07 MonkLes Liaisons Dangereuses 1960
Thelonious Monk
Sam/Saga SRS-1-CD (sagajazz.com)

For Thelonious Monk, the most creative of bop composers and a brilliantly original pianist, life flowed no more smoothly than one of his craggy, knotted, playfully or naggingly disjointed compositions. When director Roger Vadim contracted him to provide a soundtrack for Les Liaisons Dangereuses 1960, Monk was experiencing career highs and personal lows, gaining attention and employment while facing drug charges and a nervous breakdown. This two-CD (or two-LP) set issues material from the 1959 soundtrack session for the first time, supplementing it with extensive documentation.

Monk really was at his best in the late 50s, increased acceptance leading to regular work, frequent recording and the best sidemen of his career (e.g., John Coltrane and Sonny Rollins). Here it’s the newly arrived tenor saxophonist Charlie Rouse, Monk’s most convivial partner, a stellar rhythm team of bassist Sam Jones and drummer Art Taylor and tenor saxophonist Barney Wilen added on some material. The music is alternatively sparkling (the quintet’s Rhythm-a-Ning), profoundly lyrical (solo and quartet versions of Pannonica) and pensively luminous (a solo version of the hymn By and By), a boon to every connoisseur of Monk’s mysteries.

That said, this material is less accessible to the Monk newcomer: there are multiple takes and false starts, two edits of the same take, and a 14-minute rehearsal with Monk repeatedly trying to get Taylor to play an awkward drum pattern. There are numerous Riverside recordings available that are much more welcoming.

08 Brill FrisellSmall Town
Bill Frisell; Thomas Morgan
ECM 2525

Bill Frisell has developed a distinctive style, his lines spare and spacious, his sustained electric guitar sound approaching the mass of a pedal steel. He has explored the resonant depths of a variety of roots music (country, blues and rockabilly) as well as creating an original voice in jazz. The complex mix of warm intimacy and refractory cool that Frisell can bring to a performance is amplified in his recent work with Thomas Morgan, whose broad-toned acoustic bass provides both underpinning and reflection to Frisell’s lines.

Recorded at New York’s Village Vanguard (the room is both resonant and reverential), Small Town explores a breadth of American music within a unifying vision. It opens with the late drummer Paul Motian’s It Should Have Happened a Long Time Ago, revealing the harmonic telepathy of which the two are capable, then continues Frisell’s associations with modern jazz royalty with a contrapuntal and lightly boppish treatment of Lee Konitz’s Subconscious Lee. Frisell’s luminous title piece explores multiple dimensions of an American heartland, while its mystery appears in an eerily beautiful rendition of Wildwood Flower, composed by Joseph Philbrick Webster in 1860 and first recorded by the Carter Family in 1928.

The breadth of Frisell’s relationship to traditional popular music is further apparent in the cheerfully subdued version of Fats Domino’s What a Party. It might escape recognition, but the concluding Goldfinger won’t. Frisell can shed new light on the most unlikely material.

09 BowieLakeCD001

Live at A Space 1976
Joseph Bowie; Oliver Lake
Sackville SK 2010 (delmark.com)


Featuring a masterful series of duets by alto saxophonist/flutist Oliver Lake and trombonist Joseph Bowie, this five-track reissue captures two accomplished improvisers at their most adventurous and celebrates an epoch when Toronto’s reputation as a major haven for experimental music was being established.     

Although the two would go on to make more accessible sessions with jazz-funk bands like Jump Up and Defunkt, the surprise in hindsight is how accessible some of these sounds actually are. While there are enough extended techniques involving wailing split tones, tongue slaps and percussion plus deep-in-the-throat snorts and guffaws from both horn players, sonic unity is paramount. A track like Orange Butterflies, for instance, may set up opposing flute peeps and brass snorts as if they’re going to recall the unpleasant meeting of Little Red Riding Hood and the Wolf, but these untrammelled tremors eventually cease, replaced by tones that bond the two in lockstep unity. Another strategy, summarily demonstrated on After Assistance, is how one horn produces a solid continuum upon which the other is free to improvise, with the two subsequently switching roles with the coordinated skill of paired ballroom dancers. Bowie’s prestidigitations are most aptly demonstrated on A Space Rontoto, when slide motions are used to taper his usual gutbucket action into a mere sound thread as if strained through a sieve. Meanwhile Lake’s wobbling, lowing and fluttering multiphonic variations on Zaki don’t preclude him cycling back to its theme in tandem with Bowie at the finale.

After a couple of quiet years the annual Guelph Festival (GJF), September 13 to 17, is newly energized and asserting its role as one of Canada’s most consistent showcases of adventurous music. Another reason for this year’s buzz is that besides the outstanding Canadian and American musicians consistently featured at the GJF, major European improvisers will be on hand as well.

Probably the band members most equipped to show off their individual and cumulative talents in different settings are trombonist Ray Anderson and bassist Mark Helias, who both live near New York City, and fellow American, drummer Gerry Hemingway who lives and teaches in Luzern, Switzerland. Together they make up BassDrumBone (BDB), which celebrates its 40th anniversary on September 16 as part of a double bill with Montreal-Vancouver quartet MendHam at the Co-operators Hall of the River Run Centre (RRC). On September 15 Anderson’s Pocket Brass Band will be the closing act at the Market Square Stage. Then, on September 17 at the Guelph Youth Music Centre, Hemingway, in duet with German synthesizer player Thomas Lehn, shares a bill with a solo bass recital by Helias.

