02_senza_continuoSenza Continuo
Margaret Little
ATMA ACD2 2612

The formidable gamba player Margaret Little – one half of the legendary Montreal duo Les Voix Humaines – is “a chamber musician at heart” and “this is her first adventure in solo repertoire.” So says the bio of her at the back of the booklet of this outstanding recording. From the opening strains of the first of three preludes by Jean de Sainte-Colombe which open the disc, I was transfixed by Little’s tone and freedom of sound. The varied program of music ranges from the late 16th century to the early 18th and clearly demonstrates why this instrument was so beloved, particularly in France.

Two solo suites, one by Le Sieur de Machy – a 17th century viol player about whom virtually nothing is known – and another by the celebrated virtuoso Marin Marais, make up the meat of the program and are both played with ease, elegance and poetry. Little has complete command of the ornamentation and character of each dance movement, and manages to convey the beautiful emotional arc of both large works. The rest of the CD is made up of four airs by the English composer Tobias Hume and two short “recercatas” by Italians Aurelio Virgiliano and Giovanni Bassano.

This lovely recording is a reminder of how special and expressive the viola da gamba is. In the hands of a confident and tender musician such as Little, a strong case is made for the unique solo repertoire of this oft undervalued instrument.

03_bach_brandenburgBach - Brandenburg Concertos
English Baroque Soloists; John Eliot Gardiner
Soli Deo Gloria SDG 707

Rare is the list of essential classical recordings which does not include the Brandenburgs. What makes this interpretation stand out is not just the actual playing but also some thoughtful commentaries by the conductor and soloists on the challenges Brandenburg players face.

From the start, this interpretation respects the instruments of Bach’s times. The horns of Anneke Scott and David Bentley are literally hunting horns, although never the “disruptive influence” she claims they are. All instruments blend into an enjoyable performance of Concerto No 1.   

The reviewer is a life-long lover of No 2, Bach’s allegro movements bringing out the best of baroque ensembles in general and the baroque recorder in particular. Rachel Beckett demolishes the idea that the recorder is a teaching instrument for children.

So to No 3, best-known of the six. This recording is upbeat in the initial allegro, enhanced by a silvery quality to the strings which continues through the much-over-looked adagio to the second even more inspired allegro.

Catherine Latham joins Rachel Beckett on recorder in No 4, reinforcing the virtuoso skills demanded of the instrument. The recorder conveys the plaintive tones of the andante, perhaps more poignantly than would the flute, which only makes its (belated) appearance in a subdued No 5.   

There is even an unsung heroine - viola-player Jane Rogers alone performs in all six concertos, saving her best for No 6. Her comments are worthy of the reflections published in this invigorating CD.

dragonettiDragonetti's New Academy - Chamber Music of Domenico Dragonetti
John Feeney; Loma Mar Quartet
Independent DNA2009

In these days of specialized musical disciplines, we tend to forget how often instrumental virtuosity and excellent compositional skills went hand-in-hand in the 18th and 19th centuries. No surprise, then, to discover that the Italian double-bass virtuoso Domenico Dragonetti wrote a large number of chamber works, although hardly any were published during his lifetime.

Dragonetti spent most of his adult life in London, and all the works on this disc were prepared by John Feeney from manuscripts in the Dragonetti collection in the British Museum. They may not seem particularly memorable on first hearing, but the composer was not only a regular at salons and musical evenings in London but also travelled in Europe, particularly to Vienna, where the development of the Viennese Style in the late 1700s had been of huge significance in the emergence of the double bass as a solo instrument. His compositions intelligently reflect the musical language of the day and the various styles he encountered.

The String Quartet No.1 employs the regular line-up, but the three string quintets are quite different. No.31 is for 2 Violins, 2 Violas and Bass, so the violin still handles most of the solo work, but Nos. 13 and 18 are for Violin, 2 Violas, Cello and Bass, giving the works a somewhat bottom-heavy feel as the bass assumes a solo role.

Top-class performances and excellent recording ambience make this disc – possibly the first of a series – an absolute delight.

01_Brahms-IIIBrahms - Piano Music Vol.3
Antonin Kubalek
Independent ak01 (www.cdbaby.com)

The Czech Republic’s loss was surely Canada’s gain the day Anton Kubálek decided to flee political unrest in his homeland in 1968 to settle in Toronto. Since that time, he has quietly carved out his niche, earning a reputation as an outstanding pianist, pedagogue, and recording artist, his talents exemplified in the nearly 20 CDs produced for the Dorian label.

This latest offering is one originally intended to be Volume 3 in a series of music by Brahms, but Kubálek managed to obtain the rights, and has released it personally. Recorded in 1995, it features four early works: the Sonata Op.1, the Ballades Op.10, the Variations on a Hungarian Song Op.21 #2, and the Scherzo Op.4. The sonata is a large-scale work - Brahms first attempt at the form - and from the opening chords, Kubálek treats this confident music with a bold assurance. Considerably more mysterious and dramatic are the four Ballades Op.10, music from 1854 inspired by the Scottish poem Eduard. The Variations and the Scherzo (Brahms earliest extant composition) abound in technical challenges, while possibly proving that the composer’s piano music is sometimes less than “pianistic.” But Kubálek meets the difficulties with apparent ease, demonstrating both virtuosity and intense lyricism, and without the flashiness that often characterizes the playing of many of his younger contemporaries. As always, he remains the consummate musician.

