06 Leslie Dala Philip GlassPhilip Glass – The Complete Piano Etudes
Leslie Dala
Redshift Records (redshiftmusicsociety.bandcamp.com/album/philip-glass-the-complete-piano-etudes)

Continuing the tradition established by Chopin, Debussy and Ligeti, piano etudes by Philip Glass have been loved by many concert pianists. Although most etudes are created for the purpose of pursuing a specific harmonic or technical preoccupation related to the instrument, Glass’ carry a particular element of beauty and depth. Melancholy is mixed with sweetness, rhythmical drive with unique harmonic language; one senses an arc of the composer’s personal relationship with the piano in this music.

The new recording by Leslie Dala, a conductor and pianist based in Vancouver, brings in a solitary air of an artist who has found stillness. Dala has a natural pianistic affinity for Glass’ compositional language. He experiments with a wealth of colours found in these etudes but never strays away from the classical pianistic tradition. A strong percussive touch accentuates the fluid motion of the music. The result is an album that is refined and rich, natural in its expression.

Hearing the 20 etudes in succession makes for the best listening experience. Each etude has its own character and atmosphere but it is the flow, the longer narrative and the observation of correlational aspects and the morphing of Glass’ compositional and Dala’s interpretative ideas that gives the listener deeper understanding of this music. By the time the last etude is played, gentle and unassuming, the sonic space becomes clear. And when the sound blends with silence at the very end, one is granted the sense of closure.

07 Maya Beiser Philip GlassMaya Beiser x Philip Glass
Maya Beiser
Islandia Music Records (islandiamusic.com)

Talking Heads front person David Bryne, in his 1999 essay “I Hate World Music” that predates his excellent book, How Music Works, describes so-called “world music” as “a name for a bin in the record store signifying stuff that doesn’t belong anywhere else in the store.” In 2021, as bins, record stores and, to a lesser extent, musical genres and meaningless categorizations in terms of the way that sound is captured and assembled (and marketed) fades into the rear view, there remain vestiges of (to artificially demarcate things historically) the pre-streaming playlist-driven genre tribalism of the “Before Times.” 

I say all of this to push back on the characterization that I have read of Maya Beiser – the exceptionally talented American cellist who has released an evocative and wonderful retrospective of Philip Glass’ music on her own Islandia Music Records label – as “avant-garde.” This recent recording offers, simply put, beautiful music (it’s Glass after all!), played exceptionally well by an expressive and emotive artist who has much that is new and insightful to say on these largely familiar Glass pieces.  

Captured in beautiful fidelity at the Hudson Opera House and, through the studio wizardry of multi-tracking, looping cello parts and the creation of what she calls a “sonic cello kaleidoscope,” Beiser puts forth meaningful arrangements on this fine recording that defy every categorization other than good! It is little wonder why Beiser has such insight into Glass’ music: she was the cellist chosen (by Glass) to be part of the Philip Glass Ensemble on the worldwide tour of his Qatsi trilogy in 2005 and she brings this familiarity, creativity and attention to detail to the fore on Maya Beiser x Philip Glass.

08 AmendsAmends
Matt Magerkurth
People Places Records PPR 023 (peopleplacesrecords.bandcamp.com)

Amends, the debut album of pieces for solo cello from American cellist and composer Matt Magerkurth, presents as a contemplation of isolation and experimentation. Recorded in Bixby, Oklahoma’s Closet Studios, the album is composed of pieces in skeletal form to be played semi-improvisatorially. The seven pieces are introspective self-examinations and seem to highlight the loneliness experienced by so many artists during the current pandemic. 

Met with the occasional accompaniment of layered effects and occasional oceanic basslines by producer Scott Bell, Magerkurth traverses the cello in arpeggiated gestures, making use of the overtones by playing with a light bow technique, often to beautiful effect, expressive and colourful. The overall experience is one of longing and reflection.

09 Van StiefelVan Stiefel – Spirits
Van Stiefel
Panoramic Recordings PAN21 (newfocusrecordings.com)

Renowned contemporary guitarist and composer Van Stiefel set out on a mission to thoroughly compose, perform and record his own album from top to bottom; his latest release is the worthy result of that endeavour. Taking inspiration from favourites of his such as Les Paul, Chet Atkins and Glen Campbell, Stiefel puts his own twist on the concept of the studio-instrumental album by expertly using a recording and editing technique called “layered guitar.” The record is a journey through moments, thoughts and experiences in the guitarist’s life through a fascinating and immersive soundscape of sonorous snippets. 

