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

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

Listen to 'Gold.Berg.Werk' Now in the Listening Room

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

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

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

Listen to '20C Remix' Now in the Listening Room

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

Listen to 'Inner Landscapes' Now in the Listening Room

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

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

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

Listen to 'Pozgarria da' Now in the Listening Room

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

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

We invite submissions. CDs, DVDs and comments should be sent to: DISCoveries, WholeNote Media Inc., The Centre for Social Innovation, 503 – 720 Bathurst St. Toronto ON M5S 2R4.

David Olds, DISCoveries Editor

01 kloeckner bach 53yjaFor the past month or so I’ve been immersing myself in new cello recordings. Some of the repertoire selections are old friends, some new to me and some new to the world. Benedict Kloeckner: J.S. Bach – 6 Suites for Cello Solo (Brilliant Classics 96403 naxosdirect.com/search/bri96403) encompasses the old and the new brilliantly, with striking performances of the suites interspersed with miniatures he has commissioned that “can be seen as a response to the challenges of the present [pandemic] in interaction with the Bach suites.” Kloeckner’s Bach, idiomatic contemporary interpretations on a modern instrument, ranges from breakneck speed such as in the Prelude of the first suite to thoughtful and contemplative pacing in the Sarabande of the second; sometimes playful, but always carefully considered, with tasteful ornamentations and occasional surprising rubato passages, such as in the Bourée of the third suite. What makes this 3CD set special though is the new works and how they bridge and complement the original suites. The composers represent an international spectrum: José L. Elizondo (Mexico), Elena Kats-Chernin (Australia), Bongani Ndodana-Breen (South Africa), Éric Tanguy (France), Geoffrey Gordon (USA) and Dai Fujikura (Japan).

My first few times through the set I simply let the CDs play and enjoyed the commissions as interludes, kind of palette cleansers, before rushing into the next Bach suite. Sometime later however, I listened to the six miniatures in isolation and was pleasantly surprised to find that they made a satisfying suite themselves. Elizondo’s Under the Starlit Sky of the Rhine specifically references the sixth suite, albeit in passing, and pays tribute to the landscape of Kloeckner’s home region, the Upper Middle Rhine Valley. In I Am Cello, Kats-Chernin compares the slow opening to the blossoming of a flower and describes the lyrical miniature as “almost a song.” Ndodana-Breen, who had an active role in Toronto’s contemporary music scene in the early 2000s, says that Soweto Cello Riffs combines elements of Afropop and South African jazz, although not overtly. Tanguy’s In Between “addresses how emotions during the pandemic have vacillated constantly between uncertainty and hope.” In Gordon’s Nes qu’on porroit, from Machaud’s song “It is no more possible to count the stars […] than it is to imagine or conceive of the great desire I have to see you.” The composer says he was thinking of past pandemics – Black Death, Italian Plague, Spanish Flu – in relation to COVID-19. Although most of these new works make little direct use of Bach’s material, coming full circle Fujikura’s Sweet Suites opens with echoes of the prelude of the sixth Bach suite, but in a minor key, and after brief hints at other movements, dissolves into a quiet and lyrical coda which rises and fades away into the ether. Kloeckner and his colleagues have provided a beautiful new take on Bach’s masterpieces.

02 jonah kim fpvg5Young South Korean-American cellist Jonah Kim begins Approaching Autumn (Delos delosmusic.com/recording/approaching-autumn) with what I feel is the most important solo cello work of the first half of the 20th century and perhaps the most significant contribution to the genre since Bach, Zoltan Kodály’s Sonata for Solo Cello Op.8 from 1915. In his very personal introduction to the disc, Kim tells us that he considers Janos Starker one of his biggest musical influences. He started corresponding with Starker when he was seven years old after hearing Starker’s Delos recording of the Kodály sonata and later was able to study with him. Starker had impeccable Kodály credentials having first played the solo sonata for the composer when his was 15 in his (and Kodály’s) homeland, Hungary, and then again in 1967 shortly before Kodály’s death. After that performance Kodály told Starker: “If you correct the ritard in the third movement, it will be the Bible performance.” Starker recorded the work four times, the last in 1970 and it is this one that later appeared on the Delos release. So may we assume the correction was made? At any rate, Kim’s own performance is outstanding – big, brash and gritty as called for in the outer movements; sensitive and lyrical in the Adagio (con gran espressione) – and his technique in this extremely challenging work is impressive. Kim is joined by pianist Robert Koenig for the remainder of the disc; the one-movement post-Romantic title work by American Mark Abel (b.1948) providing a kind of a bridge to Grieg’s Sonata for Cello and Piano Op.36 which concludes this excellent disc.

