From 1984 until 1991 I was the host of Transfigured Night on CKLN-FM, a weekly contemporary music program that originally aired in the overnight slot from 2am, but eventually moved to a more civilized 10pm start. During that period I had the pleasure of meeting and interviewing many of the important practitioners in the field brought to town by the likes of the Music Gallery, New Music Concerts, Esprit Orchestra and Arraymusic. One of the most memorable characters was the pianist and erstwhile ballroom dancer Yvar Mikhashoff, whose International Tango Project resulted in some 127 commissions. I met Yvar when he was in Toronto performing selections from the project at the Music Gallery in 1987, and again when he was the featured soloist with New Music Concerts at the Premiere Dance Theatre in 1990, performing works by Henry Brant, Alvin Curran and Nils Vigeland. As an aside I would mention that this latter concert was the occasion of the now internationally renowned soprano Barbara Hannigan’s first professional engagement, an obbligato role in Brant’s Inside Track, for two mixed ensembles and piano. 

01 Tangos for YvarMikhashoff, who died at 52 in 1993, left a legacy that has been taken up by American pianist Hanna Shybayeva on Tangos for Yvar (Grand Piano GP794 naxosdirect.com). Shybayeva has constructed a varied and compelling program of 18 selections, mostly written for Mikhashoff, but concluding with her own arrangement of Astor Piazzolla’s classic Libertango. Strangely, and without explanation that I can find, she also includes Stefan Wolpe’s 1927 Tango. While this is a good match for the rest of the project in its interpretation of the iconic dance form, and at three and a half minutes falling midway in the duration range of the commissions, its composition more than half a century before the project began surely deserves some note. There is a vast stylistic range presented here, from Chester Biscardi’s evocative Incitation to Desire, one of the earliest commissions and one of the least overtly reminiscent of the tango’s distinctive rhythm, to the serial approach of Milton Babbitt’s It Takes Twelve to Tango, the minimalism of Tom Johnson’s Tango, the moto perpetuo of Scott Pender’s Tango: Ms. Jackson Dances for the People (referencing Janet Jackson’s What Have You Done For Me Lately) and Frederic Rzewski’s rhythmic, lilting, Steptangle. Of local note is Douglas Finch’s Tango, one of four Canadian works commissioned for the marathon Music Gallery performance mentioned above, a five-part affair including 50 tangos and a slide show of Mikhashoff in full splendour from his bygone ballroom days.

As satisfying as this collection is, it leaves me wanting more. I’m very curious about what some of the composers mentioned, but not included here, came up with in response to Mikhashoff’s challenge. For instance, John Cage, Karlheinz Stockhausen, Oliver Knussen and Canadian icon John Weinzweig (also commissioned by the Music Gallery for the marathon). Dare I hope for a Volume Two?

02 DinaridesThe tango’s most familiar feature is the use of accordion, or more accurately, the South American variant the bandoneon, so it is surprising to find such an extensive collection as mentioned above without that distinctive instrument. We make up for that here with a disc of transcriptions for accordion, violin and clarinet of mostly familiar music from Eastern Europe, including such staples as two Hungarian Dances by Brahms, a Chopin Mazurka and Smetana’s Die Moldau in a very effective trio reduction. Tales from the Dinarides features Michael Bridge, Guillaume Tardif and Kornel Wolak and was released by the University of Alberta’s Wirth Institute for Austrian and Central European Studies (WIR06 michaelbridgemusic.com/store). Recipient of the Lieutenant-Governor of Alberta’s Emerging Artist Award, Bridge is currently in the Doctor of Musical Arts with Performance Emphasis on Accordion program at the University of Toronto, where for the second year in a row he has won the Joseph and Frances Macerollo Accordion Scholarship. He is no stranger to these pages where reviews of his group, Ladom, have appeared previously. At time of writing, the Bridge/Tardif/Wolak trio is on tour in Europe, having just finished concerts in Ukraine and Poland.

