As a fairly accomplished amateur cellist and former classical radio programmer, I consider myself well-versed in the traditional cello repertoire. Imagine then my surprise to receive not one, but two, discs this month featuring works from 19 th- and early 20th-century France of which I was previously unaware. Even three of the five composers were unfamiliar to me, although they were each celebrated in their lifetime. 

01 Lalo LacombeÉdouard Lalo | Paul Lacombe | Fernand de La Tombelle – Sonates pour piano et violoncelle (ATMA Classique ACD2 2873 features two highly regarded Quebecois performers, cellist Paul Marleyn and pianist Stéphane Lemelin. Of course I was familiar with the Cello Concerto in D Minor of Lalo (1825-1892) which has graced the standard repertoire since 1877, but his Sonata for Piano and Cello in A Minor from two decades earlier has languished in relative obscurity. Listening to the dynamic work, it is hard to understand why. It is a substantial offering with contrasting movements, lyrical and dramatic by turns, with memorable melodies and virtuosic flare. The same is true of the other works included here and it is surprising they, and their composers, are not better known. Although Lacombe was born only a dozen years after Lalo his Sonata for Piano and Cello Op.100 was written about 50 years after Lalo’s, in the early years of the 20th century. For all that, it shares a sensibility and language with Lalo, not reflecting the turbulent aesthetic changes happening around him, although there is Debussy-like melody in the opening movement un peu animé. This is followed by a lyrical Largo and concludes with an ebullient Allegro con fuoco. Baron de La Tombelle (1854-1928), numbered among his mentors Franz Liszt and Camille Saint-Saëns and he himself went on to count revered organist Marcel Dupré and composer/pedagogue Nadia Boulanger among his own pupils. Not only an accomplished musician and teacher, La Tombelle was also a distinguished poet, painter, sculptor and astronomer. His Cello Sonata in D Minor Sonata (1905) opens with an exuberant Allegro, followed by a gentle lullaby-like Lentement movement before its rousing Allegro vivace finale. Here, as throughout the disc, Marleyn and Lemelin’s playing is nuanced, articulate and totally convincing as it meets all the demands of this lovely music. 

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02 Ropartz MagnardFrom the strident opening notes of the Sonata for Cello and Piano No.2 in A Minor (1919) by Guy Ropartz (1864-1955) the new Le Palais des Dégustateurs release Guy Ropartz | Albéric Magnard (PDD029 commands the listener’s attention. As with the previous disc, little known gems are presented in stunning performances by Alain Meunier and Anne le Bozec. To say the Ropartz opens stridently is not to suggest that the work is abrasive however, and the subsequent movements – Lent et calme and Très lent – Assez animé – are warm and lush.  Ropartz and Magnard were neighbours and friends, both proud of their Breton heritage. Magnard (1865-1914) died defending his home from invading Germans in the early days of the First World War. In the attack his house was burned and several manuscripts destroyed but fortunately Ropartz was able to reconstitute from memory the orchestration of Magnard’s opera Guercoeur. The Sonata for Cello and Piano Op.20 in A Major from 1910 is in four movements, opening traditionally with a fast movement Sans lenteur – Alla zingarese followed by a brief Scherzo lasting less than three minutes. The Funèbre third movement is followed by a boisterous finale bringing a wonderful disc to a rollicking close. 

I was surprised to hear from the Dégustateurs label founder and renowned vintner Èric Rouyer, that he finds it hard to produce recordings of French music, presumably due to market pressures, although further on in these pages you will see another of his recordings featuring the piano music of contemporary Frenchman Guy Sacre, with soloist Billy Eidi. I commend Rouyer for his efforts to unearth neglected repertory pieces and, with such outstanding performers as here, he is to be congratulated and encouraged to continue his exploration of “the road less travelled.”