03 hannah collins resonance lines 6uuxgBach was not the first to write for solo cello and Hannah CollinsResonance Lines (Sono Luminus DSL-92252 sonoluminus.com) opens with a Chiacona by Giuseppe Colombi (1635-1694) which predates the Bach suites by half a century. This sets the stage for a recital of mostly contemporary works: two by Kaija Saariaho, the brief Dreaming Chaconne and Sept Papillons; in manus tuas by Caroline Shaw, which draws on the Thomas Tallis motet of the same name; and Benjamin Britten’s Sonata for Solo Cello No.1, Op.72. The last track travels across two and a half centuries: Thomas Kotcheff’s Cadenza (with or without Haydn), a 25-minute work written in 2020 meant to serve (or not) as a cadenza for Haydn’s Cello Concerto in C Major from 1761.

Listening to this piece led to the realization of how a cadenza – traditionally a composed or improvised interlude in a concerto giving the soloist an opportunity show off – differs from a stand-alone work that needs to provide its own context and development. Collins tells us that “Kotcheff’s work contains musical nods to the other works on the album and ties everything together in an energetic and surprise-filled adventure.” It certainly does that. When listening to the disc before reading the program notes, one of those surprises was hearing Britten’s solo sonata, which I consider another milestone in the solo cello repertoire, quoted in a work “about” Haydn. The notes also give this a context however. It seems that Britten wrote a cadenza for Rostropovich for the same Haydn concerto and the result can be heard in a 1964 recording with Britten conducting “Slava” and the English Chamber Orchestra (it’s well worth searching out on YouTube). Collins rises to all the various challenges of the diverse repertoire on this collection, especially those of the “cadenza” which requires everything from virtuosic bombast to the most subtle intimacy. 

04 norgard saariaho cello w1kbmIt is fitting that Collins’ disc ends with a contemporary cadenza inspired by one of the first great cello concertos because that leads us to Remembering – Nørgård & Saariaho Cello Concertos (BIS-2602 bis.se) featuring Jakob Kullberg. Kullberg (b.1979, Denmark) has worked extensively with both these composers and all of Per Nørgård’s cello writing in past 20 years has been dedicated to him. The two works by that Danish master recorded here, however, were written more than three decades ago when Kullberg was just a child. Between (1985) is a three-movement work in which the cellist begins in isolation, “unable to unite with the orchestral sound,” but is gradually able to integrate with the larger group with the help of four solo cellos from the orchestra. At one point the din from the larger group even includes the sound of car horns reminiscent of the prelude to Ligeti’s Grand Macabre. The second movement sees a gradual integration of the cello into the slow-moving textures of the orchestra. In the extended third movement, the cello takes a more traditional role but with a twist: the solo line is based on notes from the Javanese pentatonic scale slendro, giving it an exotic edge. Remembering Child was composed as a viola concerto in 1986 but is presented here in Kullberg’s adaptation for cello, including a new cadenza of his own design. The work honours Samantha Smith, an American schoolgirl, peace activist and child actress famous during the Cold War, who was killed in a plane crash at 13 in 1985, although Nørgård says the piece isn’t intended as a requiem.

The two works by Nørgård provide bookends for Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho’s Notes on Light written two decades later (2006). The first movement, Translucent, secret, takes place as if under water, picking up where her previous work for cello and orchestra Amers left off. After a “heated debate” between cello and orchestra in the second movement, On Fire, the gentler Awakening, which draws on material from Saariaho’s oratorio La Passion de Simone, includes a quiet two-minute-long cadenza in the higher reaches of the cello composed by Kullberg. It’s becoming obvious why these composers are happy to work with this creative soloist. As Aleksi Barrière’s detailed program note points out, at this point we might think that the concerto is over, as an inversion of the tradition three-movement form, here slow-fast-slow, has been completed. But there are two more movements to come. Kullberg gets a rest though in the shimmering fourth movement Eclipse, and then re-enters quietly for the final, Heart of Light, which glimmers and gradually builds, only to subside into quietude again. That’s actually how all three of these concertos end, “not with a bang, but a whimper.” There are more than enough bangs along the way however to hold our attention and make for a satisfying disc.  

