Most of my listening this month has related in one way or another to my “other hat” as general manager at New Music Concerts. In the early days of January we presented one of our most successful concerts in some years, with standing room only at the Music Gallery. “Conducting the Ether,” a concert originally mounted during the Open Ears Festival last summer in Kitchener, featured German theremin virtuoso Carolina Eyck and the Penderecki String Quartet, with the participation of pianist Gregory Oh, oboist James Mason and composer D. Andrew Stewart.

Patented in 1928 by electrical pioneer Léon Theremin, the theremin is an early electronic musical instrument controlled without physical contact by the performer, who literally “conducts the air.” The concert included one of the first ensemble pieces to incorporate the theremin, Bohuslav Martinů’s Fantasia (1944) with oboe, string quartet and piano, works by Omar Daniel for theremin, string quartet and electronic organ, D. Andrew Stewart for string quartet and Karlax (a contemporary digital musical instrument), a transcription of Ravel’s Kaddish for theremin and piano and Eyck’s own recent Fantasias, structured movements for string quartet overlaid with theremin improvisations by the composer.

01 Carolina EyckIt is a recording of these Fantasias for Theremin and String Quartet featuring Carolina Eyck and members of the American Contemporary Music Ensemble (Butterscotch Records BSR015) that has been in constant rotation on my sound system in recent weeks. While the eerie electronic sound of the theremin can be deceptively close to that of the human voice and is often used that way by composers writing for the instrument, the freshness of Eyck’s pieces for me is the breadth of range presented here. Of the six pieces, two use what I would call the traditional sound of the theremin – familiar from horror movie soundtracks and the Beach Boys’ Good Vibrations – but the other four exploit other aspects of the instrument, from chirps and swooshes to rumbles and groans, bell sounds to joyous explosions of mirth. Meanwhile the quartet accompaniment varies from minimalist ostinati to Bartók-like night music, drones to rollicking clouds of harmony and in one instance sounds like a Renaissance consort of viols. For anyone unfamiliar with the theremin, or labouring under the misapprehension that it is a “one-trick pony,” these Fantasias will provide an exhilarating introduction to its true versatility.

Founded in the 1980s in Poland as the New Szymanowski Quartet, the Penderecki String Quartet earned its new name when it won a special prize at a 1986 competition in Lodz for its performance of Quartet No.2 by Krzysztof Penderecki and the composer invited the quartet to take his name. They later went to the USA and were affiliated with the University of Wisconsin before establishing a permanent residency at Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo in 1991. There have been numerous personnel changes over the years, with violinist Jerzy Kaplanek the only Polish member remaining. Violist Christine Vlajk has been with them for two decades and Jeremy Bell has been sharing first chair duties with Kaplanek since 1999. Only American cellist Katie Schlaikjer, who joined in 2013, is a relative newcomer. In addition to teaching positions at WLU, the PSQ enjoys an active international career and has recorded more the 25 compact discs with repertoire ranging from Beethoven through Bartók – the first Canadian recording of the Bartók cycle – to commissions from many composers of the present day.

02 PSQTheir most recent release – De Profundis (Marquis Classics MAR 81473) – features two works by Polish-born Norbert Palej who now teaches at the University of Toronto, and their namesake Krzysztof Penderecki’s String Quartet No.3 “Leaves of an Unwritten Diary” (2008). The PSQ worked closely with the composer at Symphony Space in New York City on the occasion of Penderecki’s 80th birthday in 2013. In his liner notes Bell says they became aware on this encounter “that Penderecki’s ‘unwritten diary’ is key to understanding this quartet. While there seems to be an outpouring of autobiographical references in this work, it was clear upon meeting the composer that this diary is to remain private. This is a highly evocative and nostalgic quartet that Penderecki wishes to be his gift to music, to listeners, and to performers – a work of abstract art that we can approach with our own humanity and emotion.”

