01 Clipper Erickson TableauClipper Erikson explores a dual theme in his new CD release Tableau – Tempest & Tango (Navona NV6170 navonarecords.com). Beginning with the dark overtones of Russian history, he explores works by Russian-born composer David Finko. He combines Fantasia on a Medieval Russian Theme with three piano sonatas that cover a 15-year period in the composer’s life. Finko’s music is substantial and occupies the entire first disc. The Russian theme continues on the second CD with Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition. Erikson reads a great deal of personal content into this familiar work and draws philosophical connections from its program to Finko’s compositions.

The tango element appears courtesy of composer Richard Brodhead who wrote both Sonata Notturno and Una Carta de Buenos Aires for Erikson. While the Latin flavouring and dance form are unmistakable, they blend with a contemporary language to form a unique expression that sustains interest throughout the works.

02 In Your HeadDana Muller and Gary Steigerwalt have been performing as a piano duo for more than 30 years. Their latest recording In Your Head – New Music for Piano Four Hands (Navona NV6190 navonarecords.com) is a reminder of how much wonderful four-hands repertoire there actually is beyond the familiar material of the 19th and early 20th centuries.
The works on this disc are by six American composers and present an astonishingly wide array of compositional styles. The opening tracks are a five-part suite by Donald Wheelock titled Mind Games, to which the CD links its own title. The final movement comes as a complete surprise with an energetic and humorous touch.

The major work is John La Montaine’s Sonata for Piano Four Hands Op. 25. This is a substantial work with a clear intent to exploit everything two players can bring to the keyboard collectively. Density, volume and colour are the effects the composer requires the pianists to create. These are particularly critical in the closing Fugue, where the subject relies heavily on these devices.

While there’s so much in this program that’s commendable, Dreamworlds by Lewis Spratlan deserves special mention for its unique shadings and the distinctive voice of its composer. Its three movements are artfully and entertainingly written character portrayals.

03 Destination RachmaninovDaniil Trifonov lives in the shadow, cast by mountains of gob-smacked reviews all struggling for fresh superlatives to describe his impact on the world of piano music, of his own success. His newest release Destination Rachmaninov – Departure, Piano Concertos 2 & 4, The Philadelphia Orchestra, Yannick Nézet-Séguin (Deutsche Grammophon 0289 483 5335 4
deutschegrammophon.com/en/artist/trifonov)
demonstrates why he has such an effect. Plenty has been written about his technique and the perfect ease with which he manages the most demanding passages. There is, moreover, a sense of confident repose in his musical presence that creates a sense of originality and newness to everything he plays. Conductor Yannick Nézet-Séguin describes it as seeming to compose the music as he is playing it.
Both concertos on this disc are truly breathtaking. The lesser known No.4 is especially satisfying to hear for its rarity and the occasional flavours of jazz-band harmonies that recall the contemporary sounds of 1926 New York. The most memorable moments are those when Rachmaninov swells the music to a veritable orchestral and pianistic tsunami that wreaks an exhilarating devastation on anyone listening.

Trifonov also includes three sections from Rachmaninov’s solo piano transcription of Bach’s Violin Partita No.3 in E Major, BWV1006. His performance shows how much fun Rachmaninov had stripping away the Baroque strictures in favour of a more playful contemporary iteration.

04 Heyeyon Park Klavier 1853Hyeyeon Park is an accomplished performer and a respected academic. Her new release Klavier 1853 Liszt, Schumann, Brahms (Blue Griffin records BGR351 bluegriffin.com) uses 1853 as the starting point for a selection of piano works that have their genesis in that year. It seems to have been a time of historical significance on numerous fronts. Both piano manufacturers Steinway and Bechstein founded their respective firms in 1853. More importantly, the paths of several key musical personalities crossed in that year, beginning a series of influential relationships that shaped the evolution of European music.

The young Brahms met Liszt in Weimar in June 1853 shortly after Liszt had completed his Ballade No.2 in B Minor S.171. By September he’d presented himself at the Düsseldorf home of Robert and Clara Schumann. Clara had written her Variations on a Theme by Robert Schumann Op.20 in early 1853 as a birthday gift for her husband. After Robert Schumann’s decline in health, Brahms used the same theme in a set of variations he composed as a gift for Clara. Brahms had arrived with some samples of his work including the Piano Sonata No.3 in F Minor Op.5. Robert was so impressed by this young talent that he experienced a resurgence of creative inspiration and composed several pieces, including the Gesänge der Frühe Op.133.

This group of historically-linked pieces forms the intriguing program Park performs on this disc. She is a complete artist who brings everything to this music that it needs. She plays with a Romantic sensitivity to the language of each composer, perfectly capturing the spirit of the age.