01 BassDrumBoneThe two-CD set, The Long Road (Auricle Records AUR 16/17 gerryhemingway.com), offers 13 examples of BassDrumBone’s cooperative talent, mostly as a trio, but like a roast improved with seasoning, adding either tenor saxophonist Joe Lovano or pianist Jason Moran on some tracks. Lovano’s expositions, which function with explosive power on BluRay and Bluish, confirm the rhythmic sides of BDB as the saxophonist’s reed vaulting doubles the trombonist’s gutbucket whinnies. Vigorously backed by slap bass and drum rolls, the tunes demonstrate how to swing heartily without abandoning technical skills, and also suggest how Anderson’s rollicking brass ensemble operates. Moran’s targeted keyboard musings help showcase BDB’s other skills as the four dynamically invest Bungle Low and Tone L with subtle colouration, balancing among individual timbral elaboration, as they take turns shadowing each others’ advances. Solidly walking or subtly vibrating throughout, Different Cities confirms how Helias sounds on his own, with the bassist given space to thrust an opulent section of arco expressions on multiple strings into the mix, finally engaging in a dialogue with the trombonist’s vocalized cries. BDB’s ability to disguise itself as a carefree jump band is given full reign on the set’s two extended live tracks as well as At Another Time. Not only does the last allow Anderson to showcase every manner of smeared and slurred tailgate tones, but Hemingway moves upfront with a spectacular display of cymbal clanks and paradiddles, reminiscent of drum masters from pioneers like Baby Dodds to the most modern stylists.

A saxophonist undeniably in tune with modern sound experiments is London-based John Butcher, who has partnered Hemingway in the past. He won’t do so at the GJF, although two other instances of his musicianship are featured. On September 15, he’ll perform with Lehn and New York pianist Matthew Shipp at the Co-operators Hall on a bill with Vancouver cellist Peggy Lee’s Film in Music. Then on September 16 at the Guelph Little Theatre, Butcher and FIM members, bassist Torsten Müller and drummer Dylan van der Schyff perform as the Way Out Northwest trio, sharing the stage with Quebec guitarist René Lussier’s MEUH.

02 AnemoneAn expanded variant of Butcher’s interactive and interpretative talent is Anemone – A Wing Dissolved in Light (NoBusiness Records NBLP 105 nobusinessrecords.com), where the saxophonist is part of the band Anemone joined by bassist Clayton Thomas and drummer Paul Lovens, pianist Frédéric Blondy and trumpeter Peter Evans. Challenging Evans’ ability to attain Maynard Ferguson-like skyscraping notes, Butcher may begin his exposition with emotional cries, but moderates the interaction to harsh slurs and stuttering signs, also connecting to Blondy’s distinctive key jabbing. Meanwhile, Thomas’ string buzzes, and the metal clangs and Mylar echoes from Lovens comfortably carpet the narratives’ bottoms. Une Aile Dissoute dans la Lumiere (Part II) is a more deliberate showcase as the final sequence breaks free from Part I’s swirling cacophony. Brief reductionist solos that include a single stopped piano key, an oboe-like sour reed blat and a wooden drum plop, are emphasized. Finally, hollow reverberations from the drummer, hunt-and-peck keyboard patterns and even to-the-colours bugle-like peeps from the trumpeter combine into a languid exit. Still, a sharp whistle from the saxophonist and a hard chord from the pianist as the coda reference the dissonance that preceded the calm.

03 BeautifulA pianist who can be tranquil or turbulent in turn is Matthew Shipp, who besides playing with Butcher and Lehn gives his own solo concert at the Co-operators Hall, September 16. Shipp is as potent a stylist in a group setting as he is a soloist, as is shown on This Is Beautiful Because We Are Beautiful People (ESP-Disk ESP 5011 espdisk.com), where the pianist, longtime confrere bassist William Parker, plus Polish saxophonist Mat Walerian, make up the Toxic trio. Anything but toxic in the usual sense, the CD’s five selections are unique, since to engage Parker’s playing of the shakuhachi as well as bass and Walerian’s use of alto saxophone, flute, and bass and soprano clarinet, Shipp debuts on organ as well as piano. The multi-keyboard is only brought out on the final Peace And Respect but like church pews now used in a bistro, it’s removed from the tinge of the chapel. Instead, the organ’s polyphonic upsurge comes in and out of focus to reflect and redefine Walerian’s harsh bass clarinet slurps and Parker’s thumping bass thwacks. Shipp reverts to piano cadences to regularize the track’s processional ending. The four tracks preceding this allow the pianist leeway to emphasize his swinging and straight sides. The tone elaboration and colouration he extracts from the piano on the title tune could easily slip into a Romantic-era concerto, despite being surrounded by solid bass pulses and dramatic runs from Walerian. Shipp’s stride-style comping eventually nudges all three into a swinging line. In sharp contrast, the low-pitched, metronomic groove that the bassist and pianist create on The Breakfast Club Day 2 has a contemplative gait, but resonates with such effortless swing that Walerian’s light chromatic clarinet flutters could come from a reborn Benny Goodman.

