08 Allison AuWander Wonder
Allison Au Quartet
Independent AA-18 (allisonau.com)

The Allison Au Quartet has been together since 2009 and their first album, The Sky Was Pale Blue, Then Grey (2013) was nominated for a JUNO. The second album, Forest Grove, won a JUNO in 2016 for Best Jazz Album of the Year: Group. Wander Wonder is their third release and is a thoughtful and subtle work with each musician contributing their technique and inspiration to Au’s complex and layered compositions. For example, the group’s casual precision is demonstrated during the drum solo which ends Force Majeure: Fabio Ragnelli plays with abandon while Todd Pentney (piano) and Jon Maharaj (bass) lay down an understated and contrasting, repeating chordal vamp. Throughout the album, Au’s alto saxophone is light but intense and reminds me a little of Paul Desmond but leaner; it fits well with her writing where solos are interspersed with ensemble sections and melodic fragments.

Highlights include Looking Up which begins with Ragnelli’s subtle drum intro. Then Au plays a beautiful looping melody over clever rhythmic punctuation, an ostinato bass pattern interrupts before the melody returns and leads into an elegant piano solo. Red Herring begins with a syncopated minor melody over funky and jagged beats. As the piece progresses, Pentney’s Prophet Rev2 adds an ominous texture for some additional tension. The piece winds its way down a number of genre alleys (as its title suggests) and is ultimately satisfying and not at all misleading. Wander Wonder is an exquisite album that balances introspection with some terrific solos.

09 AutoschediasmAutoschediasm
Karoline Leblanc; Ernesto Rodrigues; Nicolas Caloia
Atrito-Afeito 010 (atrito-afeito.com)

Autoschediasm (the term indicates something improvised, offhand or casual) presents a three-segment collective improvisation created by Montreal-based pianist Karoline Leblanc and bassist Nicolas Caloia and Portuguese violist Ernesto Rodrigues. All are accomplished improvisers, but each brings different threads: Leblanc’s background stresses the classical avant-garde; Caloia’s career emphasizes free jazz; Rodrigues, who leads several distinct improvising orchestras in Lisbon, has championed free improvisation for over 30 years, appearing on scores of CDs.

While the title suggests something casual, the music sounds appropriate to its Conservatoire de Musique de Montréal setting, the trio bringing a high modernist discipline and precision to the work. The opening movement flows with an energy that is dense and light. Sparked initially by LeBlanc’s imaginative keyboard flights, in its later stages it settles into a churning rhythmic pattern that ignites Rodrigues’ radical virtuosity, resulting in a flurry of microtonal lines that sometimes create their own counterpart. Offhand? Casual? The only thing that distinguishes it from composed music is the challenge of writing it down.

The second movement takes a contrasting approach, developing little sounds, arising discreetly, sometimes pointillist, at times muffled, at others percussive, a gently humming underbrush alive with detail. The final segment moves from delicate sonic events to a turbulent, vibrant world that recalls the opening, a formal motion that exaggerates a pattern evident since the early classical era. It’s an act of “autoschediasm” rich in taut attention to nuance and form.

10 Pressing CloudsPressing Clouds Passing Crowds
Kim Myhr; Quatuor Bozzini; Caroline Bergvall; Ingar Zach
Hubro HUBRO CD 2612 (hubromusic.com)

Initially commissioned and performed at FIMAV in Victoriaville, Quebec, Pressing Clouds Passing Crowds is a musical rumination on immutable nature and human disruption, composed by Kim Myhr, the Norwegian guitarist whose strums underscore the narrative that ululates through this six-track suite.

Accompanied by Norwegian percussionist Ingar Zach and framed by the harmonies of Montreal string ensemble Quatuor Bozzini (QB), the music shares space with the idiosyncratic recitation by French-Norwegian poet Caroline Bergvall. Her distinctive phrasing helps set up a rhythmically charged program where her vocal narrative adds as much to individual sequences as the QB’s intermittently buzzing glissandi, the percussionist’s hand pops and vibrations, plus the guitarist’s string strokes and spanks on 12-string acoustic, which constantly move the theme forward. Moving efficiently through word images that range among simple instances of nature appreciation, chimerical retelling of dreamlike surprises, and astute allusions to political events involving refugees and dangerous water crossings, Bergvall sets up hypnotic sequences whose resolution depends as much on the feints and fancies of instrumental virtuosity as the players’ strategies depend on her verbal concoctions.

With its echoes of folksay, impressionism, stark improvisation and poetics, Pressing Clouds Passing Crowds is a distinctive creation which can be experienced more than once – which is precisely what can be done by listening to this CD.

11 LingerLinger
Benoît Delbecq; Jorrit Dijkstra; John Hollenbeck
Driff Records CD 1801 (driffrecords.com)

Reshaping improvisational parameters, Dutch alto saxophonist Jorrit Dijkstra and French pianist Benoît Delbecq add flexible oscillations to the ten performances here by also improvising on, respectively, Lyricon and preparations for synthesizer, aided by the flexible percussion patterning of Montreal-based John Hollenbeck.

With instrumental additions that can process tones as they’re created, the Europeans’ secondary voices multiply interactions past standard trio voicings to suggest enhanced melodic lyricism and rhythmic vigour, often simultaneously. On Stir for instance, reed smears and outer-space-like oral currents vie for supremacy challenged by wave-form squibs and measured keyboard chording. Unfazed by timbre multiplicity, the drummer not only keeps a backbeat going, most powerfully on Push, but also bluntly asserts his agenda with individualistic rolls and ruffs plus cymbal splashes there and throughout the CD.

Dijkstra and Delbecq don’t just depend on texture supplements as they aptly demonstrate on Dwell, where irregular saxophone trills and split tones confront a flowing keyboard narrative plus inner piano string stops; or on Stalk, where modulated piano clusters create an impressionistic theme that complements inchoate Lyricon echoes as well as cursive beats plus drum-rim rubbing from Hollenbeck.

Contrapuntal yet communicative, the textural sound-melding throughout the disc suggests that Dijkstra and Delbecq, who first met at the Banff Jazz Workshop in 1990, should collaborate more often. As it is, the two, plus Hollenback’s fluid and inventive patterning, have created a session over which one can beneficially linger.

12 Eric DolphyEric Dolphy – Musical Prophet
Eric Dolphy
Resonance Records HCD-2035 (resonancerecords.org)

When Eric Dolphy died in a diabetic coma in 1964 at 36, he represented a special loss to jazz: a master of three distinct woodwinds (alto saxophone, bass clarinet and flute) whose exalted technical acumen and creative intensity contributed immeasurably to great recordings by John Coltrane, Ornette Coleman, Charles Mingus, George Russell and Oliver Nelson, among many others.

Musical Prophet is a 3CD set that expands the 1963 sessions that produced the LPs Conversations and Iron Man. Ranging from unaccompanied saxophone solos (Love Me is an expressionist masterpiece heard here in three versions) to a tentet, from jazz standards like Fats Waller’s Jitterbug Waltz (on flute) to Dolphy’s own dense, swarming Burning Spear, it’s the finest portrait of the breadth of Dolphy’s genius available. There are no finer examples of the “third stream” impulse than Dolphy’s duets with bassist Richard Davis, abstract weavings that press Ellington’s Come Sunday and the standard Alone Together into classics of improvised chamber music. On Music Matador, his bass clarinet roars with celebratory abandon.

Dolphy’s breadth is as apparent in his range of collaborators, from bassoonist Garvin Bushell, who recorded with Mamie Smith in 1922, to 18-year-old trumpeter Woody Shaw, here making his recording debut. Along with the expansive and illuminating alternate takes, the set includes a remarkable bonus, A Personal Statement, with an extended musical dialogue that includes pianist Bob James (yes, that Bob James) and countertenor David Schwartz.

13 Keith JarrettLa Fenice
Keith Jarrett
ECM ECM2601-02 (ecmrecords.com/catalogue/1532415893/la-fenice-keith-jarrett)

A new release from the Keith Jarrett concert archive is always a welcome occasion. Such is the case with La Fenice, the ECM label’s latest offering from the virtuoso pianist, which comes to us as a two-disc set featuring an improvised solo concert recorded at Gran Teatro La Fenice, Venice, in 2006. By this time, Jarrett had adopted a concert format during which he would improvise a series of relatively short pieces, as opposed to the long uninterrupted sets that he favoured on earlier iconic recordings such as La Scala and Bremen/Lausanne.

Interestingly though, Jarrett begins La Fenice by breaking these self-imposed format limits, as he launches into a mostly atonal musical exploration which clocks in at over 17 minutes, until its final unexpected resolution in F-sharp Major. In Part 3, the pianist visits one of his more familiar trademark styles wherein his left hand lays down an ostinato pattern while the right hand improvises fluid gospel/blues lines. Rhythmic clarity, direction and superb melodic development are present throughout, as Jarrett pulls off one amazing pianistic feat after another with apparent ease. The music then segues into an achingly beautiful ballad, possibly one of the most breathtaking improvised pieces he has ever recorded.

