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

I have enjoyed the extended hiatus since the last issue and took advantage of the break to spend almost a month away from my computer and my stereo system; a kind of purge during which the only music I experienced was the sound of waves pounding the shore of Lake Erie, loon calls across Canning Lake and the wind in the trees in my backyard accompanying the chattering of squirrels and chirping birds. Oh, and some homemade string music with a few friends. It was lovely to be “unplugged.”

01 Amber Zebulun SoNEoWWhen I was back at my desk, I found solace in a unique recording by two (now) local musicians Amber & Zebulun whose self-described “ambient instrumental post-rock music” provided a perfect background as I faced the daunting task of editing nearly a hundred reviews that had been filed in my absence. South of North, East of West (amberzebulun.bandcamp.com) also rewards as foreground listening, but its gentle ambience was just what I needed to help keep me focussed. Born in Yellowknife NT, and raised in Marysville ON, Amber Walton-Amar is a classically trained cellist. Husband Zebulun (Zebulun X Barnow, although I had to do some Googling to find that out), originally from Marquette MI via Chicago IL, is a multi-instrumentalist who seems to be responsible for the plucked and bowed bass lines, drum kit and melodic mallet instrument layers here. They have been making music together for more than a decade since first getting together in a Chicago-based Tom Waits cover band (an unusual context in which to find a cello). The liner notes tell us “South of North, East of West is about who you are, as defined by where you are. […] The meaning of each of [the] four directions is defined by its opposite, its relationship to the others. If we remove the meaning of our origin, of our destination, we are either lost or exactly where we should be.” With intriguing titles such as Cognitive Dissonance, Advice by Coincidence and Forgiving Garden, the music itself is mesmerizing; mellow and melodic, generally slow-paced with long cello lines, often in tandem with bowed double bass, soaring over compelling rhythm beds. It did indeed place me “exactly where I should be.” 

02 ThorvaldsdottirA disc that I had spent some time with before my self-imposed exile from technology provided a welcome re-entry into the craggy world of contemporary string writing upon my return. Icelandic composer Anna Thorvaldsdottir has embarked on a long-term multidisciplinary project with the Spektral Quartet and video artist Sigurdur Gudjonsson entitled Enigma. Ultimately there will be a 360-degree immersive film magnifying the music when it is performed in the Adler Planetarium in Chicago and later taken on a national planetarium tour, but like so many current projects that has been put on hold during COVID-19. What we have at this point is a Sono Luminus audio recording of the striking three-movement, half-hour-long quartet (DSL-92250 sonoluminus.com). Like much of her music, which has garnered the Nordic Council Music Prize, the New York Philharmonic’s Kravis Emerging Composer and the Lincoln Center’s Emerging Artist Awards, Enigma is replete with extended techniques, extra-musical effects, unusual timbres and juxtapositions. There are few melodies per se, but rather moments and strings of events that constantly surprise and command rapt attention. Ranging from near silence, eerie harmonics and glissandi to percussive bursts, scratches and scrapes, there is also a meditative final section reminiscent of medieval harmonies that gradually rise in pitch and fade into breath sounds or, perhaps, the gentle lapping of waves upon a shoreline. The three-time Grammy-nominated Spektral Quartet is obviously well within its comfort zone with this challenging though beautiful music, even while the listener is sometimes left discomfited. 

03 Karen GomyoThe final disc this month is the most traditional, although there was a time not too long ago when the music of Astor Piazzolla (1921-1992) was considered outside the mainstream. There has been a wealth of discs released in recent months in celebration of his centenary – you’ll find Tiina Kiik’s appraisal of one of them in the Modern and Contemporary section of this issue. Another is A Piazzolla Trilogy (BIS 2385 SACD bis.se) which features violinist Karen Gomyo who was born in Tokyo, raised in Montreal and studied at the Juilliard School at the invitation of Dorothy DeLay, before embarking on an international career as soloist and chamber musician. She is heard here performing a selection of unaccompanied Tango Etudes (1987), joining guitarist Stephanie Jones in Histoire du Tango (1986) and as soloist and director of L’Orchestre national des Pays de la Loire in Cuatro Estaciones Porteñas (The Four Seasons of Buenos Aires). 