As mentioned, Palej, who is the coordinator of the U of T New Music Festival which runs January 29 through February 5 at the Faculty of Music, is represented by two pieces, both world premiere recordings. String Quartet No.1 “De Profundis” dates from 2011, a time when Palej was reading Oscar Wilde’s book of that name. Two years later he returned to the medium, this time adding soprano vocalise (Leslie Fagan) in the penultimate movement. String Quartet No.2 “Four Quartets” takes its context from T.S. Eliot. Although both these works have literary inspirations, or at least connotations, Palej says “I can’t explain exactly where the influence is revealed. The subtitles of my quartets merely point toward it, hoping this gentle gesture will not in any way delimit the listeners’ flights of imagination. Can the dark desolation of Reading Gaol be heard in the first quartet? Or can you hear the ‘deception of the thrush,’ the ‘association of man and woman in daunsinge,’ the flowing of the ‘brown strong god,’ or ‘the dove descending’ in the four movements of the second? Maybe, but maybe not. It is not important, at least not to me, the composer.” Be that as it may, he also says, “Without the influence of this poetry the music would have turned out completely differently: more than that: I would now be a different person, a poorer one spiritually.” At the risk of sounding bombastic I would dare to add that we would all be poorer without these dark and probing works so majestically performed.

03 SzymanskiContinuing with the Polish theme, I would note that my introduction to the music of Paweł Szymański (b.1954) was the result of New Music Concerts back in 1988, long before my association with that organization began. On that occasion, one of the works featured was for solo piccolo and an unusually low ensemble of horn, trombone, two percussion, two violas and two cellos. A recent disc by harpsichordist Małgorzata Sarbak – Dissociative Counterpoint Disorder (Bolt Records BR1035) – features another concertante work from that year, Partita III, but in this instance the accompaniment is provided by traditional orchestra (Janáček Philharmonic; Zsolt Nagy). It starts at full speed with continuous harpsichord lines juxtaposed with busy, flamboyant orchestral textures. All this activity stops suddenly after two minutes for an abrupt and disconcerting silence of almost 20 seconds after which the frenetic activity begins again. This happens a number times with increasing frequency during the one-movement work, with subsequent silences of shorter duration giving way to nearly inaudible string chords before the busyness returns. The quiet passages ultimately overcome the frenzied sections and the piece fades into an otherworldly quiet with a single high repeated note on the harpsichord as if a beacon flashing into outer space.

The title work is the most recent and was written in 2014 for Sarbak, unlike Partita III and Through the Looking Glass (1994) which were composed for the iconic Polish harpsichordist Elżbieta Chojnacka who had championed the works of Ligeti, Xenakis and other post-war composers. Dissociative Counterpoint Disorder as its title suggests, is somewhat bipolar, once again alternating between frantic activity and more stately passages, but this time for harpsichord alone. The “Alice”-inspired solo work begins with more frenetic stops and starts with the harpsichord sounding almost like a calliope, and once again fades to black, this time with a series of sustained yet isolated notes in the lowest register.

In music the term “parody” does not imply ridicule, but simply means “in the style of” as with Palestrina’s parody masses and parody madrigals based on works of Cipriano de Rore and others. Szymański is a masterful parodist in this sense, as witnessed by Les poiriers en pologne ou une suite de pièces sentimentales de clavecin faite par Mr. Szymański. Critic Alex Ross wrote of another of Szymański’s pseudo Baroque suites in the New Yorker that it “not only sounds like Bach but could be mistaken for Bach – the latter being rather more difficult than the former.” Sarbak, who is herself a specialist in Baroque performance, says “…Szymański is actually composing in the idiom of the Baroque…using the words – melodical and rhythmical formulas, the expressions, rhetorical figures that were very important then – in the language of the period. […]Szymański wouldn’t put in any score markings, which were also absent at that time…He leaves the freedom to the performer…[which is] what’s great and vivid about playing Baroque music.” One of Szymański’s earliest works from his student days was for violin and harpsichord. It is obviously an interest that has stuck with him throughout his career and the result is really something to behold.

04 Bernstein SymphoniesI first heard Leonard Bernstein’s symphonies in my formative years, in his recordings with the New York Philharmonic. They impressed me then and they still do. There are three and none of them follow the traditional symphonic mould. Each has a subtitle and they all employ a soloist: Symphony No.1 “Jeremiah” features a mezzo soprano; Symphony No.2 “The Age of Anxiety” a pianist and Symphony No.3 “Kaddish” a narrator (Bernstein’s wife Felicia Montealegre in the version I grew up with), plus soprano and choir.