On disc two, the pianist breaks up more complex harmonic territory with a bittersweet Gilbert and Sullivan tune (The Sun Whose Rays), before proceeding on to a straight-out blues romp. We are also treated to several encores, including My Wild Irish Rose, Stella by Starlight and a stunning Jarrett original, Blossom. On Stella, the pianist is clearly enjoying himself as he weaves complex bop lines over a left hand walking bass, while also tapping his foot on beats two and four: a one-man band!

All told, La Fenice is a deserving addition to Jarrett’s long and distinguished recording legacy.

(I) Les vents orfèvres;
(II) Les entrailles de la montagne
Jean-François Bélanger
Les Productions de l’homme Renard (jfbelanger.com)

01a Belanger 1Jean-François Bélanger is a specialist in period and contemporary string instruments. Between 2015 and 2018 he completed an enduring diptych dedicated principally to the Swedish folk instrument the nyckelharpa. However, unlike Olov Johansson of the Swedish group Väsen and renowned exponent of the three-rowed nyckelharpa, the music created by the Montréalais Bélanger seems to fuse a myriad of musical idioms, drawing from Swedish and Celtic ones, on his single-rowed instrument.

The first of Bélanger’s diptych of recordings is Les vents orfèvres, a piercing journey into the interior landscape of the artist’s mind, “dedicated to matters of the spirit,” as Bélanger explains. There is an astonishing variety of music here, from the spine-tingling and airy Ouverture tirée à quatre épingles and Le pensoir with their eloquent silences punctuated only by the sound of the keys as they are depressed, to serve as frets to change the pitch of the string, to the knockabout Suite norvégienne with its highly theatrical and dance-like gestures that closes out this disc.

Throughout we hear music-making of great vividness and immediacy; the songs seem to traverse not just time, but also a musical topography infinitely more vast than the relative insularity of the instrument. It bears mention too that Bélanger also plays numerous other stringed and percussion instruments and is accompanied by 12 other virtuoso musicians who play a staggering range of instruments from the Jew’s harp and the Brazilian caxixi to the Indian bansuri and the viola da gamba.

01b Belanger 2The second part of his celebrated diptych Les entrailles de la montagne is infinitely more adventurous. The music unfolds and with it the metaphor of the mountain takes shape. As the disc progresses the music seems to pour out of the instruments in a proverbial volcanic mix that melds opulent orchestral arrangements with a percussive folksy theatre that seems to crisscross the earth’s music. But to describe it as such gives the impression of overcooking when in fact the whole project is a masterpiece of subtlety.

Somehow Bélanger’s nyckelharpa appears to give way more frequently to other instruments from his pandora’s box that even includes the sitar and tampuri-swarmandal. Here too, Bélanger is accompanied by 15 musicians plus a string quartet, each deeply attuned to his vision. The surprises, when they come, are effective but discreet: a gamelan-like riff played as pizzicato harmonics and a delicate curlicue of a bass line that sounds like a Gaelic lament and, as in La brouseaille – Chemin de traverse, a close-knit passage that develops from a single phrase. Small wonder that Bélanger received the Instrumental Solo Artist of the Year prize at the 2018 Canadian Folk Music Awards for Les entrailles de la montagne.

Listen to 'Les vents orfèvres' and 'Les entrailles de la montagne' Now in the Listening Room

02 Alicia HansenBefore You
Alicia Hansen
Independent (aliciahansen.com)

Alicia Hansen does not write party music. What the Vancouver-based singer and piano player does write are artistic, original and harmonically complex songs. Her propensity for minor keys and stark lyrics make her latest album, Before You, feel a little dark at times, but her beautiful voice and vulnerability more than make up for it.

Hansen’s third studio release comprises 11 tracks all written by her and produced by JUNO Award-winner, Jesse Zubot, who also plays violin on the album. Zubot and cellist Peggy Lee’s string work add to the haunting quality of many of the tunes, such as Who I Am or the opener Disintegrating Heart which explores themes of love and relationships, as many of the songs do. Other themes are emotional growth, self-acceptance and the rejection of standards set by others. In Fame and Glory Hansen writes, “So I hope that you’re not waiting for me, to turn into something that I’ll never be.” And that sums this record up well. Hansen’s work is worth exploring for anyone tired of formulaic pop offerings and keen for fresh, interesting, yet accessible songs.

Listen to 'Before You' Now in the Listening Room

03 Barbara LicaYou’re Fine
Barbra Lica
Justin Time JUST 260-2 (justin-time.com/en/profilArtist/404)

Barbra Lica is on a songwriting and album-releasing tear. Her fifth CD in six years has just come out and it’s populated by all original songs, almost all written or co-written by Lica. For this album, she travelled to the mecca of American music, Nashville, where she collaborated on songwriting, enlisted players and recorded tracks, all under the tasteful oversight of Toronto bassist and producer Marc Rogers. So while this album is a bit of a departure from Lica’s previous jazzy records, it’s still true to her signature, sunny style. Even when she’s singing about heartbreak and longing, such as in Everybody Else, you need to listen closely to know it, since the songs are so consistently upbeat.

Besides Lica’s pretty, lithe voice, guitars are the stars of You’re Fine courtesy of Tom Fleming and Nashville session players Paul Franklin and Wanda Vick Burchfield, whether it’s the acoustic on the opening track Before I Do, which sets the tone for the album with its lovely simplicity, or the pedal steel, dobro and mandolin that enrich a number of the tracks. Heck, a banjo even makes an appearance on one song (Jolie Oiseau)! Joel Visentin’s keyboard work deserves mention as it subtly supports throughout the album then shines on the closing track, When I’m Gone, a lovely lilting number featuring piano and the instrument that’s most dear to this reviewer’s heart, accordion. Aaahh.

04 Ivana PopovicBushes and Bombshelters
Ivana Popovic
Long Play CD 034 (ivanapopovic.com)

While it’s generally not my practice to mix reviews with politics, in this current political climate of hateful, anti-immigration rhetoric being hurled by xenophobic politicians (from both sides of our southern border and beyond), it delights me to review violinist and composer Ivana Popovic’s lovely debut album, Bushes and Bombshelters, which paints a poignant, musical portrait of a successful immigration story – her journey from Serbia to a creatively rich life in Canada.

An accomplished classical musician, Popovic’s compositional influences run the gamut from Bach and Shostakovich to Gypsy and Eastern European folk music. The ten original tracks on Bushes and Bombshelters cover the themes of longing and belonging, nostalgia, connection, homeland and new beginnings, and are crafted with the passion of someone who has experienced them all, intimately. Accompanying Popovic on her musical journey are pianists Saman Shahi and Perry Maher, double bassist Jesse Dietschi, trombonist Don Laws, percussionist Max Senitt, violist Nikray Kowsar, cellist Stuart Mutch and flutist Jamie Thompson. Popovic sings on three tracks; John MacLean lends vocals on one.

With the spirited clippity-clop of the voyage, the mood shifts from sombre to celebratory, brilliantly depicted by Popovic on electric 5-string violin with outstanding contributions from Laws and Senitt; this titular first track sets the tone for the entire album. From the evocative violin and piano duo, Sketches From Serbia, to the plaintive, prayer-like Blue for solo violin, and Memory’s exquisite interplay of flute, violin and cello, Popovic’s Bushes and Bombshelters is a journey worth taking.

Listen to 'Bushes and Bombshelters' Now in the Listening Room

As the advances, musical and otherwise, that transformed the 1960s and 70s recede into history, new considerations of what happened during those turbulent times continually appear. Reissues of advanced music recorded during that time, some needlessly obscure, some better known, help fill in the details of exactly what transpired.

01 Milford GravesProbably the most historically relevant set to become available for the first time on CD is Bäbi (Corbett vs. Dempsey CvsDCD052; corbettvsdempsey.com) by master-drummer Milford Graves. Recently the subject of Full Mantis (a documentary about Graves’ contribution to sessions by the likes of Albert Ayler and Paul Bley and his years teaching at Bennington College), Graves is acknowledged as one of the originators of multi-pulsed, free-form drumming. This legendary 1976 disc, with the sophisticated drum patterns evolving alongside frenetic screeching and jumping multiphonics from saxophonists Arthur Doyle and Hugh Glover, captures that trio at its zenith, and the 2CD set includes an additional four tracks recorded in 1969 by the same band. If anything 1969 Trio 1 to 1969 Trio 4 are even further out than the sounds Graves, Doyle and Glover would record seven years later. With sabre-sharp altissimo cries, and fractured split tones plus near bloodcurdling vocal interruptions, the performance is the epitome of 1960s ecstatic jazz. Yet beneath the reed gurgling and glossolalia, Graves’ press rolls, cymbal-splashing and elastic textures create a thundering counterpoint and moderating influence on the saxophone astringency. The drummer may be kicking off and time-marking his performance with more speaking in tongues and whooping in 1976, but he’s refined his percussion strategy still further. Pounding ruffs and rebounds at a whirlwind pace, his patterning pushes reed peeps and fissures to a higher plane, and then brings them back to earth. Meanwhile on the concluding Bäbi, his verbal counting-off and vocal time and tempo shifts for the others resemble Africanized tribal chants. With Glover and Doyle becoming more exaggerated in their screeching and slathering irregular vibrations, Graves empties his percussion trick bag, fluidly jerking from steel-drum-like rhythms to bell-ringing, wood and Mylar block thumps and skin slaps. The horns may be heading for outer space, but the drummer’s pacing ensures that the pieces judder with foot-tapping rhythms as well.