04 KrakowOne musician never confused with Goodman is Germany’s Peter Brötzmann, who presents a solo woodwinds concert at the Guelph Little Theatre September 13. In the mid-1960s, he created an original outlook that brought free jazz advances and continental sophistication to the music, And Brötzmann is still at the height of his powers, playing a variety of saxophones, clarinets and the Hungarian tárogató. The sonic blending expressed by his small groups have been as influential as Goodman’s trios and quartets. One trio, recorded live on Krakow Nights (Not Two MW-937-2 nottwo.com), features canny American trombonist Steve Swell and commanding Norwegian percussionist Paal Nilssen-Love. Most instructive are sections of Scotopia and the massive Full Spectrum Response which feature instances of Brötzmann’s tárogató solos on the former and tenor saxophone and bass clarinet on the latter. The wooden Magyar horn brings out his emotional nature as he cruises through a selection of mellow tones. Soon enough though, with the others on side, the result is as rough and cathartic as anything else on the disc, with Brötzmann’s tone now nephritic and bellicose, a pattern he repeats when he switches to sour-toned tenor, aided by the drummer’s rolls and pops and the trombonist’s high-pitched colouration. The reedist’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde duality has its most extended showcase on Full Spectrum Response. With an introduction built around nuanced cymbal colouration that radiates in a 360-degree angle from Nilssen-Love and Swell’s plunger cries, Brötzmann’s initial unaccompanied tenor saxophone solo is dramatic, calm and perfectly modulated, exploring every possible reed variation. But once the drummer’s pressurized clunks, plus Swell’s tremolo smears, join him, the saxophonist reacts like James Brown after the comforting cape has been draped around him during the penultimate minutes of his performance. The soul singer then shakes off the cloak to exuberantly continue singing, until the cloak goes on again. Brown again shakes it off, and the pantomime repeats until peak excitement is reached. Here, within seconds of Brötzmann screaming a fervidly wrenching solo on tárogató, he switches to clarinet for a moderato exposition, backed by drum-top scrapes from Nilssen-Love and mellow plunger tones from Swell. Then, like Brown, it appears Brötzmann can’t control himself any longer and he’s soon propelling machine-gun-like volleys of altissimo split tones. This routine, taking in the highest levels of glossolalia and the most moderate instances of flutter tonguing continues throughout the track, pinpointing Brötzmann’s stamina and repository of musical ideas. Also featured is a standout drum solo, bending, tapping and clanging every part of the kit without disrupting the proceedings with an aplomb that would have impressed Goodman associate Gene Krupa, plus both staccato forward motion and mellow elaborations from Swell. These Krakow Nights were undoubtedly memorable for the audience and presage what GJF attendees should experience. The music on these discs posits that the festival’s 24th edition could be one of the most dazzling in the festival’s history.

Naxos was launched in 1987, when CDs were just four years new and the major labels were busy digitally recording new performances and remastering acclaimed recordings from their archives. New recordings from the major companies retailed for $20+ in Canada. Naxos introduced CDs to retail for about the price of an LP, for which we at The Classical Record Shop were agreeable to allot some space. The Naxos representative insisted on a display dedicated to their product alone, apart from the composer or artist section. Soon customers began asking for the Naxos rack and it was not uncommon to see persons make a beeline for the Naxos display. “What’s new on Naxos?” became an often-heard inquiry. Naxos continues to grow, utilizing today’s (and tomorrow’s) technology to best deliver their performances everywhere. A few years ago, I interviewed the man behind Naxos, Klaus Heymann. When speaking of future developments the one word that did not appear to be in his vocabulary was “if.” Nothing he spoke of was ever if, but when. In the ensuing years many of his prognostications have already come to pass, not the least of which is the revolution in dissemination of the printed word and digital platforms for music.

01 Naxos 30To celebrate their 30 years of producing a continuous stream of standard and non-standard repertoire in addition to works by lesser-known composers, always in state of the art sound, Naxos has assembled The Anniversary Collection (8.503293). Appropriately containing 30 CDs selected from the 9,000 titles in the company’s archives, The Anniversary Collection offers a selection of performances by prominent artists and others who may not spring to mind immediately but who are informed masters of their repertoire.

Good news for collectors who already own the usual basic repertoire – you will discover many new delights without unnecessary duplications. Here are a few in no particular order: Chopin and Liszt piano concertos; Dvořák and Elgar cello concertos; Tchaikovsky Manfred Symphony and Violin Concerto; three Spanish guitar concertos; Glière Symphony No.3; Grieg Peer Gynt Suites; Handel Water and Fireworks Music; Daugherty Metropolis Symphony; Barber of Seville highlights… and many more well-chosen discs including Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, Naxos’s bestselling recording in the catalogue. It dates from 1987 with Japanese violinist Takako Nishizaki and Capella Istropolitana from Bratislava. There is a complete table of contents at arkivmusic.com.

02 ElgarFollowing the success of Elgar Remastered, the collection of forgotten and priceless recordings conducted by Elgar derived from test pressings sent to Elgar by HMV and never released (SOMMCD261-4, 4CDs), SOMM has issued a follow up, Elgar Rediscovered (SOMMCD 0167), an anthology of forgotten recordings. As before, the transfers and restorations were performed by Lani Spahr. The CD opens with the Elegy for String Orchestra, Op.58 recorded by the BBC Symphony in Abbey Road Studio 1 on April 11, 1933. Test pressings were sent to Elgar, who wrote back that “The records have come and are very good.” However, HMV did not issue them as Elgar had elsewhere expressed the wish to re-record. A new recording with the London Philharmonic Orchestra was issued by HMV and the premiere version remained unissued until now. A very good case is made for preferring this earlier performance, which is a variant of the published one. This original has a real verve, an ebb and flow and vitality missing in the LPO version. The Coronation March, Op.65, commissioned for the coronation of George V, is played by Landon Ronald conducting the LPO. It is followed, appropriately, by The Coronation March and Hymn composed by Elgar’s contemporary Edward German, who was also commissioned for the occasion. Grandly celebratory, they were both recorded  on March 7, 1935 in London’s Kingsway Hall. The premiere recording of the Violin Concerto, Op.61 was made in April 1916 in a 15-minute truncated version by Albert Sammons, with orchestra conducted by Henry Wood. Thanks to the quality of the original and the technology employed, the violin sound is clear and present with the orchestra not far behind. Also included are some items that must have been popular 78s at the time including Kyrie from Gerontius; Fringes of the Fleet; The Pipes of Pan; Where Corals Lie from Sea Pictures; and others, performed by Alfredo Campoli, Fred Austin, The Black Diamonds Band, John Barbirolli, et al. A genuine curiosity is a private recording of May Grafton playing the Sonatina that her uncle Edward wrote for her in 1889 to encourage the eight-year-old to practise. In this 1960 recording she plays from her 1889 original score, which differs from the published version. The final recording on this unusual collection is Salut d’Amour, Op.12 played to perfection, without the layers of emotion now fashionable, by Albert Sammons with Gerald Moore, recorded in 1940.

