18 Ron Ledoux WEBA Stone’s Throw Away
Ron Ledoux Quartet
Independent (ronledoux.bandcamp.com/releases)

A Stone’s Throw Away is the glorious sound of a rhythm section centering tastefulness and synergy in their playing. Simplicity is key here; the listener is never at any point overwhelmed with sound, and the musicians make a point of ceding space to each other whenever needed. This creates a unique feeling of cleanliness, by removing all superfluous clutter in the arrangements and ensuring no ideas are suppressed. 

Concerning the ideas present on the album, it’s a goldmine of infectious melody writing. It is quite the feat that across 11 tracks (all of which were composed by guitarist Ron Ledoux and arranged by bassist Gilbert Joanis), neither the qualities of originality nor sophistication diminish in the slightest. It’s truly one of those albums that leaves an indelible enough impression to the point where the entire track list is immediately singable upon initial exposure. From the tenderness of Windmills to the unison guitar/bass chorus in Get It Out of Here, the consistency is astounding. The phrases are structured in a way that they possess a vague sense of familiarity and nostalgia, almost making it feel like these songs have existed since the beginning of time. 

The band’s approach to improvising complements the existing moods perfectly, opting for concision and clarity as points of emphasis. Joanis and drummer Rich Irwin’s musical bond borders on the clairvoyant at times and adds another level of vitality to the music.

19 Thomas Steele 10Tet10TET
Thomas Steele 10Tet
Independent (thomassteele.bandcamp.com/album/10tet)

Thoroughly polished and staggeringly intricate, Thomas Steele’s latest release is a marvel in all its controlled fury. Unlike his last album The Bends (which featured two chordal instruments in a quintet format), Steele opts to go entirely without comping instruments here. Consequently, his horn section boasts eight parts, and the ensemble still manages to do an effective job of relaying substantial harmonic information thanks to consistently spotless arranging (particularly that of Dennis Kwok). 

Texturally speaking, the music is captivating. Through all the constantly moving structures, stabs and jabs in the arrangements, a persisting atmosphere of cathartic density is built; all while maintaining lucidity in the compositional aspects. The rhythm section of bassist Evan Gratham and drummer Jacob Slous covers a fair bit of ground between them, meshing masterfully with immaculate time feel while laying a foundation of rhythmic clarity for the rest of the group. Also indispensable is the versatile baritone saxophone/bass clarinet playing of Alex Manoukas, which adds an extra dimension of low-end and greatly adds to the overall coherence. 

Steele’s bandleading style feels equal parts selfless and distinctive. He can continually achieve a very particular sound out of such unconventional instrumentation, and yet he also gives way for the complete expression of each individual musician. Everyone is given a significant feature at some point, and three of the seven tunes are penned by contributors aside from Steele. Jacob Chung’s February Flowers is a standout.

01 AV EverybodyMattersEverybody Matters
Independent (annvriend.com)

Dynamic and versatile vocalist and composer, AV (Ann Vriend) has just released a recording that is not only rife with compassion and social conscience, but also defies musical genres and modalities by blurring the lines between rock, jazz, pop, inner-city soul, 70s’ folk and more. The ten tracks were inspired by the infamous McCauley section of AV’s native Edmonton – a place of disenfranchised souls, addictions, mental health issues and all of the other hellish things that come with neglect, poverty and desperation. AV, who has written all of the material and also acted as producer here, has fearlessly dug deep into our shameful disregard of our responsibilities to fellow human beings, and also, through the uplifting medicine of her funky music, underscores her hope for positive change and the triumph of the human soul.

AV has assembled an uber-talented cast to join her here: co-producer/keyboardist/vocalist Chris Birkett; Fred Benton (“Freddy B.”) on drum programming/loops; Brandon Unis on “live” percussion; Jory Kinjo on bass/voice and AV on Hammond B3. The journey starts with the soulful Anything I Know, which harkens back to an earlier time of strong female Northern Soul-oriented vocalists such as Cilla Black. Don’t Wait is a charmer, with an infectious beat, a sassy and sexy B3 and perfectly placed background vocals.  

The title track is a smouldering cooker and AV sings and swings through the tune, absolutely kicking it on B3. Hurt People Hurt People is an anthem about the cycles of pain that many individuals pass through – and that pain is a cycle that can be broken. AV and the angelic background vocals open our hearts and emphasize her meaningful message. The delightful up-tempo closer, Gonna Be Fine will leave the listener emotionally transformed by the power of the message, the music and the human voice.

When an idea of instruments associated with European high culture is broached, the violin, viola and cello instantly come into focus. But a lot has changed since the classical period. Contemporary notated music, and more emphatically, jazz and free music, has upset the paradigm for appropriate string sounds. As these sessions demonstrate creative music allows string players the freedom to play whatever and with whomever they choose.

01 Eligio das SombrasViolin and marimba are anything but conventional duo partners, but on Elogio Das Sombras (Clean Feed CF 583 CD cleanfeed-records.com) two Portuguese stylists, fiddler Carlos Zingaro and Pedro Carneiro, who play marimba with damper pedals, disregard the shibboleth. While the veteran Zingaro has moved among rock, jazz and free music, Carneiro has high art credentials, often playing with symphony orchestras. But the 11 tracks here are pure improv, rife with advanced techniques and tunings. They also rarely neglect nods to theme and melody. When the two are involved in intense cross-sound pollination on such tracks as Clarão and Luminescência it’s the unique dampened and hollow marimba patterns undulating with rosewood percussiveness that define the parameters. Still, building on the other instrument’s constant low-pitch resonations, Zingaro detours from unleashing staccato stops and skipping sweeps to direct the fragmented interface towards linear grooves. While some sequences may involve the pressure from string-screeching motifs or expose wooden bar thumps that sound as if they’re resonations from plastic milk bottles rather than tone bars, percussiveness and energetic sul tasto pulls are moderated into a global cooperative vision. A piece like the extended Luz presents unity at its most profound. Throughout, hollow bell-like echoes and multi-string pressure shake out into a dampened and designated exposition that climaxes with joint moderation. 

02 Mark Feldman TimDaisyIf balancing the timbres from violin and marimba appears quirky, imagine the challenges implicit when the improvisation involves a violin and a full drum kit. But that’s what transpires on Circle Back (Relay Recordings relay 032 timdaisyrelayrecords.bandcamp.com) during a live set by New York fiddler Mark Feldman and drummer Tim Daisy. The CD’s single improvisation starts off this side of conventional, but gets more atonal as it runs its course. Gifted with an ESP-like connection, Daisy and Feldman intuit each other’s next move before any note is sounded and come up with perfect timbral ripostes. Initially advancing in a straight-ahead manner, the violinist works in concise quotes from I Got Rhythm and later, Night In Tunisia, among the spiccato spawls and rounded stops which set up the exposition. For his part the drummer counters with cymbal clips, bass drum rumbles and persistent rim clipping. One-third of the way through however, the interchange heightens, with Feldman dynamically stroking several strings at once, sometimes both arco and pizzicato. As his string jittering starts creating on a strained, near-East European tone, Daisy’s sympathetic drum-top hand patting and hand claps anchor the duet. Transition comes a little past the halfway point however as the violinist’s spiccato swipes seesaw to squeaks so high-pitched that they reach a point above human hearing. Subtly, the tempo has also increased from moderato to presto, though with Daisy’s positioned clip-clops and rim shots keeping time. The violinist’s staccato dynamics finally meet up with the percussionist’s clock-ticking beats, with the brief coda signalled by Feldman’s single-string dobro-like plucks.