02 Roscoe MitchellIf Bäbi has been more legendary than listened to over the past 45 years, then saxophonist Roscoe Mitchell’s defining work from 1966, Sound (Delmark DE 4408; delmark.com), has an opposite history. Constantly available since its release, this new reissue uses the original analog mix and includes alternate, longer takes of the title track and Ornette. A breakthrough which put the burgeoning Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians’ (AACM) sound on disc for the first time, two of the members of the sextet – trumpeter Lester Bowie and bassist Malachi Favors – soon joined Mitchell and others to form the influential Art Ensemble of Chicago. At that time Ornette confirmed that Ornette Coleman’s early 1960s advances were now accepted additions to contemporary jazzers’ vocabulary, though granted the mix of duck-like quacks and piercing kazoo-like peeps from Mitchell and tenor saxophonist Maurice McIntyre on both takes probably draws more from the AACM’s sardonic viewpoint than Coleman’s more naïve concepts. Plus reed trills are artfully balanced by sophisticated guitar-like patterning from Favors and cellist Lester Lashley. Even cursory listening to the alternate takes reveals subtle differences between them with different emphases and climaxes. With its harmonica breaths and cogwheel ratchet cracks, The Little Suite is even more indicative of how Mitchell compositions could be moderato and spiky simultaneously, as advanced Coleman-John Coltrane-like reed-tone explorations share space with vocal yelps in a tambourine-smacking pseudo march. With over 20 minutes to elaborate his sonic concepts on either take of Sound, Mitchell creates a mercurial sound kaleidoscope. His sometimes snarling, sometimes circular-breathed alto saxophone line negotiates a distinctive exposition that ambles past near-breathless trombone signs, spectacular trumpet accelerations, driving cymbal rattles and tough sul ponticello string nips. No matter how abstract the exposition however, the composition advances harmonically with the initially available track even concluding with a recapped head. Sound maintains its reputation since it synthesizes the music that preceded it and adumbrates sounds to come. 

03 The HauntExperiments in free-form sounds were spreading outwards from New York and Chicago all during that time, and 1976’s The Haunt (NoBusiness Records NBCD 105; nobusinessrecords.com) documents the now almost-forgotten New Haven scene. Ironically, although Connecticut-based clarinetist Perry Robinson was from New York, and trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith, an AACM linchpin, a Chicago expat, local vibraharpist Bobby Naughton was the third trio member and composed all the tunes. Stripped to chamber improv, the six tracks don’t suffer from lack of conventional chordal or percussion timbres, since Naughton’s just-in-time steel bar resonations purposely and craftily fill any gaps left from the sonic contrasts among Smith’s heraldic open-horn keens and Robinson’s abstruse glissandi or whinnies. While gorgeous trumpet storytelling on tracks such as Places moves with contrapuntal injections from shrill clarinet pitches, from polychromatic expanse to uncomfortable abstraction, mallet-chiming pops prevent this. Instead, shimmering vibes tones help assume a forward-moving group pulse. Skillful in adding diaphanous, but not delicate, mallet strokes that ring like toy piano keys; or adding extra weightiness by striking while diminishing the motor speed, the vibist’s skill and The Haunt’s individuality are highlighted on the concluding Ordette. With calm mallet-on-metal strokes preserving the narrative, textures resulting from blending Robinson’s note spews and Smith’s graceful slurs are now harmonized, moderated but no less powerful on this disc recorded a decade after Sound.

04 Group ComposingMidway between when Sound and The Haunt were recorded is the 1970 instance of truth-in-packaging Groupcomposing (Corbett vs. Dempsey CvsDCD056; corbettvsdempsey.com), which shows off the free-music conceptions European players had been developing on their own during the previous half-decade, only peripherally influenced by stateside experiments. Trans-European long before the 1993 Maastricht Treaty created the European Union, the Instant Composers Pool here includes three players from the United Kingdom, three from The Netherlands and a German. A couple of years after such defining LPs as Machine Gun and European Echoes were recorded (featuring most of these players), sound-searing saxophonists Peter Brötzmann and Peter Bennink, slippery-toned trombonist Paul Rutherford plus unpredictable drummer Han Bennink were still producing oppressive timbres that bounce from polyphony to cacophony to multiphonics. Meanwhile guitarist Derek Bailey’s distinctive, spiky twangs occasionally peer from the near-solid sound mass and saxophonist Evan Parker, two months away from recording the BritImprov-defining Topography of the Lungs (with Bailey and [Han] Bennink), tries out both the agitated and allayed approaches in his solos. One defining moment occurs midway through Groupcomposing2 when the guitarist’s astringent clanks join Parker’s split tones and pinched snores from the trombone for a caustic lull that is soon swallowed by long tones from the saxophones, plus belligerent cracks and blunt ruffs from Bennink’s hand bells, cymbals and odd percussion add-ons. Other eventful sequences among the claustrophobic mass of upwards spiralling broken-reed glissandi and trombone gutbucket smears, are sardonic intermezzos from pianist Misha Mengelberg, who defies the others by clanking keys at divergent speeds and pitches. Like Sound, Groupcomposing is suggesting alternate improvisational paths for the future.

05 Cosmic ForestThe most inclusive sonic snapshot of the 1960s and 1970s is, however, Cosmic Forest – The Spiritual Sounds of MPS (MPS 4029759122562; mps-music.com) which collects 13 tracks by American and European musicians trying out conflicting musical strands to unite with jazz. A few which foretold the intellectual dead end of vocal-led smooth jazz are best forgotten, but others such as saxophonist Nathan Davis’ Evolution, find a committed bopper adopting modal currents to his own style; still others inaugurating a version of expansive Nordic narratives; while Timbales Calientes from the MPS Rhythm Combination & Brass is a reimaging of Latin-jazz rock with the layered section work goosed by Palle Mikkelborg’s stratospheric trumpet lines. More compelling are players pioneering a fusion between improvised and so-called world music. For instance clarinetist Tony Scott’s Burungkaka Tua is a notable melding of Scott’s moderated tone, tough ethnic blowing from Javanese flutist Marjono and a decisive blues underpinning from Chinese pianist Bubi Chen. Pianist George Gruntz’s Djerbi takes a traditional Bedouin dance melody played by Sadi El Nadi on ney and unites it with the pianist’s chromatic thrusts aided by Daniel Humair’s foot-tapping drumming. A crucial harbinger of what was to come is Yaad, which, propelled by tabla slaps, unites the exploratory comping of pianist Irène Schweizer and Barney Wilen’s whispery flute with the sitar twangs and vocalized chants of Dewan Motihar mirrored by trumpet blats from Manfred Schoof.

Free music orchestrator Schoof’s presence confirms that improvisers of the time were committed to experimenting with all sorts of sounds. Many exceptional projects were recorded in the 1960s and 70s, and the more that become available again, the more they increase our knowledge of what was attempted and accomplished. 

B333 2D cover englBach333: J.S. Bach – The New Complete Edition
Various Artists
Deutsche Grammophon 4798000 (222 CDs; bach333.com/en/)

When I was presented with this edition for review a little while ago I was delighted. Now I can play absolutely any Bach work at any time, I rejoiced. Then it sunk in. What exactly can be written to appraise excellence? “Are you going to recommend it?” “Will you listen to 222 CDs?” were typical questions from friends. After assessing the enormity of the collection and playing something from just about every category, I settled down to watch the one DVD in the box, Bach: A Passionate Life, a documentary written and presented by Sir John Eliot Gardiner. This is an engrossing documentary and unfolding story, an appreciation with conversations with colleagues and others. Gardiner describes Bach’s life from his birth in Eisenach on March 21, 1685 through his early years and Lutheranism in Eisenach, his family and musical education. Gardiner follows his life and works in Arnstadt, Mülhausen, Weimar and finally on July 28, 1750, at the age of 65, his death in the Thomasschule in Leipzig following a botched operation. Interwoven in the narrative are period-informed performances of significant passages from several genres, the ensemble works mostly directed by Gardiner. I mention this most informative and absorbing DVD because, quite unexpectedly, my appreciation of many of Bach’s original works in the collection, all of them, choral, concertos, concerted works, string solos, organ and keyboard works, etc. has been heightened.

