If i keep it brief, I’ll have room for all seven of the discs that have been in rotation on my player over the past month … 

First there were a couple of hot-off-the-press releases from the Canadian Music Centre. My Life in Widening Circles (Centrediscs CMCCD 17712) features music of R. Murray Schafer, both new and old, performed by Land’s End Chamber Ensemble. The disc begins with a string trio written in 2006. Quasi tonal and dramatic, with echoes of previous Schafer (and Mahler) motifs, it is a beautiful addition to the repertoire of this neglected combination of instruments (violin, viola, cello). The ensemble playing is immaculate and the blending of sound is enhanced by the fact that all three instruments were constructed by the same luthier, Christopher Sandvoss, who was also the producer of the recording session. Book-ending this collection is another 2006 composition written for guest soprano Stacie Dunlop, Six Songs from Rilke’s Book of Hours.I find the juxtaposition of purely instrumental sounds and the powerful voice of Dunlop quite jarring, but as both works were written for Land’s End I understand why they wanted to showcase them together. In between, we hear Dunlop in a set of songs from very early in Schafer’s career, Kinderlieder from 1958, and core member John Lowry in two works for violin and piano: Wild Bird, originally for violin and harp, which was written for Jacques Israelievitch’s 50th birthday celebrations, and Duo for Violin and Piano from 2008. Curiously there are three pianists listed in the credits, but I have been unable to discern who actually plays on which cuts. The Duo received a 2011 Juno Award for Classical Composition of the year in its recording by Duo Concertante for whom it was written. It is an all too rare opportunity to have a second recording to compare with the first, but a little surprising to find them both on Centrediscs in such close proximity.

The other new Centrediscs release is very different in nature. Forging Utopia (CMCCD 17612) features four powerful orchestral works by Vancouver composer John Oliver, also know for his electroacoustic compositions and as an accomplished guitarist. The works presented here span more than a decade and are performed by orchestras from Vancouver, Windsor and Ottawa. The title track was commissioned by the National Arts Centre Orchestra’s Generation XYZ festival in 1998 and reflects Oliver’s thoughts and feelings about the world at the turn of the new millennium, striving to “forge a future for music, rather than dwell too much on the past.” The CBC commission Unseen Rain, which takes the mystical writings of the Sufi poet Rumi for its inspiration and texts, features renowned opera mezzo Judith Forst in full voice and splendour. The settings are mostly meditative yet manage to convey the dense textures of the poetry. Face in the Abstract, whichtakes as its premise the multi-layered, quasi-narrative visual art of Johannes Deutsche and Anselm Keefer, seems a convincing aural representation of a similar approach to art. The most extended work, Raven Steals the Light, is an effective tone poem wordlessly re-telling the dramatic Native American story of the same name as told and illustrated by Bill Reid and Robert Bringhurst. All in all this is an important addition to the Canadian orchestral discography and a timely reminder that there are a number of composers in this country who have created a significant body of large scale works.

A third disc devoted to the music of a single Canadian composer, in this case Barbara Monk Feldman, also captured my attention this past month. Released on the American contemporary music label Mode Records (mode 244), it features performances by Aki Takahashi and the Sabat/Clarke duo with percussionist Dirk Rothbrust. Deeply rooted in the sensibility of her teacher/mentor/late husband Morton Feldman, the music is delicate, pristine and precise. I have found it takes a special mood and patience to appreciate this school of composition, but when that state can be achieved the music takes on a wonderful trancelike and even transcendental quality.

The first piece, The Northern Shore, is scored for violin, piano and various percussion instruments. As it unfolds slowly over nearly half an hour with lush piano textures and mostly resonant mallet percussion instruments with chimes and bell sounds, I am left confused by the choice of such a dry timbre for the violin. While the use of pure, vibrato-less pitch is understandable, I believe it is still possible to achieve a fuller tone that would better complement the other members of the trio, but here Marc Sabat, and presumably the composer, have opted for a thin and reedy sound. My other hesitancy from fully embracing the piece is that, sparse and slow though it is, once I have suspended my usual expectations and relaxed to the point of immersion in this near timeless state, I feel that the piece would actually be more effective and convincing at half the pace, giving more time for each group of notes to fully decay before proceeding to the next.

I have no such concern about Takahashi’s performance of In the Small Time of a Desert Flower, perhaps because of the monochromatic, though again very lush, texture of the solo piano. Once again taking nearly half an hour to develop, the immaculate pacing and balance of the piece make it a crystalline gem.

Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition has been orchestrated so often and effectively that it is easy to forget its origin as a solo piano composition. As I was listening to J. Scott Irvine’s version for brass quintet and organ as recorded by the True North Brass and Eric Robertson (TNB005 www.truenorthbrass.com) I found myself wondering if I missed the strings of the original version. It took me a minute to realize that my memory was being tricked into believing Pictures to have been conceived as an orchestral piece.

Ravel’s orchestration (commissioned by Serge Koussevitsky in 1922) has become the most familiar, but there have been literally dozens of different orchestrations of Mussorgsky’s remembrance of his friend, artist Viktor Hartmann, since it was composed in 1874. For comparison’s sake I went back to the 1996 recording by the Toronto Symphony Orchestra using Jukka-Pekka Saraste’s performing edition (Finlandia 2 14911) which drew on the orchestrations of Sergei Gortschakov (1920s) and Leo Funtek (1950s). While there is a bit less lushness in Irvine’s “orchestra”— the Casavant organ at All Saints’ Kingsway Anglican Church — the instrument brings its own fullness and vast range of colour to the mix in a very effective way. And due to the acoustic properties of the church, the engineering skills of Anton Kwiatkowski, Irvine’s arrangement and the excellence of the players, the brass quintet is positively convincing in its orchestral range. Congratulations to all concerned!

The next disc also involves arrangements, but this time in a more idiomatic way. The Métis Fiddler Quartet is comprised of four siblings who appear to be in their teenage years, although there is very little personal information included in the notes, which exclude even their surname. North West Voyage/Voyage Nord Ouest (MFQ1201 www.metisfiddlerquartet.com) features Alyssa, Nicholas, Conlin and Danton [Delbaere-Sawchuk] playing fiddles, guitar and cello in their own arrangements of traditional and recently composed fiddle tunes, with particular emphasis on the aboriginal fiddle tradition. This album honours elders John Arcand (Métis, SK), James Flett and Lawrence “Teddy Boy” Houle (both Ojibwe, MB). The playing is exceptional and the music is more diverse than one might expect. Of particular note is the arrangement of the traditional Trade Song which begins with a prologue in a haunting and surprisingly modern tonality before progressing into more familiar ground. The cello, a somewhat surprising addition to the traditional instrumentation, is used effectively as both a pizzicato bass and a full-voice bowed melody instrument. This disc will be at the top of the pile next to my CD player this summer.

06 bachOne of the highlights of the 2011 Montreal Baroque Festival was a performance by Bande Montréal Baroque under Eric Milnes’ direction of six New Brandenburg Concertos as reconstructed by the late Bruce Haynes. Drawing on the vocal works of Johann Sebastian Bach and taking his premise from the writings of Telemann, who suggested that instruments could occasionally be substituted for voices in cantatas, Haynes has created new orchestral pieces modeled on the six existing Brandenburgs. ATMA has released these performances (ACD2 2565) and now we are left to decide whether the world really needs more transcriptions of the works of the master. Haynes suggests that they are offered more in the “tongue-in-cheek spirit of the famous recordings by the Swingle Singers or of Wendy Carlos’ Switched On Bach” and that they should not be taken too seriously. Because the music is authentic Bach and the instruments replacing the voices are carefully chosen with historical context in mind, I find the “experiment” to be a success for the most part. My main qualms are the extent to which the “new” concertos mirror the original six in instrumentation and form, right down to the third having only a cadence in place of a full second movement. All in all, however, I find the music satisfying and the recording sustained my interest right up until the last concerto, which seemed somehow to lose steam as it progressed. Completely familiar and unfamiliar at the same time, this music will be a welcome addition to anyone who can’t get enough Bach.

07 connectionsI must confess that although I am a great fan of the cello and of the music of Debussy, I’ve never quite been able to “get” the Sonata for Cello and Piano. I first heard it performed by Rostropovich at the George Weston Recital Hall in the early years of that remarkable establishment. It was a great recital, but I was left scratching my head at the work which seemed devoid of any of those things which I had come to think of as Debussy. Two decades later I am still at a loss to understand the piece, one of his very few forays into the world of chamber music, but at least it is starting to sound familiar. It is this sonata that Winona Zelenka and Connie Shih have chosen to begin their recording Connections (Marquis MAR 81427) which includes music by four “connected” French composers of the late 19th century. They certainly play the Debussy with conviction and don’t show any signs of confusion in their approach, so perhaps it’s just me…