05 Saint Saens ConcertosRomain Descharmes’ new CD Saint-Saëns Piano Concertos Nos.4 & 5 “Egyptian” (Naxos 8.573478 naxos.com) completes his project begun in 2017 with the release of the first three concertos. Marc Soustrot conducts the Malmö Symphony Orchestra for all the performances in the set.

The two-movement Concerto No.4 is not often heard. The easy flow of the music from both the piano and orchestra comes as a reminder of Saint-Saëns’ remarkable gift for composition. Descharmes’ playing perfectly matches the attractive elegance of the music. While his sensitive playing suggests a vulnerability that suits the composer’s voice exquisitely, power and forceful statement are always available when needed.

The artistic partnership between pianist and orchestra is superb. It makes its greatest impact in the Concerto No.5 “Egyptian” where Saint-Saëns uses exotic orchestrations and musical ideas to create his Egyptian mystique. Descharmes describes the work as the composer’s best – a showpiece designed to impress and dazzle the audience. Everything builds toward the final movement where high energy, brilliant scoring and performance leave an impression as lasting as the pyramids at Giza.

This recording is excellent on all counts. It reflects the highest production values and a shared artistic genius consistently present from start to finish. If you’re going to get this recording, get the earlier two discs as well. It’s a set worth having.

06 Beethoven Karsten SchulzKarsten Scholz is now well into his project to record Beethoven’s 32 piano sonatas. His latest release is, like its two predecessors, a two-disc set, Beethoven Klaviersonaten III (Elmstudio 300970-4 karstenscholz.de). Apparently recording them in reverse chronological sequence, this third set presents the early half of the middle sonatas, Nos.12-18. The first two sets cover everything after this period and clearly, the early sonatas are yet to come.

Scholz is in his late 40s and has an impressive bio with a credible collection of awards, postings, performances and other career achievements. In a world filling quickly with self-recorded and self-promoted artists, Scholz stands out as an obvious talent. Scholz is the kind of artist that sets the standard for trusted, intellectually informed performance. Maturity guides his artistic decisions. His expression has a wide dynamic supported by wonderful keyboard technique all of which is spent in aid of the perfect balance.

Sonata No.14 in C-sharp Minor, Op.27 “Moonlight, is for its wide familiarity and inner variety, a potent litmus test of interpretive skill. Scholz takes the opening movement with an unhurried intention that frequently hesitates at critical phrase endings to heighten the appearance of the next idea. The second movement is slower than often heard but effectively echoes the tenderness and also sets up the high-speed turbulence of the final movement.

All seven sonatas in this set benefit from the same unerring performance quality that Scholz has made his hallmark in this project.

07 Eliane Rodrigues DebussyEliane Rodrigues has recorded nearly 30 CDs and shows no sign of easing up her pace. Her latest recording is Claude Debussy – Reflets (Navona NV6164 navonarecords.com). Rodrigues has chosen a program that supports her view of Debussy as a composer of more than just languid, dreamy, impressionistic music. Indeed, it’s as much her approach as it is the program that clinches her argument. The opening tracks, Suite Bergamasque, contain the famous Claire de lune, which is usually taken as a prime opportunity for creating the impressionistic atmosphere of Debussy’s fluid arpeggios and richly blended harmonies. Rodrigues, however, moves through the piece at a more determined pace, lingering less indulgently on the familiar emotional hotspots. Surprisingly, the work loses nothing in this approach and comes across with a new and rather different meaning – something perhaps more actively philosophical rather than deeply contemplative.

Other tracks like Pour le piano, especially its Toccata movement, are highly energized and percussive, words not often used to describe this repertoire. Intriguingly, this performance does more to connect the composer to some of his contemporaries than a traditional interpretation would do. Ravel and Satie suddenly share a kinship with Debussy that has hitherto seemed more tenuous.
Still, Rodrigues doesn’t entirely reject Debussy as the arch-impressionist of piano composition. Arabesques is as powerfully mystical as you’ll hear it played by anyone. So too are the slower movements of Images Books 1 & 2. Rodrigues knows exactly what she’s doing and her ideas are worth hearing.

08 Mahan EsfahaniMahan Esfahani has resumed his recording relationship with Hyperion Records with an early November release The Passinge Mesures – Music of the English Virginalists (Hyperion CDA68249 hyperion-records.co.uk). Having recorded a couple of discs in 2014 then moved to DG for a couple more in 2015 and 2016, Esfahani is back at Hyperion with his articulately unapologetic approach to harpsichord performance. Current plans include some pre-Baroque repertoire, plenty of J.S.Bach as well as contemporary works written for Esfahani himself.

The current recording samples music from well-known composers of the Elizabethan and Jacobean periods: Byrd, Farnaby, Bull, Gibbons and others. Esfahani’s liner notes offer a passionate argument about the limited usefulness of authentic performance approaches to early forms of music. Freed from the tightest interpretive and stylistic constraints, Esfahani explores emotional expression through tempo changes, rich ornamentation and an intensity of performance whose absence has made the instrument a tough sell to a wider audience. He plays with an enormous amount of energy. And in some inexplicable way, he brings out inner voices and countermelodies on an instrument where this is not supposed to be possible.