The title of the disc is taken from a 2016 work by prolific Tartar-Canadian composer Airat Ichmouratov which is the centrepiece of the album and the only piece written specifically for this instrumental combination. As with much of his work, the inspiration comes from the Jewish folk traditions of Central Europe, in this case the traditional singing and dancing styles of the Dinaric Alps region (Dinarides). The notes tell us that “Using a water whistle, the composer first introduces a bird in a call-and-answer episode with stunning ganga singing from Croatia. The bird then flies over mountains and valleys, observing neighbouring communities […] field songs and […] village dances [from] Bosnia, Slovenia, Serbia and Albania, until the athletic klezmer style animates everyone in a fast dance punctuated with a cheering ‘Hey!’”

The disc also includes Bridge’s striking adaptation of Brahms’ Rondo alla Zingarese and the trio’s transcription of Lutosławski’s Five Dance Preludes based on Polish folk rhythms, originally scored for clarinet and piano. The playing is animated throughout, although there is room for a bit more nuance from the clarinet.

Listen to 'Tales from the Dinarides' Now in the Listening Room

03 WajnbergThree composers seemingly unfamiliar to me populate the next disc. Produced by the Polish Ministry of Culture, Wajnberg/Tansman/Czajkowski (Accord ACD 247-2 naxosdirect.com) features the Wajnberg Trio performing music by three Polish-born composers active in the mid-20th century. I said the composers were unfamiliar to me, but in the case of the first, Mieczysław Wajnberg, it is actually just the spelling that threw me. AKA Vaynberg and Vainberg, it seems that the composer Weinberg (1919-1996) who escaped the Nazis in 1939 and spent the rest of his life in Russia, becoming a close friend of Shostakovich, was Wajnberg in his homeland. His music has been recorded with increasing frequency in recent years and has appeared here in review on numerous occasions. Wajnberg is represented by the 1945 Piano Trio, Op.24, which like much of his music is quite reminiscent of Shostakovich, especially in its more boisterous moments. For anyone who enjoys this – as I do – there is nothing here to disappoint.

Aleksander Tansman is actually a name I know as a result of my New Music Concerts colleague Robert Aitken serving on an Aleksander Tansman Festival competition jury in the Polish city of Łódź one year when flute was the instrument in focus, but his music was not familiar to me. Tansman (1897-1986) was born and raised in Łódź during the era when Poland did not exist as an independent state, being part of Tsarist Russia. After completing his studies, he moved to France in 1919 and fell under the spell of Stravinsky, Ravel and members of Les Six, embracing the modernist styles of Paris as a welcome change from the conservative scene in his homeland. Evidently the young Polish virtuoso pianist and composer made quite an impression and forged a career in the neo-Classical style. The trio here, in its premiere recording, dates from 1938, the year before Tansman fled Europe to escape the Nazi invasion. He spent the war years in Los Angeles where he scored a number of Hollywood films and in 1946 he was nominated for an Oscar for Best Music, Scoring of a Dramatic or Comedy Picture, for Paris Underground. He returned to France after the war, and although some of his later works reflect his Polish and Jewish roots, he never moved back to his homeland.

Andrzej Czajkowski (André Tchaikovsky) was born Robert Andrzej Krauthammer in 1935. He adopted his later name after escaping the Warsaw ghetto in 1942 with his grandmother and remained in hiding for the remainder of the war. After completing piano studies in Łódź, Warsaw and Brussels, in 1957 he gave a series of successful recitals in Paris and later went on to record with some of the who’s who of conductors of the day, including Böhm, Doráti, Giulini, Mitropoulos and Reiner. He also had some composition lessons with Nadia Boulanger and wrote a number of works that have begun to be acknowledged in the current century, including the opera The Merchant of Venice which was not produced until 2013, some three decades after his death. This is the world premiere of the two-movement Trio Notturno, Op.6 which dates from 1978. Also first performed posthumously, it is reminiscent of Viennese Expressionism, particularly the music of Alban Berg.