            Chausson’s Piece, Op.39 is a “wistful gem” in Zelenka’s words and it is nicely complemented by Fauré’s “lightning fast” Papillion, Op.77. But herein lies one of my own pet peeves. This “Butterfly” is darting around like a hummingbird rather than a Monarch or the familiar cabbage butterflies that we are used to seeing. Perhaps it is a Red Admiral, but at any rate it is atypical of the genus as far as I’m concerned, reminiscent of The Flight of the Bumblebee when used as a virtuosic showpiece. Have these people ever seen a “Bumble” bee? It’s about the clumsiest creature to take to the air and I’ve heard that from an engineering standpoint it shouldn’t be able to fly at all… But please excuse my diatribe. Inthe case of Papillon my complaint is with the composer not the players because I have compared a number of performances and the general consensus is that this is meant to be a moto perpetuo. (By the way, I find Fauré’s song The Butterfly and the Flower a much better depiction of a butterfly in flight.)

            The final work on the disc is the wonderful Sonata in A Major originally for violin and piano by César Franck. This is a truly great piece of music and is totally convincing in its cello adaption. It is often paired with the first Fauré violin sonata in its cello arrangement and I’m glad to be presented with a different context in which to hear it. Zelenka and Shih play the Franck with passion and nuance and it makes a strong finish to this thoughtful and well recorded disc. 

 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, “buy buttons” for online shopping and additional, expanded and archival reviews. 

— David Olds, DISCoveries Editor

Well once again in my zealous desire to make a dent in the backlog of wonderful new releases received I have assigned too many titles to our reviewers and left insufficient space for my own musings. So I will simply take this opportunity to welcome jazz columnist Stuart Broomer to these pages. Since Geoff Chapman’s retirement from “It’s Our Jazz” some months ago we have been falling behind on news from the local scene and I am very pleased that Broomer has agreed to come on board to address the issue. He’s written about music for The Globe and Mail, Toronto Life and numerous specialist publications, among them Cadence, DownBeat, Musicworks, New York City Jazz Record, Paris Transatlantic and Signal to Noise. Broomer’s book Time and Anthony Braxton appeared in 2009 from Mercury Press and his column “Ezz-thetics” appears regularly at www.pointofdeparture.org. His liner essays have appeared on CDs by musicians from over 20 countries and he is a former editor of Coda: The Journal of Jazz and Improvised Music. This month marks the inauguration of his WholeNote column “Jazz, eh?” and I think you will agree that it is a welcome addition.

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, “buy buttons” for online shopping and additional, expanded and archival reviews. 

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

01_32_Short_FilmsThirty-Two Short Films about Glenn Gould was, I think, the first film I ever saw at the Toronto International Film Festival where it received a special citation back in 1993. Subtitled “The Sound of Genius” this outstanding portrait by François Girard, produced by Niv Fichman for Toronto’s Rhombus Media, went on to win four Genie Awards including Best Film and Best Director that year. It was a great pleasure to find a DVD re-issue (SONY 88691912129) in my in-box last month and to revisit Colm Feore’s canny portrayal of Gould in this docu-dramatic recreation of some of the more iconic moments of the artist’s controversial career. While much is indeed dramatic reinvention, we are also presented with commentary by some of Gould’s colleagues including film maker and violinist Bruno Monsaingeon (who is also seen in a performance of Gould’s String Quartet Op.1), Yehudi Menuhin and CBC broadcaster Margaret Pascu among others. Loosely structured on Bach’s Goldberg Variations, we are presented with a series of vignettes featuring Gould in monologue, in dialogue with himself and on occasion in interaction with others. Feore carries the bulk of the performance but there are a few supporting actors including a cameo by screenplay co-writer Don McKellar. Some of the variations involve no commentary, combining music with film montage and in one case an animation sequence by Norman McLaren. If you missed this in the theatre first time around I highly recommend you catch it on DVD now. I only wonder why it has taken two decades to bring it to the home market.

Gould was no stranger to the art of documentary making and some of the scenes presented in Thirty Two Short Films are adapted from his own television and radio productions. Last fall SONY released the 10 DVD set Glenn Gould on Television – The Complete CBC Broadcasts 1954-1977 (886979 52109). You can find Bruce Surtees’ review of that set in the November 2011 Old Wine in New Bottles archive on our website.

In 1990 the great violinist and pedagogue Yehudi Menuhin, mentioned above, became the second laureate of the Glenn Gould Prize, awarded every three years by the Glenn Gould Foundation in recognition of outstanding achievements in music and communication. This year the ninth iteration of the prize will be bestowed on Leonard Cohen at a concert at Massey Hall on May 14 featuring a veritable “Who’s Who” of the pop world which has been so influenced by Cohen’s output over the past half century.