Since the fall of communism in 1989, Kubálek has travelled back to the Czech Republic several times in order to give recitals and hold master classes, but luckily for us, he has no intentions of returning permanently. May he continue to share his talents - both in concert and on fine CDs such as this one - for a long time to come.

02_jeunesses_60Jeunesses Musicales Canada 60
Various Artists
Analekta AN 2 9927-8

Since the founding of Jeunesses Musicales du Canada 60 years ago in 1949 by Gilles Lefebvre following a meeting with Father J.H. Lemieux, Anaïs Allard-Rousseau and Laurette Desruisseaux-Boisvert, the admirable organization has been supporting young artists embarking on their concert careers through concert tours, scholarships, competitions, and just plain good advice on the various options available to them. Many acclaimed Canadian artists have played the JMC circuit – no wonder then that this two CD compilation features a plethora of world class Canadian JMC talent extracted from a number of previous Analekta releases.

Space prevents me from naming everyone, so here are my gems. The set kicks off with a gut wrenching performance of a man's heart breaking by bass Joseph Rouleau (with the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden) in “Elle ne m'aime pas!” from Verdi's Don Carlos. Violinist James Ehnes is perfect in the Adagio from Bach's Sonata in G Major BMV 1021. Ensemble Caprice's take on Vivaldi's Concerto in C major RV 533 is surprisingly successful in its spirit. It is a joy to hear pianist Anton Kuerti as the accompanist to violinist Angèle Dubeau in Schubert's Sonata for violin and piano in D Major. The Gryphon Trio's rendition of Piazzolla's The Four Seasons of Buenos Aires meticulously captures the quality of the composer's own performances.

I only wish more contemporary music had been included (even though harpist Valerie Milot is excellent in Salzedo's Scintillation). Also, performance dates would have made the liner notes more complete.

This is a fine release to enjoy time and time again, and a fitting tribute to JMC's 60 years of work with Canada's finest musicians.

02_TimeAfterTimeTime/After Time: A Jazz Suite
Geordie McDonald
Sonavista Records (geomic@interlog.com)

Audaciously taking on nothing less than a history of our sad planet, from the big bang to its potential post-apocalypse, veteran local drummer Geordie McDonald has put together a multi-faceted two-CD set that melds futuristic, multi-ethnic and contemporary improvisations.

“Time/After Time” is an instrumental parable that begins with a brief electronically propelled explosion and ends with more than 12½ minutes of McDonald’s inventive polyrhythms on drums and ancillary percussion including a bell tree, claves, oversized cymbals, woodblocks and rain sheets. The suite encompasses the skills of 18 [!] of Toronto’s top improvisers plus New York-based trombonist Roswell Rudd, whose inventive brays and slurs perfectly fit the primitive-modern CD the drummer organized.

Organized is the key word since McDonald only composed one track. The others are group improvisations or themes written by the other players such as alto saxophonist/Shuffle Demon Richard Underhill; trumpeter/Flying Bulgar David Buchbinder; baritone saxophonist/educator David Mott; and inventive flutist and bass clarinetist Glen Hall.

A perfect example of this contrapuntal concordance both in writing and playing occurs on Hall’s Tribal Survival. Accompanied by vibrating resonations from John Rudel’s congas and Rick Lazar’s doumbek, the vamping horn section plus staccato hocketing from vocalists Maryem Tollar and Sophia Grigoriadis, the trombonist splutters cross tones throughout, working up to a climax of staccato, flutter-tonguing.

Further Rudd duets that include a low-pitched, plunger-and-slurs face-off with Mott, and Buchbinder and the trombonist advancing their version of modern tailgate styles, confirm that McDonald recruited the perfect crew for this project.

06_if_a_birdIf I Were a Bird - A Piano Aviary
Michael Lewin
Dorian Sono Luminus DSL-92103

Olivier Messiaen once opined that birds were probably the greatest musicians to inhabit our planet, and they have indeed been inspiring many a composer and musician for centuries. With this disc, Michael Lewin pays homage to our feathered muses with a fascinating and entertaining mixture of works for solo piano.

Music by a rich array of composers is found here, and the diversity works brilliantly. There are whimsical offerings by Hoffman, MacDowell and Jensen; touches of delicate melancholy by Grieg, Granados and Schumann; and Rameau and Daquin are tastefully played on a Steinway concert grand. Transcriptions of Glinka, Saint-Saëns, Alabieff and Stravinsky are included, of which the Danse infernale from Firebird is most grand; and Messiaen himself is exquisitely represented by The Dove, written when he was twenty. Lewin also knocks off an enthusiastic rendition of the Joplinesque Turkey in the Straw and it fits the program to perfection.

The pacing of this ‘piano aviary’ is delightful and Lewin plays to dazzling and touchingly expressive effect. Highlights for me are the Messiaen and Schumann, and his renditions of Ravel’s Sad Birds and Cyril Scott’s Water Wagtail, but I will listen to this entire disc repeatedly with great pleasure. Kudos also to the designer of the booklet in which this CD is housed – the design with its rich colours and elegant illustrations is as impressive as the music within.

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