01 Basta ParlareBasta parlane!
Les Barocudas
ATMA ACD2 2824 (atmaclassique.com/en)

The names and compositions of 17th-century Italian composers Dario Castello, Giovanni Legrenzi, Giovanni Battista Grillo, Tarquinio Merula, Biagio Marini and Francesco Rognini Taeggio may be unfamiliar, yet their music, spiritedly performed by the Montreal-based Les Barocudas, provides the most purely entertaining CD of Baroque works I’ve heard in years.

These composers didn’t always specify the exact instrumentation to be employed in their pieces, and all may not have had the recorder in mind, but the indisputable star of this CD is recorder virtuoso Vincent Lauzer, whose brightly coloured, near-non-stop cheerful chirpings invigorate most of the action. He’s joined by Marie Nadeau-Tremblay (Baroque violin), Tristan Best (viola da gamba), Antoine Malette-Chénier (Baroque harp), Hank Knox (harpsichord), Nathan Mondry (organ) and Matthias Soly-Letarte (percussion).

The CD begins and ends with Sonatas by Castello (a third is included in the disc), each about seven minutes long, featuring alternating brief passages of rapid sprightliness and measured solemnity. At just over ten minutes, the CD’s longest selection is Marini’s plaintive Sonata Quarta, in which Nadeau-Tremblay is accompanied by Malette-Chénier and Mordry. (It’s the only piece where Lauzer’s recorder is absent.)

Among the other seven pieces, each lasting three or four minutes, three especially stand out: Marini’s Trio Sonata (variations on the French folk tune La Monica) and Merula’s Canzon No.19 “La Pasterla,” both stately dances; Rognini-Taeggio’s Diminutions after Palestrina’s “Vestiva i colli” is a churchly processional, rendered somewhat irreverent by Lauzer’s flamboyantly festive recorder!

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02 James OswaldJames Oswald – Airs for the Seasons
Rezonance Baroque Ensemble
Leaf Music LM266 (leaf-music.ca)

As with many 18th-century Scottish composers, much of James Oswald’s music can be heard as art music or as traditional. On this recording of selections from his Airs for the Seasons, a set of 48 chamber suites named for seasonal flowers, Rezonance Baroque Ensemble plays within the stylistic expectations of Baroque music but brings a sparkling playfulness suggesting Oswald’s connection to the traditional music and dance of his day.

The dynamic Oswald was composer to King George III, but previously a cellist and dancing master and then publisher of the 12-volume Caledonian Pocket Companion. It’s from this collection of “Scotch” airs that many traditional musicians know him.

Oswald is mistakenly given credit for some of the tunes in his Caledonian, but when you hear his own music you can understand why. Having played and sung with violinist and fiddler David Greenberg in his 1990s project Puirt a Baroque, which pushed the genre boundaries of this repertoire, I recognize the movements in his Seasons which might be based on or inspired by traditional tunes. For example, Cowslip: III would make a fine reel if you added a bit more swing and stress on the backbeats; and with some swagger, Daisy: II could be a square dance jig.

This repertoire is rich with possibilities for colour and mood changes, and Rezonance explores these deftly with a lovely sense of ensemble and some beautiful expressiveness. The recording has a lot of reverb but it complements the timbres of their historical instruments.

03 Calcutta 1789Calcutta 1789 – À la croisée de l’Europe et de l’Inde
Notturna; Christopher Palameta
ATMA ACD2 2831 (atmaclassique.com/en)

If colonialism is the conquest and control of other people’s land and goods, music articulates the disparities it creates between races, classes and individuals. As current scholars, curators and musicians are working to decolonize Western art music’s academies and organizations, this revisiting of 18th-century works inspired by music from India, or performed there, is most timely and welcome. 

“Hindustani airs” were popular with British residents of Calcutta in the late 18th century, resulting in transcriptions for harpsichord. At the same time, Indian nobles such as King Serfoji II of Thanjavur appreciated European classical music. For this reason, both repertoires are represented here, beautifully recorded in a reverberant space that might evoke an English hall or the Indian king’s palace.  

