I had a great musical visit with my good friend Ted a couple of weeks ago and he took the opportunity to show off his marvellous guitar collection. Ted has so many fine guitars that I didn’t even bother to pack one of my own for the overnight visit. Of particular interest to me was his recently acquired Larrivée 12-string, but this turned out not to be the one that impressed the most. His pride and joy is a finely hand-crafted Lowden six-string instrument with the most incredible resonance, and perfectly balanced dynamics from the quietest to the loudest range, not to mention some extremely artistic inlay over the neck and body of the guitar. It is probably the finest instrument I’ve ever had the privilege to play, and it answered the question that always pops to mind when I hear one of the masters playing: How do they get that gorgeous sound? Well of course it has a lot to do with impeccable technique, but also it seems, with the quality of the instrument itself.

01 McManus ToaspernSpeaking of masters, Celtic guitarist Tony McManus (Scottish-born with Irish heritage), who has made his home in Elora for the past dozen years, is exactly that. His reputation is such that the prestigious Maryland-based custom guitar manufacturer PRS has produced a signature Tony McManus Private Stock Acoustic guitar line, one of which, not surprisingly, is featured on his latest release Live in Concert with multi-instrumentalist Julia Toaspern (CDTRAX405 felicitas-records.de). Toaspern also plays a PRS (Angelus Private Stock) guitar, an unidentified violin, and they each, on occasional tracks, play a Greenfield G5 soprano guitar. The soprano guitar (a new one on me, tuned an octave above a standard guitar) is particularly effective on the Django-inflected Breton Waltzes (McManus) and Star of Munster Set (Toaspern). Although primarily a virtuosic instrumental album, McManus and Toaspern each sing a few songs, and the influences encompass Celtic, roots, jazz and Latin, along with one foray into early classical repertoire – Caccini’s Amarilli – which Toaspern says is a holdover from her days training as an opera singer. Her beautiful soprano voice is suitably idiomatic to the 16th-century love song, and the acoustic guitar accompaniment is immaculate. Also of note is her arrangement for two guitars of Manha de Carneval from Black Orpheus in medley with the Irish tune The Musical Priest, with some familiar quotations from disparate genres thrown in along the way. Very effective. McManus’ own distinctive vocal work on a setting of Robbie Burns’ Bonnie Jean with Toaspern’s vocal and violin harmonies is stunning, harkening back to the best of the string band music to find its way to North America from the British Isles in the heyday of the 60s and 70s. As one of the “50 most influential acoustic guitarists of all time” (Guitar Player Magazine), we are fortunate that McManus has chosen to follow that path too, and settle with us in Southern Ontario. He is truly masterful and the music he has chosen to share with us here is enchanting.

02 InventionOne of the most exceptional things about the music of J.S. Bach is that it can withstand transcription to virtually any instrumental medium, from grandiose Wagner-size orchestra to sopranino recorder and just about anything in between or beside, including Moog synthesizer as evidenced by Wendy Carlos some half a century ago. The latest example to cross my desk is an album titled Invention featuring violinist Tessa Lark and contrabass player Michael Thurber (larkandthurber.com). On this disc, seven of Bach’s two-part inventions are interspersed with original “inventions” by Lark and Thurber, drawing on diverse influences from Appalachia to New Orleans, running the gamut of Americana, but also encompassing their skill as classical musicians. The juxtaposition works surprisingly well, from the lilting Wooden Soldier that leads into the first two-part invention, dear to my heart since learning it for my Grade Six Royal Conservatory exam and performing it on my teacher’s harpsichord (handmade by her husband Jan Albarda), to the sombre strains of Until We Meet Again, with its echoes of the Celtic fiddle laments brought to American shores some hundreds of years ago. A satisfying and eclectic look at simple counterpoint. 

03 Jessica MeyerJessica Meyer is an accomplished violist who has championed contemporary applications for her instrument and expanded its repertoire through commissioning and collaboration. She is also active in the fields of period performance and improvisation, and is a renowned educator. During the past five years she has added composition to her palette and Ring Out on Bright Shiny Things (BSTC-0128 brightshiny.ninja) is a showcase for this aspect of her creativity. The disc features six powerful works ranging from solo cello through various string combinations, to songs for voice, viola and piano and the title work, for a cappella vocal octet (Grammy-winning Roomful of Teeth) and field recordings. This latter work, the title track which concludes the album, was composed in 2017 for Colorado’s TANK Center for Sonic Arts with its incredible 20-second reverberation decay, exceeding both the Taj Mahal and the Great Pyramid in this regard. Meyer takes full advantage of this in a stunning work, the overall acoustic of which is reminiscent to my ear of some of the great works of Renaissance polyphony, albeit with contemporary close harmonies. The addition of handheld percussion and recordings of church bells adds greatly to the effect.

The disc begins somewhat abrasively with But Not Until for viola (Meyer) and cello (Andrew Yee), inspired by a quote from one of my favourite authors, David Foster Wallace: “The truth will set you free. But not until it is finished with you.” This is followed by I Only Speak of the Sun, for string trio, which takes its inspiration from a poem by Rumi. Released, for specially tuned cello, “explores ideas surrounding the last moments of life… flickering lights and memories, and perhaps a swirling vortex of images of your life flashing before your eyes.” Seasons of Bashō is a four-song setting of haiku by that 17th-century Japanese master, featuring the beautiful and haunting countertenor voice of Nicholas Tamagna. Only a Beginning is an instrumental duo for violin (Miranda Cuckson) and viola, but it too takes words as a point of departure, in this case a quote from Indira Ghandi – “Martyrdom does not end something, it is only a beginning” – and the text of In Paradisum from the Catholic funeral mass. All in all, this is an impressive maiden voyage for Meyer the composer, with performances and production values beyond reproach. My only caveat is the lack of information in the package, although the lyrics are included. Fortunately, all the performer details and biographical information about Meyer are available on her website jessicameyermusic.com.

04 Novel VoicesAlthough they have been making music together since 2005, Novel Voices (Melos Records ML812/33-100) marks the debut recording for the Carr-Petrova Duo (carrpetrovaduo.com), Molly Carr (viola) and Anna Petrova (piano). The disc is the culmination of a multidisciplinary project begun in 2018 called the Novel Voices Refugee Aid Project (winner of Music Academy of the West’s Alumni Enterprise Award). The project is designed to give voice and visibility to refugee communities around the globe while raising awareness and support for both local and international refugee-aid organizations, by bringing classical music performances and musical workshops to refugee camps and aid programs. The disc begins with the Lullaby from the ballet Gayaneh in an arrangement by the duo. I must say I was only familiar with the bombastic highlights of Aram Khachaturian’s ballet, such as the famous Sabre Dance, and would have been hard-pressed to identify the origins of this gentle, lyrical work so beautifully realized here. Mieczyslaw Weinberg is also represented by a transcription, in this instance of his Sonata for Clarinet and Piano, Op.28, reminding us of the close similarities between the timbre of the viola and the darker registers of the clarinet. This is not to say that the work itself is gloomy. The charming, and at times angular, Allegretto middle movement is reminiscent of Shostakovich and Prokofiev at their most playful, but, like late Shostakovich, the work ends with a mostly sombre Adagio.