03 Quantum ViolinAcoustic timbres aren’t the only challenges which advanced string players face. On The Quantum Violin (FMR Records  CD 622-0721 fmr-records.com)’s eponymously titled 14-track suite, Vienna’s Mia Zabelka adds electronic devices to her violin and joins Brampton’s Glen Hall, whose electronic trick bag includes all manner of synthesized, sampled and programmed tools to create the interaction. Maneuvering on a line that’s as thin as a single violin string, Zabelka and Hall manage to preserve humanity among the programming, which include OMax, CataRt, SPAT and other oscillations. Sometimes though, they find themselves falling headfirst into electronic miasma. That’s why it’s best not to hear these sound sequences as duets between acoustic instrument and electronics but as the performance of one sophisticated electroacoustic instrument. After all, the basis of much of the disc is the impulses initially created by the fiddle. The entire session is permeated with distant drones and percussive whooshes which move from foreground to background, as watery undercurrents become as prominent as vibrating segments. Yet except for brief twangs and faint swift glissandi, brittle violin tones are deconstructed to create varied parameters and treatments which meld on the overall sound canvas. Snatches of the violinist’s vocoder-synthesized voice are sometimes heard. But the only real vocal, is mumbled on The Quantum Violin #8 by author Kenji Siratori reading from his William S. Burroughs-influenced cut-up text, which is embedded within the overall metallic buzz. Tempos and transitions climax several times. For instance, rapidly speeding string sawing and pitch elevation isolate variances within the percussive drones that permeate The Quantum Violin #4 and The Quantum Violin #5, but are resolved by spiccato bounces and switches to varied speeds. Meanwhile, spidery string squawks work their way through a thickset of synthesized non-linear vibrations on The Quantum Violin #9 to blend with pre-recorded descending vocal warbles for additional textural polyphony. The brief, concluding The Quantum Violin #14 - For Pauline Oliveros, is proposed as a sonic summation. However, as the narrative blend crests and declines, the mixture between rounded metallic oscillations makes it more of an elevated culmination than a separate coda. 

04 Studies on Colour FieldAs inventively electroacoustic, but much less complex in execution is Studies on Colour Field Modulation (Creative Sources CS 708 CD creativesourcesrec.com) by the I/O duo of German cellist Ulrich Mitzlaff and Portuguese laptoppist Carlos Santos. Both also use so-called objects to add to the available textures. Blau, first of the CD’s two selections, confirms the noise-objects connection wrapping the laptop and cello in aluminum for increased playing turbulence. Simultaneously Mitzlaff’s sul tasto sawing and high-pitched swipes are often heard alongside thin voltage crackles and crinkles, although sounds hammered on the string or drawn from the hollow innards of the cello are most prominent.  Santos’ voltage crackles are less affected, so that throughout concentrated drones, splatters and whooshes are present as cello strains reach the highest string extensions. A mini-climax at the halfway point adds auto horns, police sirens and crowd noises and movement into the mix. Subsumed by a romantic string interlude, the narrative then blends street sounds, strident string scratches and ring modulator-like echoes into a gradually swelling tonal crescendo and fade. Orange, the other track, is a rural contrast to the urban interface of Blau. With cello pitches projected prominently in an aviary affiliated mode at the top, it’s only by later turning to pressurized string stops that the expected qualities of Mitzlaff’s instrument are heard through the squiggling electronic drone that takes up the remainder of the sound field. Harmonic concordance of woody cello slices and accompanying electronic buzzes marks the finale.

05 Dawn to DuskPairing one string instrument with another instrument can be expanded to include more players as Dawn to Dusk (JACC Records JR044/TRICO 18 jacc-records.com) demonstrates during two long and one short fully improvised tracks. Working through connected or contrapuntal impulses are Portuguese players, acoustic guitarist Marcelo dos Reis and trumpeter Luís Vicente, and French ones, violinist Théo Ceccaldi and his brother, cellist Valentin. As Chamber 4, the quartet, especially the bowed strings, play traditionally as the trumpeter projects strained yelping breaths and the guitarist designates unexpected plucks. As string swabbing becomes more concentrated, a motorized drone is created. Soon the stops and strops from the cello and violin are joined by angled guitar-string clicks to create a squirming amoeba-like background for Vicente’s rugged triplets to slide up the scale in increments. Higher and speedier his portamento effects move, until a climax at the end of a brief interlude melds clunking cello string pressure and downwards guitar strums. Resolution comes in the concluding Dusk as the fiddle and trumpet lines coalesce with cello and guitar providing the clinking and clattering continuum. Finally, as the arco strings reach a crescendo of concentrated glissandi, they’re joined by tough guitar strums to frame half-valve trumpet smears until all descend to a moderated conclusion.

These sessions confirm that with the right ideas and sophisticated techniques any instrument can create creative music with any other, even ones as traditional as those in the European string family.

01 Royal Ballet CollectionAt a time when we are not able to go out and see live ballet and indeed ballet companies are shuttered, I was fortunate enough to be asked to review The Royal Ballet Collection (Opus Arte opusarte.com/details/OABD7210BD). This is truly an incomparable collection of both best-loved and several sensational new productions.

I shared this experience with my granddaughters and if not quite like going to the ballet, it is in some ways better. While there is nothing quite like actually being at a live performance, the brilliant camera direction adds an element that is simply not available at the live event. The director chooses where to focus our attention at any given moment and this undoubtedly increases our appreciation ten-fold. The Royal Ballet has engaged experienced directors for each and every one of these productions.  

Simply called The Collection this is a compilation of 22 ballets on 15 Blu-ray discs. Many of the ballets include select scenes and bonus features after the ballet is over. 

Included is a beautiful book of notes and full plot synopses as well as pictures from each of the ballets. Whether you are a fan of the ballet, new to it, or interested in a brand-new experience, this box is the answer.  

As a music reviewer, the most important component for me is the musical performance. I listened with and without the video and found the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House’s contribution to be at all times engaging, animated, musical and frankly breathtaking in parts. Ballet is an example of one of the most perfect combinations of the visual and the audible. The Royal Ballet’s new box set is just that, the perfect combination. In truth, in many cases, the marriage of the visuals and the power of the orchestra are literally overwhelming

Of course, this box includes classic 19th-century ballets with three Tchaikovsky favourites, Sleeping Beauty, The Nutcracker and Swan Lake, as well as Giselle, La Bayadère and Don Quixote.  This collection also includes 21st-century ballets with the unique Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, choreographed by Christopher Wheeldon, music by Joby Talbot and danced by the stunning Lauren Cuthbertson as Alice. Barry Wordsworth conducted this highly original work. Wheeldon also contributed the equally magical The Winter’s Tale, music also by Joby Talbot and danced by Edward Watson and Cuthbertson as Leontes and Hermione respectively.  