The members of the Wajnberg Trio – Piotr Sałajczyk, piano, Szymon Kreszowiec, violin and Arkadiusz Dobrowolski, cello – share a passion for the life and music of their namesake and draw their repertoire primarily from 20th-century Polish composers. The trio made its debut at the 2016 edition of the Tansman Festival. This is their first recording and a very welcome addition to my understanding of the modern piano trio repertoire. 

04 Shank HagedornThe Shank-Hagedorn Duo – Leslie Shank, violin and viola; Joseph Hagedorn, guitar – is a Minneapolis-based wife-and-husband team for whom much of the music on At Home and Abroad (innova 021 innova.mu) was composed. Although innova is the label of the American Composers Forum, not all the composers represented on this disc are American. Among the most intriguing works presented are Three Pieces by Finnish free-bass accordionist Maria Kalaniemi, arranged by Hagerdorn. The first, Slingerdansin, is jig-like with many characteristic “hookings” in the violin part which does a convincing Hardanger fiddle impersonation. Tähdet Taivahalla is a mournful ballad. I enjoyed watching Kalaniemi perform the original version on YouTube, and I find this string transcription quite convincing. Sofias Flykt returns to the world of quirky fiddle rhythms. I was dancing in my seat until I was confounded by its complexity.

American David Lang composed gift as a belated wedding present to “one of his oldest friends, Leslie.” It’s a lovely, gentle and contemplative tribute. Alf Houkom says there is “no program for Serenade, neither narrative, emotional or theoretical. Serenade is simply acknowledgement of the pleasure evinced by Leslie and Joe when making music together.” Born in 1935, David Hahn is a generation older than the rest of the composers here. His playful W Is for Weasel dates from 2003 and is in four movements, including an Estampie in alternating seven-eight and five-eight time inspired by the early medieval dance form, and a set of variations on Pop! Goes the Weasel. Chilean guitarist/composer Javier Contreras contributes Suite for Violin and Guitar in six movements, each embodying a different Latin American dance rhythm. For the opening track, Music in Four Sharps by Ian Krouse, the guitar and violin are joined by Stephanie Arado, violin, Tom Turner, viola, and Laura Sewell, cello, to complete the string quartet required for an extended exploration of John Dowland’s Frog Galliard. Like in the original, Krouse uses no accidentals, sticking with the seven notes of the E-Major scale; hence the title. Personally I found the 15-minute duration longer than I wanted to devote to those seven notes, but I must commend him for staying in the character of the piece.

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
discoveries@thewholenote.com

01 Lutoslawski DutilleuxI must confess that German-Canadian cellist Johannes Moser was more or less unknown to me until the arrival of his recording of the Lutosławski and Dutilleux Cello Concertos with the Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Berlin under Thomas Søndergård (Pentatone PTC 5186 689 pentatonemusic.com). That’s the trouble with having someone like Terry Robbins as delegate for most of the string recordings that cross my desk. Checking my archive I was surprised to note that Terry has reviewed two of Moser’s discs since we instigated the Strings Attached column back in 2011. Fortunately for me, he has such a backlog of titles at the moment that I have no qualms about cherry picking for my own purposes – two months in a row – a few discs that would otherwise have gone to him.

You may recall from my column last month that Witold Lutosławski (1913-1994) is one of my favourite composers. I had the great pleasure and privilege of meeting that fine gentleman in October 1993 when he conducted the New Music Concerts Ensemble with soloists Fujiko Imajishi, violin, and soprano Valdine Anderson. We did not know it at the time, but that concert would turn out to be the last he ever gave; he died of cancer less than four months later. The recording of that concert was released independently and later reissued by Naxos (naxos.com).

By the way, the photo of Lutosławski that graces that album cover is by André Leduc, who you may remember from last month’s issue. André and I also had the opportunity to meet Henri Dutilleux (1916-2013) when he was the guest of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra and the University of Toronto back in May 1998. The TSO performance of three of Dutilleux’s large orchestral works under the direction of Jukka-Pekka Saraste was released the following year (Finlandia Records 3984-23524-2).