03 FerrierAnother offering from SOMM, Kathleen Ferrier Remembered (SOMMCD 264) contains a selection of lieder by Schubert and Brahms, Wolf and Mahler together with songs by Stanford, Rubbra, Jacobson and Parry. The 26 tracks were recorded for broadcast by the BBC between November 1947 and September 1952. The accompanists are Frederick Stone, Gerald Moore and Bruno Walter. These are moments to be treasured and some are heartbreaking, notably Urlicht from Des Knaben Wunderhorn accompanied by Frederick Stone. Revelatory are four songs by Schubert and Brahms from September 1951 in which she is accompanied by Bruno Walter, who held her in the highest regard. Following her death on October 5, 1953, Walter wrote: “The greatest thing in music in my life has been to have known Kathleen Ferrier and Gustav Mahler—in that order.” Her voice sits perfectly on the six British songs that are among the 19 previously unpublished recordings.

04 GielenVolume 5 of the Michael Gielen Edition is devoted to the music of Bartók and Stravinsky. Although his name has appeared on other labels over the years, Gielen’s most consistent recordings have come from the SWR (Südwestrundfunk), who recorded the orchestras of Baden-Baden and Freiburg, Saarbrucken and Stuttgart (SWR19023CD, 6CDs). Collectors who have heard the performances in the four earlier volumes and elsewhere will need no endorsement for Volume 5. Once again we are treated to exemplary and individual readings directed by a figure who had earlier been avoided by the record companies for his out-of-the-mainstream repertoire and individual interpretations, deeming them non-commercial. Thanks to SWR, who recorded his performances over the years with their orchestras, we can enjoy and appreciate those performances... Some of the tracks on volume five, as before, have been available on a few labels but not with the meticulous attention paid to the smallest details in order to extract the most out of the originals. Technically, the recordings are very convincing, the instruments are heard in place and the illusion is of hearing an orchestra rather than the recording of one.

The Bartók scores are: Suite from The Wooden Prince; Concerto for Orchestra; Four Orchestral Pieces, Op.12; Violin Concerto No.1; Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta; Dance Suite Sz.77; Piano Concerto No.2 and The Miraculous Mandarin. The Stravinsky entries are Pulcinella, Apollon musagète, Scherzo à la russe, Le roi des étoiles, Canticum Sacrum, Agon, Requiem Canticles, Aldous Huxley in Memoriam, Symphony in Three Movements, Symphony in C and Symphony of Psalms.

04a Mariposa BookI recently read The Mariposa Folk Festival: A History by current artistic director Michael Hill, and Madeleine Thien’s Do Not Say We Have Nothing. The first brought back memories of my own visits to the iconic festival in the Toronto Island years of the early 1970s. One of the lasting memories I have from that time is seeing Taj Mahal performing with his acoustic resonator guitar and a quartet of tubas (!) that included the iconic Howard Johnson. I believe that was the first time I heard Fishin’ Blues, which remains one of my favourite songs of the genre. Or a tuba at a folk festival for that matter.

04b Taj MahalIt seemed fortuitous then when one of the last discs that found its way to me before I sat down to write this column was TajMo, the latest from Taj Mahal and Keb Mo’ (Concord Records CRE00431). It’s a little over-produced for my taste, but there is a great horn section (no tubas though) and a host of fine musicians including a cameo guitar solo by Joe Walsh. Highlights for me are the one all-acoustic track, John Estes’ Diving Duck Blues with just the two headliners trading verses and licks, and Pete Townsend’s Squeeze Box with a rockin’ band that includes both lead and rhythm accordions. It’s also nice to hear Toronto get a shout-out in the rollcall of TajMo’s calypso-flavoured anthem Soul.

Concert note: The 57th annual Mariposa Folk Festival runs from July 7 through 9 at Tudhope Park in Orillia. Although Mahal will not be there this year I see that the calypso band Kobo Town, whose album Where the Galleon Sank was reviewed in the Pot Pourri section of June’s The WholeNote, will be (July 8 at 11:45 AM at the 150+ Stage and July 9 at 4:45 at the Mariposa Pub Stage).

04c Thien Do Not SayI often re-read books that have spoken to me in a special way, but rarely just a few months after my first exposure. An exception to this practice will be this summer when I return to Thien’s multiple award-winning novel depicting life in pre- and post- Cultural Revolution China and the days surrounding the Tiananmen Square protest and massacre. Much of the book is concerned with two generations of musicians involved with the Central Conservatory of Music and I was surprised by the music that was mentioned throughout the book. Upon next reading I plan to take the time to revisit these masterpieces which are so important to the storyline, including Bach’s Violin Sonatas, Partitas and Double Concerto, Beethoven’s Emperor Concerto and Pastoral Symphony, Handel’s Xerxes Overture, Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde, Prokofiev’s Violin Sonata, Ravel’s Tzigane and Shostakovich’s Symphonies Four, Five and Ten. Seems like a good use of my summer!

