01_Joe_CelloTSO principal cellist Joseph Johnson and his section mates were featured during the recent New Creations Festival in the North American premiere of the Cello Concerto Grosso by festival curator Peter Eötvös. Johnson took that occasion to launch his first compact disc which features two staples of 20th century cello repertoire, the Rachmaninov Sonata for Cello and Piano in G Minor Op.19 and Sonata No.2 in D Minor Op.40 by Dmitri Shostakovich. Johnson is accompanied by Victor Asuncion with whom he has been performing since 2009. The partnership seems to have been made in heaven if the music making heard here is any indication. Balance and interplay are impeccable and these interpretations are obviously from the heart. As it says on the homepage of Asuncion’s website (www.victorasuncion.com) “Victor is a collaborator. Don’t get lost in a forest of blandness. Opt for an enthusiastic artistic partner working with you, not just for you.” Joseph Johnson (www.joecello.com) has obviously done just that.

The independent release (JVCD-01) was recorded last winter in Minneapolis where Johnson previously played in the Minnesota Orchestra and the Minneapolis Quartet. As the very personal liner notes tell us, the session took place just days after what could have been a disastrous accident at Roy Thomson Hall when Johnson’s cello fell out of its case and the neck of the 1747 Guillami instrument snapped off. Thanks to the experts at Toronto’s Geo. Heinl and Co. temporary repairs were made and the session was able to proceed. There is no suggestion of distress in the sound of the cello captured on this beautiful recording. My only criticism is the assumption that this music is so well known it speaks for itself. There is not a scrap of information about the pieces or the composers to be found in the notes.

02_Owen_UnderhillThe latest from the Canadian Music Centre is Still Image – Music by Owen Underhill (Centrediscs CMCCD 17412) which features works involving string quartet performed by Quatuor Bozzini. They are joined by François Houle and Jeremy Berkman on clarinet and trombone respectively. Still Image is an apt description of the disc as well as being the title of a piece commissioned in 2007 by Houle and revised in 2011 for this recording. Underhill’s music generally has an underlying stillness although it is often tinged with tension. Quarter-tones and multiphonics in the clarinet writing extend the tonality here.

There are two one-movement string quartets which represent the earliest and most recent works on the disc. Both are very personal and emotional offerings. String Quartet No.3 – The Alynne was written in 1998 after the birth of a daughter with chromosomal abnormalities. String Quartet No.4 – The Night was commissioned by Quatuor Bozzini in 2011. It takes its title and inspiration from a poem by Henry Vaughan which includes the lines “There is in God (some say) / A deep, but dazzling darkness.” Underhill says “The striking contrast and integration of darkness and dazzling light in the poem helped guide the overall concepts of alternating slow and fast sections.”

The opening of the Trombone Quintet which dates from 1999 is suggestive of a distorted Renaissance consort of viols whose microtonal chord drones could be mistaken for an accordion over top of which the long tone melody of the trombone soars. The second movement has the strings in a dance-like accompaniment as Berkman sings into his muted trombone. A contemplative and lyrical third movement is followed by an extended fourth which begins percussively but gradually gives way to stillness which brings the disc to a close. Quatuor Bozzini has an obvious affinity with this music and Underhill is very well served by this disc.

Concert Note: Quatuor Bozzini performs music of Stravinsky, Oesterle and Britten in Music Toronto’s Quartet Series at Jane Mallett Theatre on April 5.

03_Trio_ArbosI was pleasantly surprised to receive a new disc by the Spanish Trio Arbós and find that it contained an extended work by Canadian composer Marjan Mozetich. Scales of Joy and Sorrow was commissioned by the Ottawa Chamber Music Festival and Roger D. Moore for the Gryphon Trio who premiered it in 2007. The three-movement 20 minute work has obviously gone on to have an international life of its own and listening to this rollicking performance it is easy to see why. The Non Profit Music release (NPM 1012 www.nonprofitmusic.org) is entitled Play it Again and it is full of attractive and approachable contemporary works for piano trio. Not quite “bonbons” but certainly designed as crowd pleasers, this repertoire — including works by Kenji Bunch, Jorge Grundman, Elena Kats-Chernin, Paul Schoenfield and Chick Corea — is enthusiastically embraced and ebulliently played by Trio Arbós.