I sometimes wonder why it takes me so long to write this column. Often it is because of side trips such as this down memory lane, revisiting treasured recordings that slow me down.

So, back to Johannes Moser: it was an easy decision to keep this fabulous new CD for myself. His biography makes a point of saying that he was born into a musical family in 1979 with dual German and Canadian citizenship. I was not able to find anything more about his Canadian heritage initially, but Tourism Saskatoon provides the information that “Moser is the son of Saskatchewan musical royalty; [his] mother is Saskatchewan-born soprano Edith Wiens.” He began playing the cello at eight. Ten years later, he was studying with the renowned Lithuanian cellist David Geringas, a pupil of Rostropovich, who won the Gold Medal at the Tchaikovsky Competition in 1970. In 2002, Moser himself received that same honour. He is enjoying an electrifying international career, performing with top orchestras around the world – the Berlin, Vienna, New York, Los Angeles and Israel Philharmonics to name a few – and has recently formed a trio with violinist Vadim Gluzman and pianist Yevgeny Sudbin.

Moser’s performance on this new disc is superb. The Lutosławski concerto begins quietly, with an opening motive like a heartbeat that is intermittently interrupted by scurrying sounds above and below the pitch of the pulse. The interruptions gradually become more insistent and intense, all created by the cello alone. It is only after four and a half minutes, and a return to the heartbeat, that other members of the orchestra join in, with brazen fanfares from individual brass instruments. This pattern is developed throughout the Four Episodes of the second movement and the Cantilena third, with the solo cello as protagonist facing off with various orchestral disturbances, but also holding its own. And always returning to the heartbeat. It is only in the final movement that the full orchestra explodes in seeming fury. But the cello is not daunted and rises against the din with a repeated shrieking pulse, now more reminiscent of a heart attack than a heartbeat.

Dutilleux’s concerto Tout un monde lointain was written in the same year as Lutosławski’s – 1970 – and once again it is a dramatic work that starts in near silence. Its title and the epigrams for the five movements are taken from Baudelaire’s Les Fleurs de mal. If you are not familiar with this work, or the Lutosławski, I urge you to rectify the situation with this very fine recording. Søndergård leads the Berlin RSO in what, for me, are definitive performances; and the sound is impeccable. I’ve never heard these concertos live and don’t know whether it would be possible to achieve such a perfect balance between cello and orchestra in a concert setting. I hope someday to have the opportunity to find out, ideally with Johannes Moser as the soloist.

02 Salonen SaariajoSticking with a theme, the next disc also involves solo cello, but in this instance without an orchestra or any accompaniment whatsoever. Esa-Pekka Salonen; Kaija Saariaho – Works for Solo Cello (Ondine ODE 1294-2 naxosdirect.com) features American cellist Wilhelmina Smith in repertoire that pushes the extreme limits of the instrument. It begins with Salonen’s YTA III, one of a series of works for solo instruments. Yta is the Swedish word for surface, and in this piece the pitch C, in any of five octaves, surfaces and resurfaces in what the composer describes as “a vision of the death of an organism”; in music this vision is “violent and ugly.” Much of the disc gives this same impression and at times I found myself wondering where such anger was coming from. Even Saariaho’s Sept papillons (Seven Butterflies) more often resembles the buzzing of angry bees than the floating grace of its namesakes. For all that, there is a compelling power to this music that drew me in and held my attention. And there are moments of respite, for instance in the middle movement of Salonen’s knock, breathe, shine, where for an instant I thought the eerie sound coming from the cello was actually a theremin. But even with that I found that I could not listen to the whole disc at one sitting, despite the inclusion of a “palette cleanser” in the form of what may well be the first piece ever written for solo cello, Chiacona by Giuseppe Colombi (1635-1694).

