01_Mork_Enescu.jpgOne of the first CDs I ever acquired was a 1987 solo disc with Norwegian cellist Truls Mørk performing works by Arne Nordheim, George Crumb, Ingvar Lidholm and Zoltán Kodály. In his mid-20s at the time, Mørk was playing a 1723 Montagnana cello, with a scroll made by Stradivari bought for his use by the SR Bank. I’m not sure what impressed me most at the time, the young man’s incredible technique and musicality, the breadth of style in the contemporary repertoire presented, the gorgeous sound of the instrument or the fact that a Norwegian bank was so supportive of the arts. (It is perhaps an interesting parallel to note that the Canada Council Musical Instrument Bank, now with $41,000,000 in instrumental holdings, began at the initiative of cellist Denis Brott who with the help of W.I.M. Turner, then CEO of Consolidated Bathurst Inc., raised funds to acquire the 1706 Turner-Brott Tecchler cello which is currently on a career loan to Mr. Brott. Instruments acquired by the Canada Council since that initial purchase are loaned on a three-year cycle to deserving young artists as determined by competition.)

Since my first exposure to Mørk I have continued to follow his career with interest, through recordings of the Bach and Britten solo suites, Chopin, Grieg, Sibelius, Prokofiev and Shostakovich sonatas, but more particularly in a discography that includes almost the entire concertante cello canon. Having pretty much exhausted the standard orchestral repertoire, his most recent release sees him performing George Enescu’s Symphonie Concertante with the Finnish Tampere Philharmonic Orchestra under Hannu Lintu (Ondine ODE 1198-2). From the dark opening chord with its underlying kettle-drums we are assured of a rich and rewarding experience and we don’t have to wait long for confirmation as the cello enters with a warm and powerful melody that carries us on throughout the first movement. Surprisingly this slow movement is followed by another, also marked Assez lent, with the cello in lamentation over muted horns. The finale is labelled Majesteux and the performance lives up to this moniker with uplifting orchestral textures and soaring cello lines culminating with a kind of molto perpetuo cadenza once again accompanied by an undertone of timpani. Although not mentioned in the liner notes, as far as I can find out Mørk still plays the Montagnana cello. Certainly the instrument used here is a treasure, whatever its provenance.

The Romanian Enescu (1881-1955) was a prodigy, entering the Vienna Conservatory at seven and graduating at 13 after which he went on to Paris where he studied with Jules Massenet and Gabriel Fauré. A concert of his works was held in 1897, followed in quick succession by the composition of three orchestral works, Poème Roumain and two Romanian Rhapsodies. Although acclaimed as a violinist he was also an accomplished cellist and it was with the Symphonie Concertante (1901) described above that he first came to international attention. This disc pairs the cello work with the Symphony No.1 (1905), a work which is firmly rooted in the late Romantic style of the age, framed in a traditional three-movement fast-slow-fast form. It is a fully mature work that belies the age of the composer and I find it surprising that his music is not more often performed and recorded. Ondine is doing what it can to rectify this in an ongoing series, including two recent releases with these same forces featuring subsequent symphonic works by Enescu.

02_Kirk_Elliott.jpgWith the exception of the Enescu, my listening has been more “pot pourri” than usual in the past month, with offerings running the gamut of musical styles and a time frame beginning in the Middle Ages, if liner notes are to be believed. I’ll begin with the most eclectic of all, Widdershins (pipistrellemusic.com), a project conceived by multi-instrumentalist Kirk Elliott which purports to explore “The Legend of Tristan Shoute,” a mythical composer, or at least one of mythical proportions. Puns abound in the extensive album notes which include a quotation from “musicologist Winchurch Stonhill” describing Shoute as “a fiddle, inside a misery, wrapped in an echidna.” This latter it seems is an Australian mammal also known as a spiny anteater… I learn something new every day!