The centrepiece of this disc is a work by British composer Rebecca Clarke (1886-1979) who moved to the United States at the age of 30. From the liner notes I take the following: “…three years later she entered a male-dominated composition competition sponsored by the wealthy American philanthropist Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge… Out of a field of 72 candidates for the prize, her Viola Sonata came first, tied with a composition by Ernest Bloch. Ultimately, though, the award went singlehandedly to Bloch, amidst prejudice-ridden rumours that ‘Rebecca Clarke’ was simply a pseudonym for another male composer, because ‘it could not have been’ a woman who had written such a beautiful piece of music.” That harsh judgement notwithstanding, the notes go on to say: “The Viola Sonata has almost become a flagship for the advocacy of the viola as a solo instrument, and is now considered one of the magnificent jewels of chamber music literature.” This nuanced performance gives credence to that statement.

The premise of the project is intriguing, and is the focus of a documentary by filmmakers Victoria Stevens and Skyler Knutzen that will premiere in 2020. A young Mexican, Fernando Arroyo Lascurain, was selected to be the project’s composer-in-residence and he accompanied the musicians on their tour of refugee camps. The resulting work, Novel Voices, is in three movements: Stories and Dreams, Dance and Uncertainty and Call and Prayer. It “magically weaves together the different music of the various children’s ancestral cultures we encountered: from Arabic music to the music of Bulgaria, Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, Kuwait, Syria, Chechnya…” and provides a moving and effective ending to this outstanding CD. 

05 I must admit that I was only familiar with two of the names of the composers included on Silenced Voices, Hans Krása and Gideon Klein. The disc features works for string trio by Jewish composers from early in the 20th century performed by the Black Oak Ensemble (Çedille CDR 90000 189 cedillerecords.org). Both Krása and Klein spent time in the German “camp-ghetto” Theresienstadt, where the latter organized cultural events and the former’s children’s opera Brundibár received more than 50 performances. Although the Nazis cynically described Theresienstadt as a “spa town” where elderly German Jews could “retire” in safety, the ghetto was in reality a collection centre for deportations to killing centres in Nazi-occupied Eastern Europe. Krása died at Auschwitz and Klein was sent to Fürstengrube, where he perished just days before its liberation in 1945. The other composers represented here all suffered similar fates, with the exception of Géza Frid (1904-1989) who fled his native Hungary to the Netherlands “where he managed to escape detection as a ‘stateless Jew’ and eventually became a citizen and celebrated composer.” He is represented by his first published work, the String Trio Op.1, with hints of Hungarian hurdy-gurdy and bagpipes, in its world premiere recording. The other composers – Dick Kattenburg (1919-1944), Sándor Kuti (1908-1945) and Paul Hermann (1902-1944) – all perished at the hands of the Nazis. The marvellous and diverse music contained on this disc gives a glimpse of just how much culture was lost through the tragedy of the Holocaust, and the thoughtful and thorough booklet notes by OREL Foundation scholar Robert Elias provide context.

The project-based Black Oak Ensemble is comprised of Swiss-American violinist Desirée Ruhstrat, British-born cellist David Cunliffe and French-born violist Aurélien Fort Pederzoli. Silenced Voices was inspired, in part, by Pederzoli’s mother, a history teacher of Sephardic descent who led annual student trips to Auschwitz, Treblinka and Terezin (Theresienstadt). In August of this year the group presented Silenced Voices at the Terezin House of Culture during the Everlasting Hope International Music Festival. It is our good fortune that they have also committed the project to disc. 

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

David Olds, DISCoveries Editor

01 HK Guitar DuoThere was never any doubt about what would be the lead review once I received HK Guitar Duo Plays Mozart, the latest CD from two of Canada’s most outstanding instrumentalists, guitarists Drew Henderson and Michael Kolk (Independent, hkguitarduo.com).

What I wasn’t expecting, though, even from them, was the first of the three transcriptions on the disc – the complete Symphony No.40 in G Minor K550, the idea for the arrangement growing from some impromptu improvising on the opening theme during a break in a 2008 recording session.

Transcribing the Duo No.1 in G Major for Violin and Viola K423 was, as Kolk readily admits, a much simpler process, and finding an arrangement for two violins of the Piano Sonata No.8 in A Minor K310 clearly assisted with their excellent transcription for two guitars. Henderson plays a custom-built eight-string guitar in the Symphony No.40 as well as in the middle Adagio movement of the Duo, the two extra bass strings enabling an extended bass range that was particularly essential for the symphony.

The playing throughout the CD is immaculate, the technical artistry always matched by the musical sensitivity and intelligence. The Duo and the Piano Sonata are not exactly insubstantial works, but the real gem here is the Symphony No.40: “It’s incredible,” says the accompanying promo blurb, “that four hands and 14 strings can cover so much music that was written for an orchestra, but the HK Duo makes it sound effortless.”

Indeed they do, but more significantly – and crucially – they also make it sound both musically and artistically meaningful and an immensely satisfying listening experience in all respects. It’s a quite astonishing technical and musical accomplishment, completely convincing through all four movements.

Engineered and edited by Drew Henderson to his usual impeccable standards at the Church of St. Mary Magdalene in Toronto, this is a simply outstanding guitar CD. 

02 Sharon Isbin PacificaBy sheer coincidence, for the second month in a row I received a guitar quintet CD that opened with the Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco Quintet for Guitar and String Quartet Op.143 and closed with Luigi Boccherini’s Quintet for Guitar and String Quartet in D Major – the one with the famous Fandango final movement. Last month it was Jason Vieaux and the Escher Quartet, and this month it’s guitarist Sharon Isbin and the Pacifica Quartet on Souvenirs of Spain & Italy, a CD that features music by Italian-born composers influenced by Spanish idioms (Çedille CDR 90000 190 cedillerecords.org).

The other works on the CD are Vivaldi’s popular Lute Concerto in D Major RV93, heard here in Emilio Pujol’s arrangement for guitar and string trio, and Joaquín Turina’s La oración del torero Op.34 in the composer’s own string quartet edition of the original for lute quartet.

Perhaps the words “seldom-heard gem” are finally becoming inappropriate for the gorgeous Castelnuovo-Tedesco quintet, which would be welcome news. There may possibly be a bit more warmth and tonal colour in Vieaux’s playing and a slightly less-forward guitar balance, but both performances feature excellent work by the soloists backed by beautiful quartet playing, and can be recommended without reservation.