03 David EagleFull disclosure, my days at Thornlea Secondary School half a century ago briefly overlapped with those of composer David Eagle and more recently I was the general manager of New Music Concerts when he was invited to curate a concert in 2013 and commissioned to compose one of the works on the next recording. As mountain winds (Centrediscs CMCCD 30722 features four compositions spanning 2011-2019 for ensembles of varying sizes. All include live computer processing and diffusion of the sounds of acoustic instruments, and, in the case of Unremembered Tongues the work mentioned above, soprano soloist (Xin Wang in the original Toronto performance). This 2021 recording features the powerful voice of Robyn Driedger-Klassen with the Turning Point Ensemble under the direction of founder Owen Underhill. It is in this complex work that we are most aware of the computer’s presence as the soloist’s voice is replicated, distorted, layered and distributed throughout space via an eight-speaker sound system (effective even in this stereo mix). Eagle tells us the initial inspiration came from thinking about the “many forgotten and endangered languages that are disappearing in our relentlessly modernizing society and monoculture. Sonic evocation of these lost modes of expression is a main focus of the work.” The languages he draws on are Iwaidja and Kayardild from northern Australia, Latin, Blackfoot, Basque, Cree and Hawaiian. The resulting “Tower of Babel” is very effective indeed. This is followed by Altered States and, such is the density of the computer manipulations, it takes careful listening to discern that the only instruments involved are those of the traditional piano trio, although at times the textures thin out and the violin, cello and piano of the Land’s End Ensemble become more easily discernable. The title track, which opens the disc, is an interactive composition for octet and computer, again with surround-sound projection. Instrumental phrases are processed in Eagle’s signature style to create “fluctuating and volatile sonic textures through filtering, granulating, delays, and transposing and harmonizing with just and microtonal intonation.” A Kinect motion sensor tracks the composer/interpreter’s hand movements to expressively transform and extend the ensemble, here Aventa under Bill Linwood. The disc closes with the earliest work, Two Forms of Intuition, an orchestral work (with computer) taking its inspiration and title from Immanuel Kant’s proposition of the same name that says we always perceive the world as phenomena in time and space. Commissioned by the Windsor Symphony Orchestra and premiered in 2012, it was subsequently performed and later recorded for this CD by Turning Point Ensemble. They have certainly made it their own. Kudos to all involved in this excellent portrait of one of Canada’s most adventurous composers, one who has embraced technology and successfully and creatively integrated it into live instrumental performance. 

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04 Monica PearceAs far as I can tell, it was Béla Bartók who first wrote for the combination of piano and percussion in his Sonata for 2 Pianos and Percussion of 1937, later enlarged to include those soloists with orchestra in his concerto transcription of 1940. More about Bartók later, but he certainly started a significant trend for that combination, with such notables as George Crumb, Luciano Berio, Dieter Mack and, most recently, Canadian Monica Pearce contributing to the genre. Centrediscs has just released Textile Fantasies (CMCCD 30322 comprising a cycle of chamber works for keyboards (harpsichord, piano, toy pianos) and percussion (a plethora of mallet instruments, plus tabla with tambura drone) in various combinations. Each piece is inspired by the particular texture of a specific fabric or pattern such as silks, velvet and houndstooth. My late father used to complain that Baroque music sounded to him like just so many sewing machines, referring to the ostinatos of the continuo. While I don’t agree, I do understand what he was getting at. I thought of him fondly while listening to the first of the Textile Fantasies, toile de jouy for solo harpsichord, exuberantly performed by Toronto keyboardist Wesley Shen. I know Dad would have found it disturbing (as does my wife), but not so his number one son. I find its relentless mechanical pounding, and I mean that in a respectful and musical way, quite fortifying in its journey towards an eventual vanishing point. This is followed by leather for piano and percussion performed by Ottawa’s SHHH!! Ensemble in which the piano is mostly used as a percussive instrument though various extended techniques, dampening the strings and such. I find it wonderfully reminiscent of Bartók’s seminal work. There are two pieces for multiple percussionists featuring Toronto’s TorQ Percussion Quartet; two contrasting works for solo piano, one aggressive and percussive played by Barbara Pritchard and the other, contemplative, featuring Cheryl Duval; another, Damask, for tabla (Shawn Mativetsky) and piano (Shen) which hints at the Middle Eastern origins of that fabric; and the concluding denim for two percussionists and two toy pianos. Did I mention that Pearce was a co-founder of the Toy Piano Composers collective? She has also penned works for Bicycle Opera (who toured extensively by pedal power across Ontario) and New Fangled Opera; pieces for new music specialists Thin Edge New Music Collective, junctQín, Array, New Music Detroit and the International Contemporary Ensemble among many others; but also for such mainstream organizations as the Toronto Symphony Orchestra and l’Orchestre symphonique de Montréal. This disc provides an intriguing introduction to her smaller works and if you’re not familiar with Pearce it would be a great place to start. Concert note: There will be performances and a reception to launch Textile Fantasies at the Canadian Music Centre, 20 St. Joseph St., Toronto on November 10 at 4pm. 