02a_CohenThe announcement of the award prompted me to revisit a DVD that was issued in 2010 of a film by Tony Palmer entitled Leonard Cohen – Bird on a Wire (TPDVD166). This documentary was shot during Cohen’s 1972 European tour which also took him to Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. I found it very interesting to hear the then 37 year old singer talking about how some of the songs were written 10 and 15 years previously and how hard it was to continue to relate to them so many years later. I wonder what his perspective is now, 40 more years on. The film is very candid and we see some less than winning sides of the artist, baiting stage (state) security forces at a concert in Tel Aviv, petulantly refusing to return to the stage on a night when he feels there is no magic in the performance and demeaning (while seeming to reason with) disappointed fans after a concert in Berlin. It is a surprising portrait in many ways, of a successful artist in mid-career, warts and all.

Tony Palmer’s film was made in 1972 and as I mentioned Cohen at that point acknowledges that the songs were written long ago. Yet seven years earlier when the National Film Board of Canada produced Ladies and Gentlemen… Mr. Leonard Cohen (all but the last six minutes of which are available for viewing on YouTube), music was incidental to his career as a poet and novelist and merited mention only in passing in that 45 minute documentary. His droll delivery from the stage however suggests Cohen could have had a career as a stand-up comic.

The most surprising aspect of this film to me was the realization that so many of the iconic songs that we know Leonard Cohen for, Hallelujah and First We Take Manhattan notwithstanding, were written as a young man and, perhaps more surprising, that the voice we never considered “good” was actually quite musical in those early years.

02b_Cohen_CDOf course Cohen has had a long and successful career and in recent years has continued to release albums and tour extensively. The 2008 documentary Live in London and a tribute concert at the Montreal Jazz Festival that year are testament to his ongoing influence in the music world. Most recently Old Ideas (Columbia 88697986712) has been very well received although this critic will reserve judgement on the recent output until cover versions of the songs begin to appear. Evidently there have been 150 renditions of Hallelujah, in many different languages and genres, but I have my doubts that the new Amen will achieve such glory.

03_BoulezAnother Glenn Gould Prize laureate who has caught my attention this month is Pierre Boulez who won the $50,000 award in 2002. A new recording of Mémoriale and Dérive 1 & 2 featuring Ensemble Orchestral Contemporain under founder Daniel Kawra (naïve MO 782183) presents interrelated works from the mid-1980s. The last of these has continued to occupy Boulez since its conception with the most recent revision dating from 2006; the first is based on a movement from the 1972 work … explosante-fixe … written in response to the death of Stravinsky. So in effect the pieces here reflect three and a half decades of Boulez’ compositional output.

The disc seems organic in the way it progresses. It begins with Mémoriale for solo flute, two horns, three violins, two violas and cello, dedicated to the memory of Canadian flutist Lawrence Beauregard who worked closely with Boulez in the development of interactive computer/instrument interfaces at IRCAM, Mémoriale exists in two versions: with and without technology. I had to listen very carefully to this recording to realize that this is the purely acoustic rendition. The strings using metal practise mutes produce an ethereal shimmering that sounds almost electronic.

Although composed in 1984, a year earlier than Mémoriale, Dérive 1 seems to grow out of the opening piece. Only this time the strings are not muted and it is as if familiar material has been amplified, or rather magnified.

This is taken a step further in the 50 minute Dérive 2. I was surprised to realize that although using a much larger ensemble than the opening pieces, the orchestration here involves just 16 players. My initial impression was of a concerto for orchestra but the basic one per part instrumentation produces a deceptively full spectrum of sound. The addition of harp, piano, vibraphone and marimba to the bare bones ensemble contributes to the effect. I found the bassoon, English horn and clarinet cadenzas especially intriguing.

This recording will provide a good introduction to the music of one of the most important composers of our time for those not yet familiar with Boulez. It is also an important addition to the discography for those who already realize the scope of this master.

Associated with the Glenn Gould Prize is the City of Toronto award of $15,000 to a “protégé” as designated by the winner. We do not yet know who Mr. Cohen will name, but I would like to mention in passing that the most recent GGP laureate, José Antonio Abreu, picked the young Venezuelan conductor Gustavo Dudamel. Dudamel has gone on to an illustrious career at the helm of the Los Angeles Philharmonic in addition to currently serving as music director of the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra (Sweden) and the Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra of Venezuela. His recording of Brahms’ Fourth Symphony with the LA Philharmonic (Deutsche Grammophon digital release 0289 477 9459 2) won the 2012 Grammy Award for Best Orchestral Performance.

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 online shopping and additional, expanded and archival reviews.

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

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