The two performances of the Boccherini quintet are also very similar and equally impressive, the main difference being the addition of castanets and tambourine for almost the entire Fandango on this current disc, whereas on the Vieaux, the castanets (no tambourine) only appear for a brief single spell in the middle of the movement.

Isbin adds her own Baroque ornamentation in a measured and thoroughly enjoyable performance of the Vivaldi concerto; indeed, the two middle works on this CD give it a decided edge over the Vieaux disc.

03 New Guitar 12David Starobin is the classical guitar soloist on New Music with Guitar Vol.12, the latest CD in the excellent ongoing series on the Bridge label (9520 bridgerecords.com).

All five composers represented – Fred Lerdahl, John Musto, William Bland, Edward Green and David Leisner – were born between 1943 and 1954, and the works are predominantly mature pieces, only Green’s Genesis: Variations for Solo Guitar, written for Starobin in 1974 and recorded in 1975, predating 2010.

Starobin is joined by violinist Movses Pogossian in Lerdahl’s Three Bagatelles (2017) and by pianist Yun Hao in Bland’s Sonata No.4 (2016), the latter’s Blues final movement ending effectively with Starobin unwinding the lower guitar strings.

The outstanding baritone Patrick Mason joins the guitarist in two brief but quite superb song cycles: Musto’s The Brief Light (2010) on poems of James Laughlin and Leisner’s Three James Tate Songs (2007). Leisner’s abilities as a virtuoso guitarist make for some dazzling and imaginative settings in the latter.

Starobin and partners are all in top form in a highly entertaining program.

04 Schumann Quartet ChiaroscuroChiaroscuro, the latest CD from the Schumann Quartet completes the trilogy of concept albums that began with the two CDs, Landscapes (2017) and Intermezzo (2018) (Berlin Classics 0301213BC berlin-classics-music.com).

Described as “a picture-gallery of music” the album uses Mozart’s settings of Five Fugues from Bach’s The Well-Tempered Clavier K405 as the promenade music and connecting path between the various works: Mendelssohn’s Fugue in E-Flat Major Op.81 No.4; Philip Glass’ brief String Quartet No.2 “company”; Shostakovich’s Two Pieces for string quartet from 1931; Webern’s Six Bagatelles Op.9; and Janáček’s String Quartet No.2 “Intimate Letters.” Gershwin’s Lullaby adds a dream-like epilogue to the series.

The Schumann Quartet is performing the complete Chiaroscuro program in their live recitals, and recommends that the CD be listened to from start to finish without a break. It certainly works very well, despite – or perhaps because of – the disparity between the musical selections. Performances throughout are excellent, particularly the heartfelt reading of the astonishingly raw and emotional Janáček quartet.

05 Argus QuartetThe string music of the American composer Juri Seo (born 1981) is featured on the impressive CD Respiri, with the Argus Quartet and cellist Joann Whang (Innova 022 innova.mu).

The quite lovely title track for string quartet is subtitled in memoriam Jonathan Harvey, and pays tribute to the British composer – a practising Buddhist – who died in 2012, and whose signature musical gesture was an evocation of breathing.

Whang is the soloist for the Suite for Cello, a suite of five dance movements very much in the J.S. Bach solo cello mode but with an increasing use of harmonics, adding what the composer terms a lingering sense of displacement.

The String Quartet – Infinite Season aims to depict the story of a year unfolding, the four movements tracing the sounds of nature as the seasons change. There’s a lovely use of harmonics again, together with field recordings of birdsong and insect noises.

06 PUBLIQuartetFreedom & Faith is the second album from the American string quartet PUBLIQuartet on the Bright Shiny Things label (BSTC-0126 brightshiny.ninja). The quartet is dedicated to presenting new works, and the music here is from two of PUBLIQuartet’s signature initiatives: MIND I THE I GAP, collaborative compositions and improvisations by the four group members; and PUBLIQ Access, a program that commissions new string quartet works by composers living in the United States. The latter is represented by the opening and closing works – Jessica Meyer’s three-movement Get into the Now from 2017 and Shelley Washington’s Middleground from 2016 – while three collaborative creations from the former project are at the centre of the disc: Sancta Femina, reflections on Hildegard von Bingen, Francesca Caccini and Chiara Margarita Cozzolani; Ella!, based on Ella Fitzgerald’s performance of A-Tisket, A-Tasket; and Nina!, a celebration of Nina Simone.

Anything goes in the performances at times, with normal string playing being replaced by a whistle, unison singing and chanting, rhythmic clapping and percussive effects on the instrument bodies in some vibrant and decidedly upbeat music. 

07 Rihm scanThe outstanding violinist Tianwa Yang is the soloist on Wolfgang Rihm Music for Violin and Orchestra Vol.2 with the Deutsche Staatsphilharmonie Rheinland-Pfalz under Darrell Ang (Naxos 8.573667 naxosdirect.com). Yang has a strong association with Rihm’s music, having already recorded his Complete Works for Violin and Piano (8.572730) and the first volume of the Violin and Orchestra Music (8.573812) for the Naxos label.

The three substantial works here are Gesungene Zeit (Musik für Violine und Orchester Nr.2) (1991-92), Lichtes Spiel (Ein Sommerstück für Violine und kleines Orchester) (2009) and COLL’ARCO (Musik für Violine und Orchester Nr.4) (2008).

Rihm’s music is not always immediately accessible, but these works are engrossing from start to finish with some truly beautiful moments, especially in the lengthy COLL’ARCO, which with its hints of Alban Berg often sounds like a violin concerto from the Second Viennese School.

Yang is, as usual, simply brilliant in music that makes great technical and interpretative demands.

08 Ben HaimEvocation – Violin Works by Paul Ben-Haim traces the gradual assimilation of Middle Eastern influences in the music of the composer (born Paul Frankenburger in Munich, Germany) after his emigration to the British Mandate of Palestine (the future Israel) in the 1930s. Itamar Zorman is the violin soloist with the BBC National Orchestra of Wales under Philippe Bach (BIS-2398 bis.se).

The major works are the 1942 title track and the Violin Concerto from 1960, a solidly professional work with a simply lovely Andante affettuoso slow movement. Pianist Amy Yang joins Zorman for the Berceuse sfaradite from 1945 and Three Songs without Words from 1951.

The Three Studies for Solo Violin, written for Yehudi Menuhin in 1981 are among Ben-Haim’s last works. An arrangement for violin and orchestra of the Toccata piano solo from 1943 by the soloist’s father, Moshe Zorman, completes an entertaining CD.