Concert Note: The Penderecki String Quartet will perform Marjan Mozetich’s JUNO award winning Lament in a Trampled Garden along with works of Beethoven for the Kitchener-Waterloo Chamber Music Society on April 18.

04_Johannes_PassionATMA Classique of Montreal continues to put out excellent discs at a prodigious rate. One of the more recent releases is particularly appropriate to the Easter season this month, Bach’s St. John Passion (ACD2 2611). Featuring Les Voix Baroques and Arion Orchestre Baroque under the direction of Alexander Weimann, international soloists include tenor Jan Kobow as the Evangelist and three basses, Stephan MacLeod as Jesus, Joshua Hopkins as Peter and Nathaniel Watson as Pilate. All are in great form here, with particular kudos to chorister soprano Shannon Mercer who shines in the aria “Ich folge dir gleichfalls mit freudigen Schritten.” From the motoric opening “Herr, unser Herrscher” through the recitatives, arias and choruses of the “Betrayal and Arrest,” “Denial of Peter,” “Interrogation and Scourging,” “Condemnation and Crucifixion,” “Death of Jesus” and “Burial” of Christ to the peaceful final chorale “Ach Herr, lass dein leib Engelein” (Ah Lord, let thine own angels dear…) almost two hours later, our attention is held without flagging in this glorious performance. The comprehensive booklet includes thorough program notes and texts in three languages.

Concert Note: Although I was unable to find any local performances of the St. John Passion this month, Bach’s St. Matthew Passion will be presented by the Grand Philharmonic Choir at the Centre in the Square in Kitchener on April 6.

05_Anonymous_4And a final local concert note. On April 11 Toronto audiences can experience the pure tones of the predominantly medieval group Anonymous 4 at Koerner Hall. This a cappella female ensemble has been charming audiences for 25 years and the “Anthology 25” program will highlight ancient, traditional and modern works from their repertoire. The recent Harmonia Mundi release Secret Voices (HMU 807510) features chant and polyphony from the Huelgas Codex, c.1300 with selections divided into “First Light,” “Morning,” “Mass,” “Evening” and “Night.” If you are not already familiar with Anonymous 4 this would be a great place to start.

We welcome your feedback and invite submissions. CDs and comments should be sent to: The WholeNote, 503–720 Bathurst St., Toronto ON M5S 2R4. We also encourage you to visit our website www.thewholenote.com where you can find added features including direct links to performers, composers and record labels, “buy buttons” for on-line shopping and additional, expanded and archival reviews.

-David Olds, DISCoveries Editor, discoveries@thewholenote.com

01a_Galileo_ProjectThe big news this month is the launch of Tafelmusik Media, a new initiative which will include CDs and DVDs, a digital concert hall and internet television productions, all under the auspices of the Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra and Chamber Choir. By launching its own record label Tafelmusik is taking charge not only of its back catalogue, re-releasing the best of previous Sony and CBC recordings, but also its march into the digital future. This month sees the release of a DVD+CD set of the stunning multi-media Galileo Project (TMK1001DVDCD) conceived and programmed by Alison Mackay, along with re-issues of the 1995 JUNO award winning Bach Brandenburg Concertos (TMK1004CD2) and the critically acclaimed Vivaldi Four Seasons (TMK1007CD) both originally released by Sony.

Having already enjoyed these recordings for years, as is the case for many Tafelmusik fans I’m sure, for me it is the new material that is of most interest. If the production values on the Galileo Project are any indication, there are good things in store indeed. Upcoming projects include Beethoven’s “Eroica” symphony and a full-length audio recording of Handel’s Messiah. As a precursor to this, a DVD of a live “Sing Along” performance of Messiah is scheduled for release in April. Tafelmusik has also launched a new “Watch and Listen” section on its website www.tafelmusik.org where you can find a host of streaming videos and full details of the label’s developments, including highlights of Alison Mackay’s latest extravaganza, House of Dreams, which premiered in Banff and Toronto last month and which Tafelmusik is currently touring in the U.S.A.