So, what’s in the box? Everything. There are 48 CDs of sacred cantatas conducted mainly by Gardiner and the Monteverdi Choir with some performed by Masaaki Suzuki and the Bach Collegium, Japan. Others are by Philippe Herreweghe and the Collegium Vocale Gent, Ton Koopman and the Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra and Choir, Joshua Rifkin and the Bach Ensemble, and more. The 22 secular cantatas are directed by Suzuki, Rifkin, Hogwood, Goebel, Koopman, Leonhardt, Gardiner, Alexander Grychtolik and Helmut Rilling. The three Magnificats are under Gardiner, Simon Preston and Paul McCreesh. The Mass in B Minor is from Frans Brüggen. Peter Schreier conducts Masses BWV 234-236. Two versions of St John Passion are by Gardiner and Suzuki, two versions of St Matthew Passion, by Gardiner and McCreesh. Two Christmas Oratorios, Gardiner and Chailly. And there are many more works for voice and voices including, as the title states, everything else. Complete texts with translations are in four accompanying booklets. Before leaving the vocal works there are 23 CDs of historic recordings from 1933 on. They include conductors Mengelberg, Scherchen, Karl Ristenpart, Fritz Lehmann, Karl Münchinger, Neville Marriner, Benjamin Britten, Raymond Leppard and Roger Norrington. Karl Richter and the Munich Bach Orchestra and Choir has 13 CDs including another complete Matthew Passion. Vocalists include Karl Erb, Magdá Laszló, Hilde Rössel-Majdan, Waldemar Kmentt, Helmut Krebs, Alfred Poell, Fischer-Dieskau, Agnes Giebel, Elly Ameling, Ileana Cotrubas, Hugues Cuénod, Julia Hamari, Birgit Finnilä, Helen Watts, Werner Krenn, Tom Krause, Janet Baker, Robert Tear, Peter Pears, Matthias Goerne, Peter Schreier, Anna Reynolds, Hertha Töpper, Ursula Buckel and about 50 more including Emma Kirkby, Gundula Janowitz and Fritz Wunderlich.

The second half of this everything collection is devoted to instrumental works beginning with the entire catalogue of organ works on 20 discs played by distinguished soloists. Bach was a superlative organist and composer, hence his compositions are best served by virtuoso performers, as these are here, playing organs throughout Europe, Scandinavia and England. Mavens will recognize their names including: Simon Preston, Ton Koopman, Peter Hurford, Wolfgang Rübsam, Helmut Walcha, Daniel Chorzempa, Graham Barber and Christian Schmitt. CD124 presents 20 “Free Works of Unproven Authenticity.” They are organ works and each has a BWV number assigned to it, BWV898 with the rest spotted between BWV 533 to 598. Played by Hurford and Preston and two others, the risk is leaving them out of a complete edition… they may be authentic.

The keyboard works are shared by harpsichordists and pianists. Harpsichordists include Trevor Pinnock, Gustav Leonhardt, Justin Taylor, Kenneth Gilbert, Huguette Dreyfus, Ton Koopman, Keith Jarrett, Masaaki Suzuki, Rinaldo Alessandrini, Christopher Hogwood, Christophe Rousset, Mahan Estahani and others, both familiar and unfamiliar. Pianists include Brendel, Argerich, Hewitt, Jarrett and Ashkenazy, Schiff and Nelson Freire, Murray Perahia, Maria João Pires, Benjamin Grosvenor and Pogorelich. There are five CDs of keyboard legends; pianists Edwin Fischer, Gulda, Lipatti, Gieseking, Backhaus, Tureck, Myra Hess (Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring), Richter, Horowitz, Gilels and others. Organists include Albert Schweitzer and Helmut Walcha.

The Brandenburg Concertos, the violin and keyboard concertos and the orchestral suites are directed by Goebel and Pinnock and Hogwood, all with period instrument soloists. Following six CDs of a miscellany of “Orchestral Traditions” there are seven CDs of, “Instrumental Traditions” containing famous pre-informed versions from 1935 on. A group of Bach works include “Solo and Chamber Works” played by alternative instrumentalists. The first alternative is a rather unexpected version of the mighty Toccata and Fugue in D minor, BWV565 played on a lone period instrument by violinist Andrew Manze. So simply perfectly correct and satisfying in every respect, one could easily believe that this is the original, not an alternative version.

There are many other sub-groups: “The Bach Family”; “Concertos at Weimer,” arrangements of Telemann, Vivaldi and Marcello; “Bach Renewed – From Bach’s Sons to Mahler”; “Bach Reimagined,” with orchestrations by Schumann, Mendelssohn and Brahms, Busoni, Respighi and Stokowski; “Bach Orchestrated – Reger to Stokowski”; “Inspired by Bach – Gounod to Pärt”; “Bach & the Virtuoso Piano – Liszt to Busoni”; “Bach & The Virtuoso Piano – The 20th century”; “Bach à la Jazz”; and finally, on CD222, “New Colours of Bach.”

Each CD sleeve is numbered 1 to 222, and colour-coded. Finding a certain CD is easy, either categorically or finding the location within from the directory listing by BWV number, title or artist. The CDs sit vertically on an A-frame construction within the box. Very clever. Deutsche Grammophon has, once again, outdone themselves and everyone else in preparing this uniquely unmatched collection containing “every known note from the great master.” There are over 280 hours of music, including 10 hours of new recordings, totaling 750 performers. For this monumental edition, DG collaborated with Decca and 30 other labels and the Leipzig Bach Archive. Three books are included, the scholarly up-to-date BWV listing, a fine quality 222 page hard-bound with an appreciation of every composition on every disc, and a matching hardcover book covering every aspect of Bach’s life, complete with essays by noted authorities.

So, my reply to the questions in the first paragraph is Yes and No.

epbanner3Volume 3 of The WholeNote EP Review covers OKAN’s Laberinto, and saxophonist Matt Woroshyl’s Forward.

(For details on what this series covers, and how to submit an EP for consideration for review, read an introduction to this project here.)

a1623416057 10OKAN – Laberinto

Released in October 2018, Laberinto is OKAN’s debut recording on Lulaworld Records. OKAN is a duo, co-led by violinist/vocalist Elizabeth Rodriguez and percussionist/vocalist Magdelys Savigne. While both musicians are originally from Cuba – Rodriguez is from Havana and Savigne is from Santiago de Cuba – they have been based in Toronto for the past few years, and have played in a variety of groups, including The Battle of Santiago and saxophonist/flutist Jane Bunnett’s Maqueque. Rodriguez and Savigne are joined on this release by bassist Roberto Riveron, pianists Danae Olano, Bill King, and Jeremy Ledbetter, drummer Anthony Szczachor, quinto player Reimundo Sosa, trumpeter Alexis Baro, and tres guitarist Pablosky Rosales.

OKAN’s EP begins with the title track, “Laberinto.” Starting with a patient, classical-infused piano introduction, the track settles into a comfortable tempo as the vocals begin. Quickly, however, the groove shifts dramatically, becoming more urgent, more percussive, and more rhythmically complex; when the original melody does come back in, near the end of the song, it is in a minor key, rather than the original major key. “Desnudando El Alma,” the second track, is the closest the EP comes to a ballad, with a piano/voice intro that gives way to a relaxed, bass- and percussion-driven time feel, with solos from King and Riveron; “Last Day,” the only song to be sung entirely in English, features some of Laberinto’s most powerful vocals, with a strong piano performance from Ledbetter and an energetic breakdown at the end of the tune. “Quick Stop,” an exciting, 5/8 instrumental duet between Rodriguez and Savigne, is one of the EP’s highlights.

The willingness to commit to risk – and a resistance to predictable, formulaic arrangements – is a major component of Laberinto, and is an important part of what makes OKAN’s overall sound distinctive. Laberinto has ample elements of pop, jazz, and Afro-Cuban music, but at no point does it feel like a typical fusion or “world music” outing. Instead, Rodriguez and Savigne sound as though they are in the process of crafting a unique musical model in their own image – one that draws on multiple influences in order to create something new.

Laberinto was released on October 19, 2018, and can be purchased at www.okanmusica.bandcamp.com/releases. To learn more about OKAN, visit www.okanmusica.com.

45726964 1304070526418357 344198932504510464 nMatt Woroshyl – Forward

Although still in his twenties, saxophonist Matt Woroshyl has been a significant presence on the Toronto jazz scene for the past ten years, playing live regularly and appearing on a number of different recording projects (including Mark Godfrey’s Prologue EP, recently reviewed in the September edition of the EP Review). An alumnus of the University of Toronto’s Jazz Studies Program, Woroshyl received the William and Phyllis Waters Graduating Award – the largest scholarship awarded by U of T’s Faculty of Music – upon completion of his BMus, and moved to New York to attend the MMus program at Manhattan School of Music. Now back in Toronto, Forward is Woroshyl’s debut album. Recorded at The Canterbury Music Company, it features guitarist Alexei Orechin, pianist Billy Test, bassist Julian Anderson-Bowes, and drummer Ian Wright.