As always, we welcome your feedback and 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. We also encourage you to visit our website “thewholenote.com” where you can find enhanced reviews in the Listening Room with audio samples, upcoming performance details and direct links to performers, composers and record labels.

David Olds, DISCoveries Editor

09 transhumanThe piano four-hands duo of Paola Savvidou and Jonathan Kuuskoski have led a recording project Transhuman – New Muse Piano Duo (Blue Griffin Recording BGR407) that celebrates the work of contemporary composers who treat the piano in its fullest capacity as a percussion and stringed instrument in addition to being just a keyboard. Repertoire for the project was selected from more than 100 submissions and includes a few works commissioned especially for the recording.

The works are wonderfully varied and present an entertaining array of subjects. Transhuman Etudes by Gabriel Prokofiev looks to the computer age and expresses its mechanistic logic through layered voices and complex polyrhythms. Rambunction by Stacey Barelos reflects the American entrepreneurial spirit using recognizable melodic shapes and rhythms. The inside of the piano, its harp of strings, becomes an important textural resource for Amy Williams’ Switch. Haley Myers calls for the performers to bow the strings with rosin-coated fishing line in her atmospheric work Festina Lente. Composer Oleg Bezborodko is perhaps the most adventurous in his use of the piano strings as a cembalom or even a balalaika. His Mignonettes et poèmettes de notre temps recalls the flavours of Eastern European life from a century ago. Henrik Ajax adds knocking on the piano case to the list of effects he uses in Valse déconstruite.

Transhuman is a creative and highly entertaining recording that will stimulate your imagination about what a piano can really do.

05 Quatro ManiDuo pianists Steven Beck and Susan Grace have been performing together since 2013 and have developed a sterling reputation for performance of contemporary works. Their latest collaboration, Quattro Mani – Lounge Lizards (Bridge 9486) opens with Fred Lerdahl’s Quiet Music. Originally scored for orchestra, the composer’s two-piano version is an immediately engaging piece played almost entirely pianissimo and using texture as the main building block to advance the work. A constant stream of sixteenth notes pulses throughout the music while the pianists build density toward a climax from which they then gently retreat.

Two works really stand out on this disc: Charles Ives’ Three Quarter-tone Pieces and Lounge Lizards by Michael Daugherty. The Ives work is a study in the possibilities of quarter-tone tuning as first proposed by a German builder in 1925 who created a quarter-tone piano with two keyboards. For this performance, one of the instruments is tuned to the quarter-tone difference while the other is left at concert pitch.

Lounge Lizards is composer Michael Daugherty’s recollection of his student years when he supported his studies by playing in bars and night clubs in Europe and the U.S. It too was originally scored for orchestra and percussion but has been subsequently arranged by the composer for two pianos and two percussion.

02 Tournemire BoucherWalking into Montreal’s St. Joseph’s oratory for the first time is a memorable experience. The sheer size of the space under the massive dome and the starkly modern concrete columns are enough to shrink any ego. Perched in the rear gallery like some colossal beast sits the 1960 instrument by Rudolf von Beckerath. Organist Vincent Boucher has the regular task of sitting like an ant at the console in these gargantuan surroundings and filling the oratory with glorious music. His recent disc Charles Tournemire – Mariae Virginis (ATMA Classique ACD2 2473) is a splendid example of musicianship and sound engineering at their best. Capturing the right amount of direct sound from the instrument and balancing it with the building’s natural reverberation are always the key to successful organ recordings. This one gets it right.

The language of late-19th-century repertoire can be dense and Charles Tournemire wrote carefully to achieve those heavy textures while cognizant of the challenges organs would have in large spaces like St. Joseph’s in Montreal. Clarity of colour and harmony are vital to the writing of that period. Tournemire achieved this by writing sparsely wherever this was needed.

The works on this disc are sets of service music from a year-long collection of such compositions. They include Introits, Offertories, music for the Communion and also Postludes. The repertoire on the recording is specially focused on feasts of the Virgin from the liturgical calendar.

11 TorobaPepe Romero and his student Vicente Coves are the soloists on Torroba Guitar Concertos Vol.2 with Spain’s Extremadura Symphony Orchestra conducted by Manuel Coves, the brother of Vicente (Naxos 8.573503).

Although not a guitarist himself Torroba wrote close to 100 works for the classical guitar, thanks initially to a close working relationship with Andrés Segovia that started in the early 1920s. Despite some early attempts at a concerto there were no significant results until the 1960s, when Torroba concentrated less on his zarzuelas, the Spanish light-opera form at which he was so successful, and more on his writing for guitar. He ended up writing ten guitar concertos, all of which – like his zarzuelas – are richly lyrical and deeply melodic as well as being grounded in the Spanish folk idiom so prevalent in Spanish guitar music.

The three concertos here are Homenaje a la seguidilla from 1962 (but revised in 1975 and 1981), Tonada concertante from 1975-80 and Concierto de Castilla from 1960, with Vicente Coves the soloist in the latter. Superb playing and idiomatic orchestral support mark all three performances, my only complaint being the ludicrously short CD break – four seconds! – between the concertos.

12 Viva SegoviaNot only did Andrés Segovia almost single-handedly establish the guitar as a concert instrument, he was also responsible for a significant increase in its repertoire. A great number of works commissioned by him or dedicated to him – many never actually performed – were discovered among his private papers in May 2001; the works were later published as The Segovia Archive Series by Edizione Musicale Bèrben. ¡Viva Segovia! (Reference Recordings FR-723) is the third CD from Spanish guitarist Roberto Moronn Pérez in his Andrés Segovia Archive series, following volumes of works by Spanish and French composers.