Chroma, music by Joby Talbot and Jack White III, Infra, music by Max Richter and Limen, music by Kaija Saariaho, all choreographed by Wayne McGregor, are completely new to me and a real revelation. These are minimalist works, both visually and musically.

Choreographer Sir Frederick Ashton’s ballets, nine in all, are well represented with Sylvia, The Two Pigeons, La Valse and Monotones I and II among others, composed by Leo Delibes, André Messager, Maurice Ravel and Erik Satie. I have to admit that my favourite is Marguerite and Armand, with music by Franz Liszt. I’m not sure if it’s because of the orchestral setting of Liszt’s Sonata in B Minor or Ashton’s beautifully romantic visualization, but I suspect it is the perfect combination of the two.  

Often considered Kenneth MacMillan’s finest work, Mayerling is included, along with his incomparable Prokofiev Romeo and Juliet. Liszt’s Faust Symphony was chosen for the dark and compelling Mayerling, and with Barry Wordsworth on the podium it is a must see and hear!  

The experience of reviewing these discs afforded the opportunity to view and listen to performances I would otherwise never have had.

02 KarajanjpgKarajan (C-major Entertainment, naxosdirect.com/search/759704), is an unexpected but most welcome new Blu-ray video of two live concerts conducted by Herbert von Karajan, with soloists, from concerts in Berlin and Vienna.

From the Philharmonie in Berlin we witness The 1988 New Year’s Eve Concert with the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra and pianist Evgeny Kissin playing the Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto No.1 in B-flat Major. The opening work from this concert is Prokofiev’s Symphony Op.25, aka The Classical Symphony.  Prokofiev wrote this work in the style of music written in the time of Haydn and Mozart. It is in four movements which sound, under Karajan’s baton, as exactly that, except for the timbre of the modern instruments. Nevertheless, it is Prokofiev. In the Tchaikovsky we see and hear a 17-year-old wunderkind play. When the LP of this performance was originally issued by Deutsche Grammophon, the critics and the classical audience were mixed in their reviews. One of the features of this performance is the second movement, Andantino semplice – Prestissimo which critics felt Kissin played too slowly. After all, this is a romantic concerto and Kissin felt that playing more slowly was more suitable. (Karajan also recorded this concerto with Weissenberg and Richter with the usual tempo.) One has to wonder whether Karajan was indulging the young pianist or did he feel this slower tempo served the composer well?  There is no doubt when you watch the performance that they are definitely of one mind.   

The New Year’s Day concert of 1987, with the Vienna Philharmonic conducted by Karajan, featured the music of the two Johann Strausses, father and son, and Josef Strauss. The concert of 15 pieces, including waltzes, polkas and overtures, was broadcast as usual from Vienna and was heard and seen around the world. The concert opened with the rousing Gypsy Baron Overture and ended as usual, with the Beautiful Blue Danube followed by the Radetzky March involving the audience clapping to the tempo at Karajan’s direction. After the opening bars of the Beloved Anna Polka the broadcast audience is treated to a special performance from the Spanish Riding School of Vienna. Also featured especially for the broadcast audience is the Ballet of the Vienna State Opera dancing to the majestic Emperor Waltz in the Schönbrunn Palace. Kathleen Battle in her prime sings the Voice of Spring.  

Little did we know at this joyous time, that Karajan was to pass away at his home in Anef a brief seven months later. We are so lucky to have this recording of Karajan at his best. We experience him as a happy and enthusiastic conductor showing his abiding love and affection for the music and the orchestra.  

The Royal Ballet Collection and Karajan are both available on Blu-ray Disc only.

01 Bernie SenenskyDon’t Look Back
Bernie Senensky Quartet/Quintet w/Bob Mover; Sam Noto
Cellar Music CM040321 (cellarlive.com)

During the COVID-19 pandemic, and the fluctuating lockdowns and closures that have accompanied it, musicians have gotten creative at navigating this difficult artistic landscape. Some have done remote recordings, others are on hiatus and a handful of musicians like Toronto stalwart Bernie Senensky have dug into the archives to release pre-pandemic music. 

In a time when many of us are nostalgic about the past, Don’t Look Back brings the listener back to some of Toronto’s heydays, featuring an exciting repertoire choice and hard-grooving band. Trumpeter Sam Noto and saxophonist Bob Mover have since left the GTA, while bassist Neil Swainson and drummer Barry Elmes are still on the scene. 

Originally recorded in 1989, this album encapsulates this time period perfectly. The opening track and several others share a 1960s’ Blue Note aesthetic, but more 80s- and 90s-inspired offerings like Senensky’s rhythmically complex arrangement of I Hear a Rhapsody are no less at home. The versatile band closes out the recording with a rousing version of Gershwin’s Who Cares, which this band tackles in a manner that pays tribute to jazz greats of the past without ever sounding dated or clichéd.  

This album is a true time capsule that sounds right at home today, which is a testament to not only the musicians playing, but to Jeremy Darby’s mixing job and Peter Letros’ mastering, which has brought this Unity Records tape back to life on CD and throughout the streaming world.

02 Maxwell Davies Eight SongsPeter Maxwell Davies – Eight Songs for a Mad King
Psappha Ensemble (Dov Goldberg; Benedict Holland; Tim Williams; Kelvin Thomas; Richard Casey; Jennifer Langridge; Conrad Marshall)
Psappha PSA1007 (naxosdirect.com/search/5029385997656)

Music can depict madness, but can’t derive from the mind of the insane person, at least not according to Jonathan Miller. As if in defiance of that outlook, Eight Songs for a Mad King, by Sir Peter Maxwell Davies (1934-2016), with a libretto by Randolph Stow, even cribs some of the writing (musical as well as literary) of King George III, the lone protagonist in this musical drama. It’s heartbreaking to listen to. I wonder, can it be relevant or worthwhile committing the attention, time and even anguish the piece demands? 

While he ruled England, George III suffered from a severe mental disorder, at times lucid and at others not. Davies and Stow depict the suffering of a terrified, befuddled and sad man, using his own words. Even without staging, the humanity and horror come through.

The work picks up where its arguable predecessor, Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire, left off. There’s a good deal of extended techniques shared among the six instrumentalists, while shrieks and guttural growls challenge the soloist’s larynx. Musical events alternate between synchronous and the opposite. The ensemble, as caged birds in the monarch’s aviary, whistle and call in response to the music box George is said to have used to try to teach them to sing.

Originally released on limited edition vinyl to celebrate the 80th birthday of its patron Davies in 2014, the Psappha ensemble has re-issued this 2012 recording on vinyl and digital formats in conjunction with the NMC Recordings label. Their assurance and familiarity with the dense and difficult material (they worked closely with Davies for years), make this as close as one could want to a definitive performance.

BOOK2 and CD AME livre et disqueMark Miller
Oneliness The Life and Music of Brian Barley

Éric Normand
L’Atelier de musique expérimentale
(tour de bras)

CREDIT: MARK MILLERThe late 1960s/early 1970s were a tumultuous time for various musical genres with new forms arising, often aligned with social and political foment. These recent works focus intensely on that period in Canada through the related lenses of jazz and improvised music. Mark Miller’s Oneliness: The Life and Music of Brian Barley is a biography of the forward-looking, Toronto-born jazz saxophonist, while L’Atelier de musique expérimentale, assembled by musician-producer Éric Normand, focuses on a performance space for Montreal’s experimental musicians. The works share a vital connection in artist/writer Raymond Gervais, Barley’s Montreal roommate and a founder of L’Atelier de musique expérimentale.