Forward’s first track, the medium, odd-metre “Sunshine, Silence, And a Hope Beyond Vanity,” begins simply but builds quickly, with large textural shifts and communicative, melodic solos from Test and Woroshyl. “Forward,” the album’s title track, starts with a brief duet between Woroshyl and Anderson-Bowes before moving into the head and blowing sections, with more excellent soloing from Test and Woroshyl and a climactic ending; “Forward, Pt. 2” begins at the opposite end of the intensity spectrum, as beautiful, ethereal guitar chords played by Orechin give way to a recapitulation of the bass line from “Forward” and atmospheric improvising from the rhythm section. “Proletariat” is one of Forward’s most hard-driving tracks, with a distinct rock influence in the rhythm section, and an explosive solo from Woroshyl before a dramatic transition into a spacious swing feel for Orechin’s inventive solo. The final song on Forward is “I.C.,” a burning, high-energy song with some of the most compelling playing on the whole album, including solos from Woroshyl, Test, and a brief drum solo from Wright that closes out the tune.

Forward is a remarkably accomplished debut album, with interesting, thoughtful playing from all involved. Woroshyl is a technically skilled improviser, but his great gift is his ability to imbue his playing with a sense of purposeful calm, even during a solo’s wildest moments. With the help of Test, Orechin, Anderson-Bowes, and Wright, he has succeeded in translating that ethos into a fully-fledged band sound with a high degree of musical integrity and wide artistic appeal.

Forward was released on November 5, 2018, and can be purchased on iTunes, Apple Music, or Spotify. To learn more about Matt Woroshyl, visit https://www.instagram.com/matworo or https://www.facebook.com/mattworoshylmusic.

Colin Story is a jazz guitarist, writer, and teacher based in Toronto. He can be reached through his website, on Instagram and on Twitter. For EP-related pitches, email him at epreview@thewholenote.com.

I am always intrigued by the connections I find, especially in the seemingly separate realms of literature and music, when something I am reading or listening to relates directly to experiences in my everyday life. I don’t mean when I’m reading about something because it relates, but rather when in unrelated materials there turns up an unmistakably fortuitous reference to something that has just happened to me. I have been aware of this phenomenon for many years, but the first instance which made me really pay attention to this synchronicity was one morning at a friend’s cottage when there was a thump on the window and we found a northern flicker lying, we thought lifelessly, on the deck. But moments later the bird shook itself and flew off. It was as if in a dream that I realized exactly this situation had been described in the Richard Powers novel I had been reading the evening before, right down to the breed of bird. Since then I have been aware, time and again, of how this in itself is, if not an everyday occurrence, at least something that happens regularly. (My wife Sharon says it could be because I read so much.)

01 Mathew RosenblumAt any rate, this month’s column is all about connections which might be construed as coincidences. The first relates directly to November’s column when I wrote about Wlad Marhulets’ Concerto for Klezmer Clarinet. Until that time I had not heard of the dedicatee David Krakauer, despite his prominence in both the worlds of klezmer and classical music. My ears pricked up immediately when I received another disc this month which features him: Mathew Rosenblum – Lament/Witches’ Sabbath (New Focus Recordings FCR219 newfocusrecordings.com). Rosenblum is an American composer (b.1954) of Ukrainian heritage, and the title track is an in-depth exploration of his roots. The composer says the work “involves the rewriting of my personal and family history through instrumental sound (klezmer-tinged clarinet with orchestra) and the sound and texture of the voice (field recordings of Ukrainian laments; sung and spoken Ukrainian, Russian and Yiddish text by my grandmother). It is also about reconnecting with my high school friend and dear colleague, the amazing clarinetist/composer David Krakauer, for whom the piece was written. […] It is a tribute to my grandmother, Bella Liss.” He goes on to mention that it is loosely based on the last movement of Berlioz’s Symphony Fantastique and also references his grandmother’s superstitious sensibility, which he says is grounded in Eastern European Jewish culture. It is a particularly moving work, with the haunting Ukrainian laments as prominent as the solo clarinet, soaring above the orchestral textures provided by the Boston Modern Orchestra Project under the direction of Gil Rose.

It seems I can’t write this column without some mention of my day job at New Music Concerts. It was there that I was first exposed to the characteristic keening of Ukrainian lamentation when young Ukrainian-Canadian composer Anna Pidgorna wrote Weeping for our 2015 Ukrainian-Canadian Connection concert. For this piece the members of a sextet were provided recordings of traditional laments in order to better understand how to approach their instrumental parts, which were based on that tradition. This initial exposure made the laments included in Rosenblum’s work hauntingly familiar.

I feel obliged to mention another coincidence related to my appreciation of Rosenblum’s disc. The second work is called Northern Flicker, which is something I had not remembered when I wrote my introduction. The world works in mysterious ways indeed. Northern Flicker is for a solo percussionist who mimics and extrapolates on the distinctive sounds of this woodpecker in the wild. Lisa Pegher holds our attention throughout the witty and inventive piece. Soprano Lindsay Kesselman and the Pittsburgh New Music Ensemble under Kevin Noe then lead us through Falling, a dramatic work about the true tale of an Allegheny Airlines stewardess who was sucked out of a plane’s emergency exit and fell to her death in October, 1962. Based on a poem by James Dickey, the piece incorporates a recording of the poet’s recitation of his text which is then further expanded by the soprano. The composer’s use of microtonality – Falling is dedicated to the memory of Dean Drummond, composer and co-artistic director of Newband who championed the microtonal work of Harry Partch among others – adds to the otherworldly and at times eerie homage. This composer portrait disc concludes with the at times raucous – recalling that woodpecker again – Last Round for amplified string quartet (FLUX) and the six members of Mantra Percussion. Another welcome and effective offering from New Focus Recordings.

Listen to 'Lament/Witches’ Sabbath' Now in the Listening Room

The next connection encompasses both literature and music again. My wife, a secular and mostly non-observant Jew, does however spend Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, each year contemplating and reading something that relates to her heritage. Most years it is a book of history or theory or at any rate non-fiction, but this year, with nothing more appropriate at hand, she took my suggestion to spend the day with a novel. The Last of the Just by André Schwarz-Bart, a French Jew of Polish extraction whose parents were killed by the Nazis, tells the story of the family of Rabbi Yom Tov Levy, the only survivor of a pogrom in 12th century England. As legend has it, God blessed Levy as one of the Lamed-Vov, the 36 Just Men of Jewish tradition, a blessing which extended to one Levy of each succeeding generation. The story takes place over the next 800 years, through the Spanish Inquisition, to expulsions from England, France, Portugal, Germany and Russia, and to the small Polish village of Zemyock, where the Levys settle for two centuries in relative peace. It is in the 20th century that Ernie Levy, the title character, emerges in 1920s Germany, as Hitler’s sinister star is on the rise and the agonies of Auschwitz loom on the horizon. Gilbert Highet, a Book-of-the-Month Club judge, called it, “the saddest novel I have ever read, almost as sad as history.” I don’t think Sharon thanks me for the recommendation.

It’s been 20 years since I last read the book – that time in the original French – but it has always stayed with me, and so it was with curiousity that I recently picked up a CD by a Black jazz musician with the same last name as the author. I didn’t really expect that it was anything other than a coincidence until I read the note inside and found that Jacques Schwarz-Bart is indeed the son of André. A bit of Googling turned up the information that during WWII Schwarz-Bart fought with the French resistance and was captured by and escaped the Germans. After the war he went to Paris to study at the Sorbonne, where he met and eventually married a woman from Guadeloupe named Simone, (who incidentally also went on to become a novelist and playwright).

02 HazzanThe disc is called Hazzan (enja yellowbird YEB-7789 naxosdirect.com/items/hazzan-468735). A hazzan or chazzan is a Jewish musician or precentor who helps lead the congregation in songful prayer, in English often referred to as cantor. The project, combining jazz with Jewish prayer chants, is meant as a tribute to Jacques’ father who died in 2006. “As soon as I started working on the arrangements, it became clear that these powerful ancient melodies lent themselves to impressionist harmonizations, and could be enhanced with infectious rhythms from the African diaspora.” He goes on to say “In The Morning Star my father describes a character who – just like me – is a jazz musician from Jewish and black descent. He refuses to be labelled half-Jewish and half-black and claims to be 200 percent: 100 percent Jewish and 100 percent black. I hope Hazzan will do justice to this conception of my Jewish identity as the blossoming fruit of universal cross pollination.” Thanks to the Toronto Public Library I am now immersed in that posthumous publication by Schwarz-Bart’s father and will shortly embark on a novel co-written by his mother and father (Un plat de porc aux bananes vertes).

My own exposure to Jewish ritual is limited to attendance at funerals, memorial prayers said and candles lit for my in-laws, and participation in “second night Seder” dinners at the home of WholeNote publisher David Perlman. It was therefore a wonderful surprise to me to recognize one of the melodies from Hazzan as being Dayenu (“It would have been enough”), a song I myself have participated in during those Passover meals. The overall feel of the album is surprisingly upbeat and contagious. Schwarz-Bart has indeed managed to paint a “mystical and uplifting fresco” and his saxophone playing is truly cantorial. By the way, it is not only his Jewish heritage that has inspired him over the years. The product of a double diaspora, Schwarz-Bart fils is the founder of Gwoka Jazz, based on Guadeloupian traditions, and has worked extensively in Voodoo jazz with Haitian colleagues. Where will literary connections take me next I wonder?