We are told that although there is no factual evidence for the existence of Tristan Shoute, “stories have persisted throughout the ages of a talented, yet dissolute musician who curiously pops up time and again, in different locations, even different time periods, the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, colonial America…” If the repertoire included here is any indication his influence (and influences) stretch even further, reflecting a plethora of musickes and instruments including those of the present day (vibraphone, electric bass and electric guitar). A virtual one-man band, Elliott performs here on lute, vielles, citern, assorted bagpipes, rebek, bouzouki, Celtic harp and much, much more, but is also abetted in his mischief by the Orchestra of Unmitigated Gaul comprised of such familiar baroque specialists as Alison Melville, Colin Savage, Margaret Gay and Ben Grossman plus vocalists including Rebecca Campbell, David Fallis and John Pepper to name but a few.

The disc opens with Elliott’s arrangement – almost all the tracks are Elliott originals or arrangements – of the anonymous 14th century In Vino Blabitas familiar from the original Carmina Burana collection. Widdershins is a 17th-century gavotte featuring bagpipes, a rhythm section of bass and drum kit and nasal vocalise by Katherine Hill. This is followed by Stone Cold Pilgrims, a roots-style instrumental ballad introduced by a wolf call and featuring slide guitar, harmonica and bird sounds among other folksy turns. Venus Transit with its bagpipe, nyckleharpa, hurdy-gurdy and dumbek is particularly effective in depicting a time long gone, and the medley of a 16th-century ronde/salterelle by T. Susato and the traditional fiddle-tune Cripple Creek is a standout, as is Yolanda Marrakesh with its haunting sitar melody.

Elliott’s clever parody (in all senses of the word) offers wonderful entertainment and suggests that Peter Schickele’s PDQ Bach has a long-lost brother in arms, now found in a character fondly known as Widdershins.

03_En_Trois_Couleurs.jpgEn Trois Couleurs (ATMA ACD2 2709) is another eclectic disc, although one more firmly rooted in the 20th and 21st centuries, featuring music for two pianos and percussion performed, and in many cases composed by, François Bourassa, Yves Léveillé and Marie-Josée Simard. The overall feel of the disc is jazz-ish, with the opening Pantomime reminiscent of the French chamber-jazz style of Claude Bolling, but Alberto Ginastera’s In the First Pentatonic Major Mode, Keiko, the group’s collective tribute to Japanese marimba virtuoso Keiko Abé and Léveillé’s Zone Indigène provide contrast with their explorations of other sonic worlds. Diapasons (tuning forks) is a contemplative group composition with a variety of chime and bell-like sounds complemented by sparse piano textures whereas Mike Mainieri’s Self Portrait for vibes and pianos is quite straight-ahead mainstream, almost smooth, jazz. The disc concludes with the title track, perhaps the most adventurous in its sparseness while combining a wide range of timbres, juxtaposing the myriad textures available through the vast array of percussion instruments and extended piano techniques employed. In some ways this is a surprising disc for what is not present. With piano and percussion we might well have expected forays into minimalist ostinati and/or wall of sound banging. Instead we are treated to a thoughtful and often delicate performance offering another side of “struck” instruments.

04_Tintomara.jpgTintomara (Channel Classics CCS SA 36315) is an eclectic disc involving trumpet and trombone in various combinations; trumpeter Wim Van Hasselt and trombonist Jörgen van Rijen are featured in solos and duets, accompanied by basso continuo, piano and even a brass choir. The disc opens with three Baroque works by Henry Purcell including the famous Sound the Trumpet. My initial reaction was surprise at how mellow these brass instruments sound in the context, especially in Hark, how the songsters of the grove where they manage to blend into the texture of an ensemble that includes two recorders. The title track, by Swede Folke Rabe (b. 1935), is a duet where once again, except for an occasional raucous blat from the trombone, the overall impression is subdued; not a mood I normally relate to the trumpet. Jean-Michel Damase (1928-2013) was a composer rooted in the music of Debussy and Ravel, although he includes the complex rhythms and harmonies we’ve come to associate with the French school of the mid-20th century. His Trio for trumpet, trombone and piano reflects this in its lushness and integration of contrasting voices, with idiomatic and at times playful writing for the two horns. Martijn Padding’s One Trumpet and Florian Magnus Maier’s Slipstream for trombone solo and “loop station” are showpieces that allow each soloist to shine, albeit in very different ways. The concluding Eastwind by Jean-François Michel pits the soloists against an ensemble of four trumpets and four trombones and provides a rousing, at times Flight of the Bumblebee-like conclusion to this disc. Concert note: Jörgen van Rijen gives trombone masterclasses on March 9 and 11 at the Royal Conservatory and a free public recital at 7pm on March 10 in Mazzoleni Hall. 