Stiefel describes the pieces as being almost like “journal entries that hint at secrets, idiosyncrasies, and personal rituals.” Each tune is completely different from the last, calling forth a mood or image into the listener’s mind. King of Cups begins the album with a slightly country-flavoured piece over which a haunting processed melody is overlayed. Memory Jug is a unique and explorative piece with its striking dissonance and computer-generated sounds in the background creating a futuristic and robotic tune. Acquiescence – as well as a few other pieces – captivate due to the technique of “cutting and pasting” fragments of melody to create a new whole. This is an album that would be a great fit for anyone looking to expand their auditory palette.

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10 Apollo ChamberWith Malice Toward None
Apollo Chamber Players
Azica ACD-71340 (apollochamberplayers.org/media)

The Apollo Chamber Players have embraced a mission toward the championing of globally inspired programming and commissioning. The new works on their latest release, With Malice Toward None, are part of a larger commissioning project titled 20x2020 – an effort to support the creation of 20 new works from multicultural composers by the end of 2020. 

The ensemble’s passion for new music and impressive virtuosity is on full display on this new disc as the listener is treated to an inspired assemblage of repertoire. The title track (referencing a phrase uttered by Abraham Lincoln) – for electric violin and string quartet – composed by J. Kimo Williams features Tracy Silverman on electric violin. This work speaks to certain contemporary socio-political issues and the electric violin soaring over the string quartet creates a dramatic and compelling atmosphere. Some clever Hendrix quotes emerge as an unexpected contrast. 

Pamela Z’s The Unraveling is a brilliant reworking of American folk songs from the 1960s and 70s. This work, in four movements, shows Pamela Z’s unparalleled talent to create highly original sound worlds using sampling, looping and fragmentation of the familiar. Themes of Armenian Folksongs, originally composed by the Armenian composer known as Komitas and later arranged by members of Apollo and the Komitas Quartet, originates from ten Armenian folk songs that were collected by Komitas. This bright and eupeptic music reveals the world-class musicianship of the quartet players. Lastly, Eve Beglarian’s We Will Sing One Song is a wonderfully ethereal and expressive work that paints at once a disturbing and welcoming landscape with the duduk instrument providing a subdued allure – the perfect bookend to this superbly recorded release.

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11 Tanya EkanayakaThe Planets & Humanity – Piano Reflections
Tanya Ekanayaka
Grand Piano GP879 (naxosdirect.com/search/gp879)

Award-winning Sri Lankan-British pianist and composer Tanya Ekanayaka delivers a recording of original compositions which correspond to the eight planets that inhabit our solar system and the seven continents on Earth. Many of the selections utilize echoes of traditional melodies supported by a decidedly Romantic-era harmonic sensibility. 

Composed throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, this cycle for solo piano represents Ekanayaka’s interest in the expressive connections between past and present. The eight movements combine to create a potpourri of moods through which Ekanayaka is able to showcase a confident and precise technical command of the piano.

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12 William BlandWilliam Bland – Piano Sonatas
Kevin Gorman
Bridge Records 9556 (bridgerecords.com)

Born in West Virginia in 1947 and trained at the Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore, William Bland is a prolific composer of solo, chamber and orchestral music, including 24 piano sonatas. Conceived as a cycle similar to Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier, with one work in each of the major and minor keys, Bland’s compositional versatility and creativity is astonishing, especially when one considers the inherent constraints of writing 24 unique pieces for the same instrument, each over 20 minutes in length!

This recording showcases Bland’s 17th and 18th sonatas, performed by pianist Kevin Gorman in his recording debut. Gorman is a lively and compelling player, able to reign in Bland’s eclectic, and occasionally eccentric, musical sensibilities in a way that feels entirely organic and logical. When there are moments requiring brash attacks, he does so ably, but Gorman also conveys intense sweetness and sincerity, particularly in instances where the textures are lush and melodious

Bland’s writing is difficult to classify, encompassing a swath of influences and styles ranging from pop and jazz to atonality, with a bit of everything in between. At one moment you may be listening to a beautiful, Schumann-esque bit of melody, the next a bit of extension-inspired jazz, finishing with a spot of Schoenberg. Does this all come together? Absolutely. I don’t know how, but it certainly does, like a chef grabbing everything within arm’s reach and somehow producing a delicious and savoury meal.

It is often a simple task to recommend a recording to a particular group of auditors but, as they do in so many other ways, Bland’s sonatas defy such simple classification. What I can recommend, however, is that everyone give this music a try, for there is something in these works that is sure to captivate every listener, regardless of their usual preferences and proclivities.