Marin Alsop has now completed her recording of the cycle with Bernstein – Symphonies Nos. 1 and 2 conducting the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra (Naxos 8.559790). Jeremiah is a three-movement work: Prophecy, Profanation and Lamentation. Bernstein said “The work I have been writing all my life is the struggle that is born of the crisis of our century, a crisis of faith. Even way back, when I wrote Jeremiah [1939-1942] I was wrestling with that problem.” The first movement is contemplative and the second is dance-like, presaging some of the composer’s later stage music. It is in the third movement that the mezzo – Jennifer Johnson Cano here – enters, singing Hebrew texts selected by Bernstein from the Lamentations of Jeremiah which are expectedly heart-wrenching and dramatic before an extended quiet orchestral coda.

Inspired by W.H. Auden’s The Age of Anxiety which Bernstein discovered in 1947 and called “one of the most shattering examples of pure virtuosity in the English language […] almost immediately the music started to sing.” Jean-Yves Thibaudet is the soloist in this extended work in 18 movements divided into two main sections. Part 1 begins with a quiet orchestral Prologue followed by two sets of variations, The Seven Ages and The Seven Stages, where the piano is prominent. Although lasting half of the work’s 35 minutes, Part 2 has only three sections, The Dirge, The Masque and The Epilogue, which continues the flamboyance of the preceding movement in its opening stages but then features an extended introspective piano cadenza and a swelling, triumphant orchestral finale. As Frank K. DeWald’s program notes suggest however, in the Second Symphony the crisis of faith is “discussed, probed [but only] superficially resolved…” Bernstein will take up the theme again in his final symphony.

Somehow I overlooked Alsop’s recording of Symphony No.3 ”Kaddish” with Claire Bloom narrating when it was released last year (Naxos 8.559742). With the powerful performances of the first two symphonies presented here as evidence, I will definitely be rectifying that shortly.

We welcome your feedback and 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. We also encourage you to visit our website,
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David Olds, DISCoveries Editor
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Ten days ago I thought I knew what I would write about in this month’s column, but so much has happened since then: the death of Leonard Cohen on the heels of the release of his final work You Want It Darker – darker indeed!; the change in the weather from beautiful, colourful days of unseasonably high temperatures to high winds, sub-zero thermometer readings, bare trees and the first sight of snow as I sit down to write this; and the last-minute arrival of a number of particularly interesting discs (most of which will have to wait until February).

01 MessiahIt is literally a case of “this just in” – couriered to me the afternoon before my deadline – with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra’s new recording Handel Messiah (Chandos CHSA 5176(2)), with the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir and soloists Erin Wall, Elizabeth DeShong, Andrew Staples and John Relyea. TSO Conductor Laureate Sir Andrew Davis not only conducts but is responsible for the new arrangement for full modern orchestral forces. In his booklet notes, Davis tells us that this labour of love, dedicated to the memory of his parents, took ten months to prepare in advance of 2010 performances with the TSO. I first became aware of the mammoth scope of this version when Davis and the TSO revisited it for the 2015 Messiah performances last December. At that time I needed to hire a contrabassoonist for New Music Concerts’ “Portrait of Philippe Leroux” and approached Fraser Jackson, the TSO musician who is our usual go-to guy for contra. Fraser said that although Messiah doesn’t usually require quadruple winds and brass, for Davis’ version it was all hands on deck as full orchestral resources, and then some, are called for.

This recording was prepared from those live performances at Roy Thomson Hall last year so I knew not to expect a lean, historically informed approach and in fact was a little concerned about just how bombastic it would turn out to be. I am pleased to report that Davis achieves a nice balance between restraint in the accompaniment to the arias and larger forces in the choruses. Especially effective is the power of the Hallelujah Chorus toward the end of which Davis added sleigh bells “because this passage has always brought to my mind the picture of proudly rearing horses!” This is contrasted with the opening aria of Part Three where the soprano is accompanied only by clarinet and solo strings. The final chorus which begins in full voice is reined in for the “Amen” fugue which begins with organ accompaniment and gradually builds to a magnificent and triumphant finale that threatens to bring down the house.