Miller is the essential chronicler of Canadian jazz, the focus of eight of his 13 books, including recent biographies of Claude Ranger and Sonny Greenwich. While those musicians made extended contributions, Brian Barley, who died in 1971 at age 28, was a tragic figure of immense promise. Oneliness (the term comes from the mystic G.I. Gurdjieff, an interest of some in Barley’s circle), is alive with the detail that distinguishes Miller’s writing. It’s an evocative tracing of Barley’s Toronto, from his Etobicoke childhood to Royal Conservatory and University of Toronto training to long-lost jazz venues like the First Floor Club, and his time spent in Vancouver and Montreal before his death in a Spadina Avenue rooming house. Barley, a gifted classical clarinet student, singled out for early praise, was increasingly preoccupied with the expressive possibilities of jazz. From membership in the National Youth Orchestra of Canada, Barley advanced to work with the Cleveland and Vancouver orchestras. 

Read more: Two Takes on a Tumultuous Time

Elsewhere in these pages you will find reviews of new recordings of music by Bach: the English Suites performed by Vladimir Ashkenazy, Autour de Bach, woodwind arrangements of a number of his works as recorded by Pentaèdre, and two sets of Goldberg Variations, one with Sarah Hagen on piano and one with Cameron Carpenter in his own transcription for grand organ. The Goldbergs are arguably the most recorded, most transcribed and most adapted for other purposes of Bach’s works, and certainly the most often reviewed in The WholeNote. With the two reviews mentioned above I count 25 in as many years and here comes number 26. 

01 Gold.Berg.WerkWhen Karlheinz Essl (b. Austria 1960) was approached by the Orpheus Trio in 2002 to arrange an existing string-trio version of the Goldberg Variations with the addition of live electronics, his initial reactions were “astonishment and bewilderment: how could that be possible with this music? Was there any artistic necessity of doing so? The idea of manipulating the sound of the live instruments electronically, of ‘spicing it up,’ seemed almost sacrilegious.” The trio was persistent however and this eventually led to the first of four (so far) realizations of Gold.Berg.Werk: for string trio; for harpsichord; for saxophone quartet; and, most recently, for piano. It is a recording of this last variety, featuring Xenia Pestova Bennett (Ergodos ER33 essl.at/records/goldbergwerk-2021.html), that arrived on my desk last month. In Gold.Berg.Werk – a pun on Goldberg Work and Gold Bergwerk (to mine, as in mining for gold) – Bach’s Goldberg Variations are “confronted with electronic sounds that are played between groups of variations, bridging the gap between the sound world of the Baroque era and the sonic reality of the third millennium.” The electronics are based on the harmonic progression of the fundamental Aria, from which the composer stripped all figurations and ornaments. Through manipulation of the overtone spectrum and the use of granular synthesis – compressing, stretching, and stopping forward motion ad libitum carried out in real time with the help of compositional algorithms – Essl has created five electronic interludes, which in live performance are spatially projected in surround sound throughout the auditorium. Even in the binaural mix for CD the sound is immersive and compelling. Pestova Bennett’s outstanding performance of the selected movements, 20 variations chosen by Essl and arranged in groups of five, bookended by the signature Aria, is beautifully integrated into the overall fabric of this “new” work. Regarding Essl’s question as to whether there was any artistic necessity to enhance such an iconic piece in the first place, I suppose we each have to decide for ourselves. For me, Gold.Berg.Werk has brought a new perspective that, after initial resistance to the idea, I have embraced and found enchanting. 

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02 PreludesAnd speaking of Bach, you would be excused for thinking that after last month’s column I might have had enough cello for a while, but not so gentle reader. Julia MacLaine’s Preludes would have fit nicely in that cello-centric column but it has only now been released by Analekta (AN 2 8914 analekta.com/en). MacLaine says that she found the inspiration for this project in a Juilliard recital by Bonnie Hampton some years ago in which the Preludes from Bach’s Solo Cello Suites were interspersed with contemporary works. With funding from the Canada Council, MacLaine commissioned six Canadian composers to write works “in response” to the Bach preludes. The result is an intriguing CD with six very different responses, from Airat Ichmouratov whose quite traditional Praeludium for Cello Solo in G Major, Op.69 quotes freely from Bach before venturing onto less familiar paths, through a gamut of approaches before culminating in Post Bach by Prince Edward Island fiddler and composer Roy Johnstone. This last work features rollicking dance sections juxtaposed with what MacLaine describes as a “grumbly […] glimpse of the underworld, the murky place that gave rise to the motives that permeate Bach – and Johnstone.” Along the way we are treated to Gabriel Dharmoo’s sarasaraahat, a piece inspired by the Prelude from the Suite in D Minor that uses the Indian Carnatic music of the composer’s cultural heritage to put the sound produced by the cello under a microscope, exploring the “very limit between pitch and white noise.” Carmen Braden’s Play Time asks the cellist to “play the score as if you just heard the Bach Cello Suite No.3 for the first time and now sit down and improvise, playful as a child.” In her signature way, Nicole Lizée employs technology to expand the palette of the cello, in the words of MacLaine “a marvellous, fantastical electronic world [with the cello] singing expressively above it, weaving in and out of it, and chasing after it.” Cris Derksen states “LAND BACH is my response to Bach’s fifth prelude as an Indigenous composer and cellist.” Her treatment includes a section of “looped rolled chords” which MacLaine says is characteristic of Derksen’s music. 

As I have said before, it must be extremely hard for a performer these days to find a way to present Bach’s iconic works – that have been recorded countless times – in a new light. I find MacLaine’s performances of both the Bach originals and the new companions insightful and convincing. While I have mixed feelings about “cherry picking” just the preludes from the Bach Suites, in this context where the composers are specifically reacting to the movements in question I find the project as a whole very well-considered and satisfying. I’ll give MacLaine the last words: “My hope is […] that you will hear Bach differently, as though past and present composers were having a conversation across the years, across the ocean.” 

