III I tried to assimilate many aspects of everyday vocal life, including trivial ones, without losing intermediate levels or indeed normal singing … Sequenza III can also be considered as a dramatic essay whose story [… explores] the relationship between the soloist and her own voice.” I think the composer would be chuffed with Hannigan’s powerfully idiosyncratic interpretation and advocacy of this seminal work.

The core of Crazy Girl Crazy is however centred on Hannigan’s long-term love affair with Alban Berg’s opera Lulu, the lead character of which she has portrayed onstage to great acclaim. It is represented here by Berg’s masterful symphonic-scale Lulu Suite, given an emotionally powerful performance by LUDWIG Orchestra under Hannigan’s direction.

The album closes with Girl Crazy Suite, the Elliott/Hannigan re-orchestration of Gershwin’s original songs, but re-contextualized in light of Berg’s orchestral sound world.

As a long-term fan of the music on this disc, I found it a very satisfying listen. It’s also satisfying to know that in Hannigan this repertoire has a convincing advocate able to convey it with passion and intellectual rigour to future generations.

01 Haydn and MozartHaydn – Symphonies 26 & 86; Mozart – Violin Concerto No.3
Aisslinn Nosky; Handel and Haydn Society; Harry Christophers
Coro COR16158 (naxos.com)

The Handel and Haydn Society, the Boston-based chorus and period orchestra and one of the oldest art organizations in North America, continues to unravel new complexions and nuances of well-loved and well-known works with gusto. This new live recording, under the artistic leadership of Harry Christophers, presents Haydn and Mozart’s works with candour and exuberance.

Pairing the early “Lamentatione” Symphony with a more extensive one from Haydn’s later period works quite well. The juxtaposition of Sturm und Drang style with plainsong chant in Symphony No.26 reveals Haydn’s creative spirit, but it is the more mature No.86 (arguably the best of the six “Paris” symphonies) that shows what an original thinker he was. The orchestra’s playing is dynamic and uniform, underlying every single nuance, blending ardour with measured restraint.

Canadian violinist Aisslinn Nosky, the orchestra’s concertmaster and soloist in Mozart’s Violin Concerto No.3, is a marvel. The chemistry between her and the orchestra is obvious. If you are not already enthralled by Nosky’s spiritedness and playful abandon in the first movement, then she will have you in the palm of her musical hand (so to speak) with the otherworldly opening phrase of the second. Her cadenzas are a bravura of virtuosity and humour and at one point on the recording we can even hear the audience chuckling with delight.

Very enjoyable, suitable for any season or time of the day.

02 Tchaikovsky PathetiqueTchaikovsky – Pathétique
Park Avenue Chamber Symphony; David Bernard
Recursive Classics RC2059912 (chambersymphony.com)

Tchaikovsky’s great Symphony No.6 being performed by a chamber ensemble? I admit I had my doubts as to whether this New York-based group numbering roughly 50 members could do full justice to the composer’s symphonic swan song. Admittedly, the Park Avenue Chamber Symphony under the direction of conductor David Bernard has earned an enviable reputation since its formation in 1999, and its three First Prizes in the American Prize Competition in Orchestra or Performance (2011, 2012, 2013) and an extensive tour to the People’s Republic of China should be ample evidence of its musical heft.

Rest assured – the PACS may not have the numbers usually associated with orchestras who perform this daunting repertoire, but it delivers a thoroughly convincing performance. Following the lugubrious opening measures, the Allegro non troppo of the first movement is spirited and elegant, the well-balanced phrasing clearly articulated, featuring a deft interplay between woodwinds and strings.

The second movement “waltz” (in 5/4 time) is all grace and charm, while the brisk third movement march provides a perfect showcase for the ensemble’s stirring brass section before the anguished and despairing finale.

My only quibble is the occasional lack of the luxuriant sound found in other recordings, due to the PACS’ smaller string section. And at times, the brass section – as ebullient as it is – tends to overshadow the strings. Yet neither of these minor faults detracts from an otherwise fine performance. While this may not be a touchstone recording of the Sixth Symphony, it has a certain energy and style all its own and is a worthy companion to existing performances by much larger orchestras. Recommended.