Mystery Variations was a set of 31 pieces that were commissioned on behalf of Finnish cellist Annsi Karttunen, in which each composer would take as a foundation the above-mentioned Chiacona. Both the composers featured here contributed to the series; on this disc the original is bookended by Salonen’s Sarabande per un coyote and Saariaho’s Dreaming Chaconne. The first, after a stately opening, leads “the coyote into rough terrain, up rugged peaks of harmony and over precarious ridges of dissonance.” In the second Saariaho “maintains the fundamental pitch structure of the Colombi, which is, however, in disguise behind the veil of shades traversed by the instrument and the performer.” On first listening, without having read the program notes, I must confess that I did not hear the relationship of either to the original, which appeared as a wonderful aberration (apparition) in the midst of a very difficult listening session. But there is much here to be enjoyed, or at least marvelled at, including the vast technical acumen of Smith and the range of ethereal sounds she is able to coax, or wrestle, from her instrument.

03 ZimmermannBernd Alois Zimmermann (1918-1970) was already dead by his own hand when I first discovered his music in my formative years, but what a revelation that music was. From a piece for solo cello, to electronic compositions, works for large orchestra and the thought-to-be “un-performable opera” (due to its complexity and the sheer size of the resources required) Die Soldaten, I was blown away by everything I heard. Other than the early Sonata for Viola Solo performed by Rivka Golani and the late Four Short Studies for solo cello performed by Siegfried Palm, both under the auspices of New Music Concerts, I don’t believe I have ever heard Zimmermann’s music live. I take heart from a new Ondine release which confirms that his oeuvre is still in favour, at least in some parts of the world. Recent recordings of the Violin Concerto (1950), Photoptosis (1968) and Die Soldaten Vocal Symphony (1957-1963) are here performed by violinist Leila Josefowicz, vocal soloists, and the Finnish RSO under the direction of Hannu Lintu (ODE 1325-2 naxosdirect.com). It is the middle of these works that I would suggest as an introduction to this extremely forward-looking German composer. From the opening bars of Photoptosis (Incidence of Light) for large orchestra, which seem to emerge from some primordial ooze, the music grows in intensity through richer and richer textures. Out of this dense stew arise quotations from familiar iconic works – Beethoven’s Ninth, Scriabin’s Poem of Ecstasy and Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker – and the tension recedes, only to build relentlessly again to an explosive finale.

During the years Zimmermann was working on his opera, he was also preparing a concert version roughly one third the length of the two-hour original. Calling for soprano, alto, contralto, tenor, baritone and bass soloists, and interspersing instrumental sections among the operatic scenes, the Vocal Symphony provides a precis of the extravagantly dramatic work. The opera was originally broadcast on radio in 1963 and received its first full staging in 1965 by the Cologne Opera under Michael Gielen. Since that time it has enjoyed several productions in each of the subsequent decades, most often in Europe, but also Britain, the USA and in 2016, Buenos Aires. In Zimmermann’s centenary year, Die Soldaten enjoyed productions in Nuremberg, Madrid and Cologne. I have a feeling that recordings are as close as Toronto audiences are likely to get to the opera in the foreseeable future.

And to bring it full circle, I will mention one more of my “brushes with greatness,” this time not in my formative years, but in those of the artist. During my time as a music programmer at CJRT-FM in the early 1990s, I had the opportunity to meet Leila Josefowicz as a child prodigy on her first press junket. I’m not sure if that was before or after her Carnegie Hall debut in 1994, but I expect it was in conjunction with the Philips release of her Tchaikovsky and Sibelius concertos the following year. She was born in Mississauga in 1977; her parents relocated to Los Angeles when she was three, and then moved to Philadelphia a decade later so that she could attend the Curtis Institute of Music. And the rest, as they say, is history. She is enjoying a significant international career, with well over a dozen recordings on such labels as Warner, Nonesuch, DG and Hyperion, with repertoire from Beethoven and Brahms to John Adams, and now Zimmermann. The craggy Violin Concerto is the earliest work on this disc, but its intensity, postmodernism, and its extremes of tonality, belie its origins. Josefowicz rises to all of the challenges and is obviously not daunted by “difficult music.” When I was doing my program Transfigured Night at CKLN-FM in the 1980s, I used to present a Difficult Listening Hour – sit bolt upright in that straight-backed chair (with a nod to Laurie Anderson) – and any of these pieces would have (and likely did) find a home there. Not for the faint of heart.