05 margaret maria b5iddSometimes I wonder if it is possible to write for solo cello without referencing the iconic Bach Suites. Certainly Margaret Maria, in her most recent release Where Words Fail – Music for Healing (margaretmariamusic.com) does so in the opening track with arpeggiation reminiscent of the first Prelude, but it feels natural and is only one of its many dense layers. As with previous releases, Maria’s music is lush and melodic, using many overlaid solo cello lines to create an orchestral atmosphere that is warm and welcoming. The current offering is the result of personal trauma, a response to almost losing her sister, who was on a ventilator and in a medically induced coma for more than two weeks as a result of COVID-19. The resulting compositions bear such names as Blessing of Awakening (written in advance of, and in hope for, her sister’s return to consciousness), Raindrops from Heaven (with an ostinato reminiscent of Pachelbel’s Canon) and From the Brink (with a fluttering bed track and eerie harmonics ultimately resolving into peaceful pizzicato under a gentle rising motif that resembles a hymn of praise). The disc (actually a digital release) concludes with the gentle Turning Broken into Beautiful, a meditative wash of soothing colours over Pachelbel-like pizzicato bass, providing a joyful resolution to this healing journey. Maria provides real comfort for these terrible times.

Listen to 'Where Words Fail' Now in the Listening Room

06 del sol dust in time cn13wThe next work, which I would also consider healing music, is a string quartet that starts with an extended, somewhat melancholy duet between cello and viola. Chinese-born US-based composer Huang Ruo composed A Dust in Time (Bright Shiny Things brightshiny.ninja) as a response to the worldwide COVID pandemic. It is a meditative and cathartic work written in collaboration with the Del Sol Quartet who first performed it using the labyrinth of Grace Cathedral in San Francisco as its stage, livestreaming the premiere from the empty church. In the booklet notes – the booklet is actually a colouring book featuring stylized mandalas created especially for this project by high school student Felicia Lee – we learn that the first performance was preceded by an open-air rehearsal for a few friends in the park across the street from the cathedral. “Soon we were joined by passersby who paused with their dogs and strollers to listen as Huang Ruo’s hour-long palindromic passacaglia grew from silence to euphoria and then faded back into the wind, sirens and jackhammers of the city.” Listening to this recording in the relative quiet of my home I have to imagine the Cage-ian ambience of that experience, but the arc of the music is immersive and compelling, and indeed cathartic. The Del Sol Quartet are tireless champions of contemporary music and in the last three decades have commissioned or premiered literally thousands of works from such composers as Terry Riley, Chen Yi, Mason Bates, Pamela Z and Gabriela Lena Frank to name just a few. You can find excerpts on YouTube of another project Huang Ruo has been working on through the pandemic – a production of M. Butterfly in collaboration with playwright Henry David Hwang for the Santa Fe Opera.

07 winterreise hilary demske njzjeMany readers will be aware of my affection for Schubert’s Winterreise in its many and varied interpretations, including Hans Zender’s contemporary chamber orchestra setting, replete with bells and whistles, and Philippe Sly and the Chimera Project’s reworking with klezmer ensemble. All of the versions I have encountered maintain the melody line more or less intact, and feature a voice of one range or another. When I encountered Richard Krug’s transcription for string quartet and baritone, however, I found myself imagining a rendition in which the soloist would be a cellist. I haven’t found a cello version yet, but this month I did encounter another purely instrumental adaptation. Pianist Hilary Demske, creator of Journey for One: A Winterreise Fantasy for Solo Piano (Navona Records navonarecords.com/catalog/nv6370) is quick to point out that it was not her intention to “arrange or improve the original work but to offer a different lens and add my individual perspective […] to an intimate glimpse into grief, the simple story of a young man rejected by love [that] conveys the universal experience of searching for peace.” She goes on to say “Foremost in my mind was the text and meaning of Müller’s poetry. I built many pieces around individual lines that resonated with me and reflected the overall poem, leading to increasingly dramatic compositions and unusual techniques.” The booklet includes the German titles and English translations of Müller’s poems (something that even some vocal versions neglect to do) and lists the piano preparations and other instruments employed on each track. These include such extraneous materials as timpani mallets placed on the piano strings, castanets, aluminum foil, drumsticks wedged between piano strings, xylophone mallet on wood block and rubber floor mat on strings, among others.