09 Vaughan Williams Viola FantasyVaughan Williams enjoyed playing the viola for most of his long life, its sound a seemingly perfect projection of the pastoral and nostalgic nature (on the surface, at least) of his music. On Viola Fantasia, on Albion Records, the official label of the Ralph Vaughan Williams Society, violist Martin Outram and pianist Julian Rolton perform the composer’s works for viola and piano, together with the Four Hymns for Tenor, Viola and Pianoforte with tenor Mark Padmore (ALBCD 036 albionrecords.org).

The Suite and Romance both sprang from Vaughan Williams’ relationship with the viola virtuoso Lionel Tertis. Six Studies in English Folk Song and the Fantasia on Sussex Folk Tunes both originally featured solo cello, the former heard here in the composer’s alternate viola version and the latter in an arrangement by Outram. The Fantasia on Greensleeves was arranged for viola and piano by another British viola virtuoso, Watson Forbes.

There’s perhaps a tendency for the viola tone to sound a bit tight at times, but there’s much to enjoy on what is clearly an authoritative CD.

10 Yevgeny KutikFor his recording project Meditations on Family the Russian-American violinist Yevgeny Kutik commissioned eight composers to translate a family photo into a short musical miniature of about two to three minutes in length for violin and various ensemble. The resulting tracks were released digitally on a weekly basis, and were gathered together on a 23-minute Extended Play CD earlier this year (Marquis 774718149329 marquisclassics.com).

Composers Christopher Cerrone, Gregory Vajda, Joseph Schwantner, Kinan Azmeh, Paola Prestini, Timo Andres, Andreia Pinto Correia and Gity Razaz produced brief but intriguing works for solo violin, violin and piano, violin and double bass, violin and clarinet and violin with vocal quartet and glass harmonica. Kutik plays them with warmth and commitment.

The original photos, along with additional background information and audio tracks can be found at meditationsonfamily.com

01 FialkowskaLes sons et les parfums
Janina Fialkowska
ATMA ACD2 2766 (naxosdirect.com)

Janina Fialkowska’s latest offering is absolutely enchanting, a CD of “pure nostalgia” for the acclaimed Canadian pianist, as she states in her eloquent liner notes for Les sons et les parfums (the sounds and the fragrances).

Fialkowska transports us to the Paris of the 1950s and 1960s, when, as a youth, she visited the French capital; a time when Les Six members Francis Poulenc and Germaine Tailleferre were dominant forces on the French music scene. And, as Fialkowska tells us, a time when most of the older musicians with whom she came in contact during those visits, knew not only those noted composers, but also Ravel, Debussy and Fauré. One further fun fact: her piano teacher in Paris in the mid-60s, Yvonne Lefébure, actually worked on the two Ravel pieces featured on the CD with Ravel himself! Can anyone imagine a headier environment for one’s musical studies?

Fialkowska’s “love letter to Paris” includes works by all of the above-mentioned composers, as well as Emmanuel Chabrier. From Tailleferre’s charming and shimmery Impromptu, Fauré’s sensuously evocative Nocturne in E-flat Major Op.36, and Poulenc’s sparkling Intermezzo in A-flat Major FP118 with its sense of yearning, to Debussy’s beloved and beyond-beautiful Clair de Lune and the stunning, virtuosic and impressionistic pleasures of Ravel’s Jeux d’eau and Sonatine, Fialkowska indeed captures les sons et les parfums of a bygone Paris. It is there in the characteristic nuance, warmth, commanding musicianship, delight and dignity of her performance, which is nothing short of ravishing.

Sharna Searle

Listen to 'Les sons et les parfums' Now in the Listening Room

02 Richard Hamelin ChopinChopin – Ballades & Impromptus
Charles Richard-Hamelin
Analekta AN 2 9145 (analekta.com)

The quietly heroic Canadian pianist, Charles Richard-Hamelin, has just released a record – his fifth on the Analekta label – of Frédéric Chopin’s most expressive and inspired music: the four Ballades, (presented in chronological order) and the three Impromptus, followed by the Fantaisie-Impromptu.

Audiences the world over have heartened to Richard-Hamelin’s extraordinary talent, a talent without self-indulgence, wholly in service of musical candour on the highest order. It is this very quality, (amongst flawless technique, lyrical sensitivity, inspired voicing and impeccable stylistic command), that makes Richard-Hamelin so unique in today’s individualistic, ego-crazed culture. The pianist brings a poetic integrity to his music-making, born of a sincerity that is both reassuring and human. His craft calls on the objective – not the subjective – to aid him in his quest for beauty, awakening virtue and aesthetic perfection at every musical turn.

In these hands, not one of Chopin’s phrases, chords or moments of pause are left unconsidered or unloved. Richard-Hamelin intimately knows every last fibre of the musical canvas, from first note to last; a marvel of integral conception. It is like watching a skilled and seasoned painter in action, as he places every brush stroke – every swirl and point – with absolute care and expertise. Richard-Hamelin is redesigning this loved (and oft-performed) music, entirely afresh. Each cherished musical moment is revealed to be uniformly exquisite, and the listener is spellbound. Charles Richard-Hamelin is an artist of this rare Earth, singing of its myriad wonders.

Adam Sherkin

07 Tchaikovsky HaochenTchaikovsky – Piano Concerto No.1; Prokofiev – Piano Concerto No.2
Haochen Zhang; Lahti Symphony Orchestra; Dima Slobodeniouk
BIS BIS-2381 SACD (bis.se)

At just 29 years old, Chinese pianist Haochen Zhang ably demonstrates his coupling of a virtuoso approach with a mature and nuanced sensitivity of musical interpretation on this 2019 BIS recording, featuring the Lahti Symphony Orchestra under the measured direction of Dima Slobodeniouk. Traversing two alpine works – Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No.1 and Sergei Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No.2 – Zhang evidences considerable musical acumen in his handling of this well-known (and widely recorded and performed) music of these Russian masters, highlighting the embedded Romantic gestures, as well as rising to the stentorian musical challenges put forward by these mighty and canonical composers. 

Dynamics are clearly on display as the pianist takes the listener on a wild ride. This 19th- and 20th-century music is both rigorous and demanding on pianists (Prokofiev was himself a touring and creative pianist), and Zhang, a former child prodigy who won the 2009 Cliburn Competition, demonstrates that he still has the breathtaking and wide-ranging technique that initially captured audience attention when he was still a boy. But now he evidences a coalescing musical maturity that is bound to excite today’s classical musical listeners not only for what is captured here, but also for what is in store for Zhang on future recordings and concertizing opportunities. Overall, a recommended addition to one’s CD collection.