03 MessiaenNext is a recording that features a work that has been a favourite for most of half a century – Messiaen’s Quatuor pour le fin du temps – and once again there is a New Music Concerts connection. Recently, when we presented the Ensemble contemporain de Montréal, while the other musicians were out to dinner, Chloë Dominguez busied herself rehearsing the incredibly demanding cello part of the Quatuor which she would be performing with pianist Louise Bessette and other colleagues in Montreal in late November. I had a chance to chat with her after the concert and mentioned a new recording featuring clarinetist Raphaël Sévère and Trio Messiaen (Mirare MIR 334 mirare.fr) and the fact that the liner notes intrigued me with the mention of a piece I had never heard of before. I had always assumed that Messiaen, who had chosen the instruments for his quartet by what was available in the internment camp in Silesia where he was imprisoned during the Second World War (piano, clarinet, violin and a cello with just three strings), had invented that instrumental combination. But it turns out that Paul Hindemith had written a quartet for the same forces some three years earlier in 1938. This was news to me, and to Dominguez, and I have spent some time since listening to performances on YouTube. It is a very strong work and I found myself wishing that instead of just mentioning it in the notes, the recording had included the Hindemith instead of Thomas Adès’ Court Studies, a chamber arrangement of some of the incidental music he wrote for The Tempest. I find the Adès, mostly light and indeed courtly, a strange pairing with the Messiaen quartet with its powerful, mystical mix of sombreness and ecstasy.

The performance of the Messiaen lives up to expectations heightened by countless other recordings over the years. From the opening movement for full quartet, growing out of silence with the awakening of birds at dawn, through the strident proclamations of the Angel announcing the end of time, the respite of the solo clarinet movement, again depicting birds, and the calm of the cello and piano Louange, to the furious dance of the seven trumpets (quartet) and final movement of Praise for the Immortality of Jesus, a quiet meditation for violin and piano, we are led on a wondrous journey, impeccably balanced and full of nuance. The booklet, in three languages, provides a thorough history of the genesis of Messiaen’s iconic composition, along with historical and biographical context and some analysis. There are notes on the very accomplished young musicians as well, but I wish they had included some explanation for the name of the trio. With the addition of the clarinet the connection to Messiaen is clear, but as he never wrote a piece for piano trio (and almost no other chamber music), the name Messiaen Trio leaves me scratching my head. 

04 Mike BlockWith well over a dozen recordings of Bach’s Solo Cello Suites in my collection, plus transcriptions for 11 string “alto” guitar and for alto recorder (by Göran Söllscher and Marion Verbruggen respectively, both highly recommended), I find myself wondering, what does a new interpretation have to offer? This must be a daunting question for any young musician looking to make his mark in a world replete with existing renditions by virtually all of the greatest cellists of the past century, including Pablo Casals himself, who unearthed these masterworks that had languished in obscurity for nearly 200 years. One young man has answered the question by not tackling the canon in its entirety, but rather by selecting individual movements and juxtaposing them with contemporary works. On Echoes of Bach (Bright Shiny Things BSTC-0124 brightshiny.ninja) featuring Mike Block, an alumnus of Yo-Yo Ma’s Silk Road Project, we hear alternately the Prelude from the first suite, the Allemande from the second and the Courante from the third separated by the two very different movements of György Ligeti’s Sonata for Solo Cello in what is a brilliant stroke of programming. Later on we find movements from the other suites interspersed with music by Ahmed Adnan Saygun, a composer who pioneered Western classical music in Turkey; Giovanni Sollima, one of the composers associated with Silk Road (it’s worth checking out the YouTube video of this piece Citarruni); and, strangely, Domenico Gabrielli, born a generation before Bach. Gabrielli was a virtuoso cellist and had the distinction of publishing the first works for solo cello and so has every right to be included here, but as the other non-Bach offerings are all contemporary the choice is somewhat surprising. Another surprise is the final track, the Sarabande from first suite played entirely without a bow. This seems quite a liberty to take, but I must say the pizzicato interpretation really works.

Mike Block is not only an accomplished cellist, but also an inventor. His “Block Strap” allows a cellist to harness the instrument to his or her body and play while standing, and even walking around. He has become quite adept at this, to the extent that even in this studio recording I get the impression from the occasion sound of footsteps that he is in motion. As one final nod to New Music Concerts I will mention that the first time I saw such a thing was when NMC presented Quatuor Molinari performing eight string quartets (at that time the complete cycle) of R. Murray Schafer at Glenn Gould Studio in 2003. For String Quartet No.7 Julie Trudeau had to construct a sling for the instrument to facilitate the movements that Schafer required of the cellist. 

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

David Olds, DISCoveries Editor
discoveries@thewholenote.com

01 Wan Beethoven ViolinViolinist Andrew Wan was named concertmaster of the Orchestre symphonique de Montréal in 2008. A Juilliard graduate, he is currently assistant professor of violin at the Schulich School of Music at McGill University. He is paired with Quebec pianist Charles Richard-Hamelin in Beethoven Violin Sonatas Nos. 6, 7 & 8 (Analekta AN 2 8794 analekta.com/en/albums/beethoven-violin-sonatas-6-7-8)

There’s a lovely warmth and sensitivity to the opening of the Sonata in A Major Op.30 No.1, with Wan’s beautifully clear tone immediately making you feel that this is the start of something special – and so it proves to be. Richard-Hamelin is an outstanding partner, especially in the turbulent opening of the tempestuous Sonata in C Minor Op.30 No.2, a work in which Beethoven’s growing use of increasingly intense textures is evident.

A dazzling performance of the Sonata in G Major Op.31 No.3 completes a terrific CD that is the first volume in a projected series of the complete Beethoven violin sonatas. It promises to be a set to treasure and one – if this first volume is anything to go by – that will hold its own against any competition.

02 Hemsing DvorakThe Norwegian violinist Eldbjørg Hemsing is the soloist in three Czech works on Dvořák: Violin Concerto; Suk: Fantasy with the Antwerp Symphony Orchestra under Alan Buribayev (BIS-2246 bis.se naxosdirect.com/items/dvorák-suk-works-for-violin-orchestra-465767).

Hemsing displays brilliance of tone in a performance of the Dvořák Violin Concerto in A Minor Op.53 that is bright, energetic, rhythmic and full of life. It’s a work that still doesn’t have quite the prominence it deserves.

The violinist and composer Josef Suk was Dvořák’s son-in-law. His Fantasy in G Minor Op.24 is the only concert work he wrote for his own instrument, and while quite different than the Dvořák in its episodic form is still clearly Czech through and through. Suk’s Liebeslied Op.7 No.1 is one of his best-known single pieces; the first of a suite of six piano pieces, it is heard here in a very effective transcription for violin and orchestra by Stephan Koncz.

Buribayev draws really strong support from the Antwerp Symphony Orchestra players on a highly enjoyable CD.

03 Suite ItalienneThe Italian-American violinist Francesca Dego follows her hugely successful CD of violin concertos by Paganini and Wolf-Ferrari with Suite Italienne, a recital with her longtime collaborator the Italian pianist Francesca Leonardi of works by Ottorino Respighi, Igor Stravinsky and Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco (Deutsche Grammophon DG481 7297 universalmusic.it/musica-classica/news/suite-italienne-il-nuovo-album-di-francesca-dego-e-francesca-leonardi_12077).

Respighi was himself a fine violinist, and his Sonata in B Minor Op.110 from 1917 is a striking work, written when he was struggling to overcome the depression brought on by the loss of his mother the previous year. A strong opening movement is followed by a particularly lovely and melodic Andante espressivo middle movement. And what a tone Dego possesses! It’s lustrous, warm, rich and strong, and is more than balanced here by a lovely piano sound.

Stravinsky’s Suite Italienne from his ballet Pulcinella is the central work on the disc, with the dance elements nicely realized, the Tarantella Vivace in particular.

Castelnuovo-Tedesco is represented by four works. His Ballade Op.107 was written for Tossy Spivakovsky and premiered by him at Carnegie Hall in 1940, after which it seems to have been overlooked and forgotten until Dego recovered it for this recording earlier this year with the help of the composer’s granddaughter Diana Castelnuovo-Tedesco. It’s a lovely work that hopefully will stay in the repertoire. Three of Castelnuovo-Tedesco’s short operatic transcriptions complete the recital: the rather-Paganini-like Rosina and the playful and virtuosic Figaro from Rossini’s Il barbiere di Siviglia; and Violetta from Verdi’s La Traviata. All but the latter of the Castelnuovo-Tedesco works are world premiere recordings.