Devotees of traditional lieder and fans of Schubert may not get much out of this quite extreme interpretation of Winterreise, but I found it quite satisfying. Rather than a transcription per se, it’s an exploration of the poems themselves in Demske’s personal voice, during which Schubert’s melodies and rhythms occasionally shine through, glistening like familiar gems. A particular highlight was the antepenultimate movement Mut (Courage) which in Demske’s percussive performance (drumsticks on woodblocks and strings) I found reminiscent of the Baby Shark song that my young neighbours Henry (five) and James (two) take endless delight in exuberantly declaiming. 

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

01a Mr. Beethoven British coverBack in February I mentioned what a joy it was to read the latest from Welsh novelist, musicologist and librettist Paul Griffiths titled Mr. Beethoven. In it, Griffiths imagines Beethoven’s life beyond his purported death in 1827, his visit to Boston and the oratorio he wrote on commission from the Handel and Haydn Society in 1833. I had received an inscribed copy of the small press UK edition (pictured here in red, the small black circle with the gold star declaring it a Republic of Consciousness Prize for Small Presses  “Book of the Month”) sent just before Christmas by the author. At his request I deferred writing about the book until the North American publication date this past month. Mr. Beethoven is now available in Canada published by The New York Review of Books (ISBN 9781681375809) and I have taken the occasion to revisit this marvellous novel. In a season when many of my favourite authors have published new books (Richard Powers, Wayne Johnston, Tomson Highway, Karl Ove Knausgaard, Guy Vanderhaeghe, Jonathan Franzen and David Grossman, to name a few) it might have seemed an imposition to have to put them off for a book so recently enjoyed, but I’m pleased to report that, if anything, Mr. Beethoven is even more satisfying the second time around and I know those other books will wait patiently on my To Read shelf.

As is my wont, I made a point of listening to the music mentioned in the book, at least as far as I was able. The challenge of course was that much of the music discussed, and particularly Job: The Oratorio which is featured so prominently, is imaginary, dating from Beethoven’s fanciful “fourth” (i.e. posthumous) period. Various chamber works are described, including a “Quincy” string quartet, a “Fifths” piano sonata, a clarinet quintet, and even plans for an “Indian Operetta” on indigenous themes using early poetry of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. But there are actual works included as well, such as the antepenultimate – now there’s a word that was new to me – Piano Sonata No.30 in E Major Op.109 and the String Quartet No.15 in A Minor Op.132. But more curiously, other works which would foreshadow the mythical oratorio are mentioned because they would not yet have been performed in Boston at the time, such as the Missa Solemnis Op.123 and the “Choral” Symphony No.9 Op.125 and were therefore unknown to the characters in the novel. 

Griffiths has drawn on his skills as a researcher, as well as his imagination and his command of the German language, to produce a hybrid work of pseudo-scholarly biographical/speculative fiction. His conceit that Beethoven, deaf for many years at this point, would have been able to communicate using sign language with the aid of a young amanuensis from Martha’s Vineyard is based on the fact that there was indeed a community there that had developed a system that predated and was later subsumed by American Sign Language. Thankful, the young woman who becomes Beethoven’s voice, interprets for him discretely, leaving out much of the bluster and non-essential verbiage of his interlocutors, enabling him to communicate with those whom he could neither hear nor understand their language. Beethoven’s speech is stilted as a result of this translation process, but Griffiths has ingeniously crafted his dialogue from excerpts of letters and other documents actually written by the composer, as documented in the copious end notes. The characters Beethoven interacts with are fictitious, but also predominantly historical figures, culled from censuses and directories of the time and from the archives of the Handel and Haydn Society. These include the grand landholder John Quincy with whose family the composer spends a summer vacation, and members of the Chickering and Mason households whose descendants would become famous piano manufacturers.  