Esfahani points to the humanity, beauty and complexity of Shakespeare’s work and asks why music of that period shouldn’t be considered in the same light. He may have single handedly begun the expansion of our thinking on issues of early music performance. He has, at least, shown us a credible alternative to what has been doctrine for several decades. 

01 Adieu mes tres bellesAdieu mes tres belles
Poline Renou; Matthieu Donarier; Sylvain Lemêtre
Yolk Records 3 2076 (yolkrecords.com)

The vocalist Poline Renou and clarinetist Matthieu Donarier have been making ethereally beautiful music for more than a decade. Joined on this excursion Adieu Mes Tres Belles by the percussion colourist Sylvain Lemêtre, their music makes a magical rhythmic turn with Renou’s pristine, high-sprung voice being daubed by rhythmic paint, so to speak, while both musicians are embraced by Donarier’s near-mystical harmonics as he breathes into his various clarinets.

This repertoire cuts a majestic swathe from early European monodies through the polyphonic music of the late Renaissance to the edge of the Baroque era. Despite this extraordinary range of music cutting through a myriad of modal frameworks, a magical gossamer-like thread sews it all together. This is largely due to the wraith-like presence of Renou, whose chaste, slender voice creates a sense of rapt spirituality throughout the proceedings. Her vocals are bathed in the voluptuous, round sound of Donarier’s clarinets, aptly suggesting a warm and resonant music from ninth-century anonymous works to those of Gilles Binchois, Michelangelo Rossi and Vicente Lusitano from the 15th to the 17th centuries.

Lemêtre’s drums create contemporary drama around the moments of Renou’s vivid word paintings and Donarier’s expressive chromaticisms and dissonance, of which Heu Me Domine is a splendid example. Overall the disc is a rapturous unveiling of sacred and secular works – a happy marriage of astute scholarship and daringly rigorous, idiomatic performance.

Listen to 'Adieu mes tres belles' Now in the Listening Room

02 Lucio SillaMozart: Lucio Silla
Kurt Streit; Patricia Petibon; Teatro Real, Madrid; Ivor Bolton; Claus Guth
BelAir Classiques BAC 150 (belairclassIques.com)

Lucio Silla is Mozart’s fifth opera, written when he was a 16-year-old. Lucio Silla was a Roman dictator and as one might expect, was surrounded by endless found love, lost love, intrigue, threats, dire punishments, etc.

Mozart’s early operas are characterized by concertante arias – that is to say the vocal line is like an instrumental concerto (duet, trio, quartet, etc.). Such vocal writing is extremely demanding of the singers. These early works of Mozart bare no signs of being composed by a teenager. The stories, and Lucia Silla is no exception, have complex plots and lyrical texts that are dealing with human feelings and troubled souls. Another characteristic of these early works was the employment of castrati in the leading roles. In Lucio Silla, as in other works, for the most part Mozart wrote for singers that he knew and the writing was customized to suit their virtuosity.

Whereas today there are no castrati, there are countertenors who specialize in Baroque and early classical composers: Vivaldi, Pergolesi, Handel et al. In all Mozart operas, however, today’s practice is to use female vocalists. The best example is the role of Cherubino, a male character written to be sung by a castrato in Le nozze de Figaro, where today only female vocalists are heard. In Lucio Silla, two of the main male characters are stunningly sung by women, in particular, soprano Silvia Tro Santafé in the role of Cecilio. She is truly outstanding with a magical voice and a true Mozart technique and affinity, in the company of a cast not far behind. This production attempts to recreate the story into a later time. I am not taken by the staging, truly abstract and not of anything to do with the plot. Hence, there is nothing else but the superb singing to occupy our attention. In that way the staging issue is unimportant, thanks to the greatness of Mozart’s incomparable score.

The orchestra and conductor are first-class in every respect. Others in the cast are Kurt Streit (Lucio) Patricia Petibon (Giunia), Inga Kalna (Cinna), Maria José Moreno (Celia) and Kenneth Tarver (Aufidio).

05 StanilandAndrew Staniland – Go By Contraries
Tyler Duncan; Martha Guth; Erika Switzer
Centrediscs CMCCD 25918 (musiccentre.ca)

Three dramatic song cycles by Canadian composer Andrew Staniland comprise this exciting, intense, rewarding release performed with respect, musicality and technical prowess by soprano Martha Guth, baritone Tyler Duncan and pianist Erika Switzer. Each showcases the composer’s innate ability to combine words and sound to create thought-provoking, quasi-programmatic works.

