01 HatchWhat a wealth of material coming out of the Canadian Music Centre these days! Four solo piano discs have been released in the past two months followed almost immediately by three discs of chamber music. The one I have in hand is history is what it is — music of Peter Hatch performed by the Blue Rider Ensemble (Centrediscs, CMCCD 18413). Kitchener-based Hatch founded NUMUS Concerts in 1985 and the Open Ears Festival of Music and Sound in 1998, both of which continue to flourish. He was composer-in-residence with the Kitchener-Waterloo Symphony from 1999 to 2003, is currently the Arts and Culture Consultant with the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics and a Professor at the Faculty of Music at Wilfrid Laurier University. In addition to these administrative and academic pursuits Hatch has managed to compose an impressive body of work over the past three decades. The current collection encompasses works spanning the past dozen years including pieces written for Toronto’s Continuum Contemporary Music, Vancouver’s Standing Wave Ensemble, Montreal pianist Marc Couroux and a collaborative endeavour — a structured improvisation — with K-W’s Blue Rider Ensemble. Hatch often finds inspiration in literature and two of these works reflect that. Five Memos from 2005 draws on essays of Italo Calvino. The memos have evocative titles such as the first, In Which an Image is Formed, with its darkly lyrical cello line gradually taken over by clarinet, flute and violin. The second, In Which Things Happen Quickly, opens with a vibraphone pattern soon joined in unison by strings and eventually giving way to piano and winds while the percussionist moves to unpitched sounds. The following movements provide contrasting moods and textures ending with a whirlwind and wayward quasi-military march led by snare drum and piccolo (fife?) and the frantic scratching of block chords on the fiddle.

Music is a beautiful disease is an extended one-movement work that starts pianissimo with occasional percussive interjections before a ghostly motif reminiscent of a European police siren, but heard at such a distance as to suggest calm rather than emergency. This haunting fragment is given a variety of instrumental treatments throughout the 18-minute work, eventually heard shared by piano and vibraphone. One Says. History Is. for solo piano was written in 2003. It begins tempestuously in moto perpetuo form alternating sustain pedal drones and staccato passages. After this prolonged fast section the music calms and we hear, in the distance, a recitation of texts from Gertrude Stein’s We Came. A History. At the end of the recitation the piano returns to its former frenzied pace over which we hear a very slow wordless melody sung calmly. The relentless repeated notes eventually give way to a pointillistic denouément for the last three minutes of the first movement. This is followed by another calm section in which the recitation comes to the forefront for several minutes until the piano returns to percussive, although more subdued, textures. The final movement of this nearly half-hour long work is an extended meditation using very few notes.

The disc ends in a beautifully calm mood with the structured improvisation mentioned above, Cantabile, with grace, based, the composer says “on a simple sketch I generated for them.” Throughout the disc the members of the Blue Rider Ensemble — Liselyn Adams, flute; Paul Bendza, clarinet; Jeremy Bell, violin; Paul Pulford, cello; Pamela Reimer, piano and melodica; Beverley Johnston, percussion; Anne-Marie Donovan, voice and melodica — are in fine form.

02 SchnittkeLike Peter Hatch’s Music is a beautiful disease, Alfred Schnittke’sPiano Quintet has a haunting theme that recurs and is transformed. We hear it piece-meal in the opening movement but it really takes form in the second, a sort of demented waltz. It eventually returns in a ghostly form in the pastoral finale. The work was begun in 1972 shortly after the sudden death of the composer’s mother, but not completed until 1976, a year after the death of his idol Shostakovich. In 1978 he made an orchestral version of this dark work and called it In memoriam. It is the original version which is included on Alfred Schnittke – Chamber Music Volume 2, the latest release by Montreal’s Molinari Quartet (ATMA ACD2 2669). For the quintet and the one-movement Piano Quartet written in 1988 based on sketches by Gustav Mahler, the members of the quartet are joined by Louise Bessette. The much celebrated pianist was awarded two Opus Prizes by the Quebec Arts Council last month for her “30-year career” concert with the Société de musique contemporaine du Québec in March 2012. Incidentally, the Molinari Quartet, whose seventh ATMA recording this is, has also been honoured with Opus Prizes, 14 since its formation in 1997.