03 Bruckner 1 9Bruckner – Les 9 Symphonies
Orchestre Metropolitain; Yannick Nézet-Séguin
ATMA ACD2 2451 (atmaclassique.com)

This box of ten CDs comprising Les 9 Symphonies sports a gold trim that gives it a rather deluxe look and manages to fit quite a bit of detail in its Spartan-looking 24-page booklet. Significantly, for an Anton Bruckner box, it lists the version and premiere details, which are critical as Bruckner was known to be a sort of serial reviser of his symphonic work. For dyed-in-the-wool fans – and aficionados of classical music – version is, indeed, everything and would explain idiosyncrasies of the opuses performed. Important also is to note that these magnificent versions are an enormous decade-long quest by Yannick Nézet-Séguin and Orchestre Métropolitain de Montréal to put down on record the complete symphonic work of a composer as consumed by spirituality as he was by a seemingly obsessive compulsion to refine, time and again, what he had written.

The booklet notes may not explain why certain Bruckner versions of these symphonies were chosen above others and one might question – as Bruckner is said to have – Franz Schalk’s 1894 version of Symphony No. 5 in B-flat Major WAB 105, which is reported to have 15 to 20 minutes of music cut from it (the composer certainly disagreed with the cuts). Still, what seems to have motivated Nézet-Séguin is certainly the mission to capture the depth of Bruckner’s mysticism and joyful recreation of the composer’s “cathedrals of sound.” This would also explain why Symphony No.7 in E Minor WAB 107 is a version premiered by the legendary Arthur Nikisch and why Symphony No.1 in C Minor WAB 101 is taken from Hans Richter’s version premiered on December 13, 1891 (which is what Bruckner seems to have approved for performance on May 9, 1868).

If the determination to capture Bruckner at his most intense was the driving force behind Nézet-Séguin’s quest to complete his Bruckner cycle then he has certainly succeeded beyond belief and this box is comprehensive proof. It bears mention that at various points in time completed recordings of the symphonies have been released and reviews of Nos. 2 to 4 and 6 to 9 have also been featured within these pages, which leaves us with Nos.1 and 5. Symphony No. 1 in C Minor establishes many of Bruckner’s most distinctive characteristics, from the sense of scale to the organ-like washes of orchestral sound and the construction of long expanses from short repeated phrases. The electrifying performance with the leonine power of the Orchestre Métropolitain de Montréal in full throttle is shaped with fantastic conviction by Nézet-Séguin. His speeds are sometimes quite leisurely, but this only increases the symphony’s sense of scale and magnitude. This “Vienna Version” is a terrific achievement.

The Symphony No.5 in B-flat Major is the first of Bruckner’s mature symphonies to survive in a single version and was his most monumental, being both longer and more finely worked out than its predecessors. It has a sense of solemnity not found in earlier symphonies, with a dramatic sense of conflict generated by the suggestion that passion is always being kept in check. What’s especially impressive about Nézet-Séguin’s performance is the way momentum is always maintained, even in the tricky last movement, where he sails through the unmannered eloquence and power that are the hallmarks of this great performance from the beginning. The devotional, awestruck intensity of the final movement is effectively captured in this recording. Indeed this and the other performances in this box almost certainly comprise the defining recordings of Nézet-Séguin’s career.

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04 Kodaly Concerto for OrchestraKodály – Concerto for Orchestra
Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra; JoAnn Falletta
Naxos 8.573838 (naxos.com)

These days, when symphony orchestras are going bankrupt all over America, the nearby Buffalo Philharmonic is flourishing. This is the second recording that came to my attention by JoAnn Falletta, their music director, recorded at Kleinhans Music Hall, with fabulous acoustics and designed by one of the forefathers of modern architecture, Eliel Saarinen.