05_Sliding_Delta.jpgThe final disc I will mention this month is one that takes me back to the music of my formative years when I first discovered acoustic blues. I am a bit embarrassed to admit that Michael Jerome Browne, who has evidently been a fixture on the blues circuit for something like three decades, is a new name to me, but in my defense it’s been almost half a century since I had my own aspirations in that regard. Indiana-born Browne was raised in Montreal where from the age of nine he accompanied his English-professor parents to the jazz, blues and folk clubs of their adopted city. Enthralled by the roots music of Sonny Terry, Brownie McGhee and Lightnin’ Hopkins, he took up guitar, harmonica, and later mandolin, fiddle and banjo. In his teenage years he embarked on a solo career and toured Europe and North America as a one-man band. Returning to Canada he joined the Stephen Barry Blues Band as singer and guitarist and stayed with that storied group long enough to record four albums before returning to a solo career in 1999. Since that time he has recorded six albums of which the latest, Sliding Delta (Borealis Records BCD233 borealisrecords.com), features a wealth of traditional material from such artists as Mississippi John Hurt, Memphis Minnie, Fred McDowell and Blind Lemon Jefferson performed in authentic and utterly convincing renditions. The liner notes give extensive credit and context to the origins of the songs and there is a full-page “Guitar Nerd’s Corner” which gives exhaustive details of the instruments used and tunings adopted. For the uninitiated I’ll just mention that Browne accompanies his distinctive voice and harmonica playing on various vintage 12- and 6-string acoustic and National “steel” guitars, mandolin and banjo, the pedigree of each of which is thoroughly documented for the cognoscenti. If, like me until now, you are unaware of Michael Jerome Browne and have any interest at all in acoustic roots music, I urge you to check out this disc. You can sample it at michaeljeromebrowne.com.

  We welcome your feedback and invite submissions. CDs 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

February Editor scans 01 GubaidulinaMontreal’s Quatuor Molinari has another outstanding release on the ATMA label (ACD2 2689 ), this time featuring the Complete String Quartets and other chamber string music of Russian composer Sofia Gubaidulina (b.1931). The first of two CDs is devoted to Gubaidulina’s four string quartets, and the brief Reflections on the theme B-A-C-H. The second presents a piano quintet, a string trio and an extended work for violin and cello. As with their 2013 release Alfred Schnittke – Chamber Music Volume 2, the quartet is joined by justly renowned pianist Louise Bessette for Gubaidulina’s Quintet for Piano and Strings, a student work from 1957 which immediately drew my attention. Despite the obvious influence of, and homage to, Shostakovich throughout the work, and a playful second movement theme somewhat reminiscent of Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf, the young composer displays a distinctive voice of her own. The four movements span just over half an hour and after an extended introspective Larghetto the piece ends with a rambunctious Presto which despite its driving ostinato cello line eventually ends gently, not with a bang, but a whisper.

There was a hiatus of more than a decade between the quintet and the first string quartet, composed in 1971, by which time Gubaidulina’s personal language had developed and matured. Gone are the tuneful themes and bouncy melodies. The writing is much more angular and pointillistic, the individual lines quite independent, and we hear suggestions of Lutosławski at his most astringent. Once again the work ends in near silence.

There was another long break before Gubaidulina returned to the chamber string medium, but 1987 saw a flurry of activity. String quartets were commissioned for the Sibelius Quartet in Finland and for the Arditti Quartet by the BBC, and a string trio was written at the request of the French broadcaster RTF. The String Quartet No.2 is a nine-minute, one-movement study in sound production focusing primarily on the note G which eventually gives way to “bowed clusters [which] mingle with melodic fragments against a backdrop of harmonics that rise up to the stratosphere of pitch” in the words of composer Robert Rival who provides the excellent booklet notes. String Quartet No.3, again in one movement, as are all of Gubaidulina’s string quartets, is roughly twice the duration of its predecessor. It begins with a sparse pizzicato texture which gradually fills in, but it is not until about the halfway mark that we hear any bowed sounds at all. The piece once again ends gently, with staggered glissandos rising into the ether.