03 Standing Wave 20CNicole Lizée is also among the seven composers commissioned by Vancouver’s venerable Standing Wave ensemble for its project 20C Remix (Redshift Records standingwave.ca) in which a number of iconic 20th century works are reimagined for the new millennium. With three decades under its belt, Standing Wave is touted as Western Canada’s foremost contemporary chamber ensemble. 20C Remix – a digital release with a limited edition vinyl run – opens with Stone’s Throw, Jocelyn Morlock’s ebullient take on Ann Southam’s Glass Houses No.9, adapted for full ensemble: flute, clarinet, violin, cello, piano and percussion. It’s a roller coaster ride for all concerned and I particularly enjoyed finding hints of Stravinsky in the mix. Jennifer Butler enhances Messiaen’s Le merle noir for piano and flute with the other members of the ensemble in a fairly straightforward and effective homage to the French master. Walking in Claude’s Footsteps is Jordan Nobles’ gentle take on Debussy’s Des pas sur la neige and Jared Miller finds Guilty Pleasures in his interpretation of John Adams’ China Gates. Unlike most of the works here which enlarge the original forces, Chris Mayo and Bekah Simms take orchestral textures and adapt them for the sextet. Mayo’s Oh Come Now! There is a Beautiful Place! is an arrangement “on a relatively miniature scale” of Reinhold Glière’s mammoth Symphony No.3. Although the liner notes tell us that the title is taken from a poem by Kenneth Patchen, there is no explanation of how this relates to the symphony and I’m left scratching my head. Simms’ Tenebrose explores the “night music” from the third movement of Bartók’s Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta with “approaches that I feel the composer would have been likely drawn to had he lived into the 21st century,” including microtonal glissandi and the use of non-tempered pitches while incorporating familiar motifs from the original. Lizée is represented with two tracks, her own inimitable treatments of songs by pop icons Dead or Alive (You Spin Me Round) and Justin Timberlake (Cry Me a River). While certainly a different sensibility from the other offerings here, they somehow manage to fit in seamlessly. I particularly enjoyed the bass clarinet and vibraphone lines in Epiphora, her take on Timberlake’s classic, which bring this very satisfying disc to a close.

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04 Xander Simmons Inner Landscapes ArtworkThe next release features two relative newcomers on the contemporary music scene, composer Xander Simmons and Montreal’s Collectif Novart. Simmons’ second release Inner Landscapes (xandersimmons.com) features five works for varying ensembles, opening with the contemplative Three Points for piano trio which gradually builds to a dramatic peak before receding. Pink Mountain is a four-movement work – Dawn, Daylight, Drift and Dusk – which is one of two works here that take direct inspiration from the painted landscapes of Peter Doig, the other being Grande Riviere, a work that adds ambient electronic textures to acoustic instrumentation. Solstice is in two parts, and utilizes the largest ensemble here, a nonet. Winter opens with a dark duet between contrabass and bassoon, slowly brightening as if the pale sun were shining through. Summer opens with busy flute over a bassoon ostinato and continues in a minimalist melisma of insect sounds with birds soaring above in the cloudless sky (my imagery). The composer describes the closing Vortices as a “collage of string performances mixed with synthesizers and field recordings.” As with the other pieces here, the language is consonant and tonal, but here the extra-musical materials add an edge to the layers of sound. Overall this is a strong release from a young composer, showing a breadth of interest and understanding that bodes well for future endeavours. The collectif is in fine form, with convincing performances and solid ensemble work.

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05 Petar KlanacI first heard the music of Petar Klanac (then known as Pierre-Kresimir Klanac) at Glenn Gould Studio back in November 1997 as part of New Music Concerts’ contribution to the Made In Canada Festival, and then in 2000 on the Ensemble contemporain de Montréal CD Nouvelles Territoires 1. In the intervening years he had fallen off my radar until a few weeks ago when he reached out to me about his new CD. 

Klanac has a surprisingly small presence on the Internet. The little biographical information I’ve been able to glean tells me that his principal instruments are violin and electric guitar and that he studied composition with Gilles Tremblay at the Montreal Conservatoire from 1992 to 1995 and later with Gérard Grisey and Marco Stroppa at the Paris Conservatoire and Denys Bouliane at the Rencontres de musique nouvelle du Domaine Forget in Charlevoix (Québec). He was a child chorister in the Maîtrise des Petits Chanteurs du Mont-Royal (Saint-Joseph’s Oratory, Montreal) for nine years and this seems to have strongly informed his compositional aesthetic. That first piece I heard was titled Le ressuscité de Béthanie (on the subject of the resurrection of Lazarus), a theme to which he returned two decades later in a work for Ensemble Nahandove. Many of the works in his oeuvre focus on religious themes, such as Agnus Dei for men’s choir, Pater Noster for tenor and string quartet and Sancta Parens for two saxophones and cello. When commissioned by the Société de musique contemporain du Québec to compose a new work for its 55th anniversary concert last December he presented the 18-minute chamber ensemble work Yerushalayim

Klanac has made his home in France for some time and his latest project, Pozgarria da (petarklanac.bandcamp.com), was commissioned by Ensemble 0, a group whose members are based in different cities in France, Catalonia and Belgium, as part of 30th anniversary celebrations for the Institut Culturel Basque. Pozgarria da (How wonderful it is) is a setting of four poems by the Basque Franciscan Father Bitoriano Gandiaga for voice (Fanny Chatelain singing in the original language) and an unusual ensemble consisting of flutes, rebec and nyckelharpa, four organs, gamelan selunding and percussion. There is a sparse instrumental prelude and two interludes, all titled Maite dut bizitza (I love life), separating the first three poems, whose sparse and subdued settings are vaguely reminiscent of medieval music. The final movement, also Maite dut bizitza, is the most expansive by far at almost 17 minutes, and is also the most exuberant; a flamboyant minimalist – think cinematic Philip Glass – paean to “The joy of life / To my surroundings / that are alive. / I wish the joy of being alive / To everyone who lives / the grace of life.” Amen! A very welcome anthem and reminder in these unjoyful times.

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06 Davis HallAnd now for something completely different, although I find joy here too. “What if Dark Orchard (Jim Casson’s experimental music project) and ‘The Blues’ got together in New Orleans and watched Twin Peaks with Daniel Lanois?” That’s the premise behind Davis Hall & The Green Lanterns (greenlanterns.ca). Originally conceived in the early days of COVID-19 as a remote collaboration with bass player Russ Boswell, Casson laid down drum tracks in his home studio that he shared with Boswell who added funky bass licks and a song outline. They invited Bernie LaBarge to add some guitar lines and Brent Barkman on organ; and Marshville Station, the second track on the current album, was born. Although the project was shelved for a while, the ongoing pandemic has provided the perfect opportunity to revisit the idea. 

I’ve been a sucker for blues tuba since I saw Taj Mahal at the Mariposa Festival 40-some years ago backed by a quartet of tubas headed by the late, great Howard Johnson (1941-2021). Well, that’s how this adventure begins, with the funky, N’awlins-flavoured Temperanceville co-written by Casson, tuba player N. Jay Burr and guitarist Wayne DeAdder, with Mike Branton sitting in on slide guitar. The personnel of the Green Lanterns changes from track to track, with Casson on drums, keyboards, autoharp and even theremin the only constant, but the result is always bluesy and frequently scorching. Burr, DeAdder, Boswell and Brandon make numerous contributions and guests include Steve Marriner and Al Lerman on harmonica, Stephen Miller on dobro, and an archival appearance by 60s DJ Bob Bowland from CHOW radio in Welland, Ontario. Casson explains the name of the group, and of the songs, as a tribute to the Niagara Peninsula, the stomping grounds of his formative years. “Davis Hall” was the name of the community centre in his hometown where he attended nursery school, “The Green Lantern” was the soda shop in town when he was a kid and the names of all the songs correspond to place names on the peninsula. Who knew that the fruit belt could be so darn funky? This one is guaranteed to lift your spirits (and your heels)! 