Perhaps most impressive is the description of the mythical oratorio itself, based on the biblical story of Job, and the libretto that is included on facing pages in the final chapters of the book. The details are almost mind-boggling, including notes on orchestration, vocal ranges, staging and interpretation. There is even an authentic notated melody for the boy soprano’s aria, which originated in a sketchbook of Beethoven’s dated 1810. 

First published, and first read by me, in 2020 the 250th anniversary of Beethoven’s birth – here are two more words that were new to me (and my spell checker): semiquincentennial and sestercentennial – it seems especially fitting that while reading Mr. Beethoven I immersed myself in the music of that master. Some of it was mentioned in the book, but other works came as a result of new recordings released to coincide with the auspicious year. 

02 Beethoven Haiou ZhangFor Op.109 there were numerous choices. Young pianists eager to make their mark with this fabled work included Haiou Zhang and Uriel Pascucci. Zhang’s My 2020 (Hänssler Classic HC20079 naxosdirect.com/search/hc20079) begins with Piano Sonata No.30 followed by the final Sonata No.32 and also includes Bach transcriptions by Feinberg and Lipatti, with two bonus tracks: a cadenza from Beethoven’s fourth piano concerto and the familiar bagatelle Für Elise. In the booklet, Zhang explains the meaning of the disc’s title, referencing COVID-19 and reflecting on having made his Rachmaninoff Piano Concerto No.3 debut in Wuhan, and giving masterclasses there, shortly before the outbreak. He goes on to speak about why the Beethoven sonatas have meant so much to him for so long and says that every Sunday morning the Bach transcriptions are part of his “confession.” The performances are equally moving. 

03 Uriel PascucciWhile Zhang has already recorded a number of discs for Hänssler in his young career, Pascucci’s Solo Piano – Beethoven; Pascucci; Mussorgsky (IMD-Classics urielpascucci.com/copy-of-discografía) appears to be his recording debut. Pascucci has chosen to bookend his own Prelude, Tango and Fugue with Beethoven’s Sonata Op.109 and Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition. I am a bit discomfited by a couple of abrupt transitions in the third movement of the Beethoven which I attribute to unfortunate edits, but otherwise it is a thoughtful and sensitive performance. The Mussorgsky is powerful and well-balanced, occasional surprises in the use of rubato and syncopation notwithstanding. His own composition shows him at his most comfortable, its contrasting movements each bringing a different mood to the fore. The rhythmic tango, with its pounding chords growing to a near perpetuo mobile ostinato climax is a highlight. 

04 Beethoven KuertiMy go-to reference for Beethoven sonatas is Toronto’s own Anton Kuerti. My basement is currently under renovation and the bulk of my vinyl collection is inaccessible at the moment, so I was unable to pull out his original recordings of the entire cycle of 32 on Aquitaine from 1977. Fortunately Kuerti recorded the final five sonatas for Analekta in 2004, released on two CDs: Nos.28, Op.101 and 29, Op.106 (FL 2 3187) and The Final Sonatas, Nos.30, 31 and 32 (FL 2 3182 analekta.com/en). It was to the latter I turned for comparison’s sake, and I must say, to my ears Kuerti just cannot be beat when it comes to this repertoire. 

05 Beethoven AimardThat being said, my piano explorations did not end there. Two mid-career artists also released Beethoven discs recently, Pierre-Laurent Aimard and Jonas Vitaud. Aimard, perhaps best known for his interpretations of contemporary repertoire – especially Messiaen and Ligeti whose Piano Concerto he performed with New Music Concerts here in Toronto early in his career in 1990 – marked the anniversary year with Beethoven: Hammerklavier Sonata and Eroica Variations (PentaTone PTC 5186 724 naxosdirect.com/search/ptc5186724). He is obviously as at home with 200-year-old repertoire as with the music of his own time.