Earthquakes and Islands, a setting of Robin Richardson’s poetry, is a tour de force, an eight-movement work exploring the emotional aftermath of a relationship gone wrong. This is high intensity, contrasting music verging on the disturbing. The first section’s opening dramatic piano trill and soprano held notes, subsequent almost-over-the-top low piano crash and low pitched chords contrasting the soprano line set the stage for the entire work. The almost-spoken baritone part in Future Perfect’s third section has the piano atonal lines double the vocals to the calming ending. In My Voice, In My Mouth, dramatic piano low chords, distressed soprano vocals, huge loud and reflective quieter sections support the cancer patient’s feelings of panic/calm. The closing Go By Contraries is just that, as piano string glissandos set up the vocal duet to the closing ascending buildup and final piano fade.

Peter Quince at the Clavier, using a Wallace Stevens text for baritone, and Execution Songs for soprano, feature more of the same intense soaring vocals, piano textures and wide ranging dynamics.

Maybe a bit too melodramatic, but these great compositions, production and performances must be heard!

Listen to 'Andrew Staniland – Go By Contraries' Now in the Listening Room

06 Two Cells in SevillaTwo Cells in Sevilla: Don Quixote Is Hungry
Sonja Bruzauskas; Todd R Miller; Octavio Moreno; Benjamin Leclair; Greenbriar Consortium; David Kirk
Navona Records NV6174 (navonarecords.com)

Two cells in adjacent buildings overlook a square in 16th-century Seville. Gabriel Téllez (baritone Octavio Moreno), a monk who wrote under the name Tirso de Molina, is in his cloister; Miguel de Cervantes (tenor Todd R. Miller), along with his Servant (bass Benjamin LeClair), is in prison, accused of embezzlement.

Gabriel and Miguel lament over their “watery broth” and plead with the Cook (mezzo Sonja Bruzauskas) for better food, but she rebuffs them, lost in her dreams of romance. Trying to charm her, Gabriel and Miguel begin creating their now-classic tales of Don Juan and Don Quixote, respectively, until they’re interrupted by a letter signed “John Falstaff.”

Marec Béla Steffens’ clever, fanciful libretto is set to music by his father, German composer Walter Steffens (b.1934). The 38-minute opera, scored for oboe/English horn, clarinet, saxophone, cello and piano, in addition to the four singers, was premiered in Houston in 2016. The text is sung in parlando style, the vocal and instrumental lines lively and engaging. Given its economical forces and inherent entertainment value, with many familiar musical and literary references, this comical chamber opera is a natural audience-pleaser for conservatories and small opera companies everywhere.

The CD also includes Walter Steffens’ pensive, 12-minute song cycle, Five Songs on Hölderlin (2008), performed by Bruzauskas and pianist Tali Morgulis. No texts are provided, but the opera libretto and Hölderlin’s German verses, without translation, are downloadable from Navona’s website.

07 Elora SingersAnd So It Goes – Song of Folk and Lore
Elora Singers; Noel Edison
Naxos 8.573661 (naxos.com)

This superb recording literally cuts a choral swath through Canada, the United States and the British Isles, by including musical material that literally helped shape the cultural identity of those nations. Britain is represented here by compositions from Ivor Novello, Gustav Holst and Ralph Vaughan Williams. Several traditional airs are also present, as is the work of two Canadian composers: Jimmy Rankin’s JUNO-winning Fare Thee Well My Love and Eric Whitacre’s Go, Lovely Rose. From the US comes Billy Joel’s melancholy And So It Goes. With Joel’s poetry reframed in a fresh and almost hymn-like arrangement, the song takes on a whole new emotional life. Recorded by Nobert Kraft at St. John the Redeemer in Elora, this ambitious recording was produced by Kraft and Bonnie Silver; the two gifted pianists featured are Leslie De’Ath and James Bourne.

The award-winning Elora Singers is an all-professional vocal ensemble founded in 1980, that has thrilled the world with many memorable performances, as well as bringing Canadian vocal chamber repertoire to the international stage. The choir is, of course, the linchpin of the noted Elora Festival.

There are 21 pieces on this CD, each one a perfectly cut diamond – all refracting light in their own uniquely beautiful way. Of special note are Vaughan Williams’ Three Shakespeare Songs. The choir, expertly conducted by founding director Noel Edison, uses dynamics, sibilant consonants, control of vibrato and impeccable intonation to wend its way through the complex arrangements; it almost seems as if they can morph into a fantastically intricate one-celled being, displaying precision, inspiration and unfailing musicality in equal parts.

08 Halibut CheeksHalibut Cheeks & Other Love Songs
Leslie Fagan; Lorin Shalanko
Independent (canadianartsong.com)

Soprano Leslie Fagan and pianist Lorin Shalanko, both international performers and professors of music at Wilfrid Laurier University, are devoted to showcasing Canadian composers through their Canadian Art Song Series, which premiered with the release of Thread of Winter in 2016. This second recording in the series, which takes on the theme of love and romance, is bursting with heartfelt and melodious pieces performed with great warmth and passion. Since the prelude to romance is often a meal, the recording begins with the witty David L. McIntyre’s Creek Bistro Specials in which a sumptuous (and very Canadian) menu, from appetizers to desserts, is extravagantly presented in song. Nestled within the mains is the title track Halibut Cheeks and one can’t help but note a clever nod to Schubert’s Die Forelle in the piano part at the end of the Grilled Trout course.