Andrew Scott

03 Beethoven ChoBeethoven – Piano Sonatas Nos.8, 21, 23
Jae-Hyuck Cho
Sony S803556 (jaehyuckcho.com/recording)

Pianist Jae-Hyuck Cho is a well-established international recitalist and a classical music radio presenter in Korea. This CD of three much-recorded Beethoven sonatas – the C minor “Pathétique,” C Major “Waldstein” and F minor “Appassionata” – is justified by its excellent playing and sound engineering. In the Pathétique Cho’s tonal control is exceptional, from the introduction’s sonorities onwards, featuring finely graded crescendos. In the Adagio, expression is fine and intimate, while the Rondo builds and does not overwhelm. No banging in this Beethoven, or in the following Waldstein Sonata. Here, with melody mostly reduced to brief motifs in the first movement, a wealth of harmonic interest, plus the raw energy of pulses and tremolando chords, carry the movement forward. Cho achieves this task, and then shows an atmospheric side to his playing in the heartfelt introduction to the Rondo. Adhering mostly to Beethoven’s blurring pedal markings and extended trills, raising the contrast level through effective accentuation in the episodes, and managing the coda’s octave glissandos well, the end result is stellar.

The Appassionata Sonata is a little overwhelming in Cho`s reading. Admittedly this sometimes aggressive work is not my favourite Beethoven – one is likely to bang and I don`t begrudge Cho`s becoming emphatic at times. With mostly controlled and clean playing here, there is much for devotees to admire. The CD adds an unlisted bonus encore: a finely-realized Liszt transcription of Schumann’s Widmung S566.

Roger Knox

04 Changyong ShinBeethoven; Liszt; Chopin
ChangYong Shin
Steinway & Sons 30115 (steinway.com/music-and-artists/label)

Young Korean Pianist ChangYong Shin has won several important awards including the 2018 Gina Bachauer International Artist Piano Competition. I found this pianist reticent at first. His Beethoven Sonata in E Major, Op.109 is technically secure throughout, but more colour and expression would have been welcome for Beethoven’s quasi-improvisational mode. There are great heights and depths in this work that may require risk-taking. Nevertheless, Shin handles the finale’s fugal section and the theme’s return with extended trills particularly well.

For me Franz Liszt’s Bénédiction du Dieu dans la solitude from the cycle Harmonies poétiques et religieuses, (1847) conveys a genuinely religious sense in the way the piece unfolds. Shin is flawless with the opening’s rustling background and the rich ventures into the bass register, and also in the subsequent dramatic harmony and varied figuration. He confidently paces the balance of the work well, including in the closing section where it is mainly rolled chords that support the pensive upper line. By the end, peace and calm have stilled the emotions of earlier sections.

Of the disc’s three Chopin waltzes I particularly enjoyed Op.42, informally known as the 2/4 “waltz” because of the melody’s cross rhythm against the triple-time bass. Shin is high-spirited here, pedalling lightly, creating a whirl with accents and rubato, and achieving a bravura ending. The brilliant Waltz in E-flat Major, Op.18 and Waltz in A-flat Major, Op.34, No.1 add to the lustre of a splendid CD.

Roger Knox

05 Schumann PonthusSchumann – Fantasie Op.17; Kreisleriana; Kinderszenen
Marc Ponthus
Bridge Records 9514 (bridgerecords.com)

This disc of three contemporaneous Schumann works played by Marc Ponthus is revelatory. Known for major recitals of monumental works, Ponthus here offers technical brilliance with exquisite control of dynamics, voicing, and pedalling. Of the Fantasie (1836-8) his insightful program notes observe “a realm larger than reason”; in the first movement “a constantly fluctuating and forward energy” with vitalizing changes of texture. The finale becomes “an unfinished extension of the magnificent formal ruins of the first movement.” A large-scale, visionary Romantic masterpiece grounded in non-classical principles, then played with seamless continuity and fascinating detail. Using a modern piano, Ponthus adds tasteful speeding up as is now practised (controversially for some) in Romantic-era tempo modification.

With Kreisleriana (1838) Ponthus’ tempo modification becomes more prominent, in keeping with the eccentric fictional persona of Kreisler and perhaps the personalities of both writer E.T.A. Hoffmann and Schumann. But I find the lyricism of the middle section of Kreisleriana’s first piece spoiled by excessive speed; better for the player to be guided by the section’s phrase extensions and key changes. The slow pieces come off best and the fourth one for me is introspection defined. As for Kinderszenen (1838), scenes of childhood for adults, Ponthus’s idiomatic readings themselves justify purchasing the CD. These reflective miniatures are a wonderful introduction to Schumann’s piano music for anyone; no wonder Horowitz played No. 7 (Träumerei) as an encore so frequently.

Roger Knox

06 Fazil SayFerhan & Ferzan Önder Play Fazil Say
Ferhan & Ferzan Önder; RSO Berlin; Markus Paschner
Winter and Winter 910 255-2 (winterandwinter.com)

The duo piano approach of the Turkish-born Austrian twins Ferhan and Ferzan Önder comes together on this 2019 Winter & Winter recording to mine the many musical gems found in the music of contemporary Turkish composer Fazil Say. Although, unfortunately, Say has been plagued by political persecution in recent years – sentenced to jail time in 2013 for tweets that were considered “blasphemous” by the Turkish government – the now 49-year-old composer and pianist himself, has remained prolific and artistically relevant, writing challenging new pianistic and symphonic work, which is taken on here with class and aplomb by the Önder sisters with sweeping accompaniment from the Berlin Radio Symphony. Difficult to categorize stylistically – Say combines a historically rigorous mastery of Western art-music traditions, with influence taken from Turkish folk music, jazz and chance or improvisatory elements – the composer has assembled a hauntingly beautiful and unusual musical world that the talented Önder sisters tackle with virtuosity, expertise and their own recognizable musical agency.

Notable is the Sonata for Two Pianos, commissioned by the Louis Vuitton Foundation, which premiered earlier this year. Here, the sisters explore the range and expressive depth of the four-hand-piano tradition in order to bring to life this beautiful and challenging work that prods listeners to confront their own expectations of what constitutes contemporary classical performance in 2019 and to rethink what remains possible within the codified three-part sonata form employed here. Both the music of Say, and the nuanced playing of the Önder sisters, was new to me prior to receiving this recording. I am pleased to musically get to know these important and, very much of this moment, global artists.

Andrew Scott

01 When There Is PeaceZachary Wadsworth – When There is Peace: An Armistice Oratorio
Chor Leoni Men’s Choir; Erick Lichte
Independent CLR 1909 (chorleoni.org)

One year ago (November 10 and 11), the 100th anniversary of the end of World War I, this work was premiered and recorded in Vancouver, where Zachary Wadsworth (b.1983) is the Chor Leoni Men’s Choir composer-in-residence. Wadsworth says his goal was “to honour the experiences” of those who served and “to celebrate those who gave their lives in search of peace.”