Transcriptions could not take into account the tuning, modes, timbres and style of Indian musical practices, and the airs were adjusted for Western tastes and instruments. Given this, Christopher Palameta and Notturna show sensitivity and great musicality in their performance of the pieces that at the time, celebrated the “exoticism” of borrowed melodies: Sakia, a Rekhta (Mera peara ab ia re), and a Terana (Dandera vakee). But by beginning the album with a captivating cut featuring sitar and tabla, Palameta and Notturna place the non-European music in the foreground and thus effect what Palameta calls an “interplay and aesthetic appreciation of two equally sophisticated musical traditions.”

04 Jean BaurJean Baur Chamber Music
Elinor Frey; Accademia de’ Dissonanti
Passacaille 2023 (elinorfrey.com)

The name Jean-Pierre Baur is undoubtedly an unfamiliar one today, and more than 200 years after his lifetime this French musician remains somewhat of a mystery. Born in Bouzonville in 1719, he ultimately settled in Paris, where he became known as a composer and harpist, the first in a family of harpists. Baur’s output was almost entirely devoted to small pieces for harp and a certain amount of chamber music, including sonatas for violin, harp, harpsichord and flute, many of which are featured on this attractive Passacaille label recording performed by members of the Baroque ensemble Accademia de’ Dissonanti (ADD) under the direction of cellist Elinor Frey. 

The cello sonatas featured here are taken from Baur’s first two collections Op.1 and Op.2 published in 1751 and 1756. These are amiable works comprising alternating slow/fast movements with the fine tone produced by cellist Octavie Dostaler-Lalonde complementing the thoughtful partnership provided by keyboardist Mélisande McNabney.   

Baur’s move to Paris around 1745 preceded a significant rise in popularity of the harp in France, one which lasted into the 19th century. The two harp sonatas here, Op.7 Nos. 3 and 6, are all grace and delicacy with harpist Antoine Mallette-Chénier delivering a sensitive performance, always finely nuanced.

As is the case of much Baroque chamber music, many of Baur’s compositions were conceived to be performed by various combinations of instruments and this is the case with the Sonata for Two Violins No.1, played here on two small cellos by Dostaler-Lalonde and Frey.

Kudos to Frey and the ADD for uncovering this hitherto unfamiliar repertoire – attractive packaging and excellent notes further enhance this recording of music deserving greater recognition.

05 David RogosinTheme: Variation
David Rogosin
Leaf Music LM251 (leaf-music.ca)

Do you remember in the movie Amadeus when the young boy Mozart sits down at the clavichord and for the delight of the Emperor and embarrassment of Salieri quickly improvises half a dozen variations on a tune by the latter, ending up with something completely different? Well, Mozart is duly represented on this remarkable disc by brilliant pianist  and scholar David Rogosin, a professor of piano from New Brunswick, who endeavours to trace the variation genre for the past 400 years, from early music (Gibbons) through the Baroque (Handel), the classical (Mozart, Beethoven) and the Romantic (Chopin) to the present, ending up with a special composition by Rogosin’s friend Kevin Morse, 12 Variations on a Fantasia by J.S. Bach.

Rogosin calls this anexploration” and this is his third recording of similar explorations of various aspects of musical composition. What amazes me is his ability to capture the essence of each different period and interpret it with flawless technical brilliance. 

The journey begins in the 16th century with Orlando Gibbons and it’s interesting to follow how the form develops from the simple to the complex, delving into the character and emotional aspect of the themes, proving the variation format to be the most difficult way of composition, testing the composer’s inventiveness to come up with something different with each variation.

Traditionalist as I am, I was most impressed with Beethoven’s magisterial 32 Variations which amply illustrates how far it is possible to deviate yet never abandon the theme and firmly hold a composition together. Chopin’s Berceuse (actually a set of variations) is also a very good choice; Rogosin plays with a beautiful soft legato, the mark of a master pianist.