String Quartet No.4 followed a few years later, in 1993, on a commission from the Kronos Quartet. It begins with insect-like buzzing over which sparse melodic fragments gradually emerge, intertwine and build in a dramatic arch that then slowly dissolves back into “night music.” At less than 12 minutes it brings the complete cycle of Gubaidulina’s string quartets to a close with a total duration of about an hour. To this she has added the seven minute BACH piece which was written in 2002 at the request of the Brentano String Quartet, whose tenth anniversary project was to record Bach’s Art of the Fugue with ten companion pieces by invited composers interspersed. Gubaidulina chose the final, unfinished fugue of Bach’s ultimate work as her theme and as with the original it seems to end in mid-sentence.

The second disc includes the Piano Quintet discussed above and the string trio – a three-movement work once again reminiscent to my ears of Lutosławski – plus Rejoice, a 1981 composition for violin and cello. I first encountered this half-hour elegy in a CBS recording by Gidon Kremer and Yo-Yo Ma as the companion piece for Shostakovich’s funereal String Quartet No.15 with its six adagio movements. Again in the words of Robert Rival “The title of the substantial sonata for violin and cello […] ought not to be taken literally, the music less expression of outward joy than metaphoric contemplation upon its stated theme.” There are certainly moments of brightness along the journey, but I think that contemplation is indeed the operative word.

The Molinari is to be congratulated for this outstanding release. Recordings of this repertoire are very rare – even the two that boast the complete quartets do not include these other works – and indeed this is the only recording of the Piano Quintet that I have encountered. That being said it is hard to say whether these performances are definitive as there is so little to compare them with, but I will say unequivocally that they are very convincing and a significant contribution to our understanding of this important composer.

February Editor scans 02 Marius ConstantFrom the moment I put on the Riverside Symphony’s new CD Marius Constant (riversidesymphony.org) I felt a warmth of recognition although I’d not heard the repertoire before. This was modern music in the style that I had come of age with; rich and textured, with tonal centres but forward looking, expansive and at times disturbing.

In the words of composer-director Anthony Korf (on the video segment embedded in the CD for computer playback) Marius Constant (1925-2004) “is the most famous obscure composer who ever lived.” Andy Warhol claimed we would all be famous for 15 minutes, but in the case of Constant it is more like 30 seconds, the duration of his one claim to fame, the theme from television’s Twilight Zone. (Esprit Orchestra conductor Alex Pauk cites Constant as the mentor whose example taught him the importance of maintaining “interlocking interests in composing and conducting.” At the final concert of its 30th season in March 2013 Esprit revisited Constant’s orchestration of the quirky electric guitar TV theme arranged at Pauk’s request in 1989.) As an aside I would mention that as annoying as I find all the hype around the new Crave TV service, I did take advantage of it to track down an episode of that seminal TV show to listen to the catchy theme again and must admit it’s still as effective as ever.

Be that as it may, the Riverside recording does not include that earworm but rather focuses on full-length orchestral scores. Its timely release coincides with that of the cinematic biopic Mr. Turner; Turner, the first piece on this disc, was inspired by three canvases by that celebrated 19th-century painter. Composed in 1961, it is the earliest work presented but shows the mature voice of an established artist already comfortable in his soundworld. As a matter of fact, the 1992 Brevissima which follows, a fully formed four-movement symphony that unfolds in a mere ten minutes, is unmistakably from the same rich palette. The violin concerto 103 Regards dans l’eau from 1981 is somewhat more angular and at times abrasive, with extended solo passages and cadenzas for the violin. The oft-times turbulent work is divided into four main movements, but is actually constructed of 103 “poetic celebrations of water” which are only revealed in the score as “stages and guides for expression” for the soloist and conductor. French violinist Olivier Charlier gives an impassioned and nuanced performance of this rarely heard work.