The 58-minute oratorio draws from 17 different writers, including many soldiers’ wartime descriptions and poetry by Robert Service, Siegfried Sassoon, Sara Teasdale and others. Soprano Arwen Myers, tenor Lawrence Wiliford and five readers add to the sonic mix led by the chorus, Borealis String Quartet and percussionists Martin Fisk and Robin Reid, all conducted by the choir’s artistic director, Erick Lichte.

The prevailing mood, as expected, is sombre, with the chorus suggesting (to me) the haunted voices of the dead, ghostly laments from beyond the grave. A recurring motif relates to birds – representing life in contrast to the carnage below. Musically, there’s a repeated ascending violin melody (shades of Vaughan Williams!) while the text (included) mentions “larks,” “thrush,” “brave birds,” “bird songs,” “swallows,” “robins” and Sassoon’s description of the armistice: “Everyone burst out singing… with such delight as prisoned birds must find in freedom.”

The well-crafted music of this worthy addition to the choral memorial repertoire provides a platform for the powerful words of war and peace, century-old words still relevant, not only on Remembrance Day, but on all days.

02 Gounod Nonne SanglantCharles Gounod – La Nonne Sanglante
Michael Spyres; Vannina Santoni; Marion Lebègue; Accentus; Insula Orchestra; Laurence Equilbey
Naxos 2.110632 (naxos.com)

In 2018, the bicentennial of Gounod’s birth, the Paris Opéra Comique revived this opera, unstaged until 2008 in Germany following its brief, 11-performance run in 1854. Whatever the reasons for its initial failure, this production, with highly dramatic scenes, brilliantly sung by an outstanding cast, makes a persuasive case for its future survival.

During the dark, nervous Overture we witness the Nun’s murder and slo-mo start of a battle between two warring clans in 11th-century Bohemia. (Today’s opera directors abhor closed curtains during overtures.) The libretto involves two lovers from the rival clans, the ghost of “the Bleeding Nun” seeking vengeance against her murderer, mistaken identity, ghostly gatherings and a murder plot, ending with the lovers, Agnès and Rodolphe, finally reunited.

Befitting the supernatural goings-on, the semi-abstract sets and projections are all grey and black, as are most of the cast’s costumes, a mix of medieval and modern. The Nun wears a white, bloodstained shroud; the other ghosts appear in grey military garb or shrouded in white.

Tenor Michael Spyres (Rodolphe) dominates the action – his arias presage Gounod’s great tenor arias for Faust and Roméo – and with his sweet yet powerful voice he sings them all magnificently! Paralleling Spyres’ intense, thrilling vocalism are sopranos Vannina Santoni (Agnès) and Jodie Devos (Arthur, Rodolphe’s page), and mezzo Marion Lebègue (Nun). Conductor Laurence Equilbey’s minor cuts, mostly in the ballet, help propel the excitement throughout.

Enthusiastically recommended to all lovers of great singing!

03 Winterreise BostridgeWinterreise
Ian Bostridge; Thomas Adès
Pentatone PTC5186 764 (naxosdirect.com)

Ian Bostridge reaffirms the case for Franz Schubert’s Winterreise being the greatest of song cycles; it’s also famous for the number of times it has been recorded – including seven times by the great lyric baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau. This Pentatone recording is Bostridge’s third and that makes ten recordings by two of the finest exponents of lieder the world has ever seen.

In Winterreise Schubert takes the despondency which closed Die schöne Müllerin and pushes it to extremes creating a desolate landscape (both inner and outer) of unrelenting pessimism. Even Schubert’s friends, who understood the pain from where it sprung, were reportedly dismayed by the bleakness of the song cycle.

Bostridge brilliantly cloaks himself in Schubert‘s rejected lover, driven to the verge of madness as we follow his lonely peregrinations through a snowbound landscape. Thomas Adès’ pianism highlights the emotional veracity of the performance.

As the lover’s journey progresses, his vision becomes more inward and the subjectivity of the songs more pronounced. The final song, Der Leiermann, is a masterstroke: the traveller meets a destitute hurdy-gurdy player, whose rustic song Schubert mimics with a quirky piano figure. The wanderer wonders whether he should go with him but his question is left hanging in the air as the song drifts away. If Fischer-Dieskau’s baritone voice heightened the gloom, Bostridge’s tenor enhances the cycle’s drama through contrast between vocal tone and meaning.

04 Michael FabianoVerdi – Donizetti
Michael Fabiano; London Philharmonic Orchestra; Enrique Mazzola
Pentatone PTC 5186 750 (pentatonemusic.com)

Opera excerpt recordings are a dime a dozen, but this new issue intrigued me. Michael Fabiano, a young American tenor of considerable repute for his starring roles in Italian and French repertoire at the most famous opera houses around the world, comes out with his debut recording on the prestigious Pentatone label with a remarkable collection of difficult bel canto arias by Verdi and Donizetti. Why these two? In his scholarly introduction Fabiano maintains that there is a relationship between the two composers, particularly in their middle periods. There is a departure from the relatively simple Bellini cantilena towards a “symbiosis of sonority,” deepening emotions, more intense drama, more complex instrumentation and the orchestra generally becoming more important.

This thesis definitely bears out, with many examples from Verdi’s Luisa Miller, Un ballo in Maschera and La Forza del Destino vs. Donizetti’s Poliuto, Lucia di Lammermoor and Maria di Rohan. These operas and more are beautifully represented here by the tenor and sung with a voice of passion, power and fire with no lack of spectacular sustained high notes, but also with tenderness and lyricism where it’s called for.

A good example is Forse la soglia attinse from Verdi’s Un Ballo, a beautiful aria where Count Riccardo, in love with his best friend’s wife, has to give her up, but wants to see her “ultima volta,” for the last time, an aria of infinite anguish followed by the intense excitement of anticipation even though he knows he will be assassinated during the ball. But, for my money, Fabiano is strongest in the rousing cabalettas like the one in Verdi’s Il Corsaro with the wonderful support of the chorus, not to mention the London Philharmonic conducted with fire and passion by Enrique Mazzola.

01 Tafelmusik VivaldiVivaldi con amore
Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra; Elisa Citterio
Tafelmusik Media TMK 1039CD (tafelmusik.org)

Vivaldi con amore, Tafelmusik’s first recording under new music director Elisa Citterio, is a vivid and engaging reflection of both Vivaldi’s ebullient musical style and Citterio’s approach to working with her orchestra. Rather than releasing a disc that shines a spotlight squarely on her artistic leadership through conspicuously demanding orchestral virtuosity or by recording unexpected material, Vivaldi con amore maintains the integrity of the Tafelmusik ensemble, while putting the music first.