Producer Blanton Alspaugh and the engineers of Soundmirror Inc. have done an impressive job of capturing the TSO and Mendelssohn Choir in glorious full spectrum sound. The vocal soloists are in top form, although I must say that personally I find soprano Wall’s wide vibrato a little hard to take – it’s simply not a taste I have acquired. A highlight for me is the alto aria “But who may abide…” and the bass’ “The people who walked….” Personal tastes aside, this new recording does the Toronto Symphony Orchestra, Toronto Mendelssohn Choir and, indeed, Toronto itself proud.

Concert notes: There are some two dozen opportunities to hear full performances of Messiah listed elsewhere in these pages, plus a number of concerts featuring excerpts from the iconic work. The Toronto Symphony Orchestra promises a somewhat different approach this year with famed early music expert Nicholas McGegan at the helm. The TSO offers five performances with the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir and soloists Yulia Van Doren, Abigail Lewis, Isaiah Bell and Daniel Okulitch at Roy Thomson Hall December 18 (matinee), 19 through 21 and 23 at 8pm.

If there was any doubt that the flute is a going concern in our fair city, activities in the last six months have certainly laid that to rest. My association with Robert Aitken has given me an insider’s view of some of these, including New Music Concerts’ “Flutes Galore” last April with an orchestra of 24 members of the flute family – piccolo to contrabass – featuring (many of) this city’s finest players. This came just days after the Canadian Flute Association’s Latin American Flute Festival which had involved some of the same musicians along with international guests. Since then, Soundstreams’ “Magic Flutes” included Aitken and fellow Torontonian Leslie Newman, with international stars Marina Piccinini, Claire Chase and Patrick Gallois. This was followed by “Flute Day” at the University of Toronto with workshops, masterclasses and a flute choir concert with Aitken, Newman, Nora Shulman, Stephen Tam, Camille Watts and faculty students, and the following week Esprit Orchestra’s presentation of R. Murray Schafer’s Flute Concerto with Aitken as soloist. Interspersed with this has been a series of flute showcases, demonstrations and concerts by internationally renowned flutists sponsored by Long & McQuade, hosted by Gallery 345. And this is all just in the realm of the classical flute tradition. Bill McBurnie’s Extreme Flute, Jamie Thompson’s Junction Trio and Jane Bunnett’s myriad activities are just a few examples of how diverse the local flute scene is.

02 Sue HoeppnerOne of the other late arrival discs features another star in Toronto’s flute firmament, Susan Hoeppner. Following on their JUNO award-winning 2012 Marquis release American Flute Masterpieces, Hoeppner and pianist Lydia Wong have just released Canadian Flute Masterpieces, this time on the Centrediscs label (CMCCD 23116). The disc begins with Gary Kulesha’s Sonata for Flute and Piano, which is dedicated to Hoeppner who premiered it with the composer in 2014. The effective work is in three contrasting movements, a bright Allegro molto, a brooding Slowly, freely and the toccata-like Moderately fast finale. It is freely tonal but among the effects used are microtonal bending of notes, unpitched breath sounds and whistle tones in the flute line and small cluster chords in the piano part. This is followed by Michael Conway Baker’s moving Elegy in an arrangement for flute and piano.

As in many of Srul Irving Glick’s works, Sonata for Flute and Piano is a tuneful secular piece which incorporates a traditional Hebrew melody, in this case a chant for the Jewish New Year. Oskar Morawetz wrote his Sonata for Flute and Piano in 1980 for another towering figure in the flute world, Jeanne Baxtresser, who served as principal flute for both the Montreal and Toronto Symphony Orchestras before accepting the position of solo flutist with the New York Philharmonic under Zubin Meta. Morawetz was a self-avowed traditionalist and this sonata is a good example of that with its charming melodic turns and the rhythmic intensity of its outer movements.