There are two “new” English works here: Cyril Scott’s Sonatina and Lennox Berkeley’s Quatre Pièces pour la guitare, both described by Pérez as gems. Three Swiss composers – Aloÿs Fornerod, Fernande Peyrot and Hans Haug – are represented, Fornerod and Peyrot by Prélude and Thème et variations respectively, while Haug’s Étude opens the CD and his Passacaglia closes it. The Sonata in mi by the Italian composer Ettore Desderi completes the program.

Pérez displays an outstanding technique in this fascinating collection of works that were lost for so long, all of which deserve to become a part of the regular repertoire.

Monteverdi – Vespro Della Beata Vergine
Various Soloists; Monteverdi Choir; London Oratory Junior Choir; His Majestys Sagbutts & Cornetts; English Baroque Soloists; John Eliot Gardiner
Archiv Produktion 479 7176

The Beauty of Monteverdi
Various Artists
Deutsche Grammophon 479 7193

01a Monteverdi VespersJohn Eliot Gardiner first heard the Monteverdi Vespers when still a schoolboy: over the radio in a performance from York Minster conducted by Walter Goehr. When Gardiner was an undergraduate at Cambridge, he himself conducted the work, in 1964, in the great Gothic chapel of King’s College. It must have seemed to him that here was a great work comparable in scope to Bach’s B Minor Mass, yet totally different. Gardiner was also concerned with moving away from what he saw as the bland English choral tradition which sacrificed dramatic vitality to blend and purity of sound. His first recording of the work came in 1974 and is still available. It uses singers like Jill Gomez and Philip Langridge who were in no way connected with the emerging Early Music Movement. Gardiner’s second recording, now under review, followed in 1989. The third recording, available as a DVD only, was released in 2016. It was recorded in the Chapelle Royale in Versailles. (I reviewed it in the April 2016 issue of The WholeNote.)

The 1989 recording, now reissued both as CDs and a DVD, was recorded in the spectacular space provided by St. Mark’s Basilica in Venice. The DVD fully explores the basilica’s architecture, its mosaics and its sculpture. There is no clear record that the music was originally performed there or anywhere else in Monteverdi’s lifetime. There is now a critical consensus that its first publication (in 1610) does not represent a proposal for an actual liturgical performance but instead constitutes material on which Monteverdi wished to be judged. It may well be on the strength of the 1610 publication that Monteverdi was offered the prestigious post of Maestro di Cappella at St. Mark’s three years later.

The performance is spectacular with rhythmic vitality and precision and with great dramatic emphases. The singers include soprano Ann Monoyios (who has given us so much pleasure in the past in Toronto), tenor Nigel Rogers and, surprisingly, a very young bass-baritone Bryn Terfel. For vitality it will be hard to beat this reissue, but there are now a number of fine recordings. If you prize what has been called “lyric intimacy” over dramatic vitality, you might explore the versions conducted by Savall or Christie, Parrott or Alessandrini.

01b Monteverdi BeautyThe other CDs reviewed here constitute an anthology of parts of Vespers, several of the operas and a selection of the Madrigals, the Scherzi musicali and the Selva morale e spirituale compiled to honour the 450th anniversary of Monteverdi’s birth. Much of the singing is very fine, and the solos by Anne Sofie von Otter and Magdalena Kožená alone are worth the price of admission. This kind of anthology clearly offers limitations, and I would hope that hearing these would spur a listener to explore the works from which they are taken.

07 Room 29Room 29
Jarvis Cocker; Chilly Gonzales
Deutsche Grammophon 28947970101

In this age of streaming, Spotify, iTunes, YouTube, randomized playlists and self-publishing, do we still need record labels? All these electronic access modes are merely measures of popularity, not quality. Sure, an occasional gem will have 10 million views on YouTube, but so will a cat dancing to a laser pointer. The role of record labels is to “curate” (goodness help me for using this word) the listener’s experience.

Enter Room 29, a collaboration that would have been drowned out by the latest Kardashian selfies. Deutsche Grammophon championed this unlikely coming together of two very different musicians. Jarvis Cocker is the former frontman of Pulp, the very definition of Britpop of the 1990s. Gifted with an Elvis Costello-like voice and sensibilities, nowadays, he is an actor, director and radio personality who draws comparisons to Jools Holland and John Peel. Chilly Gonzales, a Jewish Hungarian-Canadian, despite having worked with Feist, Drake and Daft Punk, became truly known for Solo Piano, an album of original music that made some critics compare him to Erik Satie. Here, Cocker and Gonzales team up to sing and play about Room 29 in the iconic Hollywood hotel Chateau Marmont (where Billy Wilder met his inspiration for Norma Desmond of Sunset Boulevard fame). If all this sounds contrived, consider that the inspiration for Room 29 was none other than Ryuichi Sakamoto – known among other things as a composer for film. The biggest surprise, it works very well! Gonzales is a phenomenal pianist, Cocker an engaging balladeer and the album bears a third and fourth listening. Will wonders never cease!!

05 Beethoven 4 7Beethoven – Symphonies 4 & 7
Beethoven Orchester Bonn; Stefan Blunier
Dabringhaus und Grimm MDG 937 1995-6

This just-released combination of Beethoven’s Fourth and Seventh Symphonies, presented by the Beethoven Orchester Bonn under Stefan Blunier, arrives with muscular assuredness. They seem to celebrate all that is earnest and serious in their patron composer. Utter precision is called for in these works, from the pizzicatti that punctuate the chords at the bleak opening of the Fourth, to the hell-bent careering Scherzo of the Seventh. There is a pure and raw quality to these renderings, allowing for delicacy but more concerned with something like honesty. Just hearing the hair of the bow grab the string at the opening of the Adagio of the Fourth scratches the itch just so. The reproduction is limpid, the playing excellent. I have to believe Beethoven would nod approval.