Zoltan Kodály’s best and most popular orchestral works are played with such gusto, enthusiasm and flair that one wonders if Falletta has some Hungarian blood in her veins. Folk music of Hungary is unique in Europe as the Magyar tribes came from the east in the ninth century, their music and rhythms more in common with the Mongols. The two dance pieces Dances of Galánta and Dances of Marosszék are skilfully composed, colourful collections of folk tunes, sometimes melancholic or driven to a frenzy, which often demonstrate a rhythmic pulse found in Mongolian dances (said Lang Lang), not to mention Hungary having been invaded by the Mongols in the 13th century.

Kodály’s Concerto for Orchestra (1940) was commissioned by and written for the 50th anniversary of the Chicago Symphony. Although less well-known than its counterpart by Bartók, it is a fascinating mixture of high-stepping folk dance and Baroque passacaglia, echoing the concerto-grosso style. Sparklingly performed by the Philharmonic’s superb instrumentalists, conducted with surgical precision by Falletta and rendered in spectacular sound, I was thoroughly enchanted.

The enchantment continues with “The Peacock” Variations (1939), a “very virtuoso showcase of scintillating effects” based on a folk song that became a rallying tune of the fight for freedom in the 1848 uprising of Hungary against the Habsburg oppression. Superb recording, highly recommended.

01 Stravinsky Blu rayStravinsky – Rite of Spring: Ligeti – Mysteries of the Macabre; Berg – Three Fragments from Wozzeck; Webern – Six Pieces for Orchestra
Barbara Hannigan; London Symphony Orchestra; Sir Simon Rattle
LSO Live LSO3028 (lso.co.uk)

Some will want this album for the major work, the Stravinsky, while others will want to hear how the LSO will sound under their new music director, recently returned from Berlin. Still others, a lot of others, will want to hear what Barbara Hannigan is up to, particularly the outrageous Mysteries of the Macabre, which is a specialty of hers and has been recorded and videoed several times.

Hannigan is astonishingly versatile, a brilliant soprano singing what sopranos sing, in addition to works by 20th- and 21st-century composers, and is developing as a conductor (often while singing!). (There is, by the way, a revealing and fascinating documentary on another DVD, Barbara Hannigan Concert and Documentary from Lucerne (Accentus ACC 20327) published in 2014. In it she explains what Ligeti’s Mysteries of the Macabre is all about. She is the chief of the secret police who is crazy, paranoid and hysterical, who cannot speak real words and gives orders to her squad, the orchestra, in indecipherable code. A crazy but serious piece, especially coming straight after the genuinely searching fragments from Wozzeck.)

The concert from January 15, 2015 opens with the Webern pieces in a performance that puts the likes of, say, a Boulez to shame. Finally to Le Sacre. The playing is measured, powerful and incisive throughout with accents and attacks quite audible, even in the ferocious but controlled tuttis. Both audio and video are most impressive and considering the repertoire, this Blu-ray disc packaged with a regular DVD is enthusiastically recommended.

02 Alice HoAlice Ping Yee Ho – The Mysterious Boot
Susan Hoeppner; Winona Zelenka; Lydia Wong
Centrediscs CMCCD 25018 (musiccentre.ca)

Prolific Toronto-based composer Alice Ping Yee Ho adds to her extensive discography with these five works for flute, plus cello and/or piano, brilliantly performed by three superb Toronto musicians: flutist Susan Hoeppner, cellist Winona Zelenka and pianist Lydia Wong.

Ho’s compositions often reflect her Chinese ancestry (she was born in Hong Kong in 1960). Asiatic Impression for flute, cello and electronic tape “evokes,” writes Ho, “sounds of Asiatic instruments and ancient tunes.” More “ancient” echoes appear in two works for all three players, but here they’re Greco-Roman. Seiren is the mythical songstress whose hypnotic melodies fatally lured sailors onto reefs. Ho gives the instruments roles: flute/alto flute (Seiren), cello (sailor), piano (sea), creating a turbulent tone-poem scenario. In The Mysterious Boot (subtitled Cothurnus, the boot worn by actors in tragic plays), the musicians employ many unconventional techniques, seeming to offer quirky, hypermodern commentary on an archaic drama.