In the selections that follow, the performers mine exquisite depths of emotion, first with Lionel Daunais’ Cinq Poèmes d’Éloi de Grandmont, then with Srul Irving Glick’s sensuous Seven Tableaux from the Song of Songs. Gorgeous selections by Matthew Emery and Michael Coghlan by turn frame Gladys Davenport’s Cool and silent is the lake, in which Fagan and Shalanko delicately evoke a sense of wonder at nature’s tranquility.

Listen to 'Halibut Cheeks & Other Love Songs' Now in the Listening Room

01 Mahler 6 VanskaMahler – Symphony No.6
Minnesota Orchestra; Osmo Vänskä
Bis BIS-2266 (bis.se)

The enigmatic Sixth of Mahler is one of the “Wunderhorn Symphonies” (Nos.5-7) because each draws its main inspiration from Das Knaben Wunderhorn, Mahler’s most atmospheric and melodic song cycle. But the Sixth stands out because it ends in a minor key; with no triumphant fortissimo ending, it fades out into nothingness.

Hailed as “exacting and exuberant” (New York Times), Finnish conductor Osmo Vänskä at the head of the prestigious Minnesota Orchestra is putting his mark on the US’ and the entire world’s music scene with his highly original and compelling interpretations. He has a visceral sense and immediate grasp of the essence of the music and a near hypnotic grip on the orchestra. His revolutionary Beethoven cycle already caused a world sensation and now he is ready to tackle Mahler.

In this superb, spacious BIS recording Vänskä avoids all overt emotional excesses and concentrates on the musical textures and beauties of the score. In fact, in his hands the symphony is not tragic at all, but a strong affirmation of life. He leads us through a remarkable journey: the relentless, terrifying military march that dominates the first movement is relieved by a magnificent love theme (inspired by Mahler’s beloved wife Alma) into an idyllic realm of an alpine meadow, cows grazing and village church bells ringing in the distance. The Andante is one of Mahler’s heavenly creations, but military madness returns as a demonic 3/4 time Scherzo punctuated with piercing and agonizing shrieks. The 32-minute Finale is an incredible piece of music that culminates in those three giant hammer blows, the power of fate that ultimately destroys man, sure, but after what a journey and what a struggle!

02 Hanging GardensHanging Gardens – Debussy; Berg; Webern; Schoenberg
Jacob Greenberg; Tony Arnold
New Focus Recordings FCR 192 (newfocusrecordings.com)

If one went by the names on the cover of pianist Jacob Greenberg’s two-disc set Hanging Gardens, one might wonder if Debussy were the odd man out. After all, of the four composers featured Debussy was the impressionist, while Schoenberg, Berg and Webern were pioneers of the Second Viennese School, not only tending towards expressionist painting but also favouring an atonal approach to harmonic conception. However, the connection between the four men is deep and born of the desire to look beyond mainstream Western traditions as a way of expanding the vocabulary of music, the vividness of Symbolist poetry and above all an overwhelming sense of the elemental beauty of indeterminate harmonies.

The centerpiece of this repertoire is Schoenberg’s Das Buch der hängenden Gärten, a song cycle based on the poetry of German Symbolist poet Stefan George. The work is a telling illustration of Schoenberg’s search for new modes of expression, which though unified poetically, tend to complete a musical statement within the frame of a miniature, with miniatures succeeding one another without developing a broad narrative pattern. But Greenberg shapes this work, as Schoenberg himself declared writing it: seeking beauty and sacrificing everything to it with the ripples of atonality and dissonance that come with it. Tony Arnold’s agile, luminous soprano voice is ideal and sings with power and subtlety. The Berg Sonata Opus 1 with traces of Liszt and – unsurprisingly – Schoenberg, manipulates tiny fragments of melody and rhythm into a statement dense with dramatic gesture and emotional power. And Webern’s Variations Op.27 are packed with incident and crafted like an overture, which enhances its dramatic potential.

Greenberg appears to be ever the outstanding interpreter of fin de siècle French piano music and his wonderfully lucid and fluent pianism seems perfectly suited to Debussy’s quicksilver imagination. His accounts of both the Études and Préludes are astonishing. The Préludes indicate an affinity with the allusive world of the composer’s Images from several years earlier. The Études are more technically demanding and Greenberg, with marvellous gradations of dynamics and timbre, seems perfectly suited to this, Debussy’s most macroscopic piano music.