While the two Schnittke works with piano have been among my favourites for a good many years, this important addition to the discography also includes a String Trio from 1985 with which I was not previously familiar. This would be reason enough to pick up this excellent CD. My only quibble is that at 60 minutes there was more than sufficient room to include Mahler’s own movement for piano quartet that Schnittke’s was meant to accompany.

03 FretlessMy high regard for the Molinari Quartet and its commitment to the art music of our time notwithstanding, a very different sort of string quartet has also captured my attention this month. The Fretless brings together traditional Celtic and Canadian-style folk music in what they call a “Rad Trad” amalgam using the standard formation of a classical string quartet. Three western Canadian fiddle champions, who take turns in the viola chair, are joined by a classically trained New England cellist whose interest in folk idioms came from his father’s Irish and old-time musical interests. After very successful fiddling careers in British Columbia, Victoria’s Ivonne Hernandez and Courtenay’s Trent Freeman went off to Boston to polish their skills at the Berklee School of Music where they met cellist Eric Wright. Add to this mix Saskatoon’s Karrnnel Sawitsky, a four-time Saskatchewan fiddle champion and you have the makings of a very fine ensemble indeed. Waterbound (thefretless.com) presents a lush and invigorating mix of traditional and traditional-sounding original compositions full of jigs and reels and drones. With guest spots by singers Ruth Moody and Norah Rendell in the more balladic title tune (Moody) and Harder to Walk these Days than Run (Rendell) it’s no wonder that this debut recording garnered top honours at both the Western Canadian Music Awards and the Canadian Folk Music Awards.

Another happy discovery this month occurred when I received a letter and a new CD from the iconic Canadian conscience Mendelson Joe. Perhaps best known for his outspoken letters to the editor in national publications, Joe has been adding his voice in the wilderness to the Canadian music scene since the hippie heyday of Yorkville with the blues band McKenna-Mendelson Mainline and sporadic solo acoustic releases over the past four decades. He is also the author of five books and a painter of renown. He uses all of his creative outlets to speak against oppression, injustice and environmental abuse.

04 CanuckianRecorded last spring in Huntsville Canuckian (mendelsonjoe.com) is testament to Joe’s unflagging determination to hold societal hypocrisy and political meanness and greed up to the microscope. I Am Canuckian provides an autobiographical insight into the Canadian landscape through the eyes of someone who’s “been everywhere, man” and includes a (somewhat ambiguous, but I have been assured heartfelt) indictment of Jim Keegstra and things Albertan. I’m A Folkie is a lament for “Big, Big Mommy” (Mother Earth) and Deemo Crassy demonizes Steven Harper as “a world-class weenie and a world-class meanie.” If I’m Dreaming is simply a love song, Joe returns to his soapbox in the final track, Dissertatio, a philosophical diatribe on the subjects of truth and greed which includes reference to his mentor “the late angel” June Callwood who said “there are no innocent bystanders.” He concludes with the motto “I exist therefore I Art.” It’s reassuring to know that Joe continues to “stand on guard” for us.

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, thewholenote.com, where you can find additional, expanded and archival reviews. 