An arrangement for flute and piano of Larysa Kuzmenko’s Melancholy Waltz from Suite of Dances provides a haunting contrast to both the preceding track and the final work, Arctic Dreams I, by Christos Hatzis, written for Hoeppner and percussionist Beverley Johnston. Hatzis explains that Arctic Dreams is a palimpsest of sorts, a piece written overtop material that was originally recorded for Footprints in New Snow, the third movement of the radio documentary Voices of the Land, about the Inuit and their culture, created with CBC producer Keith Horner. The work’s soundtrack opens with Inuit throat singing and the Arctic landscape of the title is effectively superimposed with melodic flute and vibraphone textures.

I first met Hoeppner in my capacity as a concert recording producer at CJRT-FM and I can vouch for her dedication and concern that only first-rank performances be recorded for posterity. She and Wong have risen to the occasion on this project and both the performances and the production values of this Mazzoleni Hall recording are outstanding. While I might have called them Canadian “gems” rather than “masterpieces,” I have no qualms about recommending this fine recording.

Concert note: On December 12 at 5:30pm Susan Hoeppner launches Canadian Flute Masterpieces at the Canadian Music Centre.

Review

03 Papineau CoutureI grew up understanding that John Weinzweig was the “Dean of Canadian Composers” but in my formative years came to the realization that, as with so many things Canadian, there are Two Solitudes and that Jean Papineau-Couture (1916-2000) was “The Dean” in La Belle Province. He was born into one of the most distinguished Quebec families and his forebears include the statesman Louis-Joseph Papineau and the composer Guillaume Couture, who was his paternal grandfather. As a matter of fact Papineau-Couture was named in honour of his grandfather’s masterwork, the oratorio Jean le Précurseur, John the Baptist.

There are many parallels between the two “deans.” After studies at home in Toronto, Weinzweig went to the USA to study at the Eastman School and Papineau-Couture left his native Montreal to attend the New England Conservatory and later studied with the iconic Nadia Boulanger who spent the war years in America. Both moved back to Canada to establish careers as composers and university professors. They were founding members of the Canadian League of Composers (CLC) and the Canadian Music Centre (CMC) and enjoyed a friendly rivalry over the decades. I had the pleasure of meeting Papineau-Couture on several occasions and the privilege of interviewing him for my program Transfigured Night at CKLN-FM in the 1980s. He was a charming man and a generous soul, a fierce champion of the rights of artists and staunch defender of serious culture. He was also an active administrator serving as the president of the CLC, the Société de musique contemporaine du Québec and the Canadian Music Council, dean of the music faculty at the Université de Montréal and the director of the Montreal office of the CMC.

I was delighted when I heard that Quatuor Molinari was recording his complete music for string quartet along with the string trio Slanó (ATMA ACD2 2751). And even more delighted to find that in addition to the String Quartets 1 and 2 with which I was familiar, there was a third from 1996 and an incomplete fourth recently found among his papers. So we are effectively presented with works spanning nearly half a century and all the periods of his mature career. String Quartet No.1 dates from 1953 and shows the influence of French composers of the early 20th century. By the centennial year when he composed String Quartet No.2, although eschewing the serial school of composition, he was exploring an expanded tonality using all 12 tones. It is the string trio from 1975 that is the most experimental, with its elaborate use of extended techniques and layering of timbres. Quartet No.3 is a one-movement work which presents a sense of stylistic transition, moving away from the somewhat abrasive world of the string trio, embracing a certain lushness while at the same time approaching the sparse lyricism with which we are presented in the posthumous final work. Although unfinished, I must say that it does not give the impression of being incomplete.

This is a wonderful retrospective of one of our most important composers on the occasion of his centennial and it includes two world premiere recordings. Kudos to founding first violinist Olga Ranzenhofer and the members of the Molinari Quartet for their ongoing commitment to the music of our time through recordings of some of the most significant works of the last half century and their efforts to develop new repertoire with the Molinari International Composition Competition, the sixth of which took place in 2015. Praise is also due to the designers of the attractive and informative package which includes some wonderful photos of Papineau-Couture throughout his life, from an adolescent in a sailor suit through to the pensive, but ever-smiling, grand old man.