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 Fire and GraceAlma is the third album of original arrangements by Fire & Grace, the duo of violinist Edwin Huizinga and guitarist William Coulter (Roaring Girl Records fireandgracemusic.com). Coulter’s plectrum guitar is an acoustic steel-string Custom Meridian made by Mike Baranik.

Piazzolla’s Libertango, Albéniz’ Asturias (with violin shredding!) and Vivaldi’s L’Estate – Summer open a fascinating CD, at the heart of which is Suite Español, a continuation of the duo’s project of arranging the solo music of Bach (in this case the Cello Suite No.1) and blending it with folk music, the six Bach movements in this case interspersed with melodies from Spain.

An arrangement of Tanya’s Tune, composed by the former Väsen guitarist Roger Tallroth, completes a hugely entertaining disc.

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02 Sheku IsataFor Muse, their first album together, the young brother and sister duo of Sheku and Isata Kanneh-Mason chose two works that they love playing in concert (Decca Classics 4851630 deccaclassics.com/en).

Barber’s Cello Sonata in C Minor Op.6, written when he was 22 and a student at the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia, opens the disc, while Rachmaninoff’s Cello Sonata in G Minor Op.19 from 1901 closes it. The duo notes that the two works are from completely different worlds, but “somehow they work together in terms of their emotional intensity.” Certainly there’s no lack of emotional intensity in these outstanding performances.

Songs by the two composers effectively tie the sonatas together on a terrific disc. The three Rachmaninoff songs – It Cannot Be!, How Fair This Spot and The Muse – were already among the duo’s favourites while the four Barber songs – There’s Nae Lark, A Slumber Song of the Madonna, With Rue My Heart Is Laden and Sure on This Shining Night – were new to them.

03 Brahms SonatasTwo outstanding representatives of the younger generation of Russian musicians, pianist Maxim Emelyanychev and violinist Aylen Pritchin, are featured on Brahms Sonatas for Piano & Violin on period instruments (Aparté AP237 apartemusic.com).

The instruments in question are an 1875 Steinway piano and a 1725 Jacques Boquay violin, but there’s plenty of powerful, full-bodied piano playing to accompany Pritchin’s beautifully bright and sensitive touch.

The Scherzo from the 1853 F-A-E Sonata, Brahms’ contribution to the three-movement work written with Schumann and Dietrich as a gift for Joseph Joachim, opens the disc. Fine performances of the three sonatas from the period 1878-88 – No.1 in G Major Op.78, No.2 in A Major Op.100 and No.3 in D Minor Op.108 – complete a lovely CD.

The booklet essay notes the references to Brahms’ own songs in the sonatas, particularly the first two, and there’s certainly a delightfully lyrical approach to the beautiful performances here.

04 Kornauth FuchsKornauth & Fuchs Works for Viola and Piano is another CD product of the Covid lockdown, this time featuring the Litton Duo of Katharina Kang Litton, principal violist of the New York City Ballet and her pianist husband, conductor Andrew Litton (BIS-2574 bis.se).

Through playing the Brahms sonatas together the two discovered the viola and piano music of Brahmns’ contemporary Robert Fuchs (1847-1927), whom Brahms greatly admired, and Fuchs’ student Egon Kornauth (1891-1959). Fuchs’ other students included Mahler, Wolf, Sibelius, Zemlinsky, Korngold, Enescu and Franz Schmidt.

Kornauth is represented by his Viola Sonata in C-sharp Minor Op.3 from 1912, and Fuchs by his Viola Sonata in D Minor Op.86 from 1909 and Six Fantasy Pieces Op.117 from 1926-27.

While not exactly “of their time” from a progressive viewpoint they are nonetheless beautifully crafted and extremely attractive works that require passion, warmth, feeling, effortless technique and perfect ensemble, all here in abundance on a lovely CD.

05 PohadkaCellist Laura van der Heijden and pianist Jâms Coleman make their Chandos label debut with Pohádka: Tales from Prague to Budapest, an album that explores the rich folk melodies of Janáček, Kodály and Dvořák (CHAN 20227 chandos.net).

Janáček’s Pohádka (Fairy Tale) is typical of the composer’s late and highly individual voice. Kodály’s Cello Sonata Op.4 from 1909-10 is here, as are two short songs transcribed by van der Heijden and the Sonatina, also from 1909 and originally intended as part of the Op.4 sonata. The Dvořák is the short song Als die alte Mutter Op.55 No.4 from 1880.

There are two works by lesser-known composers: Mouvement, written for Kodály’s 80th birthday in 1963 by András Mihály (1917-1993); and van der Heijden’s transcription of the brief 1936-37 song Navzdy (Forever) Op.12 No.1 by Vitězslava Kaprálová, who died from tuberculosis in 1940 aged only 25.

Van der Heijden’s remarkably effective adaptation of Janáček’s Violin Sonata closes an excellent disc.

06 Coco TomitaAnother artist making her label debut is the young Japanese violinist Coco Tomita, who was offered a debut album on the Orchid Classics label after winning the Strings Final of the 2020 BBC Young Musician competition; she is accompanied by pianist Simon Callaghan on Origins (ORC100194 orchidclassics.com).

At the heart of the recital are Poulenc’s Violin Sonata – a marvellous piece, despite his doubts and misgivings – and the Ravel Violin Sonata No.2, both works given superb readings. The other major work is Hubay’s Carmen – Fantasie brillante, one of Tomita’s performance pieces from the 2020 competition and indeed played quite brilliantly.

Enescu’s unaccompanied Ménétrier (Country Fiddler) from his Impressions d’enfance Op.28 opens the disc. Lili Boulanger’s brief but beautiful Nocturne from Two Pieces is included, and the Heifetz arrangement of Debussy’s Beau Soir closes an outstanding CD.

There must surely be great things ahead for such a talent as this. [Please Note: the disc is not scheduled for release until March 2022.]

07 Elgar BridgeGabriel Schwabe is the cellist on Elgar & Bridge Cello Concertos, with the ORF Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra under Christopher Ward (Naxos 8.574320 naxosdirect.com/search/8574320).

The Elgar Cello Concerto in E Minor Op.85 dates from 1919, when the composer was appalled and disillusioned by the suffering caused by the war and by the loss of the Edwardian world he loved. Schwabe’s performance gives you everything you could want from this beloved concerto.

The real revelation here, though, is Frank Bridge’s Oration, Concerto elegiaco. Written in 1929-30, it shares spiritual affinities and shadows of the Great War with the Elgar, and is described as “a funeral address of huge solemnity and narrative power in its outcry against the futility of war.” At times it is much like the Elgar in sound and style, but not in form, having seven connected movements with a particularly martial Allegro giusto and a central cadenza. I don’t recall ever having heard it before, but if ever a work cried out for wider exposure it’s this one. 

08 Shumsky BrahmsThe American violinist Oscar Shumsky, who died in 2000 at the age of 83, recorded extracts from the Brahms Violin Concerto in D Major Op. 77 for the Music Appreciation Recordings LP label, but a complete performance of the work has never been available. He did, however, make a digital recording with the Philharmonia Hungarica under Uri Segal in 1984, although apparently it was forgotten for almost four decades. It has now been released by Biddulph Recordings, with the Shumsky family’s permission, as Brahms Violin Concerto (85007-2 naxosdirect.com/search/bdf-ed-85007-2).