04 Telemann violinGeorg Philipp Telemann was not only one of the most prolific composers in musical history but also one of the most cosmopolitan. Some idea of the wide range of national styles and idioms he incorporated in his music can be discerned from Telemann Sonatas for Violin and Harpsichord, a new CD featuring Baroque violinist Dorian Komanoff Bandy and harpsichordist Paul Cienniwa (Whaling City Sound WCS 108 whalingcitysound.com).

The six sonatas from 1715 were written specifically for violin and harpsichord – no cello continuo here, as in some recordings – and although they all have the same slow/fast/slow/fast four-movement format they are wide-ranging in idiom and expression. In addition there is a world premiere recording of the unpublished Sonata in F-sharp Minor, a fascinating piece described by Bandy as “a strange convention-defying work” that “seems more an unfinished experiment than a polished piece of music.” His excellent and insightful booklet notes refer to these sonatas as truly distinct, each one unique, daring and extraordinary in its own way.

Bandy plays with a minimum of vibrato, which allows his excellent definition, clarity and agility to be displayed to best advantage. Cienniwa’s playing provides a stylish accompaniment, the harpsichord never too percussive or prominent.

05 American SouvenirsAmerican Souvenirs is the debut recording by the Chicago-based Blue Violet Duo of American violinist Kate Carter and Canadian pianist Louise Chan. Described as an album of jazz, blues and dance-influenced classical works from the mid-to-late 20th century, it features works by Norman Dello Joio, William Bolcom, John Adams and Paul Schoenfeld (bluevioletduo.com).

Dello Joio’s Variations and Capriccio from 1948 and Bolcom’s four-movement 1978 Second Sonata for Violin and Piano are really attractive works, the Bolcom offering a dreamy and surprisingly atonal violin line over a slow blues piano in the opening movement, a “Brutal, Fast” second movement and a finale In Memory of Joe Venuti.

Adams’ three-movement Road Movies from 1995 is in his minimalist style but highly entertaining, with a Relaxed Groove opening movement and a terrific third movement. Schoenfeld’s 1990 Four Souvenirs for Violin and Piano are titled Samba, Tango, Tin Pan Alley and Square Dance, with Carter supplying some simply gorgeous violin playing in the Tango. Some virtuosic playing from both performers in the final Square Dance makes for a great ending to an immensely enjoyable CD.

The duo says that they love performing lesser-known works that are fun and playful yet virtuosic, and that those here are among their favourites by American composers. It’s abundantly clear that they are in their element here, fully at ease and seamlessly blending classical performing standards with the freer popular styles.

06a Beethoven CelloThere are two excellent cello and piano recital CDs this month: Beethoven Sonatas Op.102 with cellist Natasha Brofsky and pianist Seth Knopp (independent store.cdbaby.com/cd/natashabrofskyandsethknopp); and Brahms Cello Sonatas with the husband-and-wife Fischer Duo of cellist Norman Fischer and pianist Jeanne Kierman (Centaur CRC 3648 arkivmusic.com).

Brofsky and Knopp were both members of the Peabody Trio for nearly two decades and clearly have an innate understanding of these sonatas, having played and taught them for many years. Brofsky, currently on the cello faculty at Juilliard, plays with assured technique and a warm, even tone in the two works, the Sonatas Op.102 No.1 in C Major and Op.102 No.2 in D Major. These sonatas, the duo says, have challenged them to use their utmost imagination in colour and expression. At 36 minutes it’s a fairly brief CD, but none the less satisfying for that.

06b Fischer BrahmsThe Fischer Duo CD features the two cello sonatas by Brahms – the E-Minor Sonata Op.38 and the F-Major Sonata Op.99, works the performers have been playing for nearly five decades. Again, the understanding and familiarity with both the works and each other make for truly satisfying performances. Fischer says that the exemplary recorded sound made the performances sound “exactly the way I imagine the music.” Two Songs for Alto, Cello and Piano Op.91 complete the disc, the duo being joined by their daughter, the mezzo-soprano Abigail Fischer in sensitive performances.

Listen to 'Brahms Cello Sonatas' Now in the Listening Room

07 Lipinsky string triosThe Polish composer and violin virtuoso Karol Józef Lipiński was a direct contemporary of Paganini, and good enough to not only play with the great Italian but also to be bequeathed one of his eight violins – an Amati – when Paganini died. In his compositions, however, while incorporating the technical innovations of Paganini and the other 19th-century virtuosi, his musical philosophy showed a preference for the less purely virtuosic approach of Spohr and the French school exemplified by Viotti.

Lipiński String Trios Op.8 and Op.12 (Naxos 8.573776 naxosdirect.com/items/lipinski-trios-for-2-violins-cello-opp.-8-12-457581) features Voytek Proniewicz (primo violin), Adam Roszkowski (violin) and Jan Roszkowski (cello) in first-class performances of two works that, according to Lipiński’s biographer, were possibly written for home performance and consequently lack the virtuosic element. Not that you would know it. The G-Minor Trio Op.8 features fast runs, octaves and chromatic runs, including one in octaves. Don’t try this at home. The A-Major Trio Op.12 doesn’t sound that much easier, either.

There’s great playing here – lively, passionate, skillful, committed and always entertaining in charming works that are light but never facile or frivolous.

08 Doric MendelssohnMendelssohn String Quartets Vol.1, presumably the start of a projected complete series, features Britain’s Doric String Quartet in superb performances of the quartets No.1 in E-flat Major Op.12, No.5 in E-flat Major Op.44 No.3 and No.6 in F Minor Op.80 (Chandos CHAN 20122(2) chandos.net). The playing is always clear and balanced, with dazzling agility in the numerous typically Mendelssohnian scherzo-like passages, and with terrific dynamics. The bustling dramatic start to the grief- and despair-ridden Op.80 quartet sets the tone for the whole work.

It’s an outstanding start to the series, and the remaining quartets should be well worth waiting for.

09 Minguet MendelssohnThe Op.12 quartet is also included on Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy String Quartets Vol.2, the latest release in the ongoing complete series by Germany’s Minguet Quartett (cpo 777 931-2 arkivmusic.com). Also included are the early String Quartet in E-flat Major, the 14-year-old composer’s first attempt in the genre, and the Four Pieces for String Quartet Op.81, published posthumously as String Quartet No.7 but actually four movements ranging from 1827 to 1847 that are not connected, although two of them may possibly have been intended for an eighth quartet.

There’s fine playing here too, with tempos in the String Quartet No.1, Op.12 very close to those on the Doric CD, but the recording seems to have been made in a livelier acoustic space. Some listeners may well prefer this, but I found the Doric discs to have a cleaner and clearer sound, with the dynamic range more clearly nuanced and effective.

10 Brian Buch quartetsOn From the River Flow the Stars the Daedalus Quartet plays string quartets by the American composer Brian Buch (MSR Classics MS 1681 msrcd.com/catalog/cd/MS1681). Buch says that he often composes music in collections or books comprised of individual pieces, and extracts from five such books are included here. From the River Flow the Stars No.6, Acanthus Leaves No.6 and Landscapes No.1 are all three-movement works; Maze of Infinite Forms No.1 is in two movements, and Life and Opinions No.7, the central work on the CD, in five.

They are all interesting and inventive pieces that create contrasting atmospheres, although their relative brevity – 12 of the 16 movements are under four minutes in length – may perhaps contribute to their not always leaving a strong impression.

The Daedalus Quartet is known for its work with and support of contemporary American composers, and it’s difficult to imagine these works receiving more sympathetic performances.

Listen to 'From the River Flow the Stars' Now in the Listening Room

01 Saint Saens LortieLouis Lortie brings another stellar recording to his lengthy discography with this new CD Saint-Saëns – Piano Concertos 1, 2 & 4; BBC Philharmonic; Edward Gardner (Chandos CHAN 20031 chandos.net). The three concertos are separated by roughly a decade each. Despite the accumulation of experience and artistic growth, the inherent genius in Saint-Saëns’ writing is undeniable in all of them. But in the Concerto No.4, premiered in 1875 with the composer at the keyboard, the music is replete with richly complex ideas spread over an orchestral canvas barely capable of containing them. Lortie revels in conquering every technical challenge the composer sets, and soars with the orchestra in each moment of climax. This recording is powerfully inspired and Lortie’s performance is the kind that makes you run out into the street, grab the first person you see and drag them back in to experience it.

02 BozhanovTo his current handful of recordings Evgeni Bozhanov adds his latest CD, Shostakovich; Mozart – Piano Concertos, Kammerorchester des Bayerischen RSO; Radoslaw Szulc (Profil Edition Hänssler haensslerprofil.de). The two concertos are completely unlike each other, and hearing the young Bulgarian pianist confirms the impression that he has a remarkable gift for complete and authentic engagement in his repertoire. Bozhanov’s performance of Mozart’s Concerto No.17 in G Major KV453 is in every way a perfection of achievement. His sense of balance, clarity and partnership with the orchestral ensemble are all flawless. He never claims more than the moderate role that Mozart gave the piano part in the work.