04 Cohen You Want It DarkerThis month we say goodbye to another grand old man and icon of the Canadian music scene, Leonard Cohen. Much like David Bowie’s final offering Black Star, Cohen’s You Want It Darker (Columbia/Sony) seems a precursor, with such lyrics as “I’m ready my Lord,” “I’m leaving the table; I’m out of the game” and “I’m traveling light, it’s au revoir” recurring throughout the nine-song release. Produced by Adam Cohen, the disc features lyrics by his father set to music co-written with Patrick Leonard, Sharon Robinson and Adam himself. There is an overall consistent feel, mostly mellow and melancholy with Cohen’s haunting sprechstimme vocals, but with occasional upbeat respites such as Steer Your Way, with rhythmic fiddling from David Davidson and background vocals by Dana Glover and Alison Kraus. The orchestration is quite varied, from the title track with drums, two B3 organs and keyboard, cantor Gideon Y. Zelermyer and the Shaar Hashomayim Synagogue Choir, to a quintet of accompanists in Leaving the Table who play between them drums, bass, nylon-string guitar, guitar, mellotron, celeste, keys, piano, electric and pedal steel guitars. One very effective juxtaposition is Treaty – “I wish there was a treaty we could sign; It’s over now, the water and the wine; We were broken then, but now we’re borderline; I wish there was a treaty; I wish there was a treaty; Between your love and mine” – with the final track, which is a revisiting entitled String Reprise/Treaty. This features an extended string prelude by Patrick Leonard which is somewhat reminiscent of another contextual anomaly, producer Jack Nitzsche’s String Quartet from Whiskey Boot Hill on Neil Young’s eponymous album back in 1968.

On the credits page of the booklet, Cohen includes an extended tribute to his son, saying, in part “I want to acknowledge, with deep gratitude, the role my son Adam Cohen played in the making of You Want it Darker. Without his contribution there would be no record. At a certain point, after over a year of intense labour…the project was abandoned. Adam took over…and brought these unfinished songs to completion, preserving of course, many of Pat [Leonard]’s haunting musical themes. It is because of my son’s loving encouragement and skillful administration, that these songs exist in their present form. I cannot thank him enough.” We should all be thankful for this moving memento mori.

We welcome your feedback and 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. We also encourage you to visit our website
thewholenote.com where you can find added features including direct links to performers, composers and record labels, “buy buttons” for online shopping and additional, expanded and archival reviews.

David Olds, DISCoveries Editor
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01 Weilerstein ShostakovichI don’t quite know where to begin. I can only imagine Bruce Surtees’ feelings over the past month as he approached the formidable task of assessing the 200 discs and wealth of literature in the Mozart 225 set. And then to realize that he also immersed himself in the complete symphonies and concertos of Shostakovich…the mind just boggles. But it did give me a good excuse to hold back a disc that I would normally have sent to him: Shostakovich – Cello Concertos 1 + 2 featuring Alisa Weilerstein and the Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks under Pablo Heras-Casado (Decca 483 0835). “A young cellist whose emotionally resonant performances of both traditional and contemporary music have earned her international recognition…Weilerstein is a consummate performer, combining technical precision with impassioned musicianship.” So stated the MacArthur Foundation when awarding Weilerstein a 2011 MacArthur “Genius Grant” Fellowship.

With four previous Decca titles (ranging from solo suites by Kodály and Golijov to concertos of Dvořák, Elgar and Carter) and a host of collaborative recordings to her credit, Weilerstein maintains the high bar she has set for herself by tackling two of the most iconic works in the 20th-century canon. It must have been a daunting undertaking, especially considering that both concertos were written for that towering figure Mstislav Rostropovich. However, as was the case of the Carter concerto where she had the privilege of working with the 103-year-old composer prior to her recording, we are told in the liner notes that Weilerstein had the opportunity to gain some firsthand knowledge from the dedicatee. “I played the First for Rostropovich when I was 22. He was a titanic presence, sitting very close, his feet almost touching mine. I played the entire concerto for him without stopping. He then gave me a piece of advice that I will never forget: he said that the emotions that the performer conveys while playing Shostakovich’s music should never be ‘direct’ or ‘heart on sleeve’ in a Romantic sense. That is not to say that the music is unemotional, but rather that it presents a unique challenge to the performer, who must convey a kind of duality – conveying intense emotion that has somehow to be concealed at the same time.” Now, a dozen years later, I would say that Weilerstein has accomplished just that.