05 Bartok Music for StringsGetting back to Béla Bartók (1881-1945) for my final selection, a new recording by the Deutsche Radio Philharmonie under Pietari Inkinen (SWR Classic SWR19110CD features two fairly late large works, Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta (1936) and the Divertimento for Strings (1939). The final two of Bartók’s six string quartets, a cycle renowned for its craggy complexity, were composed around this same time – 1934 and 1939 respectively – but in spite of their proximity, these larger works are much more listener friendly than the quartets. This is not to say that they don’t have their moments of angularity and darkness, but unlike the quartets in which the four instruments often seem to go their own way, here there is more of a sense of unity and homogeneity. In these new recordings, made in Saarbrücken in 2020 and 2021, the orchestra captures all the nuances of the two works’ contrasting moods, especially in the spooky passages featuring the celesta. But more interesting to me in the context of this article are three transcriptions of Bartók solo piano pieces for percussion ensemble performed by members of the orchestra. These effective new adaptions were done by Bernhard Wulff, professor of percussion at the Hochschule für Musik in Freiburg and long-time associate of Toronto’s legendary flute soloist and pedagogue Robert Aitken. Wulff is the founder and artistic director of a number of international music festivals, including Two Days and Two Nights of New Music in Odessa (Ukraine), Roaring Hooves in Mongolia, Silk Sound Road in Kyrgyzstan, Caspian Fires in Azerbaijan and Cracking Bamboo in Vietnam, many of which included Aitken in the roster of performers. The works here make a striking bridge between large ensemble pieces, beginning with the dynamic second of Six Dances in Bulgarian Rhythm from the final volume of Mikrokosmos, published the same year as the Divertimento. This is followed by the calm and quiet, almost pastoral, The Night’s Music from Out of Doors (1926), incidentally the year the first volume of Mikrokosmos was published. I was amused to hear a toy piano among the instruments. The percussion suite ends with a rambunctious rendition of the bombastic Allegro Barbaro, the first work to bring Bartók to international attention back in 1911. All in all the entire disc is a treat for the ears! 

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

David Olds, DISCoveries Editor 

01 Nikolai KorndorfRussian composer Nicolai Korndorf (1947-2001) was a co-founder of the “new” ACM (association for contemporary music) in Moscow in 1990, but upon the dissolution of the Soviet Union he emigrated to Canada the following year. Russia’s loss was Canada’s gain and for a decade, until his sudden death in 2001, Korndorf was an associate composer of the Canadian Music Centre and an integral part of Vancouver’s contemporary music scene. The Smile of Maud Lewis (Redshift Records TK516, released to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the composer’s birth, features three works “that mark a creative highpoint and artistic rite of passage from his native Russia to Canada.” As the liner notes point out, all three are based on thematic material from earlier works. The booklet includes notational examples of these themes from Con Sordino for 16 strings and the included Lullaby, both dating from 1984, which became a sort of signature for Korndorf in his later works. 

The disc begins with the title work, a tribute to the Nova Scotia folk artist who lived from 1903 until 1970. Korndorf said in an interview in 1998: “Discovering the art of Maud Lewis was the most important cultural experience for me since moving to Canada.” The Smile of Maud Lewis captures the sunny disposition and sense of wonder inherent in Lewis’ paintings, with a joyous ostinato of mallet percussion, celesta, flute/piccolo/recorder and full strings underpinning long, melodious horn lines. Somewhat reminiscent of early John Adams, with swelling cadences à la Philip Glass, the work builds dynamically Bolero-like throughout its quarter-hour length, only relaxing in its final minute to a glorious, gentle close. Conductor Leslie Dala captures both the exuberance and the nuance of this sparkling work.

Triptych for cello and piano opens abruptly with raucous chords in the cello which gradually resolve into an extended solo Lament in which Ariel Barnes is eventually joined by pianist Anna Levy. Levy begins the second movement Response with an ostinato once again drawing on Korndorf’s signature themes, this time supporting an extended melody line in the cello. Quiet pizzicato opens the final Glorification before arco cello and piano counterpoint gradually grow into celebratory ecstasy. Jane Hayes joins Levy for the final two tracks, Korndorf’s above-mentioned ebullient, though quiet, Lullaby for two pianos, and the gentle half-light, somnolent rains for piano duo by his former student Jocelyn Morlock, written in tribute to her mentor on the fifth anniversary of his death. These marvellous performances are a strong testament to the importance Nicolai Korndorf and his legacy. 

02 PPPThe title of this next disc, ppp (i.e. pianississimo), led me to expect a quiet and contemplative experience; it turns out, however, to be an acronym for the last names of the Latvian composers involved: Pēteris Plakidis, Kristaps Pētersons and Georgs Pelēcis. ppp features Gidon Kremer and his Kremerata Baltica (LMIC/SKANI 139 in works for various chamber combinations and for full ensemble. It begins with Little Concerto for two violins (1991) by Plakidis (1947-2019), a three-movement work performed by Kremer and Madara Pētersone, which reminds me of Bartók and Berio violin duos with its folk-like idioms and exuberance. Pētersons (b.1982) performs his own craggy Ground for double bass solo and is joined by Iurii Gavrilyuk and Andrei Pushkarev for π = 3,14 for two double basses, percussion and recording, a work somewhat suggestive of a sci-fi soundtrack. Pētersons’ Music for Large Ensemble is performed by Kremerata Lettonica, a nine-piece string ensemble supplemented with electric guitar played by the composer. This too seems to have electronic aspects, presumably executed by the guitarist since no recording is mentioned. It is in three movements, the last and lengthiest of which is nominally minimalist and features violin solos themselves reminiscent of electric guitar lines. 