These pieces frame or bookmark what’s known as Beethoven’s “middle period.” The Seventh is a monumental symphony, one he followed with a quasi-chamber work in the Eighth. The Fourth, like the Eighth, seems a lighter response to the massive Eroica. The Seventh Symphony is so well-known and well-loved, it’d be churlish to critique in this performance the exact problem so many other ensembles fail to resolve: the hop-skip rhythm that emerges as the overriding motif in the first movement. As time and the increase in volume generate fatigue, the dance grows heavy. I’m not the only one who calls that rhythm the hardest to play correctly; a catalogue of performances that get it right consistently is needed.

01 Hommaga a BoulezHommage à Boulez
West-Eastern Divan Orchestra; Daniel Barenboim
Deutsche Grammophon 479 7160

The West-Eastern Divan Orchestra is named after an anthology of poems by Goethe, inspired by a translation of the Persian poet Hafez. Goethe’s late work was a symbol of reciprocity between Occident and Orient, between Latin and Persian, Christian and Muslim, and German and Middle Eastern cultures. Co-founder Daniel Barenboim approached the 1999 formation of the Seville-based youth orchestra with similar intentions, bringing together musicians from Egypt, Iran, Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, Palestine, Syria and Spain, to promote principles of coexistence and dialogue between Israelis and Palestinians. In 2006, filmmaker Paul Smaczny made a documentary about the group entitled Knowledge Is the Beginning.

Having performed with Boulez since their 1964 concert of Bartók’s Piano Concerto No.1, (when Barenboim was 21) he chose to honour their working relationship with the 2-CD Hommage à Boulez, released in March 2017, a year after the composer’s death. The release of the recording coincided with the opening of the Pierre Boulez Saal, a Frank Gehry-designed chamber music hall in the Barenboim-Said Akademie in Berlin, which included the first concert of the newly formed Boulez Ensemble. The first CD contains live performances of the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra playing at the 2012 Proms in London, and the second includes their performances of pieces from Boulez’ 85th birthday celebration at the Berlin Staatsoper Unter den Linden in 2010.

Although Boulez conducts the live recording of Le marteau sans maître (at least his fifth recording of the piece, and second with contralto Hilary Summers (check out her website!)), I was most interested to hear a recent recording of Boulez’ music that wasn’t conducted by him, since the composer controlled the majority of recordings of his music. Considering the performances alone, this is a fantastic recording. Add to it that this is an orchestra made up of young musicians in an ensemble with admirable intent, and the recording is that much more impressive.

Barenboim conducts an energetically perambulant performance of the 49-minute Dérive 2, for 11 instruments. Jussef Eisa’s virtuosity is immediately evident in his live recording of Dialogue de l’ombre double, for clarinet, live electronics and pre-recorded tape, with off-stage piano providing resonance of the live clarinet sound projected from a speaker into the soundboard of the piano and redirected to the loudspeakers in the hall. The IRCAM live electronics team handles the computational side of this performance, as well as Anthèmes 2, demonstrating the most sophisticated instrument/computer interactions produced at IRCAM’s Paris research and creation facility. Hassan Moataz El Molla contributes a clear and elegant reading of Messagesquisse, for cello solo and six cellos. In their entirety, the flexible and colourful interpretations presented on this hommage support Stravinsky’s anecdote that Boulez is “Webern’s music sounding like Debussy.”

05 Prepared PianoWhat Are They Doing To That Piano?
Kate Boyd; Karolina Rojahn; J. Bradley Baker; Robert A. Baker; Stephen Gosling
Navona Records NV6100 navonarecords.com

Compiling this boxed set to document the history of post-20th-century piano must have been somewhat of a challenge for producer Bob Lord and Navona Records. But vexed they were not, judging by the results of What Are They Doing to That Piano? This boxed set of works for prepared piano shows how far ahead of the contemporary classical music game Lord and his label really are. It is only fitting then that this compilation begins at the beginning, with a stellar recording of the music that began it all: John Cage’s Sonatas and Interludes. This cycle of pieces was written between 1946 and 1948, and together represents one of Cage’s major contributions to the music of the 20th century. This “prepared piano” cycle was created for an instrument invented out of necessity: unable to fit a percussion ensemble onstage to accompany a dance performance, Cage modified a piano to produce “a percussion ensemble controllable by one player.” Among modern pianists, Kate Boyd’s performance of Sonatas and Interludes remains a benchmark one, just as Greta Sultan’s recording of John Cage’s Études was before that.

In Sonatas and Interludes, Cage exploits a wide array of sonorities, some bright and bell-like, others more delicate and subdued. Rhythmic motifs and patterns recur, producing an incantatory and hypnotic quality close to that produced by the gamelan, the percussion orchestras of Java and Bali. As Cage himself suggested, “control” was key. And Kate Boyd appears to have mastered the markings on Cage’s vertical score with cultured musicality and fastidious pianism. This performance replaces brute power with pellucid textures and a kaleidoscope of brilliant colours. Grinding motoric rhythms are superseded by an infinitely calibrated kinaesthetic sense of terrifying intensity. Transitions of tempo occur with the natural inevitability of a living, breathing organism. The precise dimensions and shapes of Cage’s structures appear in sharp focus. Such wizardry continues unabated into In a Landscape as Cage’s musical narratives, for all their wealth of detail, unfold with undistracted purpose. In all of this, Boyd’s dazzling virtuosity is never an end in itself but the servant of her vivid imagination.