David Olds. Photo by Daniel FoleyShameless self-promotion: After 20 years as general manager of New Music Concerts I will be stepping down at the end of this season. As a parting gift to the organization, I am hosting a fundraiser on behalf of NMC, “Coffee House 345 Revisited” (aka Gallery 345 on Sorauren), on Thursday May 30. I will be bringing my eclectic repertoire, 6- and 12-string guitars and a few musical friends along for the ride. It’s a benefit so the tickets are a little pricey – $60 each or two for $100 – but that includes complimentary snacks and drinks, and a charitable receipt for the CRA allowable portion. I hope you will join me. For reservations call 416-961-9594.

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
discoveries@thewholenote.com

Some of my favourite memories are from road trips taken with my dear friend André Leduc. We met in the lobby of Jane Mallett Theatre at the intermission of an Esprit Orchestra concert sometime in the mid-1980s. I was already well versed in the 20th-century canon, and was quickly drawn to the outgoing personality of this musical naïf whose curiosity about the subject seemed boundless. I told him about my radio show Transfigured Night on CKLN-FM and he told me about his work as a commercial photographer. We became fast friends and later travelling companions. Our journeys most often have contemporary music at their heart – Montreal for the founding of the Canadian Electroacoustic Community, Ottawa for QuartetFest, Montreal again (and again) for a number of festivals and conventions – although our trip to Quebec City and on up the north shore to Sainte-Anne-de-Beaupré and beyond to see the arrival of the snow geese, was strictly a pleasure outing as I recall. But there is always an aspect of modern art involved too, with gallery visits an integral part of our adventures. One memorable trip around the turn of the new millennium combined these two shared loves in a most wonderful way. The timing of our visit to Montreal on that occasion coincided with a retrospective tribute at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts to Jean-Paul Riopelle who had died earlier that year, and a concert by Quatuor Molinari featuring one of our shared favourites of the genre, Lutosławski’s String Quartet.

Guido Molinari. Photo by André Leduc.An unintended highlight of that trip was meeting the artist who was the namesake of the quartet, Guido Molinari and spending time in his studio. This was at the instigation of founding first violinist Olga Ranzenhofer who, charmed by my friend, encouraged us to “give Guido a call” when she found out our interest in contemporary visual art. We did, and found him to be a most amiable host, generous with his time so long as we were willing to wait while he put a few more brush strokes on “before the paint dries.” That is when André took the photo seen here of Molinari at his work bench. On many of our trips, and during two decades as photographer for New Music Concerts before retiring, André captured some of the most significant musical voices of our time. You can find his book of Canadian composer portraits, Composers In My Lens, at musiccentre.ca/node/144800.

01bMolinari QuartetI believe it is safe to say that the Molinari String Quartet is the most active chamber ensemble in Canada devoted almost exclusively to the performance and propagation of contemporary music. They have just released their 13th disc on the ATMA label, as well as having contributed to portrait recordings of Jim Hiscott and Otto Joachim over the years. In addition, the Molinaris have been a prime factor in the development of the genre by hosting, since 2002, a biennial international string quartet competition for composers under the age of 40. Three of their ATMA discs have been devoted to early laureates of the competition.

Their most recent release, following discs of music by international luminaries Gubaidulina, Kurtág and Schnittke, features four works written between 1988 and 1996 by American John Zorn (ATMA ADC2 2774 atmaclassique.com/En). The disc begins with what has become Zorn’s most frequently performed work, Cat O’ Nine Tails, a pastiche often reminiscent of a Roadrunner cartoon. Although in one movement, it is constructed of many brief fragments, in the words of Ranzenhofer: “By turns sparkling or gritty, virtuoso improvisations, musical allusions, harmonic sequences and sonic mash-ups – all these components freely combine in this dazzling, disconcerting and droll work.” Zorn himself suggests that the next work, The Dead Man, is “like the soundtrack of a sordid and sadomasochistic film set in a gloomy New York or Tokyo basement.” Although divided into 13 movements, again they are brief fragments ranging from 20 to 90 seconds, juxtaposing wild mood swings.