Concert Note: The Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra and Chamber Choir can next be heard in Toronto March 29 through April 1 at Trinity-St. Paul’s Centre. “Choral Anniversary: Celebrating 30 Years” includes works by Bach, Charpentier, Purcell, Rameau, Handel, Poulenc, Saint-Saëns and Rolfe. Ivars Taurins, directs.

02_Saint_John_QuartetOther news of course includes the announcement of the 2012 JUNO nominations. A week of festivities will take place in Ottawa this year, culminating with the April 1 awards ceremony broadcast. You can visit WholeNote columnist Ori Dagan’s blog at www.thewholenote.com for a full list of nominees in the categories relevant to our magazine and links to the reviews of these discs which have appeared here over the past year. With Robert Tomas’ enthusiastic assessment of Marie-Josée Lord’s debut CD, Daniel Foley’s “the home team wins” review of Yannick Nézet-Séguin’s Bruckner Fourth and Allan Pulker’s appreciation of Susan Hoeppner’s American Flute Masterpieces to be found further on in these pages, I’m pleased to note that we have reviewed all but one of the 20 contenders in the classical categories. And that missing one? I will rectify that right now. The Saint John String Quartet’s latest recording, Saint John String Quartet & Jacques Dupriez (www.sjsq.ca) includes one of the five nominated works in the Best Classical Composition category, String Quartet No.2 Op.50, written in 1991 by the late Jacques Hétu. Hétu (1938-2010) was perhaps the foremost “Romantic” composer of his generation and although his music always showed strong ties to the past there was an innate modernity to his language that belied any sense of anachronism. The second string quartet is an apt example of this in his mature style. The dark and sombre opening movement, with viola lines that almost sound like an oboe, is haunting. This gives way to a rhythmic scherzo somewhat reminiscent of Shostakovich. The finale returns to the lush and pensive mood of the opening movement and sustains this sense of introspection to the quartet’s end. The other works on the disc include Brahms’ Quintet in B Minor Op.115, written exactly one hundred years before the Hétu, and a mid-20th century string quartet by Belgian composer Flor Alpaerts. It is a nicely balance programme, with Hétu’s quartet growing seamlessly out of the Brahms and the sunny opening of the Alpaerts, with its more complex but still quite tonal palette, providing relief from the doleful music that comes before.

Of special note in the Brahms is the use of a baritone violin in place of the original clarinet. This rare 18th century instrument, which fell out of favour due to its large size, is tuned an octave below the violin – halfway between viola and cello – and has a dark tone particularly well suited to this repertoire. Paganini, who had exceptionally large hands, was evidently the last major champion of the baritone violin and it is thanks to Jacques Dupriez that the instrument has come to light again in modern times.

03_Pieces_of_the_EarthA highlight of my listening this past month has been an ebullient two piano recording by local artists Attila Fias (www.attilafias.com) and John Kameel Farah (www.johnfarah.com). Pieces of the Earth (AFJKF-01) was recorded at the Music Gallery last year and intersperses four formal compositions by each composer with brief, often playful improvised interludes. The disc opens in full minimalist fashion with a lively piece entitled Fluttering by Fias. This motoric romp sets the pace for the bulk of this presentation, but there are moments of contemplation such as Farah’s My Parents’ Garden with its quiet jazzy treatment of some Messiaen-like harmonies, and of foreboding in Warning and Plumes, two works that consider the devastation that oil spills wreak on our oceans. These two accomplished artists have been collaborating for a number of years and it shows, especially in the spontaneous improvised bridges between the composed works. With technical abilities to spare, Fias and Farah delight us with virtuosic panache and thoughtful musicality.

The following discs caught my eye as a result of my activities as general manager of Toronto’s New Music Concerts.