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06 Around BaermannAround Baermann
Gili Loftus; Maryse Legault
Leaf Music LM265 (leaf-music.ca)

Carl Maria von Weber’s success came from knowing his strengths and, I’d argue, his shortcomings as well. He didn’t try to be Ludwig.2, but he killed it writing over-the-top operas (showing Wagner how), and he killed it as a touring pianist alongside such virtuosi as clarinetist Heinrich Baermann. He gave up writing symphonies after two early attempts, and turned his attention to operas, concertos and chamber music, including a ton of great stuff commissioned by Baermann. 

Clarinetist Maryse Legault joins forces with Gili Loftus (pianoforte) on the recent release of pieces written by, for, or during Baermann’s heyday. Legault’s mouthpiece (I suspect) is wood instead of (modern) hard rubber, which could account for her inconsistent tone; it would be tough managing two different fibrous materials as they interact with the local weather. She can really play the ten-keyed period clarinet (a copy of one played by Baermann) with assurance and subtlety, but sometimes her volume distorts colour and pitch. Most convincing is the Andante con Moto from Weber’s Grand Duo Concertante, Op.48, where Legault assumes the proper role as diva, reaching high and low for expression. Bravo also to Loftus for making such tasteful decisions on all the tracks. The Grand Duo is her tour de force.

My main beef is that not all the material warrants attention. Champions of Felix Mendelssohn won’t use his early Sonata to bolster their argument. And a tossed-off filler (per Legault’s informative liner notes) like Weber’s Variations on a Theme from the opera Sylvana, Op.33 takes too long to type, let alone listen to. They’d have done better to include in its place a charming selection accessible only online: Sonatina for Clarinet and Piano, by Caroline Schleicher-Krähmer, a clarinetist/composer of the same period with otherwise no known connection to Baërmann.  

Clever cover photos reference another great Romantic artist, Johannes Vermeer.

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07 Ontario PopsBreaking Barriers
Yanet Campbell Secades; Tanya Charles Iveniuk; Marlene Ngalissamy; Ontario Pops Orchestra; Carlos Bastidas
Independent (ontariopops.com)

Was it Arthur Fiedler who said that there are only two kinds of music: the good kind and the boring kind? Well, there is certainly no boring kind of music here.

This CD features the Ontario Pops Orchestra (OPO), a band founded by Carlos Bastidas, born in Colombia, who is also its conductor and music director. Apparently as a child Bastidas was so impressed by Fiedler and the Boston Pops that this gave him the inspiration of forming something of the sort in Canada as well. The orchestra declares itself one of the most diverse professional orchestras in Canada, organized on principles of inclusiveness and multiculturalism. Recorded at Toronto’s prestigious Jeanne Lamon Hall, Trinity-St. Paul’s Centre, Breaking Barriers is their debut recording of orchestral and concerto pieces featuring three soloists and the music is by no means boring. 

The ambitious program begins with Mozart’s notoriously difficult (Great) G-Minor Symphony No.40, a challenge for conductor and ensemble alike, performed with flawless grace. Later the hackneyed Eine Kleine Nachtmusik is played with such freshness, joy and enthusiasm that it feels like we’ve never heard it before.

I was absolutely enchanted by the selection from Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, the second violin concerto “Summer” inspired by the languor and laziness of heat interrupted by violent gusts of wind. The soloist is Tanya Charles Ivaniuk who plays with terrific intensity and virtuosity, totally immersed like a truly great artist. The last movement, the famous Storm, involves the whole orchestra in frantic virtuoso violin playing. Later we hear soloist Yanet Campbell Secades with Bach’s A Minor Violin Concerto and Marlene Ngalissamy with Vivaldi’s Bassoon Concerto in E Minor, also in very fine performances.

We foresee a great future for this orchestra; they are already becoming popular in Toronto, giving open air concerts with Latin American music that includes singing and dancing with enthusiastic and participating audiences. Bravo OPO!

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