The final two works are much darker. Momento Mori is presented as an emotional autobiography composed in 1992 and is dedicated to Zorn’s longtime collaborator Ikue Mori. At 27 minutes it is by far the most substantial work on offer here. While it too juxtaposes a plethora of moods, from meditative repose to extraordinary tension, there is none of the comic flamboyance of the preceding tracks. The final work, Kol Nidre, was written “in a single 30-minute burst of inspiration” according to Zorn, and Ranzenhofer says it “uses music stripped of all impure sonorities to reveal a world of inner peace.” For its seven-minute duration we are drawn into an almost medieval stasis of entirely tonal, gentle unison melody more suggestive of Arvo Pärt, or Shostakovich in his more contemplative moments, than the Zorn of the earlier works. Throughout the disc the Molinaris are superb, finding just the right balance between abrasive exuberance, virtuosic hilarity, quiet desperation and haunting beauty as required.

Listen to 'John Zorn : Chamber Music' Now in the Listening Room

One of my “trips of a lifetime” on which André did not accompany me, was a ten-day visit to Iceland in 2012 with my wife Sharon at the invitation of New Music Concerts’ colleague Robert Aitken and his late wife Marion. Of course there was music and art involved – Bob seems to know every composer and musician on the island and is also an aficionado of modern art – but also museums. Iceland seems to have a museum for everything, including expected topics like Vikings, glaciers, volcanoes and whales, but some surprising off-beat subjects as well, like punk music, herring and penises (Icelandic Phallological Museum) – we did not visit that one. It was an amazing trip in the last days of June and early July, with the sun barely disappearing below the horizon for an hour each night. Although we did not circumnavigate the island, we did travel to many of the (incredible) landmarks including Snæfellsjökull, a 700,000-year-old glacier-capped stratovolcano which was the starting point of The Journey to the Centre of the Earth in Jules Verne’s novel; Thingvellir National Park, home of Althing, the world’s first parliament which was convened there in 930 and continued on that site until 1798, and is also the meeting point of the North American and European tectonic plates which are gradually moving apart at a rate of a millimetre or two per year; a number of unbelievable waterfalls, various hot springs and geysers and the black sand beaches of Vik. Most striking was the stark, treeless landscape and the barren hillsides dotted with Iceland’s miniature horses and endless sheep. And why am I telling you all this? I believe that trip gave me the background to truly appreciate the starkness of the next disc.

02 ThoprsteinsdottirIcelandic-born cellist Sæunn Thorsteinsdóttir has just released Vernacular (Sono Luminus DSL-92229 saeunn.com/vernacular) which includes world premieres of solo works written for her by three of the current generation of Icelandic composers, and a contemporary classic by senior composer Haflidi Hallgrímsson (b.1941). Composer Hallgrímsson is a cellist in his own right (and incidentally was in the trio ICE with Robert Aitken and composer/pianist Thorkell Sigurbjörnsson during the 1970s). He composed Solitaire for solo cello in 1969 and it was his first published work, later revising it to its current form two decades later. Thorsteinsdóttir says that from the first time she played the work she felt a connection “not only to the music, but also beyond the music.” The idiomatic writing is like “playing [with Hallgrímsson’s] hands… getting to know a fellow musician in this physical way is satisfying and humbling at the same time.” After the extremes of the first three pieces on the disc, Solitaire is a welcome relief. A five-movement work, it opens with Oration employing simultaneous left-hand pizzicato beneath a soaring bowed melody. Serenade is played entirely without the bow while the central Nocturne is richly melodic in a meditative way. This is followed by a Dirge which the composer says “is lyrical in nature and hints at darker thoughts, leading eventually to the last movement which is a lively and energetic Jig.” This performance makes clear why Solitaire is regarded as a seminal and significant exploration of “the sound world… available to the contemporary cellist,” at least as perceived in 1969.