Violoncelle Français
Cheng² Duo
Audite 97.6987

Violonchelo del Fuego
Cheng² Duo
Audite 97.7366
(audite.de/en/ensemble/127-cheng_duo_duo)

03a Cheng2duo FrancaiseHaving heard the best of the best during more than 60 years of frequent concertgoing, I’m not easily impressed, but four years ago, when I first heard the Cheng² (Cheng Squared) Duo, I was thrilled by their prodigious virtuosity and impassioned expressivity. Cellist Bryan Cheng was then all of 16, pianist Silvie Cheng in her early 20s. I was thrilled again this past August when the brother-and-sister pair from Ottawa performed at the Toronto Summer Music Festival. Bryan combines a dark, robust tone with jaw-dropping bravura, while Silvie creates an extraordinarily varied palette of keyboard colours that enhance her imaginative, nuanced phrasing. Together, they offer remarkably fresh approaches to familiar music, making their first two CDs so very special.

The major works on Violoncelle Français, the Cello Sonatas of Claude Debussy and César Franck, are performed with unusual extremes of moody introspection and rhapsodic abandon. I’d grown tired of hearing the Franck, whether in the original version for violin or Jules Delsart’s cello transcription, but the Duo’s revelatory re-invention of this much-performed work, with myriad subtleties of tempo, dynamics, phrasing and tonal colour, surprised and delighted me.               

The CD also includes five encore-style selections, Saint-Saëns’s Allegro Appasssionato and The Swan, and three well-loved pieces by Gabriel Fauré that receive especially loving treatments – Pablo Casals’ arrangement of the song Après un Rêve and two works originally for cello and piano, Élégie and Sicilienne, both subsequently orchestrated by Fauré.

03b Cheng2duo FuegoMore encore pieces, arrangements of familiar music by Spanish composers Granados, Albéniz, Sarasate and de Falla, appear on Violonchelo del Fuego. Bryan says: “Arrangements open up a whole new world of possibilities, and you’ll hear that at times I will strum like a guitar or Silvie’s playing will imitate castanets.” “Playing” is the appropriate word for their playful, exuberant approach to this music.

Brian and Silvie add expressive embellishments to Maurice Gendron’s transcription of de Falla’s Siete canciones populares españolas, reflecting their desire to convey the meanings of the songs’ words. Bryan has also arranged the second song of the cycle, Seguidilla murciana, omitted from most instrumental arrangements, including Gendron’s. He says: “A lot of the idiosyncrasies in articulation, vibrato and colour are based on the vocal originals of these songs. It was my goal to really make the cello sing and speak as a dramatic singer would.” The results are truly exhilarating!

This wonderful CD also affords Bryan and Silvie the chance to shine as individuals, in Gaspar Cassadó’s virtuosic Suite for solo cello and Joaquín Turina’s evocative Exaltación for piano. Though only in their 20s, both Bryan and Silvie are already world-class, performing separately and together at major international venues and festivals. I can’t – and won’t – stop raving about them.

01 Costas guitar and fluteCostas – Works for Guitar and Flute
Duo Beija-Flor
Big Round Records BR8953 (bigroundrecoreds.com)

The days of November are increasingly colder and grayer, so what better way to dispel any pre-winter gloom than a flute and guitar duo performing music with a strong Mediterranean focus. The Montreal-based Duo Beija-Flor – guitarist Charles Hobson and flutist Marie-Noëlle Choquette – began playing together during their student days at Concordia University and officially became a duo in 2010. Since then, they have performed throughout Canada, the United States and Argentina.

This disc, titled Costas – referring to the Latin coastlines of the Atlantic – is a delight, featuring music by such diverse composers as Manuel de Falla, Astor Piazzolla, Celso Machado and Roddy Ellias. What is particularly striking from the very beginning is the wide variety achieved with respect to style, mood and tempo within a thoughtfully chosen program.

De Falla’s set of Seven Spanish Folksongs was originally arranged for soprano and piano in 1914 and this transcription is particularly convincing. Less familiar is Celso Machado’s languorous Quebra Queixo. Machado, a world music guitarist now based in Vancouver, wrote the piece in homage to a popular Brazilian candy!

Not all works on Costas are by Hispanic composers. Roddy Ellias is a Canadian performer and composer whose piece Havana Street Parade was especially commissioned by the duo. Its quirky and syncopated rhythms are an intriguing blend of jazz and Latin elements, performed with much aplomb.

Throughout the disc, the addition of extraneous effects – percussive tapping on the guitar and the sound of wind created by the flute – further heightens the listening experience. Infectious rhythms, a diverse program and superb playing by both performers make this CD ideal not only for a cool gray day but any time of year – highly recommended.