Ho describes Coeur à Coeur for flute and piano “as an imaginary conversation between two voices…confessing their feelings to each other.” By turns lyrical, passionate, playful, ruminative and vehement, the flute emerges as the dominant voice. Suite for Flute and Piano (1992) is an early Ho composition (the other four date from 2014 to 2017). It’s an attractive, French-sounding piece, suggesting that Ho hadn’t yet found her own dominant stylistic voice, a voice that sings loud and clear in the recent works on this highly entertaining disc.

03 Scott Johnson Mind Out of MatterScott Johnson – Mind Out of Matter
Alarm Will Sound; Alan Pierson
Tzadik TZ 4021 (alarmwillsound.com)

I have read, with pleasure, books by secular-humanist philosopher Daniel Dennett on evolution (Darwin’s Dangerous Idea), religion (Breaking the Spell) and consciousness (From Bacteria to Bach and Back). So I was curious to hear this 73-minute, eight-movement work by American composer Scott Johnson (b.1952), using as musical materials the pitches and rhythms of Dennett’s spoken words, recorded at a talk about Breaking the Spell and in interviews with the composer.

Johnson calls his technique, used in this and previous compositions, “speech melody,” adding that Mind Out of Matter contains “musical references ranging from Baroque recitative to retro funk grooves.” Dennett’s speaking style is conversational and Johnson’s instrumental score is conversational, too, lacking extended melodies or dramatic climaxes. Johnson repeats some of Dennett’s words and phrases many times, usually clearly heard but occasionally submerged under the colourful, ambulating music, mixing elements of classical, rock and jazz. It’s performed by Alarm Will Sound, 17 players on strings, winds, brass and percussion, including alto sax and electric guitar, conducted by Alan Pierson. In one movement, the musicians contribute a chanted chorus.

In Surrender, the longest movement, Dennett asserts that religions – “ideas to die for and kill for, even if it doesn’t make sense” – have, like biological organisms, evolved by natural selection.

Dennett’s books drew me to this music. If, in turn, listeners are led to read Breaking the Spell, Johnson’s composition will have helped increase their understanding of why people believe as they do.

04 Make ProjectThe Make Project
Veryan Weston
Barnyard Records BR0344 (barnyardrecords.com)

The Make Project presents pieces realized in Toronto in 2015 by English pianist-composer Veryan Weston with Christine Duncan, Jean Martin and three ensembles, including Duncan’s 45-member Element Choir. The music is a stunning synthesis of two concepts: one is Duncan’s conduction method in which the large choir creates spontaneously in response to her hand signals; the second is Weston’s Tesselations, works he’s been developing since 2000 in which performers move through the 52 possible pentatonic scales, altering one note at a time.

For Tesselations IV, Weston has added 52 corresponding texts, all from women writers and each containing the word “make,” which triggers the shift to the next scale. The authors range through the centuries, from Julian of Norwich to Margaret Atwood, and include telling words whether on creativity (Simone de Beauvoir: “On paper, I make time stand still”) or politics (Emma Goldman: “If voting changed anything, they’d make it illegal”).

The first piece, the four-minute Hidden Meanings, has a nine-voice women’s a cappella choir creating luminous layers of words and voices with overlapping texts. The second, Hidden Words, is an eight-minute instrumental improvisation with Weston, producer/drummer Martin and four strings (violinists Josh and Jesse Zubot, violist Anna Atkinson and bassist Andrew Downing) that possesses a spiky, Webern-esque clarity.

Then the forces assemble – the musicians, the Element Choir, solo voices Felicity Williams and Alex Samaras – for the 32-minute Tesselations IV (Make), a work of great depth and scale that moves through various combinations of choir, sextet and soloists with expanding meaning and a series of luminous textures. It’s brilliant work that combines genres and techniques to create its own world.

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