Among the interesting biographical information included in Eric Johns’ extensive essay in the program booklet is that, at its first performance, Piazzolla’s Sinfonía Buenos Aires Op.15 (1951) “scandalized the audience to the point of fistfights and shouting, supposedly in response to the inclusion of two bandoneóns [concertinas] in an orchestral work.” It seems that he managed to alienate the tango community as well, with his introduction of classical stylings, techniques and instrumentation to the traditional form. Eventually, as we know, his Nuevo Tango style became widely accepted and is now lauded in concert and dance halls alike. Although originally written for flute, both the Etudes and Histoire are published in alternate versions for violin, and are well suited to the stringed instrument which, along with bandoneón and flute, was a staple in the traditional tango ensemble. In fact, again from Johns’ notes, “When performed on violin, Etude No.5 allows for the inclusion of double-stops, impossible on flute, to outline the alternation in the rhythmic pattern between 3+3+2, 3+2+3 and 4+4.”

Cuatro Estaciones Porteñas was originally scored for Piazzolla’s quintet of violin/viola, piano, electric guitar, double bass and bandoneón but is heard here in a string orchestra arrangement by Leonid Desyatnikov. It is the earliest work presented here, having been written between 1965 and 1970. It was not originally conceived of as a suite – the first movement Verano (Summer) was written as incidental music for a play by Alberto Rodríguez Muñoz – nor evidently as a tribute to Vivaldi, but there are a number of quotations from that Baroque master’s own Quattro Stagioni and it certainly serves as one. 

Gomyo’s playing is stellar throughout, full of idiomatic nuance and enthusiasm, with a rich warm tone in the lilting melodies, but suitably gruff as the sometimes gritty music requires. The same is true of Jones’ guitar, lyrical and percussive by turns. There is a lovely cello solo in Otoño Porteña (Autumn) superbly performed by Paul Ben Soussan, but the highlight of the movement is Gomyo’s extended and extravagant cadenza. A fine disc, and a wonderful centennial tribute to the Argentine master.

04 PhoenixWell, I thought that was all I had this time around, but as I was putting the finishing touches on my screed I received an advance copy of the latest from Toronto (former) wunderkind Stewart Goodyear. Phoenix (Bright Shiny Things BSTC-0154 brightshiny.ninja) will be released on October 8 and adds a glimpse into yet another side of this many-faceted musical force to an already impressive discography. The press release tells us that “The ashes from which Phoenix rises are, as the pianist says: the ‘soundworld, past traditions, and gestures of Franz Liszt’ [who was] thought to have had a profound influence on Debussy and Ravel, the latter of whom famously orchestrated Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition.” Mussorgsky’s masterwork, masterfully performed in the original solo piano version, is the centrepiece of this impressive sonic essay. The disc is bookended by unaccompanied renditions of original works by Goodyear himself – the quasi moto perpetuo Congotay, recently released as a single with his jazz quintet, and the ebullient Panorama, extracted from Callaloo, a Gershwin-inspired work for piano and orchestra – both based on his half-Trinidadian heritage. Jennifer Higdon’s Secret and Glass Gardens, called by the composer “a journey of wonder and discovery” that “reflects the paths of our hearts,” is contrasted by Anthony Davis’ more introspective and ultimately tumultuous Middle Passage, inspired by a poem of Robert Hayden that, according to Davis, “speaks to the essential irony of our people and culture born of the horror of slavery.” Middle Passage includes two sections in which the performer is instructed to improvise and this recording marks Goodyear’s debut as an improvising pianist. Two works by Debussy, L’isle joyeuse and La cathédrale engloutie, complete a thoughtful and fascinating disc. 

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

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