Three pieces from Fiori Musicali (2017-2022) by Pelēcis (b.1947) prove to be the most traditional on the album, the use of vibraphone as soloist with string orchestra notwithstanding. Pelēcis named his “blooming garden” after a collection of liturgical organ works by Girolamo Frescobaldi (1583-1643). The middle movement Dance of the Peonies has definite shades of Respighi about it. Cosmea Melancholy features Kremer as soloist, and once again we hear the vibraphone in an unusual context in this gloomy finale to a somewhat surprising disc.

03 Gity RazazSpeaking of string ensembles, the All-American Cello Band performs the title track of the CD The Strange Highway featuring music by Iranian-American composer Gity Razaz (b.1986) (BIS-2634 (I feel compelled to point out that this so-called all-American band includes the Halifax-born Denise Djokic of the famed Nova Scotia musical dynasty, and also Icelander Sæunn Thorsteinsdóttir, although admittedly they both currently reside in America.) The Strange Highway takes its title from a poem by Chilean writer Roberto Bolaño: “You wish the angst would disappear / While rain falls on the strange highway / Where you find yourself.” Razaz says she was “moved by the potent sense of desolation and vulnerability expressed through the poem’s imagery.” The cello octet she has created, beginning with a driving, almost violent, moto perpetuo that gradually shifts into lyrical melancholia before coming full circle and effectively “capture[s] and recreate[s] these emotions.”

The next three works are for smaller forces – Duo for violin and piano, Legend of the Sigh for cello and electronics and Spellbound for solo viola – composed in 2007, 2015 and 2020 respectively. Francesca daPasquale and Scott Cuellar shine in the two movements of the Duo that explores contrasting aspects of a single melody. Inbal Segev is the dedicatee of Legend and he performs the challenging yet lyrical live and pre-recorded cello parts against an eerie and effective electronic backdrop. Katharina Kang Litton is the soloist in the haunting Spellbound, based on an original melody that “evokes the improvisatory lyricism of traditional Persian music.” 

The final work, Metamorphosis of Narcissus for chamber orchestra and fixed electronics dates from 2011. Haunting again comes to mind as an apt descriptor, as solo woodwinds rise above a dense texture of strings, gongs and cymbals. Perhaps it is the surface similarity to George Crumb’s A Haunted Landscape that suggests the term. At any rate, Andrew Cyr and the Metropolis Ensemble are stellar in this culminating work on an excellent portrait disc. Razaz is definitely a young composer to keep an eye (ear) on.

04 Whole HeartCellist Claire Bryant’s Whole Heart (Bright Shiny Things BSTC-0178 represents both sides of her mandate as Assistant Professor of Cello and Coordinator for Community Engagement at the University of South Carolina. Bryant also directs the criminal justice initiative “Music for Transformation,” spearheaded by Carnegie Hall’s affiliate ensemble, Decoda, of which she is a co-founder. The seven works she has chosen, all by friends and colleagues, span 20 years of her career. Bryant says: “All these passionate works reflect love and the great human experience. Whole Heart is a reminder of the collective challenges we face and the resilience and strength that live inside each of us.” 

Andrea Casarrubios’ SEVEN was composed in 2020 and was inspired by the early pandemic ritual in New York City of citizens celebrating and encouraging frontline workers by banging pots and pans each evening at 7pm. Ayudame (2004) by Adam Schoenberg was the first piece that Bryant ever commissioned, back when she was a student at Juilliard. Schoenberg says the Spanish title translates as “’help me’ and refers, in part, to my struggle in composing the piece,” which also pushed the cellist with its juxtaposition of extreme virtuosity and high emotional output. They have both risen admirably to the challenge. Delta Sunrise by Jessica Meyer is a gentler, at times ethereal piece, inspired by the view from an early morning airplane journey after the composer’s inaugural trip to New Orleans. The other solo works are Varsha (Rain) by Reena Esmail, based on Hindustani ragas sung to beckon rain, and the playful And Even These Small Wonders by Tanner Porter which was “conceived in a trying time, but looks brightly towards the future.” 

Bryant is joined by violist Nadia Sirota for the quietly boisterous Limestone & Felt by her longtime friend Caroline Shaw. Shaw and Bryant met as young children as summer campers and Suzuki collaborators. There’s lots of pizzicato and some rolling unison passages in this piece which explores two “contrasting, common textures – resonant, gleaming limestone and muted, soft felt.” The final work on this excellent and intriguing disc, Duo for violin and cello by Jessie Montgomery, features Ari Streisfeld, another longtime friend and colleague. The opening and closing movements, – Meandering and Presto – are virtuosic and playful, while the contrasting middle Dirge is melancholy and contemplative. Montgomery says “the piece is meant as an ode to friendship with movements characterizing laughter, compassion, adventure, and sometimes silliness.” A perfect ending to an enticing disc. 