One of the most striking features of this recording is how, although there is a new leader at the orchestra’s helm, the “Tafelmusik sound” is maintained, such that these recordings are immediately identifiable as Tafelmusik’s own. Citterio’s respect for the ensemble is apparent in the content of the disc, which features seven separate concerti in which the orchestra’s musicians are given centre stage.

Containing over 75 minutes of the Italian master’s works, the title says it all: Vivaldi con amore; but, as the saying goes, “The devil is in the details.” No detail is overlooked in the interpretation of these works, with beautifully tapered phrasing throughout and thoughtful attention given to the contrasts present in Vivaldi’s pieces, making each come alive in its own way.

The appointment of a new music director is a tumultuous experience for any group, especially for one as established as Tafelmusik. Vivaldi con amore shows us that we need not look to the future to expect great results from this orchestra’s newest chapter; they are already here, and present on this disc.

02 Ofra HarnoyBack to Bach
Ofra Harnoy; Mike Herriott
Analekta ACD 2 8907 (analekta.com)

With the release of her much anticipated new recording, luminous, gifted and transplendant Israeli/Canadian cellist, Ofra Harnoy, and her brilliant collaborator and husband, Mike Herriott, have not only brought forth a project of breathtaking beauty, but they have done the near impossible – through the use of contemporary technology, Herriott’s multi-instrumental/arranging/producing skills, Harnoy’s exquisite cello work (including large cello ensembles performed entirely by her), as well as a united, inspired vision – Harnoy and Herriett have manifested a fresh, innovative and genuine way of presenting this Baroque music in a way that is both exciting and accessible.

Not since the late Jacqueline du Pré (with whom Harnoy studied) has the world heard a cellist of Harnoy’s technical calibre and almost telepathic communicative skills. The well-chosen selections here include some material previously recorded by Harnoy from her 40-plus albums, as well as favourites such as Bach’s Air from Orchestral Suite No. 3 and Bist du bei mir, with the addition of more obscure, but stirring repertoire from Corelli and Allegri… and the sound of Harnoy’s breathtaking musicianship, multiplied by nine on Allegri’s Miserere is almost too beautiful to bear.

In bringing her vision to life, Harnoy also wanted to experiment with using brass instruments instead of the traditional string (or pipe organ, etc.) accompaniments, so Herriott created complex brass arrangements, and performed all of the parts himself: piccolo trumpet, trumpet, flugelhorn, French horn and trombone. There are literally only a handful of individuals in the world who could have accomplished what Herriott has so deftly done on this remarkable project. This recording is a triumph, and a must-have for any serious collector.

03 Berlioz FantastiqueBerlioz – Symphonie fantastique
Lucile Richardot; L’Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique; John Eliot Gardiner
Chateau de Versailles CVS011 (naxosdirect.com)

There is no shortage of recordings of Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique but here is yet another one of special interest. A hinged package contains two video discs and trilingual booklet. Presented is a video of an all-Berlioz concert given by Sir John Eliot Gardiner directing his orchestra, the Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique in the opulent Opera Royal, Chateau de Versailles on October 17, 2018. The participating guest artist is mezzo-soprano Lucile Richardot. The program begins with the Overture to Le Corsaire, followed by a longtime favourite, the heartfelt, La mort de Cléopâtre, passionately delivered by the totally involved Richardot. From Les Troyens the orchestra plays The Royal Hunt and Storm and the impressive Richardot returns with a deeply felt realization of the Monologue et air de Didon, “Ah, je vais mourir… Adieu, fière cité.” Richardot is a French mezzo-soprano who is highly respected as a soloist in Baroque music and a lot more. You can readily appreciate her voice and versatility on any of her countless videos on YouTube.

As the arguments pro and con original instruments, i.e. the instruments of the composer’s day, have all been stated and debated there is no point in carrying them on here. However, here at least, these unique, previously unheard sonorities and textures of the instruments that Berlioz knew are eloquently articulate and a revelation for listener and viewer alike. Berlioz would be elated.

Footnote: “The Secret of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony” with Gardiner and his orchestra on YouTube is a must-watch.

04 Mahler 1 MinnesotaMahler – Symphony No.1 in D Major
Minnesota Orchestra; Osmo Vänskä
BIS BIS-2346 (bis.se)

This is the fourth entry from the Minnesota Orchestra in a projected Mahler symphony cycle, following releases of the Second, Fifth and Sixth Symphonies under the direction of Osmo Vänskä, the well-regarded Finnish conductor who has devoted himself to bringing this ensemble to international renown since 2003. Mahler’s First Symphony, composed in his 24th year, reveals at a single stroke a unique and compelling voice; it remains one of his most-often-performed works. Vänskä’s solid and unaffected interpretation of the work, though structurally very well-paced, strikes me at times as a wee bit circumspect, particularly so in the funereal third movement, the opening of which is normally played as a mournful string bass solo but is contentiously (alas, not for the first time) assigned here to the entire bass section, robbing this introduction of its essentially grotesque quality; the underplaying of the intentionally vulgar interruptions of klezmer music that follows is yet another ironic opportunity missed. That being said, the strong bond between this orchestra and their leader provides in the end a highly compelling performance. I was tremendously impressed by the excellence and enthusiasm of the Minnesota musicians – I’ve rarely heard such a fierce viola section cut their way through the tumult of the finale of the work. Props as well to the recording team lead by Robert Suff; the low-floor recording level and resultant extended dynamic range lend an other-worldly aura to the liminal string harmonics that slowly reveal the magic of this work and conclude with a sonorous account of the glorious brass passages of the finale. While it’s admittedly not the definitive performance of this popular work in a very crowded field of contenders, it is certainly a substantially satisfying one.

01 Michael ColgrassMichael Colgrass – Side by Side; Letter from Mozart; The Schubert Birds
Joanne Kong; Boston Modern Orchestra Project; Gil Rose
BMOP Sound 1064 (bmop.org)

You receive a letter from “your favourite composer” signed “Your friend, Mozart,” requesting a 20th-century take on his style using extra percussion which “in my day wasn’t dignified.” The resulting 15-minute Letter from Mozart (1976) is a wonky, percussion-heavy series of dreamlike, stream-of-unconsciousness episodes, a drug-induced merging of the 20th and 18th centuries, requiring two conductors to avoid complete chaos. It’s great fun!

Side by Side (2007) presents Joanne Kong playing both piano and harpsichord, set 90 degrees to each other. To balance the disparate instruments, Colgrass first muted the piano strings, then amplified both to compete with the orchestra. Colgrass never severed his roots as a jazz drummer, so the 24-minute concerto exploits the percussive qualities of both keyboards and orchestra.

Colgrass wrote that The Schubert Birds (1989) is “a crazy quilt of theme and variations… based on Franz Schubert’s Kupelweiser Waltz, a little-known piano piece.” The title refers to “Schubert as a bird who spent his life singing, surrounded by a circle of others who… sang with him.” Like the CD’s other two works, the 19-minute piece revels in kaleidoscopic fragmentation and glittering sonorities.