—David Olds, DISCoveries Editor


01 NYOCThe National Youth Orchestra of Canada has released a 2-CD set documenting its 2012 adventure under the baton of Alain Trudel. Russian Masters – Canadian Creations (nyoc.org) includes sterling performances of selections from Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet, Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture and Shostakovich’s Symphony No.10 in E Minor alongside new works from young(ish) Canadian composers Nicolas Gilbert and Adam Sherkin. If the playing on this disc is any indication, the future of orchestral music in this country is in good hands. The playing is dynamic and nuanced with strong attention to detail and line. Trudel is to be commended for his work bringing these young musicians from across the country into a cohesive and convincing whole. My only complaint is with the lack of musicological information. There is a booklet with extensive details about the organization — mission statement, audition process, training and touring programs — and a biography of Trudel, a complete list of the musicians and even the recording personnel, but not a word about the composers or the music. Perhaps the “Russian Masters” need no introduction, but this is a real disservice to the Canadians. I assumed that they were commissioned to write these works specifically for the NYOC and a visit to the website confirms this was the case for Gilbert’s Résistance but that is the only information I can find there. Sherkin’s Terra Incognita remains “unknown” with no mention of its origin or context. (A Google search turned up the information that this work was developed at an orchestral workshop of the Buffalo Philharmonic and a revised version was performed in 2005 at the Royal Conservatory in Toronto under Trudel’s direction.) Both works make full use of the orchestra’s resources skilfully although neither breaks any particularly new ground.

Montreal’s Nicolas Gilbert’s chamber music has been heard in Toronto in several contexts, performed by the Ensemble contemporain de Montréal, New Music Concerts and Continuum, and in recent years he has served as host on the ECM’s cross-country “Generation” tours. Sherkin is a Toronto-based composer and pianist with a burgeoning international career whose new Centrediscs release of solo piano compositions is reviewed by Nic Gotham further on in these pages. It is great to have the opportunity to hear large scale orchestral compositions by these two; I only wish we were given some background information.

02 Robert BakerThere is no shortage of information on the CD Sharp Edges featuring music of Toronto composer Robert A. Baker (robertabaker.net) who completed his doctorate at McGill University in 2009 and now makes his home in Maryland. The notes start with an Artistic Statement which states in part “At the heart of my musical imagination is a fundamental contradiction. On the one hand I want to hear music of the distant past, maintain a sense of connection to my musical heritage, and in this way feel a part of humankind. On the other hand, I feel an irresistible curiosity; a need to consider sound in as objective a manner possible, embrace any sonic option that is relevant and practical, no matter how unconventional, and attempt to hear what I have not yet heard, and say what I have not yet said.”

In addition to his activities as a composer, pianist, conductor and teacher, Baker is an active researcher on contemporary music analysis and philosophies on the perception of musical time. These concerns are exemplified in the seven compositions showcased on this excellent recording. A series of four works titled Valence,ranging from solo piano to an ensemble of six instruments, are interspersed with independent pieces including the title track for four strings and percussion, another piano solo and a string quartet. This last which “evokes an array of references ranging from the distant to the recent past in Western musical history” was premiered at the Canadian Contemporary Music Workshop in Toronto in 2004. This recording of the two part ethereal then angular piece features Toronto’s Elgin Quartet. The Valence series was composed between 2008 and 2011 and is presented here in reverse chronology. The disc begins with the final instalment, scored for clarinet, trumpet, piano, percussion, violin and cello, and ends with the solo piano precursor. It is intriguing to hear how the treatment of the material changes from incarnation to incarnation. Sharp Edges is not only the title of a 2009 composition for violin, viola, cello, double bass and percussion, but also an apt description of Baker’s uncompromising music which encompasses the past while embracing the future.

In March 2012 the Toronto Symphony Orchestra’s New Creations Festival was curated by Hungarian conductor and composer Peter Eötvös. During the week Toronto audiences had the opportunity to hear a number of his works thanks to both the TSO and New Music Concerts. One of the highlights was the Canadian premiere of the Eötvös’ violin concerto Seven, a memorial to the astronauts of the Space Shuttle Columbia. The number seven provides the shape of not only the musical materials of the piece, but also the layout of the orchestra into seven mixed instrumental groups and the placement of the six tutti violins (seven violins counting the soloist) throughout the hall, distant from the stage, “in space” as it were.