05 Gandelsman This Is AmericaViolinist Johnny Gandelsman embarked on a similar, although more ambitious, voyage during the pandemic by commissioning works from a number of his colleagues that would “reflect in some way on the time we were all living through,” a time that was overshadowed not only by COVID-19, but also by escalating racism, police brutality and the ever-increasing effects of climate change. This is America – An Anthology 2020-2021 (In A Circle Records ICR023 is a 3CD set of works for mostly solo violin by some two dozen composers ranging from five to 24 minutes in length. I say mostly solo violin because some tracks involve voice(s) and/or electronics, and some call for Gandelsman to perform on alternative instruments including acoustic and electric tenor guitars and five-string violin. Clocking in at nearly three and a half hours, one might expect the set to grow tiresome after a while; but I must say there is more than enough diversity to command and hold attention, at least when consumed one disc at a time. 

There are far too many tracks to enumerate here, but some of the highlights for me include the following. Disc one opens with O for overdubbed voices and violin by Clarice Assad. It is a hauntingly lyrical meditation on oxygen (“O”) referencing not only the respiratory distress and failure brought on by COVID-19 but also George Floyd’s last words “I can’t breathe.”  Layale Chaker’s Sinekemān, in which the solo violin evokes the spirit of the Ottoman ancestor of the violin (sinekemān) characterized by its seven sympathetic strings, is a study on solitude, “an ongoing flux of moments of self-sufficiency and struggle, lucidity and confusion, power and despair, already depicted by the aloneness of the solo instrument.” Nick Dunston’s percussive and scratchy Tardigrades was inspired by the phylum of eight-legged segmented micro-animals that can survive lack of food or water for up to three decades, withstand extreme temperatures and have even been reported to be able to survive the vacuum of outer space (although those on board Israel’s Beresheet mission, which crash-landed on the moon in 2019, are thought not to have survived). 

Disc two begins gently with Gandelsman singing and whistling while strumming a tenor guitar on Marika Hughes’ With Love From J, commemorating the life of Jewlia Eisenberg with the lyric “…The sky above us / the ground below / 360 support around us / cut discursive thought. Can you hear / What we’ve learned / Through the years? That love, sweet love / Reminds us / What to listen for.” Angélica Negrón’s A través del manto luminoso (Through the luminous mantle) takes its inspiration from dark-sky photographs of the heavens taken in Puerto Rico. It juxtaposes the acoustic violin with synthetic sounds meant to replicate audio recordings of ancient stars made using data from NASA’s Keppler/K2 missions. The eerie sounds and the “lonely” violin suggest the depths of space and the wonder of the universe. The minimalist pioneer Terry Riley is one of the few composers on this anthology with whose music I would have said I am familiar. But I must say that Barbary Coast 1955 for five-string violin is unlike anything else of his that I have heard. Riley gives a blow-by-blow description of the genesis and development of the work in his 11-part program note, including a number of false starts and rejected ideas. What we are left with is a kind of tango-tinged South American melody “that might have found itself drifting into the weed-scented room of a Beat poet” in North Beach (San Francisco’s “Barbary Coast” section) in the 1950s. This slowly morphs into a rollicking Bach-like quasi-contrapuntal section before gradually winding down. Quite a striking work. 

Disc three begins with the brief Stitched by Matana Roberts that seems to pick up right where Riley’s piece left off, opening very quietly with a longing melody that develops gently over its four-and-a-half-minute length before fading. With a seamless segué, Aeryn Santillan’s Withdraw is a work “reflecting on the state of society in 2020 through an intimate lens.” These two relatively short works are followed by more extended pieces by Tyshawn Sorey – For Courtney Bryan, strangely the only piece to not have a contextual program note in the otherwise quite detailed booklet – Anjna Swaminathan, Conrad Tao and Akshaya Tucker. The disc concludes with Breathe by Kojiro Umezaki, another meditation on the “world being brought to its knees by an inconspicuous peril replicating exponentially (and paradoxically) through the life-giving/sustaining act of breathing.” 

Throughout this impressive undertaking Gandelsman rises to all the myriad challenges, be they technical, stylistic or emotional. This is a compelling snapshot, or rather compendium, of America in the depths of a very troubled time, expressing anger, remorse, anguish and, most importantly, hope. Kudos to all concerned, especially Gandelsman who conceived the project and brought it to glorious fruition. 