06 Beethoven 1802 VitaudThe Eroica Variations date from the year 1802 and Vitaud has chosen to centre his disc around that year in which Beethoven realized he was becoming irreversibly deaf, contemplated suicide and wrote the “Heiligenstadt Testament” to his brothers Carl and Johann. He would overcome his depression and go on to write some of his most powerful works. 1802 – Beethoven Testament de Heiligenstadt (Mirare MIR562 mirare.fr/catalogue) begins with those flamboyant variations and includes Seven Bagatelles Op.33 and Six Variations Op.34 bookending the Piano Sonata Op.31/2 “Tempest” with its undying despair. Vitaud suggests this arc as a depiction of Beethoven’s journey toward hope.

07 Beethoven Ninth 2 PianosGriffiths mentions that although the first performance in the US of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony was not until 1846, some there might have been aware of the work in Czerny’s piano duet arrangement of 1829. Liszt published solo piano arrangements of the nine symphonies in 1865. As I am writing this, a new two-piano version has just arrived on my desk, Götterfunken (gods’ gleam, or divine spark) featuring the mother-and-daughter team of Eliane Rodrigues and Nina Smeets (navonarecords.com/catalog/nv6382). In the liner notes Rodrigues says; “During the COVID-19 pandemic, I’ve seen so much sadness and pain that I wanted to share a moment of joy, love, and friendship. The only thing that came to mind and heart was Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, in a version for two pianos with my daughter, Nina. My arrangement is not a literal transcription of the orchestral score. Rather, it’s based on what I hear and feel when listening to the orchestral music and Franz Liszt’s arrangement. The main goal was to follow in Beethoven’s footsteps and connect his work to the present day; to achieve what he would have wanted: to unite all people with just one simple melody.” I believe that Rodrigues has succeeded admirably. The semi-improvised sections are not at all jarring, and the result is very satisfying. The overall effect is uplifting, in spite of the absence of Schiller’s anthemic words. Just what we need in these troubled times. 

08 optional Ma Ax BeethovenWell that’s a lot of piano indeed, but I’m none the worse for wear. I did add cello to the mix with Yo-Yo Ma and Emmanuel Ax’s Hope Amid Tears – Beethoven Cello Sonatas (sonyclassical.com/releases), a three-CD set that includes the five sonatas and the three sets of variations. I found my personal favourites, Sonata No.3 in A Major, Op.69 and the Variations on Handel’s “Hail the Conquering Hero” to be particularly satisfying. For the record I also listened to the penultimate string quartet, and full orchestral versions of the Ninth Symphony and the Missa Solemnis. For String Quartet No.15 in A Minor Op.132, I chose two recordings from my archives, one by the Tokyo String Quartet recorded when Canadian Peter Oundjian was a member of the group (RCA Red Seal Masters 88691975782), and the other by Canada’s Alcan Quartet (ATMA ACD2 2493). Both are taken from complete cycles of all 16 quartets and I’d be hard pressed to pick a favourite. For Symphony No.9 it was Mariss Jansons conducting a live performance for Bavarian Radio in 2007 whose soloists included Canadian tenor Michael Schade (BRK90015 naxosdirect.com/search/brk90015), and for the Missa Solemnis, it was Leonard Bernstein conducting the New York Philharmonic with the Westminster Choir and soloists Eileen Farrell, Carol Smith, Richard Lewis and Kim Borg from 1961, reissued on Leonard Bernstein The Royal Edition in 1992 (Sony Classical SM2K 47522). I must say I found Borg’s performance put me in mind of the description of the wonderful bass who sang the lead role in the imaginary Job: The Oratorio. It’s a shame it was all in Griffiths’ mind, and of course, in the pages of his marvellous book! 

Although Beethoven did not write an oratorio, he did compose one opera, Fidelio. You may read Pamela Margles’ review of the latest recording further on in these pages, and Raul da Gama’s take on the original 1805 version, Leonore, in Volume 26 No.6 of The WholeNote published in March this year.

(Full disclosure, I did not put all of my other reading on hold for the sake of this article. I actually read Grossman’s More Than I Love My Life before starting this column and will read the final 15 pages of Powers’ Bewilderment as soon I finish.) 

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

Back to top