03 EotvosA new recording of this stunning work appears on Bartók/Eötvös/Ligeti featuring violinist Patricia Kopatchinskaja, the Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra and Ensemble Modern under Eötvös’ direction (Naïve V 2585). The 2-CD set also includes Bartók’s Violin Concerto No.2 dating from 1939 and the five-movement version of Ligeti’s Violin Concerto from 1992, the premiere of which was conducted by Peter Eötvös in Cologne. Spanning roughly 70 years, this recording effectively brings together works by the most important Hungarian composers of the 20th century in sparkling performances by the young Moldovan violinist.

The Bartók concerto has of course become a classic of the repertoire and this recording reminds us why. The Ligeti, scored for a chamber orchestra of 23 players including natural horns and four winds doubling on ocarinas, is an extremely challenging work first heard in Toronto with Fujiko Imajishi as the soloist with New Music Concerts in 1999. (She later reprised the work with Esprit Orchestra.) Described in the notes as “a characteristic example of Ligeti’s late work ... Elements of music from the Middle Ages to the Baroque, Bulgarian and Hungarian folksong, polyrhythmic superimpositions as in the piano rolls of Conlon Nancarrow and an exorbitantly difficult solo part are forcibly yoked into complex constructs that liberate undreamt-of sonic energies and make listening into an adventure.” It is all that and more.

04 Tan DunMy final selection for the month also has a (perhaps tenuous) Toronto connection. Chinese born American composer Tan Dunwas selected by Glenn Gould Prize laureate Toru Takemitsu for the City of Toronto Protégé Prize in 1996. A recent Naxos release, Tan Dun – Concerto for Orchestra (8.570608) includes two compositions from 2012, the title work and the Symphonic Poem on Three Notes, juxtaposed with 1990’s Orchestral Theatre performed by the Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra under the composer’s direction. This disc provides a welcome entrée into the concert music of the composer who came to international attention with the score to the film Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. The Concerto, which employs material from Dun’s opera Marco Polo, is especially effective in its extended percussion cadenzas and its blending of vocalization with instrumental accents. With nods to Stravinsky, Bartók and Lutosławski while referencing his Asian heritage, this work is very effective.

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 thewholenote.com where you can find added features including direct links to performers, composers and record labels, and additional, expanded and archival reviews.

Through my association with New Music Concerts I had the pleasure and privilege of meeting the iconic American composer Elliott Carter on a number of occasions, most recently in May 2006 when we presented two concerts under the banner “Elliott Carter, Double Portrait.” It was therefore with personal sadness that I noted Mr. Carter’s death last month, just weeks before his 104th birthday. While of course his passing was inevitable, we had somehow come to think that he just might go on composing forever – he was active right up until the last month of his life.

01 WeilersteinI’m sure it was a coincidence, but nevertheless it came as some consolation to receive a new recording of Carter’s 2000 Cello Concerto just days after the sad news. Elgar, Carter: Cello Concertos marks the Decca debut for Alisa Weilerstein, recorded here with the Staatskapelle Berlin under Daniel Barenboim (B0017592-02). Weilerstein was one of the recipients of the so-called “Genius” award, worth $250,000 over five years, from the MacArthur Foundation in 2011, one of very few musicians to have ever been so honoured. The extensive liner notes by Helen Wallace draw on Weilerstein’s personal impressions of the pieces and her relationship with them, which in the case of the Elgar stretches back to the age of seven or eight when she first heard Jacqueline du Pré’s historic recording. Her performance is wonderfully robust and in some ways charmingly old-fashioned with an occasional swooping portamento and large romantic sound. Barenboim initiated this project and we can only wonder about his mixed feelings as we realize that this young woman may well have inherited the mantle of the late du Pré who was his wife for the last 20 years of her life.