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

Here we are at the summer issue, the final installment of Volume 27 (the completion of our 27th year of publishing The WholeNote). This means my last chance until September to try to make it through the pile of excellent discs that have caught my attention. I have winnowed them down to a top ten, but even so I will be hard pressed to cover them all within my allotted space. Of course it would be a much simpler task if I restricted myself to talking more about the discs and less about my own connections to them, but as regular readers know, the chances of that are slim at best.

01 Philip Glass MolinariThe latest release by Montreal’s Quatuor Molinari is Philip Glass – Complete String Quartets Volume One (ATMA ACD2 4071 Glass continues to add to the repertoire – he has eight quartets so far – heedless of those artists who have already published “complete” recordings. The first four are arranged here in a non-sequential, but quite effective order. String Quartet No.2 “Company” – with its haunting opening – is first up, followed by No.3 “Mishima” which was adapted from the soundtrack of the film by that name. Both of these works reflect Glass’ mature minimalism and it comes as a bit of shock when they are followed by his first venture into the genre, written in 1966 before he developed his signature style. This quartet is more angular and searching, although it too features a cyclical return to its starting point, a feature that the notes point out may “evoke for some the mythical Sisyphus, condemned to eternal repetition.” String Quartet No.4 “Buczak” – commissioned as a memorial for artist Brian Buczak – returns us to more familiar ground – its slow movement is even reminiscent of the opening of the second quartet – and brings an intriguing disc to a fitting close. 

This Molinari release is digital only at the moment, but on completion of Volume Two, ATMA says they will be issued together as a double CD. Although founder Olga Ranzenhofer is the only remaining original member of the quartet, which has undergone myriad personnel changes in its 25-year history, the Molinari sound remains consistent and exemplary, and their dedication to contemporary repertoire is outstanding. Molinari’s impressive discography now numbers 14 in the ATMA catalogue, and includes such international luminaries as Gubaidulina, Schnittke, Penderecki, Kurtág and Zorn, along with Canadians Jean-Papineau Couture, Petros Shoujounian and the 12 quartets of R. Murray Schafer.

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02 Canadian SoundscapesCanadian Soundscapes: Schafer; Raminsh; Schneider (CMCCD29722 opens with The Falcon’s Trumpet, a concerto R. Murray Schafer wrote for Stuart Laughton, a longtime participant in Schafer’s Wolf Project in the Haliburton Forest. Schafer wrote the piece while working at Strasbourg University in France and says “no doubt my nostalgia for Canadian lakes and forests strongly influenced the conception of this piece.” Certainly it is evocative of the wilderness, as the trumpet soars above the orchestra like a falcon in flight. In this performance soloist Guy Few joins the Okanagan Symphony Orchestra (OSO) under the direction of Rosemary Thomson. Thomson has been music director of the OSO since 2006, previously serving as assistant conductor of the Canadian Opera Company and conductor-in-residence of the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra. The OSO is the third largest professional orchestra in B.C. and this is its inaugural recording. A striking feature of Schafer’s concerto is the wordless soprano obbligato in the final minute, in this instance sung by Carmen Harris. Perhaps more surprising, considering Schafer has frequently used high sopranos in his wilderness pieces, is the inclusion of a soprano in a vocalise duet with the soloist in Imant Raminsh’s Violin Concerto.  Raminsh, best known and well-loved for his lush choral music, says he felt some trepidation when approached to write a piece for Vancouver Symphony Orchestra concertmaster Robert Davidovici. He felt no affinity for works of “flash and little substance” but ultimately felt comfortable creating something “more along the Brahmsian line – a symphonic work with solo violin obbligato.” At more than 40 minutes in four movements, it is truly grand in scope and lusciously Romantic in sensibility. Soprano Eeva-Maria Kopp is first heard in the final minute of the Agitato Appassionato movement and throughout the following Andante con moto. She re-enters briefly towards the end of the Con Spirito finale. The shared timbres are scintillating and violinist Melissa Williams shines throughout this remarkable work. Ernst Schneider’s self-proclaimed Romantic Piano Concerto is the earliest piece here, dating from 1980, at a time when the composer was immersing himself in the study of piano concerti of the Baroque, classical and Romantic eras. It is just as advertised and young Canadian soloist Jaeden Izik-Dzurko rises to the occasion admirably. I was particularly taken with the Adagio Molto Espressivo second movement, to my ears reminiscent of the same movement in Ravel’s Concerto in G

03 MascaradaThe Canadian Music Centre’s latest release is a digital EP, Mascarada by Alice Ping Yee Ho (Centrediscs CMCCD 29922 featuring cellist Rachel Mercer, flamenco dancer Cyrena Luchkow-Huang and the Allegra Chamber Orchestra under Janna Sailor. The press release included a link to a video of Mascarada ( and at first I was confused as to whether this was a video or an audio release. It seemed strange to credit a dancer in an audio-only recording, but once you hear it you will understand why. The flamboyant, percussive choreography is an integral part of the composition and is very present on the recording. Watching the video where all the performers are masked and socially distanced, it seems likely that this is yet another result of the current pandemic, but it is also an apt touch for a piece called a masquerade. Ho has successfully captured the flamenco spirit and it could just as easily have been called “My Spanish Heart.” I first met Mercer as a young artist while working as a music programmer at CJRT-FM in the early 90s. Since that time she has gone on to a stellar solo and chamber career, and now serves as principal cellist for Canada’s National Arts Centre Orchestra. She shares the spotlight with Luchkow-Huang here, and it’s hard to decide who is stealing the show from whom in this stunning performance. 