The prolific, always-inventive Colgrass, the 1978 Pulitzer Prize-winner who died at 87 this past July, is less well-represented on disc than he should be. A Chicago native, he’d lived in Toronto since 1974, yet titled his 2010 memoir Adventures of an American Composer. Please, record companies, give us more CDs of the adventurous Michael Colgrass!

02 Lands End EnsembleKickin’ It 2.0
Land’s End
Centrediscs CMCCD 26819 (musiccentre.ca)

Two works by Vincent Ho, artistic director of Calgary’s Land’s End Ensemble, bookend this CD that spotlights as soloists the ensemble’s three musicians. First, cellist Beth Root Sandvoss performs Morning Sun, a lyrical, somewhat melancholy piece, just under four minutes long, that Ho composed while watching a sunrise in California.

In Derek Charke’s Tree Rings, violinist John Lowry and Ben Reimer on marimba depict a tree’s life under ever-changing weather conditions. The music’s moods and energies keep changing, too; it’s compelling listening throughout its own 11-minute “life.” Stelco is Omar Daniel’s “homage” to industrial machines and the Canadians “who risk life and limb” operating them. Pianist Susanne Ruberg-Gordon and Reimer on vibraphone manufacture ten minutes of metallic percussion, ranging from near-subsonic vibrations to pile-driver pounding, with clanging piano bass notes. The trio reunites in Analía Llugdar’s seven-minute Don Liborio Avila, based on a portrait of an old man in a small Argentinian town. “But,” says Llugdar, “violence haunts the picture.” The music is violent, too, the ensemble simulating angry electronic bursts, buzzes and squeaks.

Ho writes that Kickin’ It 2.0, performed by the ensemble plus Reimer on drum kit, was inspired by “Squarepusher, jazz, gamelan music, Chinese folk music and the crime novels of James Ellroy.” Ellroy’s novels notwithstanding, Ho’s 20-minute, four-movement work offers jazzy aggression, gentle gamelan-like tinkles, a drum-dominated cadenza and a powerful, sustained motoric finale, ending a fascinating disc that gathers steam (and steam engines!) from start to propulsive finish.

03 Carmen BradenCarmen Braden – Songs of the Invisible Summer Stars
Various Artists
Centrediscs CMCCD 27119 (musiccentre.ca)

The idea of north is central to Canadian composer Carmen Braden’s latest release, titled Songs of the Invisible Summer Stars. The imagery of shimmering icy planes at dusk – an impression imbedded within all Canadians whether physically experienced or not – is ever present in Braden’s writing for various chamber ensembles. But this imagery is not obvious, nor is it obfuscated through artistic trickery. Braden’s music is clear, and it is bright. It drifts, lingers, dances, and breathes at rest. It is at once far and near – a personal representation of a liminal landscape that is at once distant and comforting. One true gift (among many) on the release is the second movement from a piece titled Raven Conspiracy. Braden gives this movement the subtitle of Waltz of Wing and Claw. This music, written for strings, paints the density and impossible geometry of the dream cloud of birds – that dark unbroken remoulding of the sky against sun, ice and smoke. This recording is captured psychogeography – a process that asks us to embrace the playfulness of our surroundings, and to drift among those places without cause. It is clear that Braden is trying to provide a portrait – but also a release – between life and surroundings. With a wide range of instrumentations, colours, and ambiences, the sounds on this recording will haunt and comfort – much like the strange beauty of the northern terrain.

04 McGregor Lutalica CD CoverLutalica
Mark Takeshi McGregor
Redshift Records (redshiftrecords.org)

Vancouver flutist Mark Takeshi McGregor is an internationally recognized interpreter of classical flute music, particularly of the experimental kind. As he writes in the liner notes, the motivation for his new album came from an exploration of his identities. “Lutalica [the word invented by John Koenig] meaning ‘the part of one’s identity that doesn’t fit into categories’ is a solo flute project that grew out of an identity crisis.”

McGregor has been performing music of predominantly European composers on the metal concert flute, even though he was “anything but Western European. I am half-Japanese, half-Australian, born and raised on the West Coast of Canada: a true product of the Pacific Rim.” His geographically informed search culminated in Lutalica, an album of nine recent widely varied solo flute works by composers hailing from Australia, Canada, Chile, Japan, New Zealand, Taiwan and the USA.

Bookending the album are works by two composers with strong Canadian connections. Hope Lee’s moving requiem for her father, forever after (2000), alternates moments of lyrical grief with percussive anger. Emilie LeBel’s 2017 Hiraeth (Welsh for homesickness, nostalgia, grief for lost places of the past) explores at length the “traveller’s desire to be free… all the while longing for a home to which they cannot return… which maybe never was.” The final alternating long low tones make a beautiful and satisfying ending to this album’s musical journey around the Pacific rim.

Should you consider listening to an entire album of contemporary solo flute music? When it’s so well composed, thoughtfully curated, and impressively performed as Lutalica is, my answer is a resounding yes.

05 What Goes Around Front CoverFrank Horvat – What Goes Around
Various Artists
Centrediscs CMCCD 27419 (musiccentre.ca)

I once developed a liking for a pricey mosaic backsplash tile with sharp colours featuring tiny images reminiscent of Roy Lichtenstein’s pop-art icons. If minimalist music has an analogy in the visual arts it is with mosaics. Frank Horvat’s minimalism is attractive, bright-coloured and poppy. Also surprising. Also, somewhat formulaic. This last is not a criticism of the quality or value of his writing; I’m no judge in that regard, but it does strike me that five of the six cuts on the newly released What Goes Around clock in at roughly ten minutes, suggesting a pattern of construction he consistently follows.

Breaking with this pattern, at nearly 15 minutes, is the most powerful piece, 7 Pianos, recorded on several tracks and performed by the composer. A concentration exercise for the listener, it’s almost a game of recognizing the extremely gradual variations away from the initial minute of a repeated gesture. Maybe it’s me being jaded, but this one challenges me to truly listen and not let the patterning lull my attention. Fatigue for the performer is sometimes a cherished aesthetic of the composer (those guys burn me up), and if it is so for Horvat, he has at least chosen a willing victim: this is intensity from start to finish.

A curiously titled piece referencing the late Rob Ford is similarly a multi-track recording with Peter Stoll ably accompanying himself on multiple clarinets in melancholy tunefulness; apparently Horvat felt more compassion than outrage regarding the misguided mayor. Other performers include the redoubtable Bev Johnston on mallets, and the disc ends with a strangely offensive (to me, I have issues) voice loop on the repeated phrase “I Love You.”

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