Shumsky was generally considered to be one of the great violinists of the 20th century, the New Grove Dictionary calling him “a player of virtuoso technique, pure style and refined taste,” qualities that are fully evident in this really fine performance. The orchestral sound is quite resonant, with the violin’s brilliant tone very much up front. It’s a gem of a CD.

09 Weinberg booklet 1Following his 2021 recording of Weinberg’s Violin Concerto in G Minor Op.67 and the Sonata for Two Violins Op.69 Gidon Kremer continues his passionate promotion of the previously neglected music of Shostakovich’s close friend and compatriot with Mieczysław Weinberg: Sonatas for Solo Violin (ECM New Series ECM 2705 ecmrecords.com/shop).

Sonatas No.1 Op.82 and No.2 Op.85 were both written in 1964, and are comprised of several short movements: Adagio, Andante, Allegretto, Lento and Presto for the Op.82; and Monody, Rests, Intervals, Replies, Accompaniment, Invocation and Syncopes for Op.85. Sonata No.3 Op.126 from 1979 is a single-movement work with a decided Shostakovich feel about it.

Kremer really throws himself into this music, which has a great range of emotional and technical challenges, but is capable of playing with much tenderness and sensitivity when required. This may not be the first recording of these fascinating works, but it’s difficult to imagine a set with a greater commitment. 

10 Shostakovich quartetsThere’s music by Weinberg’s compatriot himself this month as well, with a new recording of Shostakovich String Quartets No.3 & No.8 in excellent performances by the Korean ensemble Novus Quartet (Aparté AP271 apartemusic.com).

The String Quartet No.3 in F Major Op.73 from 1946 was triumphantly received by the public and critics alike, and seems to chart the path from the losses of the war to a return to daily life, albeit with a “forced cheerfulness” typical of the composer.

The String Quartet No.8 in C Minor Op.110 is the most autobiographical of the Shostakovich quartets, with his musical monogram D, E-flat, C and B natural (DSCH in German notation) forming the basis for much of the work. Moreover, the quartet is full of direct quotes from earlier Shostakovich works, most touchingly the melody from the opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, the work which resulted in his initial persecution by the Soviet authorities. Written in 1960 in response to the wartime destruction of human life and artistic treasures in Dresden, it was portrayed by Soviet propaganda as denouncing fascism, while it was almost certainly a reaction to Soviet atrocities under the Stalin regime.

11 Shea Kim duoThe Sound and the Fury is the first studio recording by the Shea-Kim Duo, the husband and wife team of violinist Brendan Shea and pianist Yerin Kim (Blue Griffin Recording BGR593 bluegriffin.com). Dvořák’s Mazurek Op.49, with its abundant and virtuosic double stops, was inspired by and dedicated to the great Spanish violinist Pablo de Sarasate. Grieg’s Violin Sonata No.3 in C Minor Op.45 is the biggest of his three violin sonatas and, possibly because of the simply beautiful slow middle movement, one of the composer’s favourite works. 

Janáček’s Violin Sonata, his only work in the genre, was written in early 1914, just prior to the outbreak of the Great War. The composer later referred to “the sound of steel clashing” in his head.

Shea plays with a warm tone on a violin which can tend to sound somewhat muted at times. Kim’s piano contribution is first-class throughout.

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12 Sondheim A Little NightFinally, space restrictions usually preclude our covering short streaming-only releases, but in view of the recent passing of the legendary Broadway composer Stephen Sondheim, as well as the superb quality of the arrangement and performance, I just have to mention Stephen Sondheim A Little Night Music: Suite for Violin and Piano, arranged by Broadway veteran Eric Stern for the Opus Two duo of violinist William Terwilliger and pianist Andrew Cooperstock (Bridge 4010 bridgerecords.com).

The third in a series of Stern Broadway arrangements commissioned by Opus Two and made with the composer’s approval, it’s just under 15 minutes in length, but the four-movement suite of Night Waltz, You Must Meet My Wife, A Weekend in the Country and Send in the Clowns is an absolute delight.

I was lucky enough to receive a promo hard copy, but it can be streamed on Amazon, Apple Music, Spotify and YouTube Music, and purchased via Amazon, iTunes and Google Play, among others.

01 Jeanine de BiqueMirrors
Jeanine De Bique; Concerto Koln; Luca Quintavalle
Berlin Classics (berlin-classics-music.com)

Mirrors is Trinidadian soprano Jeanine De Bique’s debut album. Accompanied by the renowned Baroque orchestra Concerto Köln, with musical direction by Luca Quintavalle, the album focuses on Baroque arias and includes three world premiere recordings.

De Bique’s album reflects her unique style and personality in a well-crafted concept. Her flawless technique is impressive and includes carefully sculpted notes and stunning articulation amid invigorating Baroque rhythms and flying high notes. De Bique, a seasoned Handel performer, was also given the freedom to play with and create new ornamentation for each aria.

Developed in collaboration with musicologist Yannis François, the concept of the album is that of looking through a broken mirror; different settings of the same libretti are placed side by side on an album for the first time. Mirrors juxtaposes Handel’s operatic heroines Alcina, Cleopatra, Deidami, and Rodelinda with the same characters’ arias from the works of Riccardo Broschi (brother of famed castrato Farinelli), Carl Heinrich Graun, Gennaro Manna and Georg Philipp Telemann, each prominent opera composers of their time. The arias of Mirrors are meant to relate key moments in the psychological development of each heroine, thereby also opening a window into the varied female experience. In the liner notes De Bique writes that this project allowed her to sing from a place of vulnerability and that she was “given the opportunity to be a voice for women across the ages who are still trying to find spaces to free their voices, and for those ready to reclaim their autonomy.”

02 Verdi MacbethVerdi – Macbeth
Soloists; Filarmonica Arturo Toscanini; Coro del Teatro Regio Parma; Roberto Abbado
Dynamic DYN-CDS7915.02 (naxosdirect.com/search/dyn-cds7915.02)

My love for Verdi’s Macbeth began here in Toronto many years ago when I saw Hungarian soprano sensation Georgina Lukács in the famous Mad Scene, the late Richard Bradshaw conducting with such a rapport between them that it seemed like he was conducting just for her. Today my love has been rekindled with this new CD from Parma. Parma is now what Salzburg is to Mozart or Bayreuth to Wagner, a Verdi Mecca.

Success for Macbeth was a long time coming. In 1847, it was the first time Verdi tried to tackle Shakespeare, his idol since childhood, but the atmosphere of foggy, rainy Scotland plus the witches didn’t please the Italian public. However in 1865, a golden opportunity came from Paris and big money too. He revised the opera by translating it into French, adding new music and a mandatory ballet to suit the taste of Paris. This version fared better and it is presented here.