Co-founded in 1981 by conductor George Rothman and composer/artistic director Anthony Korf, New York’s Riverside Symphony is a professional orchestra devoted to unusual repertoire – music by young composers, unfamiliar works by great masters and new works by living composers from around the world. If this debut recording on its eponymous label is any indication, they are performing yeoman service in a field all too saturated with the familiar. I wish them continued success and look forward to more intriguing releases in the future.

2014 was a good year for Canadian composer Kelly-Marie Murphy, with recordings of major chamber works by two different ensembles.

February Editor scans 03a Motion and DistanceThe Lafayette String Quartet (artists-in-Residence at the University of Victoria since 1981) and Alexander Tselyakov (professor of piano at Brandon University since 2003) joined forces for Motion and Distance (tselyakov.com) which features Shostakovich’s Piano Quintet in G Minor and Murphy’s In a World of Motion and Distance. This latter was written in 2014 on commission from the Pender Harbour Chamber Music Festival and is dedicated to these performers who play this whirlwind work with aplomb. The opening Agitato and the Presto finale are both molto perpetuo in nature and the excitement never lets up. Thank goodness the inner Dolente with its sombre cello melodies, chiming piano accompaniment and rich harmonies gives us a brief respite before the rollercoaster ride begins anew. I also welcome this dynamic new recording of the Shostakovich quintet, one of my absolute favourites!

February Editor scans 03b Allant Trio The Allant Trio includes Canadian cellist Alina Lim whose studies began at the Royal Conservatory and who has served as the principal cellist of the Toronto Symphony Youth Orchestra. Violinist Anna Park and pianist Beth Nam were both born in Korea but educated in America. They met Lim at the Juilliard School and formed the trio in 2010. This young ensemble has performed extensively in the United States, had a residency at the Banff Centre, were finalists at the Trondheim Chamber Music Festival in Norway and through the sponsorship of the U.S. Ambassador made a number of appearances in Seoul. Their debut CD Ignition (Sony Classical Korea) includes accomplished and idiomatic performances of Haydn’s familiar “Gypsy” trio and Mendelssohn’s lovely Piano Trio No.1 in D Minor, Op.49 (another one of my favourites) along with Murphy’s exhilarating Give Me Phoenix Wings to Fly. Murphy wrote this piece for Toronto’s Gryphon Trio in 1997, since which time it has become a standard in the repertoire. Inspired by the myth of the phoenix rising from the ashes and poetic fragments from John Keats and Robert Graves, it features Murphy’s signature furioso tonal style in its opening and closing movements, with a hauntingly ethereal central section. I highly recommend this disc and although currently Sony only distributes the recording in Korea, it can be ordered by contacting the trio: allant.trio@gmail.com.

Concert note:On February 6 at Heliconian Hall genre-bending violinist/fiddler Anne Lindsay will launch her latest CD Soloworks (Violindsay Music anne-lindsay.com). It has been a delight listening to this eclectic disc over the past few weeks, and an education of sorts. I was not previously familiar with the nyckelharpa, a wonderfully resonant traditional Swedish viol-like instrument that it turns out, as my ears suspected, is closely related to the hurdy-gurdy; with manually bowed strings that are “fretted” by pushing down mechanical keys (which explains the at first confusing clicking sounds on the recording). I also learned that what I thought was a Beatles classic, You’ve Really Got a Hold On Me, was actually written by Smokey Robinson (who recorded it first with the Miracles in 1962) and that Smokey’s given name was William… but perhaps you knew all that already.