Of course this new release drove me back to my archives to find the recordings I cut my teeth on, Rostropovich with Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra (No.1) and with Ozawa and the Boston Symphony (No.2) – thank goodness my vinyl collection is still intact – and I was struck by two things. First was just how good the DG LP with Ozawa recorded in 1967 still sounded (clicks and pops notwithstanding) – especially the explosive power of the big bass drum punctuating the extended cello cadenza of the opening Largo and the clarity of the contrabassoon lines. The second was how well Weilerstein’s performances stood up to the comparison. In my mind’s ear Rostropovich had a god-like power and intensity beside which I thought any mere mortal would pale. But Weilerstein’s command of her instrument, and her understanding of the music as detailed in her insightful comments in the notes, prove her more than equal to the task. (Of course I will not be trading in my vinyl anytime soon.)

The recordings took place in the Herkulessaal in Munich in September 2015 and are both impeccable. The First was captured in a closed session under studio conditions while the Second was recorded during a concert later the same week. Try as I might I can’t hear any evidence of the audience, but there is certainly the dynamic sense of excitement of a live performance. I’m very happy to add this new offering to my collection.

02 Roma AeternaThe next disc provided a very different listening experience. Roma Aeterna – Rome the Eternal City – features the outstanding vocal quartet New York Polyphony in works by Palestrina and Victoria (BIS 2203 SACD). The first thing that struck me was the gorgeous acoustic space of the recording, gloriously captured by engineer Jens Braun in Omaha’s St. Cecilia Cathedral in August 2015. The core members of the group – Geoffrey Williams, countertenor; Steven Caldicott Wilson, tenor; Christopher Dylan Herbert, baritone; and Craig Phillips, bass – are joined by countertenor Tim Keeler, tenor Andrew Fuchs and bass-baritone Jonathan Woody as required by the repertoire which ranges from four to six voice settings. But it is hard to realize that all this glorious sound is emanating from such small ensembles. The one voice per part does assure clarity however, complemented by precise diction and impeccable intonation.

Part of this clarity is actually built into the compositions. In Ivan Moody’s excellent program notes we are told that Palestrina’s Missa Papae Marcelli for six voices was for a time thought to have been written around 1565 in response to the injunctions of the Council of Trent (1562), which stipulated that music must allow the texts of the Mass and Offices to be heard as clearly as possible. This mass was even believed by some – Agostino Agazzari is cited – as having single-handedly saved ecclesiastical polyphony from being banned in the wake of the changes brought about by the Counter-Reformation. The notes go on to say however that it may have been composed as early as 1555, independent of the edicts, to celebrate the election of Pope Marcellus II. Be that as it may, Missa Papae Marcelli does exemplify the concerns of the Council of Trent in its simplicity and beauty, which have kept it in the repertoire for nearly five centuries. In this presentation it is sung with plainchant Propers for Easter Day interspersed.

The other major work on the disc is Missa O Quam Gloriosum for four voices by Spanish composer Tomás Luis de Victoria who succeeded Palestrina as chapel master at the Roman Seminary in 1571. He was ordained in 1575 and enjoyed a very successful career in Rome until returning to Spain as chaplain to the dowager Empress Maria in 1587. The mass presented here is one of 15 “parody Masses” he wrote, this one based on his own joyful All Saints’ Day motet O Quam Gloriosum. Rather than plainchant, in this performance the motets Gaudent in coelis by Victoria and by Palestrina are interspersed between the movements of the mass.

The disc opens with one of the four Marian antiphons, the brief Regina Caeli in a setting for four voices by Francisco Guerrero (1528-1599) that beautifully sets the stage for what is to come. The two main works are separated by Palestrina’s six-voice Tu es Petrus (You are Peter, and on this rock, I will build My church…) and the recital ends with his quiet Sicut cervus, a psalm text describing the soul’s yearning for God.