13 Paul LanskyPaul Lansky – Angles
Various Artists
Bridge Records 9532 (bridgerecords.com)

The sound of augmented intervals on acoustic guitar brings Joni Mitchell to mind at the immediate opening of Slow Train – the first movement of Four’s Company – on this disc of Paul Lansky’s chamber pieces. I don’t hear a slow train, but I can imagine travelling on one through the countryside, enjoying an impromptu performance in one of the compartments. Pseudo Pavanne continues the genial mood. Movement four is Vivaldiana, LOL. Brief, truly modest liner notes incline me to like and respect this composer; his satisfying harmonic palette and calm textures refresh the spirit, his dry sense of humour is a wink and a nod. The Curtis Institute Guitar Quartet look like a bunch of kids, but they can play!

The title track is a work for piano trio in four movements as well. The titles give further proof that Lansky doesn’t take life too seriously, while writing effective and fresh-sounding music. With Pluck dances along in a happy minimalist vein; Take a Bow revisits the same kind of open-string harmonies featured in Four’s Company, approaching a mood of introspection if not melancholy. About a Minute Waltz flips past as a scherzo movement, and A Sad Song is just that. Find your own words, weep if you will, but there’s a quickening that consoles about two minutes in.

Springs is what a conversation among small mechanical clocks might sound like, until the heavies show up to get us all up dancing. Sō Pecussion keep things bopping along hypnotically. Color Codas, for piano four hands (Quattro Mani: Steven Beck and Susan Grace), provides kinaesthetic takes on three linked colours: In the Red, Purple Passion and Out of the Blue.

14 David FulmerDavid Fulmer – Sky’s Acetylene
New York Philharmonic; Jeffrey Milarsky
New Focus Recordings FRC306 (newfocusrecordings.com)

At 14 minutes, Sky’s Acetylene is either a short EP or a long single, featuring flute (bass, soprano and piccolo), harp, double bass, piano and percussion soloists. Composer David Fulmer has won an Academy Award, but don’t expect typical movie score tropes here; this is legitimately avant-garde, atmospheric and even spectral. Flutist Mindy Kaufman has the most notes to play, followed closely by harpist Nancy Allen. The other three (Eric Huebner, piano; percussionist Daniel Druckman; Max Zeugner on bass) provide support for the ravings and ramblings of the flute. Kaufman has formidable command of the broad range she navigates on all three pipes, huffing, bending and scurrying through her solos with conviction.

Commissioned to celebrate the 175th anniversary of the New York Philharmonic, it seems curious to present a chamber concerto as a landmark. Four of the players are principals with the Phil; conductor Jeffery Milarsky is a frequent guest. Worth hearing for the solid performances.

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15 American DiscoveriesAmerican Discoveries
Lansdowne Symphony Orchestra; Reuben Blundell
New Focus Recordings FCR 286 (newfocusrecordings.com)

So gratifying listening to the Lansdowne Symphony, a community orchestra conducted by Reuben Blundell, performing three American female composers’ previously unrecorded orchestral works. City Trees (1928) by Priscilla Alden Beach (1902-1970) is an under five-minute work in ABA ternary form. This is a tonal walk through the woods, with romantic and impressionistic genre, lush orchestral harmonies and outer sections enveloping a louder intense winds section. Many of Beach’s works have been lost, so thanks to editor Clinton Nieweg and the Philadelphia Free Library Fleisher Collection for producing this new orchestral edition.

Linda Robbins Coleman’s For a Beautiful Land (1996) pays homage to her Iowa home state in three episodes. Love the very dramatic and contrasting playful sonorities such as the percussion roll opening and closing crash, first episode waltz’s quiet bird-like wind instrument twitters, faster 6/8 section flute duet, and happy rhythmic repeated melodies building to an unexpected silent pause. 

Behemoth, in five short movements (1976) by Alexandra Pierce is a unique modern tone poem inspired by the Book of Job from the Old Testament, and by humanity’s struggle with existence. The opening more-atonal, full-orchestral scary movement repeats snare “pops/clicks” throughout. The second movement is bouncy and delicate with contrasting temple blocks. Colour change in the fourth, mainly featuring the percussion section, which leads to a fun final movement with a jazz-tinged full orchestra build with closing horns.   

Blundell leads the orchestra to top-notch performances. Short (30’22” minutes in length) but sweet!

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16 Joan TowerJoan Tower – Strike Zones
Evelyn Glennie; Blair McMillen; Albany Symphony; David Alan Miller
Naxos 8.559902 (naxosdirect.com/search/8559902)

Joan Tower is considered one of the most prominent living American composers. In this Naxos release we hear three world premiere recordings featuring the eminent percussion virtuoso Evelyn Glennie, pianist Blair McMillen and the Albany Symphony Orchestra. 