The Shostakovich Concerto No.1 in C Minor Op.35 is, by contrast, a riot of brilliant ideas from the fertile mind of a 26-year-old composer. The 1933 composition has humour, pathos, melancholy, satire and all the energetic hope of youth. Bozhanov performs it as if it were written specifically for him, and every member of the audience at the live performance seems to believe that as well. Noteworthy is the depth of his playing in the second movement (Lento). There is no doubt about the depth of the sadness that underlies the simple ideas in this movement. It provides a stunning contrast to the outer ones that open and close the work.

03 Goldberg HarpsichordWolfgang Rübsam has made his reputation chiefly as an organist but is also widely recognized as a fine pianist and harpsichordist. In his new recording Bach – Goldberg Variations (Naxos 8.573921 naxosdirect.com/items/bach-goldberg-variations-bwv-988-457587) he plays a lute-harpsichord. It’s a Baroque keyboard instrument built like a harpsichord, using its mechanical action principles, but strung with gut rather than metal strings. This modern copy, however, uses a set of unplucked brass strings to sound sympathetic vibrations somewhat like a viola d’amore. The resonating body of the instrument looks like a giant lute or lady bug on its back. The overall effect of all this is a soft and very mellow sound.

Rübsam excels at ornamentation in this work and takes every tasteful opportunity to inject turns and grace notes. But the most distinguishing feature of this performance is its extraordinarily slow speed. Hearing the variations at a fraction of the tempo most other interpreters take is an exercise in patience that is rewarded with new insights into this very familiar material. The nature of the instrument may have a great deal to do with Rübsam’s tempo choice but whatever the reason, this unique Goldberg deserves attention. 

04 ClementiStefan Chaplikov’s new CD Clementi – Keyboard Sonatas (Naxos 8.573712 naxosdirect.com/items/clementi-keyboard-sonatas-opp.-25-33-46-457580) samples the work of this 18th/19th-century composer with five sonatas from Op.25 to Op.46 that span a period of 30 years. Clementi’s writing is a good example of a composer reluctant to emerge from the structured discipline of the late Baroque and early Classical into a style where the invitation for emotional display was open to all but held suspect by some. Ever careful, Clementi used his left-hand keyboard-writing to provide both harmonic foundation and rhythmic drive to his works. It’s a part of his vocabulary that changed very little over his lifetime. In the right hand, however, there is a subtle evolution that’s heard in the length and shape of melodic phrases. Chaplikov exploits these and guides the ear to suggestions of bolder passing notes and freer rubato.

Despite his conservatism, Clementi’s writing is masterful for its precision and technical requirements. Chaplikov’s keyboard technique is utter perfection and delivers clear articulation of Clementi’s rapid-fire melodies as they tear across the keyboard.

05 Sylvestre MathieuJean-Philippe Sylvestre appears as soloist on a new recording with Orchestre Métropolitain under Alain Trudel: André Mathieu – Piano Concerto 4; Rachmaninov Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini (ATMA ADC2 2768 atmaclassique.com/Fr/Albums/AlbumInfo.aspx?AlbumID=1614). The Mathieu concerto has a fascinating history that rivals the story behind his Concerto No.3 (Concerto de Québec) also recently recorded by Sylvestre. The Concerto No.4 was virtually unknown and deemed lost owing to the composer’s rather relaxed approach to keeping his own scores. While the original score used in a 1950 Montreal performance has never been found, a recording of that concert made on 78 rpm discs found its way into Sylvestre’s hands in 2005. He and composer/conductor Gilles Bellemare have reconstructed it based on the 1950 recorded performance. In its reconstructed form it stands as a large-scale work built along formal lines and expresses Mathieu’s strong modern Romantic language. The purely aural process of transcription from the old recording is hard to imagine but the result has been breathtaking.

Sylvestre also performs the Rachmaninov Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini Op.43, delivering a performance with the orchestra that is as highly charged as the maniacal violinist himself.

06 Minju ChoiMinju Choi, born in South Korea and raised in America, has lived for many years in Europe and admits to a strong cosmopolitan outlook that shapes her life and music. Her new CD Boundless – American Works for Solo Piano (Navona Records NV6192 navonarecords.com/catalog/nv6192) features the work of three American composers. Among them, Gabriela Lena Frank most closely reflects this cosmopolitan view with her piece Sonata Andina No.1. It incorporates Andean folk music and is dedicated to the idea that different cultures can coexist without one subjugating the other.

Philip Lasser’s sonata for piano Les hiboux blancs (The White Owls) is only as programmatic as its title. Lasser has strong convictions about the absolutism of music and allowing it to speak for itself. While he writes about his structure and technical approach, he remains silent on meaning.

Ching-Chu Hu presents a vivid contrast with his piece Pulse that deals with issues of the heart and a range of human emotions.

The three composers share a language that is largely tonal and combines a wonderfully creative inclination for rhythmic interest with clever tune-smithing.

07 Lisztomania 1Hando Nahkur’s fifth solo album is his first completely devoted to the piano music of Franz Liszt Lisztomania Vol.1 (HN Productions handonahkur.com/discography/). This recording promises further volumes of Liszt but begins by offering a couple of transcriptions of Schubert lieder, Erlkönig and Auf dem Waser zu singen, in addition to larger works. Nahkur is consistently amazing in his ability to blend both the technical and interpretive demands of this repertoire. Après une lecture du Dante is perhaps the most difficult piece in the program but it comes across with an unencumbered directness and a conceptual maturity required by the subject matter. The contrasting thematic ideas of heaven/hell are as demanding as the work’s closing passages of rapid chromatic octaves. The way he embraces all this shows how secure Nahkur is with Liszt – one of his favourite composers – and it bodes well for future volumes.

It’s unusual to find a brilliantly gifted performer of Nahkur’s calibre still producing on his own independent label. How long before a major label signs him?

Listen to 'Lisztomania Vol.1' Now in the Listening Room

08 Vitaud DebussyJonas Vitaud’s third major recording is an impressive double disc set Debussy – Jeunes années (Mirare MIR 392 mirare.fr/album/debussy-jeunes-annees). It’s mostly piano solo but includes some songs for soprano and tenor, as well as a gorgeous performance of Debussy’s Fantaisie pour piano et orchestra.

Vitaud, in his late 30s, has impressive credentials and artistic pedigree. His playing is flawless and obviously informed by a deep intellectual inquiry that searches for meaningful content in every note he plays. He’s a thinker and a very effective communicator. He lifts Debussy out of the purely impressionist mould and interprets him in broader terms. While there’s lots of requisite legato playing of beautiful long lines, there’s also an unmistakable new sharpness to staccatos, lifts and phrase separations. Vitaud somehow manages to harness a rhythmic energy in Debusy’s music that is often missed in other performances. Listen for this throughout the Suite Bergamasque, Mazurka and Images oubliées. The 2-CD set is an impressive early addition to a very promising discography.

09 Adcock transcriptionsMichael Adcock has released a new disc Keyboard Transcriptions (Centaur CRC3534 arkivmusic.com) presenting works by Prokofiev, Gershwin/Wild, Bizet/Horowitz, Schumann/Liszt and Saint-Saëns/Godowsky. It’s a rich program with plenty of drama and brilliance.

Prokofiev’s own piano version of his Romeo and Juliet Op.75 ballet is one of the two major pieces on the recording. It’s big, bold and unapologetic. The piano Adcock uses for the performance is a Steingraeber concert grand with a powerful bright sound ideally suited for Prokofiev’s angular music. Adcock performs the suite splendidly with all the energy you’d expect from a full orchestra. The beautifully sinister Montagues and Capulets is especially effective with its evil bass line and foreboding melody.

The other major work on the CD is Earl Wild’s Seven Virtuoso Etudes on tunes by George Gershwin. These are the real highlight of this recording. Wild was an extraordinary performer and gifted composer/arranger, and the Etudes demonstrate his genius for invention and virtuosity. Adcock plays these with an easy conviction that makes them seem like a natural fit for his impressive ability and fluid style. While each one is memorable, I Got Rhythm stands out for its intelligence and complexity.

10 Hubert Rutkowski PleyelHubert Rutkowski is a Chopin specialist and his latest disc Chopin on Pleyel 1847 (Piano Classics PCL 10129 piano-classics.com/articles/c/chopin-hubert-rutkowski-on-pleyel) adds to the growing number of performances using period instruments to capture the sound and feel that composers associated with their work. Chopin owned a Pleyel and regularly performed on one in public. The Pleyel that Rutkowski uses in this recording dates from 1847 and while it was built just a couple of years before Chopin died, there’s no suggestion that he ever played this particular instrument.

Modern pianos have evolved dramatically from their early forms, based on the development of technology and materials, as well as an artistic imperative for richness of sound and simple raw power. Rutkowksi’s playing is wonderfully light and song-like. He takes advantage of the Pleyel’s slightly delayed dampening system and the more direct feel of keyboard contact with the strings. The piano’s voice is a softer one owing to the lower tension of the strings that are supported by a composite frame using iron cross bars.

Rutkowski quickly captures the sound of Chopin’s era but more importantly, revives the music with an authentic voice that is intriguingly fresh.

Back to top