04 Quarrington plays ThompsonI will venture out of my field of expertise for this next one, but not so much out of my comfort zone. Joel Quarrington – The Music of Don Thompson (Modica Music is a fabulous collaboration between two of Canada’s top musicians. Although the overall feel of the disc is rooted in Thompson’s more-than-half-century career as jazz bass, vibes and piano player, he is featured here as composer and accompanist to Quarrington, a world-renowned musician who has served as principal double bass player for the Canadian Opera Company, Toronto Symphony, Canada’s National Arts Centre Orchestra and most recently the London Symphony Orchestra. The first four tracks feature Quarrington with Thompson on piano, beginning with Thompson’s arrangement of the classic A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square, followed by three Thompson originals. Quarrington’s tone is sumptuous and his ability to swing is truly impressive, as rarely heard from a classical musician. 

The album notes comprise an extended reminiscence from Thompson in which he tells of early meetings with Quarrington and how their paths continued to cross over the years. One example was in 1989 when Quarrington asked him to write a piece for a gig he was doing for New Music Concerts involving multiple bass players, including Wolfgang Güttler, principal of the SWR Symphony Orchestra, Baden-Baden and Freiburg. The result was Quartet 89 for four double basses. Thompson, who was to play pizzicato in the ensemble, says “I knew I couldn’t write a real ‘classical’ piece, so I just tried to come up with something we could play that might be fun. I wrote a big part for myself with a solo intro, a solo in the middle plus a cadenza, and left it up to the rest of them to decide who played [what].” I was at that concert, although it was before my association with NMC began, and I can tell you they had fun indeed. In the current iteration, which completes the disc, Thompson sits out and Roberto Occhipinti takes his spot with aplomb, and great sound, with Quarrington, Joseph Phillips and Travis Harrison on the arco parts. Not a classical piece per se, but somewhere between that and the world of jazz with a foot in both camps, much like this unique collaboration.

05 Im WaldAnother disc that falls between two worlds is Im Wald conceived by, and featuring, pianist Benedetto Boccuzzi (Digressione Music DCTT126 In this instance the two worlds are the piano music of the late classical/early Romantic era, juxtaposed with contemporary works by Jörg Widmann, Wolfgang Rihm and Helmut Lachenmann. While purists will likely be offended by the imposition of sometimes abrasive works into such beloved cycles as Schumann’s Waldszenen and Schubert’s Die schöne Müllerin (in a piano arrangement) I personally find it refreshing and even invigorating. The first half of the disc involves a complete performance of the Schumann (Forest Scenes in English) with selected movements from Widmann’s Elf Humoresken (11 Humoresques) interspersed. Then as a “palette cleanser” Boccuzzi inserts an electronic soundscape of his own creation, Im Wald (Into the Woods). In the second half of the disc we hear eight of the 20 movements of the Schubert, this time “interrupted” by a Ländler by Rihm and Fünf Variationen über ein Thema von Schubert (not from Die schöne Müllerin) by Lachenmann. This latter is of particular interest to me as it is an early melodic work (1956) that predates the mature style I am familiar with in which Lachenmann focuses mainly on extra-musical timbres achieved through extended instrumental techniques. Boccuzzi is to be congratulated not only for the overall design of this project, but for his understanding and convincing realization of the varying esthetics of these diverse composers. 

Listen to 'Im Wald' Now in the Listening Room

06 Schubert FinleySpeaking of Die schöne Müllerin, I was surprised when no one spoke up when I offered Gerald Finley’s new Hyperion recording with Julius Drake to my team of reviewers (CDA68377 I was also surprised to find that the renowned Canadian bass baritone had not previously recorded the cycle, familiar as I am with his other fine Schubert recordings. As we have come to expect from Finley and Drake’s impeccable performances of Winterreise and Schwanengesang, this latest release is everything one could ask for: nuanced, emotionally moving, pitch-perfect and well balanced. Finley is in top form and Drake is the perfect partner. 