If Cage’s Sonatas and Interludes is the anthemic torchlight of the prepared piano, then Stephen Scott’s Ice & Fire is one of the most significant pieces in this ongoing relay of Olympian proportions. It is almost impossible to imagine the true extent of how tight a fit it must have been to accommodate ten players around the well of even a 9-foot grand piano. However, fit they not only did but also have brilliantly executed Scott’s music to a nicety. Afternoon of a Fire and Vocalise on “In a Silent Way” sit at opposite ends of the Scott-spectrum. The former work is framed around American Indigenous, music and the latter conjures the ghost of Miles Davis’ repertoire from the 1970s; a veritable Mecca for moderns. In these and the eight other pieces, the Bowed Piano Ensemble takes a leap, intellectually, musically and instinctually, as they match Stephen Scott’s invention and originality throughout.

Sidney Bailin’s pieces 16-2-60-N-5 develop from beguiling, elegant threads, which are sewn together by his electronic manipulations with Karolina Rojahn’s arresting pianism, evoking stimulating mental pictures of mysterious narratives. And while Rojahn reappears with J. Bradley and Robert A. Baker to deploy an astonishing array of colours on Felt, Stephen Gosling breathes luminosity into Gheorghe Costinescu’s music on An Evolving Cycle to complete this glorious 5-disc set. More than that, though, these “new” works themselves deserve wider performance lives beyond this beautiful beginning provided them by Lord and Navona Records.

09 682 681682/681
Lisa Cay Miller
Trytone Records TT559-07 (trytone.org)

682/681 puts a whole new spin on speed-dating, and what it means for Lisa Cay Miller to go Dutch in the process. The recording is made up duo – and in more licentious encounters with ten Amsterdam-based musicians – trio recordings as well. Each piece is the equivalent of tightly bound sticks of dynamite that explode with visceral energy right out of the gates. One would fully expect that some of the encounters would be risqué and at times even a tad unresolved in terms of dénouement, as Miller appears to have set “time” to activate the revolving door.

“Every hour,” she states, the Dutch musicians would arrive, and would be instructed expressly to improvise on the fly. It’s hardly any surprise that one would never know what to expect. At its best the music is – despite that time constraint – unexpected and brilliant.

Musicians were not held to brevity. Musical phrases might end up long and meandering, and even jagged. The focus is on tonal colour, texture and (with the multiplicity of instrumentation) on timbre as well. Lisa Cay Miller does not always lead the charge. She does not need to because, every time the focus is on the piano, Miller draws on zealous countenance to put the myriad aspects of her pianism front and centre. Depending on who goes first, that instrumentalist might blaze a trail, inviting the other to run the gauntlet or clear quite another path and beckon the other to follow.

12 MEVCD0011Symphony No.106
Musica Elettronica Viva
Victo cd 129 (victo.qc.ca)

A milestone itself, Symphony No.106 captures one of the infrequent regroupings of Musica Elettronica Viva (MEV), almost 40 years after its three founders – Alvin Curran, Frederic Rzewski and Richard Teitelbaum – organized it in Rome. Recorded at last year’s Festival International du Musique Actuelle du Victoriaville in Quebec, the 62-minute piece is scarcely anyone’s idea of a twilight leave-taking. Pioneers of electronic interface and non-jazz-sourced improvisation, the three sophisticatedly adapt computer processing and patches plus multi-keyboard crackles and jiggles to their own ends. Like modernist printers who also use precision hand presses for certain projects, the single track’s narration at one point is given mournful fillip by blasts from the furthest reaches of Curran’s shofar, while connecting motifs are produced by processional melodies from Rzewski’s piano.

Moving at points from stately to squiggly to swift, processing allows this symphony to include sonorous amplifications and contrapuntal interruptions. These sequences sprinkle references to accordion-like slurs, percussion-power and aviary-twittering projectile-like explosions, as well as interpolated, but distant, pre-recorded male and female voices of different ages speaking a variety of languages. Like elders impressing children by knowing the latest dance steps, MEV adds some electronic funk-like samples before a climactic piano part that’s half-anthemic and half Born Free. While sampled timbres of Galician davening blend with processed drones, Rzewski recounts a story of how Cossacks unexpectedly attacked his grandfather in 1914, linking the act to the present time. Point made, waveform synthesis and a Broadway-like melody alongside thick piano chording relax into a distanced finale.

04 Ukranian CD coverFor You, O Ukraine
Ukrainian Youth Ensembles
Independent (ukrainianyouthensembles.com)

The Ukrainian Youth Ensembles are a Toronto-based group consisting of the Levada Women’s Choir, the Orion Men’s Choir and the Vanguard Concert/Marching Band. Music director Roman Yasinsky is ably assisted by choral conductor Zhanna Zinchenko. The majority of the 100 plus members trace their ancestry back to Ukraine.

This CD is a compilation of 25 selections all of Ukrainian origin, opening with the rousing Our Unseverable Kozak Ancestry with combined choirs and band accompaniment. And then there is a broad spectrum of combinations. The choirs are heard individually or combined with band accompaniment, piano accompaniment or a cappella. Seven of the selections are from the Songs of the Ukrainian Sich Riflemen, who were instrumental in recapturing Kiev from the Red Army in 1918.

Instrumentation of the band is somewhat different from what we normally find in a full concert band. There are no oboes, bassoons or bass clarinets, but the brass sections are augmented by instruments usually confined to brass bands. There are E-flat alto horns in addition to the French horns, and there are twice as many cornets as trumpets. Overall, the performances are excellent, as is the recording quality.

At first sight the cover of this CD might be intimidating for anyone who is not fluent with the language. However, it comes with a 24-page booklet, in both Ukrainian and English, containing photographs of the ensembles in addition to notes on the music.

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