The title track, Strike Zones, is a concerto for percussion and orchestra where Glennie’s masterful technique is able to come alive with a dazzling display of fireworks. Whether it is an impressive solo on the high hats or a dramatic build-up on the drums, Glennie’s performance is able to shine above the enchanting accompaniment in the orchestra. The piece SmalI, for solo percussion, is a meditative, almost ritualistic work that evokes a misty woodland scene at dusk. Next, the piano concerto, Still/Rapids, is aptly titled as its two movements depict the dramatic duality inherent in water for its ability to achieve both calm and violent characteristics. Lastly, the solo piano work, Ivory and Ebony, is a high-energy yet elegant piece with moods shifting from agitated to triumphant. 

The performances on this release are top notch, and Tower seems to know the abilities of her performers in a profound way. For a vibrant and exciting display of technical wizardry, give this disc a listen.

17 Lincoln Trio Big ShouldersTrios from The City of Big Shoulders
Lincoln Trio
Cedille CDR 90000 203 (cedillerecords.org)

This CD’s press release calls them “revered Chicago composers,” although Chicago-born Ernst Bacon (1898-1990) lived nearly all his life composing and teaching elsewhere. Conversely, Michigan-native Leo Sowerby (1895-1968) spent most of his life as an organist-choirmaster in the “City of the Big Shoulders” (a line from Carl Sandburg’s poem Chicago).

Bacon’s 31-minute Piano Trio No.2 (1987) begins with a gloomy, wandering Lento. In Deliberate March Time sounds like an old-fashioned hiking song. The sauntering strings and shimmering piano runs of In an easy walk are briefly interrupted by sudden, stormy dissonances. Gravely expressive is a rumination for cello, marked “as if quietly singing,” over piquant piano chords, followed by Allegro, a syncopated foot-stomper with country fiddling and bar-room piano strides and riffs. Commodo provides a gentle interlude before the final Vivace, ma non presto based on the folksong Green Mountain. It’s really quite a trip!

Sowerby’s three-movement, 37-minute Piano Trio (1953) is made of much sterner stuff. Slow and Solemn is granitically ponderous, despite a not-“slow,” not-“solemn” middle section. Quiet and serene paints a misty cityscape with a daydreaming piano and tender violin until the movement’s title is belied by markedly increasing tension and volume. Fast; with broad sweep lives up to its name – it’s a perpetuum mobile of heavily rhythmic melodies culminating in a powerful, final accelerando.

The internationally acclaimed, Chicago-based Lincoln Trio delivers everything these disparate works could ask for, including vivid colours, dramatic expressivity and sensational virtuosity.

18 Leo SowerbyLeo Sowerby – The Paul Whiteman Commissions & Other Early Works
Andy Baker Orchestra; Avalon String Quartet
Cedille CDR 90000 205 (cedillerecords.org)

In 1946, Leo Sowerby, dubbed “Dean of American Church Music,” received the Pulitzer Prize for his oratorio The Canticle of the Sun, one of his large body of religious-themed compositions. He also composed many secular orchestral and chamber works.

While still in his 20s, Sowerby, already a much-performed composer, created two jazz-infused works for bandleader Paul Whiteman’s Revolutionary Concerts. The 11-minute Synconata premiered in New York in December 1924, just one month after the debut of Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue, another Whiteman commission. The enthusiastically received, colourfully scored music – downbeat, upbeat and raucous – prompted Whiteman to commission Sowerby for a second, much more ambitious work.

The grin-inducing music of the four-movement, 25-minute Symphony for Jazz Orchestra “Monotony” (1925) depicts the eponymous status seeker of Sinclair Lewis’ satirical novel Babbitt at the theatre (Nights Out), an illegal Prohibition-era cocktail party (Fridays at Five), church (Sermons) and a concert (Critics). It’s great fun, tuneful and rhythmically vivacious. Yet both works, awkward fits for standard symphony orchestras, disappeared. (Rhapsody in Blue required re-orchestration for symphonic performances.) For these world-premiere recordings, Chicago music-theatre and classical instrumentalists were recruited to form the Andy Baker Orchestra, with Baker conducting.

The Illinois-based Avalon String Quartet contributes three works imbued with the ingratiating spirit of folk music: the nine-minute Serenade for String Quartet (1917), the 29-minute String Quartet in D Minor (1923) and, with Canadian pianist Winston Choi and bassist Alexander Hanna, the brief Tramping Tune (1917).

A thoroughly delightful disc!