As mentioned, the recent works on this recording explore more extreme notions. The disc begins with Páll Ragnar Pálsson (b.1977), a rock musician who has recently come to the world of art music. He studied with Helena Tulve at the Estonian Academy of Music where he received a PhD and in 2017 released his first album as a composer. In 2018 his Quake for solo cello and chamber orchestra was a selected work at the International Rostrum of Composers in Budapest, which marked his first collaboration with compatriot Thorsteinsdóttir. The solo work Afterquake is a direct outgrowth of that project. This is followed by 48 Images of the Moon by Thurídur Jónsdóttir (b.1967), which combines solo cello with quiet natural sounds from a field recording made at night in an Icelandic fjord by Magnús Bergsson. The entire piece takes place in barely audible gestures with only a rare pizzicato pop rising above the field. Halldór Smárason (b.1989) contributes a three-movement work simply titled O. Thorsteinsdóttir tells us that “In Iceland, darkness in the winter months has created a need for light and warmth for centuries, and candles continue to be a source for both. This piece explores the meaning and associations with the intimacy, warmth, and the wild yet contained energy of the light of the candle and its effect on the darkness surrounding it.” As effective as this depiction is, it only makes me the more content to have visited Iceland during the days of the midnight sun. 

03 Elinor Frey Guided by VoicesThis month’s final disc also contains new works for solo cello, but with a very different premise. Guided by Voices – New Music for Baroque Cello (Analekta AN 2 9162 analekta.com/en/) features works written for Elinor Frey. Frey, an accomplished cellist comfortable in the music of all eras but particularly known for her early music acumen, says: “When modern composers write a new piece for ‘Baroque’ cello it becomes an instrument of today, helping to expand the sound worlds of both the cello and new music audiences.” The breadth of vision and diversity of voices represented here certainly support this. Scott Edward Godin’s piece, which gives the album its title, “draws inspiration from the life and oeuvre of Saint Hildegard of Bingen, […and] exploits the obsessiveness found within recurring melodic units of Hildegard’s music, deconstructing these units before reconstructing them in a new musical framework.” Those familiar with Hildegard’s long, sustained melodies may be surprised by the level of activity in Godin’s creation, but strains of her melodies do peek through the busyness.

Minerva, says composer Lisa Streich “imagines a goddess who, almost like an octopus, helps with or stands for many things at once – a goddess of everything. She reminds me of the human being of the future, a human fully endowed with equal rights, who, according to Global Gender Gap Reports, should exist in 217 years.” Frey dedicates her project to Maxime McKinley with gratitude for his “humour and kindness.” McKinley’s own contribution, Cortile di Pilato, was inspired by a courtyard in Bologna surrounded by the Basilica of Santo Stefano, a complex of four churches built on a foundation begun in the fifth century that was itself built on a temple dedicated to the Egyptian goddess Isis. He says: “I was interested in the ‘copresence’ of different epochs in the same place that create a thread among many centuries. This pleased me, particularly when writing a piece for Baroque cello and harpsichord.” For this performance Frey is joined by Mélisande McNabney.

Like the McKinley, Linda Catlin Smith’s Ricercar was commissioned with the support of Toronto philanthropist, the late Daniel Cooper. It is perhaps the most “Baroque” of the pieces on offer here; played with little or no vibrato, the melody gently unfolds and grows. But gradually it expands through other sound worlds as the melody is supported by double and triple stops that produce some close harmonies, some wide interval jumps and, toward the middle of the piece, a driving rhythmic pulse. This eventually gives way to a quiet section before building dramatically again and receding once more. Ken Ueno says Chimera “is a kind of meta-suite in five movements, one that traverses time. Starting with a contemporary recasting of a prelude, the following movements gradually approach a ghost of the Baroque.” Frey seems at home in all the realms this journey presents her with, be it just intonation, microtonality, hectic virtuosity or stasis. It is our good fortune to accompany her.

We invite submissions. CDs 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
discoveries@thewholenote.com

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