Weilerstein’s approach to the Carter Concerto is thoroughly modern, with spot-on intonation and crisp attacks. Evidently she “played and discussed with the vivacious 104-(sic) year-old composer” and I believe it shows in her interpretation. The piece was commissioned by the Chicago Symphony for cellist Yo-Yo Ma who premiered the work in 2001 but has yet to record it. There is one previous recording featuring frequent Carter collaborator Fred Sherry on the Bridge label (9184) but it is great to have this new performance in a more mainstream context that will bring the work much well-deserved attention. Carter shows his brilliance as an orchestrator throughout with a transparency that never overshadows the cello, dynamic tutti interjections notwithstanding. Of particular note are passages with the bass clarinet and (contra?) bassoon accompanying the cello in its singing upper register. In a day and age when some composers request the soloist be amplified to better hold their own against the forces of the modern symphony orchestra, Carter shows there is no need for this when the balance is skilfully managed. The disc is rounded out by a very moving performance of Max Bruch’s Kol Nidrei.

02 Gryphon MessiaenIn recent months I have mentioned a number of recordings of music by Elliott Carter’s coeval Olivier Messiaen (born one day before Carter on December 10, 1908) and I’m pleased to say there is a new local release that is a welcome addition to the catalogue. For the End of Time (Analekta AN 2 9861) features the Gryphon Trio and clarinettist James Campbell performing, as might be expected, Messiaen’s famous Quatuor pour la fin du temps. What is surprising is the context in which it is presented. The disc opens with Echoes of Time, a ten-minute work by Alexina Louie inspired by the Messiaen which she calls “the greatest piece for chamber ensemble that’s possibly ever been written.” It is intended as an introduction to an evening’s entertainment that will include a 40-minute play about Messiaen’s creation of the work as a German prisoner of war (it was first performed in a prison camp in Silesia in 1941) by London-based playwright Mieczysława Wazacz with incidental music by Louie and will culminate with a performance of the Quatuor. Evidently the production will eventually become part of the trio’s touring repertoire. I hope that Toronto audiences will have an opportunity to experience what promises to be an enlightening and moving performance in the near future.

But back to the recording at hand. Louie’s piece does indeed include echoes from its progenitor, but not in an imitative way. There are textures and timbres that are reminiscent of the original, but Louie has obviously absorbed the music thoroughly and it re-emerges in her own voice. Here and throughout the Messiaen, from the quietest entries to the ebullient birdcalls, Campbell’s clarinet melds seamlessly with Annalee Patipatanakoon’s sweet violin, Roman Borys’ rich cello and the tintinnabulations of Jamie Parker’s piano.

There is no shortage of great recordings of the Quatuor pour la fin du temps, including another fabulous local contender on the Naxos label (8.554824) featuring the Amici Ensemble and Scott St. John, but as far as I’m concerned, the more the merrier. To paraphrase Daniel Foley from his “Too Much Mahler?” article further on in these pages, there can never be enough Messiaen for me.

I have mixed feelings about the inclusion of the final selection on the disc however, Valentin Sylvestrov’s Fugitive Visions of Mozart. Commissioned by the Gryphon Trio in 2007, I can understand why they wanted to record it, but when I first heard it following directly on the Messiaen it just seemed like so much bomboniere. It is a lovely piece, and after repeated listenings I have come around and quite enjoy hearing it separately, but I still feel that the context is wrong. We don’t need dessert after such an exhausting main course. Thank goodness CD players are programmable.

03 RegehrAnother thing that I can’t seem to get enough of is good cello discs. Full Spectrum (CMCCD 18112) is one of a recent spate of new recordings on the Centrediscs label and it features cellist Vernon Regehr.The Winnipeg native did his undergraduate work in Toronto at the Royal Conservatory, went on to obtain masters and doctoral degrees at Stony Brook and now teaches at Memorial University. He has obviously cultivated an interest in contemporary and specifically Canadian repertoire and this solo disc is real gem. Beginning with Larysa Kuzmenko’s extended Fantasy for Solo Cello from 2009 we are immediately drawn in to a lush and emotionally charged landscape with soaring lines and rich bass passages. As the work unfolds over the next quarter hour we are transported through intense drama and moments of quiet introspection. The final movement bursts forth with toccata-like precision and keeps it up with only momentary respites along the way to a wonderfully executed bravura ending.