04_LutoslawskiNext year will be the centenary of one of the giants of 20th century composition, Witold Lutosławski, and I am sure there will be a wealth of recordings to mark the occasion. Chandos may well be first out of the gate with Muzyka Polska Volume Three featuring the BBC Symphony Orchestra performing works of Lutosławski under the direction of Edward Gardner (CHSA 5098). Subtitled “Orchestral Works II” the disc spans the entirety of Lutosławski’s creative life from the early Symphonic Variations, completed at the age of 25, to the Symphony No.4, one of the very last works he would finish before his death in 1994. Of particular interest are the works with piano performed by Louis Lortie and once again covering a broad timeframe. The Concerto for Piano and Orchestra, completed in 1988, is a prime example of the composer’s mature style. We hear the piano gradually rising up out of a primordial ooze of squealing wind instruments and muted strings to eventually dominate the landscape. Variations on a Theme of Paganini, on the other hand, is much more traditional, orchestrated by the composer in 1978 from a virtuosic work composed for two pianos in 1941. “Paganini Variations” has become a classic of the genre and is one of Lutosławski’s most performed works (along with the Concerto for Orchestra). It is the late symphony however that is the crowning jewel of this collection. Once again we begin in near silence, but this time it is a haunting clarinet, followed by flute and then a brief trumpet fanfare that leads us toward the light. On a local note, another work dating from these final years, Chantefleurs et Chantefables (not included here), was part of the last concert Lutosławski ever conducted. This took place in Toronto in 1993 at the Premiere Dance Theatre, Harbourfront, presented by New Music Concerts, featuring soprano Valdine Anderson and violinist Fujiko Imajishi. That historic performance is available on the Naxos release Lutosławski’s Last Concert (8.572450).

05_Harvey_Bird_ConcertoAnother work with near-local connections is the Bird Concerto with Piano Song written in 2001-3 by Jonathan Harvey in homage to Olivier Messiaen. I say “near-local” because the poor health of the composer forced the cancellation, back in March 2010, of a residency at the University of Toronto Faculty of Music and a planned performance by New Music Concerts with guest pianist Hideki Nagano. Fortunately there is a new recording by the London Sinfonietta of this extended and eccentric work featuring Nagano on the British NMC label (NMC D177). The bird songs of the title are programmed into an electronic keyboard, controlled by the soloist, which is piggy-backed on the grand piano. Some of the sounds seem convincingly authentic, but most are distinctly synthetic and only suggestive of the avian world. The orchestration is for large ensemble, single winds and strings, but calls for some unusually low instruments including contra-bassoon and contra-bass clarinet. This is a live performance from the Warsaw Autumn Festival of 2009 conducted by David Atherton and it gives Toronto audiences a chance to hear what they missed. Harvey is well known as a pioneer in the field of live electronics and the disc also includes works for solo oboe, trumpet and cello with interactive media.

We welcome your feedback and invite submissions. CDs and comments should be sent to: The WholeNote, 503 – 720 Bathurst St. Toronto ON M5S 2R4. We also encourage you to visit our website www.thewholenote.com where you can find added features including direct links to performers, composers and record labels, “buy buttons” for on-line shopping and additional, expanded and archival reviews.

David Olds, DISCoveries Editor

To make room for the best of the wealth of material received over the holiday break and to accommodate the addition of three wonderful new reviewers to our fold, I find I have left insufficient space for my own musings this month. So let me just take a moment to introduce to these pages pianist and pedagogue Christina Petrowska Quilico who shares insights on a new release by her colleague Stephen Hough; composer and tuba virtuoso J. Scott Irvine who opines on a CD of contemporary tuba and euphonium repertoire from Deanna Swoboda; and my own chamber music coach and mentor, violinist Ivana Popovich who gives us her take on the Tokyo Quartet’s recent Schubert release. Welcome aboard to one and all!

We welcome your feedback and invite submissions. CDs and comments should be sent to: The WholeNote, 503 – 720 Bathurst St. Toronto ON M5S 2R4. We also encourage you to visit our website www.thewholenote.com where you can find added features including direct links to performers, composers and record labels, “buy buttons” for on-line shopping and additional, expanded and archival reviews.

David Olds, DISCoveries Editor

Back to top