Concert Note: New York Polyphony will present its Christmas program “Sing Thee Nowell” in a matinee for Fondation Arte Musica in Montreal on December 4 at Salle de concert Bourgie.

03 Robert DickOne of the most intriguing discs to come my way this month is a solo project from flutist Robert Dick. Many of you may have been curious about that bizarrely shaped instrument pictured in the hands of Claire Chase on the cover of October’s The WholeNote. The contrabass flute, about four metres of tubing bent into something resembling the number four, stands on the floor with its vertical shaft towering above the flutist’s head before bending in a triangle with a horizontal extension that includes an oversized mouthpiece. If you didn’t get to Chase’s “Density 2035” last month and want to hear just what this “gentle giant” is capable of, I suggest you pick up Dick’s Our Cells Knowon John Zorn’s Tzadik label (TZ 4015 tzadik.com). The disc is a series of six improvisations that really explore and exploit the surprising sound world of this distinctive instrument.

Dick is a virtuoso performer on all the members of the flute family, known for his interest in contemporary forms and his encyclopedic knowledge and command of extended performance techniques, many of which he himself developed and has documented in his book The Other Flute: A Performance Manual of Contemporary Techniques. At Zorn’s suggestion this disc focuses solely on the contrabass flute. At first listen it was often hard to realize that the myriad percussive sounds were actually being produced on a flute. As with John Cage’s prepared piano, which turned that familiar instrument into a percussion orchestra, we are presented with sounds that just don’t seem to come from the instrument we are seeing. Thanks to the resonant properties of the contrabass – it looks to be about four times the diameter of a regular flute – the physical sounds of the instrument itself are amplified as if under a microscope. From the opening notes of Mitochondrial Ballet I found myself disoriented, wondering how this “electronic” music was being produced acoustically. The multiphonics sounding simultaneously with an underlying rhythm track provided by the sound of the fingers on the keys, all sustained by Dick’s circular breathing, is almost surreal.

The six tracks, averaging about eight minutes each, all focus on different aspects of the instrument or playing techniques. Aura Aurora is primarily melodic, weaving harmonic overtones with some truly beautiful pure low tones. Afterimage, Before for Ginger Baker, as you might expect, is reminiscent of the iconic drummer’s extended solos achieved here almost entirely with fingers tapping on the instrument’s keys and breath sounds that somehow resemble cymbal strikes and tom-tom beats. Efflorescence returns to the lowest register of the instrument in a very calm, melodic treatment which eventually leads to eerie whistling and humming in counterpoint with the low resonance. On the Restless Seas of Time combines percussive finger work with a variety of breath techniques and flutterings. The title track, a memorial to Dick’s friend Stephanie Stone, closes the disc in an extended meditative state.

While I feared that an entire disc of solo contrabass flute might prove to be a bit “much of a muchness,” I must say that Dick kept my attention throughout his journey and I have found myself returning to the disc time and again over the past few weeks.

04 AlixLike everyone I suppose, I am always gratified to find out that someone is actually reading these things I write and even paying attention. I received a note from Alex Rodger (alex.rodger@yahoo.ca) recently saying that he remembered I mentioned in passing some months ago that I played 12-string guitar and he thought I might be interested to hear his own creations for that instrument. He included a disc of his “Greatest Hits” titled Alix – 12-String Guitar Dream Series, solo instrumental pieces couched in the lush resonance of his Takemine guitar. Rhythmic and modal, his playing, as he himself points out, is reminiscent of the guitarists of those iconic 70s bands Yes and Genesis. Using a combination of strumming and clever fingerpicking, the Dreams are mostly a wash of harmony with some subtle internal melodies, all quite accomplished. Thanks for sending them along, Alex.

We welcome your feedback and 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. We also encourage you to visit our website thewholenote.com where you can find added features including direct links to performers, composers and record labels, “buy buttons” for online shopping and additional, expanded and archival reviews.

David Olds, DISCoveries Editor
discoveries@thewholenote.com 

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