02 Dreams Laid LowDreams Laid Down – New Music for Classical Guitar
Alan Rinehart
Ravello Records RR7996 (ravellorecords.com)

“Poetic” is surely the word for British Columbia-based classical guitarist Alan Rinehart’s new solo disc. For example, the six pieces of the title work Dreams Laid Down (2013) by American composer Michael Karmon are each based on a poem from a collection by Rinehart’s wife Janice Notland. And Vancouver composer David Gordon Duke states that his own Soliloquies and Dreams (2003, evocative miniatures written for Rinehart) “alternate between the declamatory and the lyric” while the guitar “speaks as an actor, musing on ideas and thoughts.” In my view, these words also apply to Rinehart’s sensitive expression and tone.

Of the disc’s three other compositions, the Rinehart-commissioned Ancient Heroes Suite by composer and guitarist John Oliver is a major work honouring poetic (e.g. Rumi) and guitar-connected greats. Couperin’s Ghost draws the connection between the French clavicinist and lute music. Especially attractive is Passacaille, which evokes not only the variation form but the dance’s steady tread and patterns. Richard Gibson’s Variaciones sobre una tema de Juan Lennon (2013) effectively brings together John Lennon’s song Julia and the classical guitar’s Spanish tradition. Finally, Canadian guitarist and composer William Beauvais’ Beginning of the Day (2017, dedicated to Rinehart) asserts the improvisational aspect of the instrument, extending it with exciting metrical intricacies. For several decades Rinehart has been a key performer, educator and, as we have seen, supporter of new repertoire; it is now a pleasure to recommend this disc.

03 Bekah SimmsBekah Simms – impurity chains
Various Artists
Centrediscs CMCCD 26118 (musiccentre.ca)

Bekah Simms released impurity chains in early September this year. On it are three tracks between six and seven minutes, three between ten and fifteen. Microlattice is controlled chaos. Like many of these works, it follows an ABA structure. Tonally it neatly divides into three roughly equal lengths. Bells announce new sections. A coda juxtaposes the two tonal areas, the closely layered pitches generating a new colour. Metre is shrouded by the expansive pace.

Next are two quartets, both using material derived from folk songs. Slept Unwell is for SATB vocal quartet featuring gasps, whispers and cries, the voices slightly extended with electronic effects. Newfoundland folksong The Maiden’s Lament is the source code; listen carefully. Swallow/Breathe, for string quartet, is a fresh take on the much-loved She’s Like the Swallow. Her coda quotes the melodic source material exactly, like a serving of dessert.

Granitic is for larger ensemble, but of a shorter length. The piece is an ominous sonic mobile, the ten voices suspended in space slowly rotating about, gradually revealing the discernible pulse and in the electric guitar, rock-like riffs. The title may well be a pun. Is there a Kid A (National Anthem) quote in the closing section? This is my favourite.

Everything Is… Distorted, brings back the slow pace of terror I felt in the opening track, while impurity chains is a 15-minute long solo for electric guitar via vocoder. This is a tough slog, and, to quote the helpful liner notes, marked by “various abstruse texts…embedded into the timbral fabric.”

Canadian Composers Series Nos.6-10
Various Artists
another timbre (anothertimbre.com)

Canadian Composers on Another Timbre: Another Timbre is a distinguished English label that specializes in a particular range of contemporary music that draws from the indeterminacy and minimalism of John Cage and Morton Feldman and intersects regularly with the textures and practices of European free improvisation. In 2017 it released five CDs by Canadian composers (reviewed by Raul da Gama in these pages in May 2017) and has just released five more, all ten discussed in a 116-page book of interviews with the composers that’s available with the CDs (anothertimbre.com). 

04a CC Cassandra Miller Just SoAmong the highlights of the series are two CDs by Victoria native Cassandra Miller. Just So (at129, Canadian Composer series #9) presents string quartet pieces performed by Montreal’s Quatuor Bozzini, varied works that possess a rare, original lyricism, in which traditional materials are fragmented and recast, including the delicate bird songs of Warblework and the strangely still About Bach in which transcribed materials are evidently undone by computer glitches, while the first violin part is performed in a stratospheric upper register. 

04b CC Cassandra Miller O ZomerMiller’s O, Zomer! (at126, CC series #6) presents her work for varied ensembles, including an octet form of the group Apartment House performing the title work (from 2007, it’s Miller’s earliest work here), a minimalist piece that moves from a kind of light tapping to insistent ensemble reiteration of the same tones. Philip the Wanderer, composed for pianist Philip Thomas, wanders until it ends on a simple, and repeated, major scale. Her unusually titled Duet for Cello and Orchestra, performed by Charles Curtis and the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, includes a cello part that is radically minimalist, at one point posing a two-note phrase against a busy orchestral melody. As with many of Miller’s works, it’s much more than merely unusual, creating great drama and depth from truncated materials.