The delicate opening of Matthew Whittall’s From the Edge of Mist with its use of harmonics quickly heralds us into another kind of soundworld, with ethereal passages and drones. Different again is the angular and abrasive opening of Stigmata by Vincent Ho. This gradually gives way to more contemplative “moments of loneliness and desolation” but always with a hard edge. Clark Winslow Ross’ Lamentations lives up to its name and we hear the cantorial voice of the cello alternating with high wailing lines and wonderfully warm pizzicato passages. Interlude I by François-Hughes Leclair explores the deep and resonant range of the cello in its opening passage and then overlays a high melody upon the drone of the lower strings. Interlude II centres around an ostinato bass line with occasional melodic interruptions. Kati Agócs’ Versprechen, composed when she was studying with Milton Babbitt, applies 12-note techniques to Bach’s harmonization of the Lutheran chorale God is my shield and helper. What begins in the realm of academe gradually sheds its serial trappings and in the end we are left with a simple and beautiful rendition of Bach’s original.

As the title suggests, through his choice of repertoire Regehr presents us with a full spectrum of the cello’s natural sound capabilities. Admittedly there are no extra-musical extended techniques employed (bowing on the tail piece or scraping the body of the instrument for instance) and no microtonal playing involved, but within the traditional range of the instrument we are taken to its outer limits, with Regehr a very able guide.

04 Berio SequenzasThere is a Naxos recording that dates from 2006 that I’d like to mention. New Music Concerts’ first event back in January 1972 featured the music of Luciano Berio and for months in advance there were cryptic announcements in the press simply stating “Berio is coming.” Elsewhere in these pages you will find an article by Paula Citron about a marathon performance coming up in January at the Faculty of Music at U of T featuring the complete Sequenzas by that seminal Italian composer. This cycle of solo works spans more than four decades ofBerio’s output beginning in 1958 with Sequenza I for flute(to be performed by Robert Aitken) and ending in 2002, the year before the composer’s death, with Sequenza XIV for cello(to be performed by David Hetherington). The in-between works will be performed by a host of Toronto’s finest musicians including Joseph Petric (accordion), Guy Few (trumpet), Wallace Halladay (saxophone), Xin Wang (soprano), Sanya Eng (harp) and Adam Sherkin (piano). The Naxos recording (8.557661-63) features some of these same players (Petric, Few and Halladay) and other local notables (Nora Shulman, Erica Goodman, Steven Dann, Jasper Wood and Joaquin Valdepeñas to name a few). While all of these works were written for specific performers (Severino Gazzelloni, Cathy Berberian, Heinz Holliger, Rohan de Saram, etc.) and many have been recorded individually by the dedicatees, this is a comprehensive collection of all 14 (and includes variants of number seven and number nine as well) in very convincing performances. Listening to this set would be a good way to prepare for the upcoming marathon.

Editor’s Corner continues with more Elliott Carter on the website.

05 Carter 100Having declared my involvement with New Music Concerts (I have been its general manager for more than a decade), I hope you won’t mind if I draw your attention to our Naxos recording Elliott Carter – 100th Anniversary Release (8.559614). It features performances recorded at the two concerts mentioned above during Carter’s last visit to Toronto in 2006 and was released two years later on the occasion of his centenary. There are a variety of solo works spanning 1984 through 2001 performed by Robert Aitken, Fujiko Imajishi, David Hetherington, Max Christie and Carter’s associate Virgil Blackwell, and more recent concertante works featuring Erica Goodman, David Swan and the New Music Concerts Ensemble under Robert Aitken’s direction. The package includes a separate DVD of Carter in conversation with Aitken from the stage of Glenn Gould Studio and video of the performances of the concerted works Mosaic and Dialogues. It provides a welcome reminder of the musical genius and sparkling good humour of this wonderful human being. He will be sorely missed.

We welcome your feedback and invite submissions. CDs and comments should be sent to: The WholeNote, 503 – 720 Bathurst St. Toronto, ON M5S 2R4. 

David Olds, DISCoveries Editor

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