This is an open air concert performance no doubt necessitated by COVID, using Parma’s resplendent Opera House as a backdrop and with the best singers available. Perhaps the greatest Verdi baritone alive, Ludovic Tézier from Marseille, with his velvety, many shaded but strong voice, simply lives the title role. His bloodthirsty wife and helpmate, Lady Macbeth, is sung by Sylvia Dalla Benetta who is rapidly becoming Italy’s leading dramatic soprano. She is sensational with a tremendously wide vocal range and power. Her high notes could shatter glass and her low notes are bloodcurdling. Her first scene and the cabaletta Viens! Viens! Sois homme! Il faut régner is explosive. Riccardo Zanellato’s smooth basso is heartrending as Banquo. Scholarly conductor and Verdi expert Roberto Abbado conducts with throbbing vitality.

03 Renee Fleming Nezet SeguinVoice of Nature: The Anthropocene
Renée Fleming; Yannick Nézet-Séguin
Decca Classics (deccaclassics.com/de/kuenstler/reneefleming)

Voice of Nature: The Anthropocene is another album responding to the devastating current pandemic. According to celebrated veteran American opera diva Renée Fleming it was inspired by the solace she found while hiking near her Virginia home during lockdown. Canadian conductor and pianist Yannick Nézet-Séguin and Fleming have chosen 16 songs which feature lyrics exploring “the centrality of nature in Romantic-era song and highlight[ing] the peril … of the natural world today. … Now, in the Anthropocene, we see the effects of our own activity, and the fragility of our environment,” reflects Fleming.

A dedicated performer of art song, she draws on her classical repertoire including scores by Liszt, Grieg, Fauré and Hahn for the core of this recital. Also featured are recording premieres of Caroline Shaw’s 2017 Aurora Borealis, evoking flickering lights in the northern sky, plus two commissions from American composers. 

Pulitzer Prize-winner Kevin Puts gives Evening by the American poet Dorianne Laux a retro-musical setting, characterized by a supple lyric soprano melody highlighted by Fleming’s soaring high notes, and supported by Nézet-Séguin’s rippling tonal arpeggios and harmonies. 

Nico Muhly’s bricolage-like Endless Space, on the other hand, draws on several disparate texts: poetry of the 17th-century English theologian Thomas Traherne plus writing by climate change journalist Robinson Meyer. It starts with a sort of recitative before taking advantage of Fleming’s core vocal strengths still at her command in her sixth decade: velvety rich lows, graceful high passages, flawless intonation and dynamic control.

04 Cassidy The Mass jpegPatrick Cassidy – The Mass
Laude; David Harris; Christoph Bull
Supertrain Records (supertrainrecords.com)

The Catholic Mass is one of the most frequently set texts in the history of music, encompassing works ranging from the 14th century to modern times. Whether Palestrina’s marvellous Missa Papae Marcelli or Beethoven’s grandiose Missa Solemnis, performances and recordings of these masterpieces bear testament to the inspirational power of these ancient rites and texts. 

Unique among the plethora of recordings of the Mass, however, is this documentation of Patrick Cassidy’s The Mass, originally composed for choir and orchestra and later adapted for choir and organ. Growing from the challenges of quarantine, it is perhaps among the first major works in history to be recorded virtually, with each member of the choral group singing their individual part in isolation. Anyone who has worked on a virtual choir project is aware of how involved, tedious and time-consuming such a task can be, especially when the result is intended to be a release-worthy recording, and the excellence attained in this instance cannot be overstated.

Cassidy’s writing is stunningly beautiful and primarily uses a late-Romantic idiom, with luscious harmonies and gorgeous melodies that are both profound and sublime. The singers, despite their isolation, blend with a precision and clarity that is, in a word, unbelievable, while Christoph Bull, organist-in-residence at the First Congregational Church of Lost Angeles – which houses one of the world’s largest pipe organs – is in fine form, making that single instrument sound as varied and convincing as an entire orchestra.

If the above review sounds almost too good to be true, that is because this recording is as well. This project demonstrates the human potential to persevere, and the spiritual capacity to grow together and bring to light beauty in isolation, regardless of external factors and influences. It is highly recommended to anyone whose spirit needs uplifting, or who simply wants to bathe in the glorious sounds of Cassidy’s Mass.

05 Thomalla Dark SpringHans Thomalla – Dark Spring: Opera in 11 Scenes
Shachar Lavi; Anna Hybiner; Christopher Diffey; Magid El-Bushra; Nationaltheater-Orchester Mannheim; Alan Pierson
Oehms Classics OC 994 (oehmsclassics.de)

The whole idea of Dark Spring as being born of both song and opera is a considerable philosophical and stylistic leap. But what its creator Hans Thomalla achieves in this work is a lofty Singspiel recast as musical meta-theatre. Happily the 11 scenes are acted and/or sung by a fine cast who interact with each other in a deeply emotional manner as this avowed song-opera goes like a bolted arrow directly into the listener’s heart.

Thematically this is a cautionary tale (the word “narrative” is technically more appropriate), one whose four characters we meet at an existential 21st-century crossroad where the theatre of Brecht and the angst of Jean-Paul Sartre collide. The playwright and novelist appear to have inspired Thomalla’s work, an operatic adaptation of Frank Wedekind’s Spring Awakening (1891). Dark Spring roars with the socio-political demons that drive our digital media world. Song lyrics by Joshua Clover reflect the shattered mirror of violence, while peer and parental pressures hover dangerously close at hand. 

Relationships crumble in overwrought romanticism and roiling sexuality leading to the climactic suicide of one of the four characters, Moritz, played with explosive combustion by countertenor, Magid El-Bushra. Tenor Christopher Diffey, contralto Anna Hybiner and mezzo-soprano Shachar Lavi sing their respective ways through the storyline that exudes visceral energy throughout Dark Spring. The Nationaltheater-Orchester Mannheim conducted by Alan Pierson shines as it navigates this difficult score.

06 Brian FieldBrian Field – Vocal Works
Various Artists
Navona Records nv6360 (navonarecords.com/catalog/nv6360)

Reactions to Brian Field’s Vocal Works – as well as the red-white-and-blue graphic evocative of the forbidding spires on a US/Mexican border wall – can be predicted: it’s an important disc, no doubt, often dripping with sardonicism and bitterness, shrouded in the music’s frequent dissonance. Gorgeous songs complemented by great choral and solo singing, however, triumph over these feelings, in a program selected and sequenced with uncommon care, with Field drawing on his consummate musicianship fuelled by hopefulness. 

Field’s extraordinary lyricism is deeply attuned to human emotion. Even when his music is immersed in feelings of fear, disappointment or even sarcasm – as in his adaptation of Charles Albert Tindley’s poem on By and By, in the swirling music accompanying Pablo Neruda’s bittersweet love poems, Tres Canciones de Amor and his own uniquely American satirical commentary in Let’s Build a Wall. In those works as well as elsewhere, Field shows that he isn’t afraid to wear his emotions on his sleeve, nor does he shrink away from the bitterness of social commentary. 

He is also a master of atonal turbulence and semi-spoken lines describing both political and intimate interactions. Field’s music in the song cycle Chimneys, Sonnets-Realities, dramatically reinvigorates the poetry of e.e. cummings with masterfully applied dissonant harmonies. The pinnacle of the recording, however, comes when Field pours his spirituality into the intense, gospel-soaked Let the Light Shine on Me.

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