04c CC Lance Austin OlsenLance Austin Olson is a 75-year-old painter (his paintings appear on many of the CDs in the series) and sound artist who lives in Victoria. Dark Heart (at128, CC#8) focuses largely on graphic scores and field recordings and various mergers of the two. Performances of his work range from two different realizations of a graphic score, Theseus’ Breath, by members of Apartment House, to Olson’s extended explorations of others’ materials and graphic scores, creating soundscapes that mingle guitar, voice, field and found recordings as well as amplified copper plate and park bench. These works are far more engaging than one might expect: an ancient wax cylinder in A Mediation on the History of Painting sounds like a voice from another world.

04d CC Alex JangAlex Jang’s momentary encounters (at127, CC#7) inevitably suggests Feldman and Christian Wolff. He literally lets the world in on the title piece, a clarinet solo performed outdoors amidst birds, children, a dog and a consistent hum. Other pieces include a grey, bent interior horizon, beautifully realized by guitarist Cristián Alvear.

04e CC Linda Catlin SmithLinda Catlin Smith, the artist most extensively represented in the series, adds Wanderer (at130, CC #10), another set of often limpidly beautiful, evanescent chamber works performed by Apartment House, to the two-disc Drifter in the first five-CD batch.

05 Legends and LightLegends and Light – New Works for Large Ensemble
Moravian Philharmonic Orchestra; Croation Chamber Orchestra
Navona Records NV6187 (navonarecords.com/catalog/nv6187)

Four melody-saturated neo-Romantic works offer lots of “good-old-fashioned” musical entertainment.

Dutch composer Hans Bakker (b.1945) calls his ten-minute Canzona III: “Hidden in Her Light” a “hymn to the sun,” but I found this music far from hymn-like, its propulsive rhythms, blazing brass and ringing percussion suggesting instead an ancient martial saga.

The 15-minute Suite for Strings by Ottawa native Jan Järvlepp (b.1953) begins with Changing Times, a merry dance featuring abrupt changes in metre. Shifting Cargo is more dramatic, with strong, syncopated ostinatos. The elegiac A Thoughtful Moment reminded me of Grieg, while Dance of the Monkey Man is a rustic romp, complete with foot-stomping.

Clive Muncaster (b.1936) left England to study in the U.S., where he remained as composer, teacher and music-therapist. His 21-minute Redcliffe Gardens Suite for Strings comprises the cinematically sentimental Petronella, the gently rocking Pastorella and Stella, Fuga Romantica (in which the “romantica” dominates the “fuga”) and the sprightly Girandole.

American Shirley Mier (b.1966) teaches at Century College in White Bear Lake, Minnesota. Her 19-minute Of Lakes and Legends presents four local scenarios: Legend of the White Bear depicts a tragic tale of lovers from rival Indigenous tribes; Ride on the Rails evokes the inaugural train journey from St. Paul to White Bear Lake in 1868; a nostalgic waltz, Parlor Recital, recalls “intimate concerts” at a piano-teacher’s home; Regatta (White Bear Yacht Club) celebrates the region’s boat-racing community.

A highly enjoyable disc!

06 Miguel KertsmanMiguel Kertsman – Three Concertos; Chamber Symphony No.2 “New York of 50 Doors”
Marina Piccinini; Orsolya Korcsolán; Martin Kuuskmann; Gergely Sugar; London Philharmonic Orchestra; Dennis Russell Davies
Naxos 8.573987 (naxos.com)

Brazilian/American Miguel Kertsman utilizes his artistic musical experiences as a composer, keyboardist, producer, audio engineer and music executive to compose classification-defying symphonic music that ranges from classical to atonal to mainstream/modern jazz to rock to folk.

The passionate performances by the London Philharmonic Orchestra under conductor Dennis Russell Davies support the soloists. Flutist Marina Piccinini performs colourful long-held notes, melodies and rhythmic sections in the Concerto Brasileiro for Flute, Strings and Percussion. Noteworthy are her virtuosic closing first-movement flute cadenza-like coda, and the third movement rhythmic folk/orchestral Repentes dance featuring flute and string conversations with percussion flourishes. Concerto for Violin, Horn, Shofar and Orchestra is an exciting four-movement exploration of styles, tonalities and rhythms. Journey for Bassoon and Orchestra is a geographical/musical trip. The outer movements are named after the composer (and soloist bassoonist) Martin Kuuskmann’s hometowns – the Tallinn movement features a lyrical Nordic-flavoured bassoon line, while the final Recife movement develops from an extended string fugato to a lively Brazilian dance frevo. Kertsman’s time in New York influences the jazzy middle movement highlighted by laid-back bassoon and xylophone conversations, and a driving rhythm section. Two brief solo bassoon extended-technique Inträludiums between movements are exceptional. The jazzy Chamber Symphony No.2 “New York of 50 Doors” uses two main themes from an earlier work with a repetitive chromatic four-note melody, and extended synthesizer use adding unique sounds.

This original disc is a high-quality listening experience!

Back to top