07 Bergamot In the BrinkI was unfamiliar with the Bergamot Quartet before their recording In the Brink (New Focus Recordings FCR316 Founded at the Peabody Institute in Baltimore in 2016, the quartet is “fueled by a passion for exploring and advocating for the music of living composers” and this disc is certainly a testament to that. It opens with a work by American cellist and composer Paul Wiancko, commissioned by the Banff Centre for the Toronto-based Eybler Quartet during the 2019 Evolution of the Quartet festival and conference. (The Eybler were on the faculty and the Bergamot were participants in the program that year.) Ode on a Broken Loom is evocative of a spinning wheel and its rhythmic drive is compelling. Tania Léon’s Esencia (2009) is a three-movement work that incorporates influences from the Caribbean and Latino America, cross-pollinated with Coplandesque harmonic overtones. Suzanne Farrin’s Undecim (2006) is the earliest work here, and is in some ways the most intriguing. The composer says it was written “when I was thinking about how memory could be applied as a process in my music. I was fascinated by the long lifespan of stringed instruments. In this work, I liked to imagine that the bow remembers all of the repertoire of its past and could […] utter articulations of older pieces in an ephemeral, non-linear [gloss on] the present.” It’s a wild ride. The final work, the group’s first commission, is by first violinist Ledah Finck. In the Brink (2019) adds a drum set (Terry Feeney) to the ensemble, and requires the string players to vocalise, exclaim and whisper while playing. Not your traditional string quartet!

Listen to 'In the Brink' Now in the Listening Room

The San Antonio-based SOLI Chamber Ensemble has been championing contemporary music since their founding in 1994. They are comprised of violin, clarinet, cello and piano, the formation immortalized in Messiaen’s iconic Quatuor pour la fin du temps. Their latest CD presents The Clearing and the Forest (Acis APL50069, “an evening-length, staged work that dramatizes the relationship between landscape, migration and refuge through music, theater and sculpture” by Scott Ordway. A very brief Prologue featuring quiet wind chimes leads into Act I – we must leave this place forever in five instrumental sections, mostly calm but with occasional clarinet and violin shrieks reminiscent of ecstatic passages in Messiaen’s work. The six-movement Act II – we must run like wolves to the end begins with quiet solo clarinet, once again echoing Messiaen. In Ordway’s defence it must be virtually impossible to write for this combination of instruments without referring to that master; however, there is much original writing here in Ordway’s own voice. A contemplative Intermezzo – a prayer of thanksgiving leads to the final Act III – the things we lost we will never reclaim. This single extended movement gradually builds and builds before receding and fading once again into the sound of chimes. Ordway says “I have tried to create a work which honors and embodies the values of welcoming, of care and concern for others, of keen attention to the small and secret phenomena unfolding around us in the living world every day.” I would say he has succeeded, as has the SOLI Ensemble in bringing this work to life. 

09 SierraI first listened to Vicky Chow’s CD Sierra (Cantaloupe Music CA21174 without reading the press release or the program notes and initially assumed I was hearing a remarkable piano solo. It turns out however that the compositions by Jane Antonia Cornish presented here are actually works for multiple pianos (up to six) with all the parts overdubbed by Chow in the studio. The lush, and luscious, pieces are beautifully performed, their multiple layers seamlessly interwoven to produce an entrancing experience. The five pieces, Sky, Ocean, Sunglitter, Last Light and the extended title work for four pianos, comprise a meditative, bell-like suite that I found perfect for releasing the tensions of everyday tribulations. Hmm, tintinnabulations as antidote to tribulations, I like that. 

10 Quatuors pour troisI did not know what to expect from the title Quatuors pour trois instruments (Calliope Records CAL2195 I am familiar with trio sonatas – which, while called trios, actually require four musicians, two melody instruments and continuo often made up of a keyboard and a bass, kind of a Baroque rhythm section – but in this instance “quartet for three instruments” refers to a piano trio – violin, cello and piano – with two players in piano four hands formation. Evidently it was a common 19th-century grouping, which has since virtually disappeared. Violinist Hector Burgan and cellist Cyrielle Golin are joined by Antoine Mourlas and Mary Olivon sharing the piano bench in delightful multi-movement works by Hermann Berens (1826-1880) and Ferdinand Hummel (1855-1928). (Hummel is not related to Johann Nepomuk Hummel, the only composer of that name of whom I was previously aware.) The only composer represented here whom I did recognize is Felix Mendelssohn, whose Ruy Blas Overture was written in 1839 for a Leipzig production of Victor Hugo’s play of the same name. Fresh and sprightly, Hummel’s Sérénade Im Frühling from 1884 depicts Vienna in sunny springtime, while Berens’ two quartets from the 1860s are in a more classical style, harkening back to the aforementioned Mendelssohn. I was initially concerned that the four hands on the piano would make for muddy textures, hiding the two string instruments, but these well-balanced performances put the lie to that. I’m pleased to have made the acquaintance of these composers, and these fine players, in this great introduction to some little-known repertoire. 

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David Olds, DISCoveries Editor

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