19 Vasks ODE1355 2Pēteris Vasks – Oboe Concerto; Vestijums; Lauda
Albrecht Mayer; Latvian National Symphony Orchestra; Andris Poga
Ondine ODE 1355-2 (naxosdirect.com/search/ode+1355-2)

The newly released album of music by Latvian composer Pēteris Vasks features the first recording of his oboe concerto written for the centenary celebrations of Latvia’s independence in 2018 and performed by one of the today’s leading oboe soloists, Albrecht Mayer. 

Accompanied by the Latvian National Symphony Orchestra under the baton of Andris Poga, Mayer dazzles with his technical facility as well as his beautiful interpretive phrasing, bringing this programmatic work to life. With a familiar feel akin to the rhapsodic Vaughan Williams concerto for oboe and string orchestra, this pastoral concerto uses contrasting textures ranging from long lyrical phrases to light and sparkling gestures, inducing a symphonic dialogue between the solo oboe and woodwinds in the orchestra. Modelled after the experience of human life, the first movement morning pastorale depicts the bright, fresh naïveté of youth before gradually maturing through the scherzando second movement and finally evolving with the inevitable celestial ascent in the evening pastorale.

Also on this album are two earlier nationalistic orchestral works from the 1980s; Vēstījums (The Message) for two pianos, strings and percussion and Lauda, originally written for the 150th anniversary of Latvian folklorist Krišjānis Barons. These works manifested the final years of the Soviet Union and Latvia’s struggle to regain its independence.

20 Harrison Seven SacredjpgMichael Harrison – Seven Sacred Names
Various Artists
Cantaloupe Music CA21157 (naxosdirect.com/search/ca21157)

American composer/pianist Michael Harrison was an early protégé of the minimalist pioneer LaMonte Young and is a winner of many prizes including a 2018/19 Guggenheim Fellowship. His creations include not only a long series of compositions and recordings, but also innovative piano tunings and the Harmonic Piano, a grand piano with 24 keys per octave. The new CD Seven Sacred Names is a companion to the book Nature’s Hidden Dimension by W.H.S. Gebel. Based in Sufi mysticism, it strikes me as a crossroads of music and spirituality created by Harrison and associates, where the Seven Names denote stages of an awakening self.

The Prologue – simple and triadic, reminiscent of Philip Glass – comes back much varied in the Epilogue (Name No.7). The Names then proceed as titles to the music. Referring to existence, self-awareness and will, each one has more complex music: No.1: piano and overtone series; No.2: addition of melody along with vocal, violin and electronic tanpura (tamboura) drones; No.3: rhythms and cross-rhythms, polyphony, and tabla – associated with “will,” this last one seems stiff and too long. From here are Names that I appreciate more: No.4 (“desire”), whose piano and expressive violin reminds me of certain lucid French compositions; No.5, the delightful syllabic vocal/electronic piece “The Acoustic Constellation” sung by Roomful of Teeth; and No.6 featuring the sustained, constantly transforming tones of Harrison’s Harmonic Piano. A unique, enriching experience.

21 Borderlands EnsembleThe Space in Which to See
Borderlands Ensemble
New Focus Recordings FCR299 (newfocusrecordings.com)

The Tucson, Arizona-based Borderlands Ensemble is oriented towards diverse communities. This CD explores Arizona-Mexico musical connections, featuring four premieres from 2019. Participants include artistic director-hornist Johanna Lundy, violinist Ellen Chamberlain and other string chamber musicians, plus cross-disciplinary collaborators. Performances are excellent: Lundy’s versatile mastery and the able string players (with guitar sometimes) produce a unique, compelling recording. Anne Leilehua Lanzilotti’s title composition carries expressive power. Its four sections explore aspects of Indigenous identity and place. Especially striking are opening string drones with crescendos and silences, and percussive or pitched strings plus vocal breathing around clarion horn notes in the following part. 

Charles Daniels’ Dream Machine gathers diverse material into a convincing, well-timed three-part work. Perpetual motion sections, the second having more complex rhythms, frame a pensive centre. Still chords close this beautiful work. The longer Ometéotl – named for the Aztec creation god – by Mexican Alejandro Vera brings a variety of musical material both more ancient and more modern than this disc’s other works. Passing Ships by Jay Vosk is intended to represent the experience of migration, often setting the horn (i.e. ship) against the string quartet. The piece made me compare land migration experiences in the Borderlands to those by sea of my own ancestors. Songs and Arias by noted American composer Vivian Fine (1913-2000) is clever but I found it dated. Attractive arrangements of three well-known Mexican songs complete the recording.

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