February Editor scans 04 Anne LindsaySoloworks includes 13 tracks, most of which are original compositions and all but one performed by Lindsay alone on violin, the above-mentioned nyckelharpa, piano and beautifully pure soprano voice. The one exception is Lindsay’s Tour en l’Air, a lilting quasi-baroque prelude for solo cello lyrically performed by Amy Laing. (The amateur cellist in me wonders if sheet music for this lovely piece is available. Perhaps I’ll ask at the launch.) My only qualm about the inclusion of this piece is that after the lush resonance of Laing’s instrument the entry of the violin in the next piece sounds shrill and almost grating, although that impression is quickly forgotten as the song progresses. And speaking of songs, it impresses me no end that Lindsay can sing and play the violin at the same time. We’re certainly used to that from guitarists and keyboard players, but it seems a rare feat while playing a bowed string instrument. And to add to my wonder, I get the distinct impression that in The Cold Told a Tale the piano is not overdubbed. In my mind’s eye I can see her sitting on the piano bench with her foot on the sustain pedal striking a chord, bow in hand and violin under her chin, playing the fiddle line without hesitation and breaking into song, all at the same time. 

One of the most effective tracks is a tribute to the late Toronto violinist Oliver Schroer who Lindsay says was her mentor. It begins with bird songs, Swainson’s thrushes recorded at Clayoquot Sound, which provide a bed track for two of Schroer’s compositions – Roro and Swedish Seven – performed on nyckelharpa with wordless vocals. A truly moving experience. The disc ends with Lindsay’s sparse arrangement for piano and voice (and distant bells) of the timeless Amazing Grace. Amazing indeed.

We welcome your feedback and invite submissions. CDs and comments should be sent to: DISCoveries, WholeNote Media Inc., The Centre for Social Innovation, 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.


David Olds, DISCoveries Editor

December Editor scans 01 When Music SoundsIt has been a hard choice this month winnowing down the plethora of new and exciting discs that have crossed my desk to the few that will fit in my allotted space. The top of the pile is a recent release on the Naxos Canadian Classics label, When Music Sounds (9.70126), featuring cello and piano music by some of this country’s most significant pioneers. I first heard rumours of this recording five years ago when I was preparing the discography for John Weinzweig: Essays on His Life and Music edited by John Beckwith and Brian Cherney (Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 2011). Noted pianist and musicologist Elaine Keillor notified us that she had just recorded Weinzweig’s Sonata for Cello and Piano “Israel” (1949) with cellist Joan Harrison and although the disc was not available in time to be included in the book I have been looking forward to its release ever since. Although I did not realize how much time would pass before the disc would be in hand, I must say that seeing it released by Naxos with its global distribution has been worth the wait. Weinzweig’s sonata, dedicated to the newly established state of Israel, blends his use of 12-tone technique, which he had been developing over a decade at that point, and Jewish-influenced melodies, with the cello acting as the voice of a cantor.

The disc is bookended by two works by Jean Coulthard, When Music Sounds, a short and very lyrical, if somewhat contemplative work dating from 1970 making it by far the most recent composition to be found here, and the Sonata for Cello and Piano (1946) which I must confess is my favourite selection with its shades of Debussy and cascading melodies. Violet Archer is represented by another work in traditional form, the four-movement Sonata for Cello and Piano (1956, rev.1972). Again a lyrical work, but with an edge, especially in the driving toccata-like finale. There is one delightful surprise on the disc, the charming Chants oubliés and Danse (1916) by someone whose name is very familiar, but not as a composer. Evidently Alberto Guerrero (1886-1959), likely best known as Glenn Gould’s main (only?) piano teacher, was highly regarded as a composer, pianist and pedagogue in his native Chile before settling in Toronto. If this work is any indication we can only regret that he gave up composing, although we certainly have to be thankful that he did not abandon pedagogy since through nurturing the remarkable talents of Gould, Guerrero left an indelible mark on this country and the musical world.

Regarding the sound of the disc I do have a few qualms, mostly with the sound of the cello. Recorded in City View Church in Ottawa by Anton Kwiatkowski’s Audio Masters I am surprised to find the cello quite harsh, a characteristic of the particular instrument itself rather than the playing I suspect. It works quite well in the Archer, but I would like a warmer sound in the more lyrical works. That thought notwithstanding, this is still a significant release. The recordings of the title track and the Guerrero are world premieres, the Archer has not previously existed on compact disc as far as I can tell and the Weinzweig and Coulthard sonatas have had only one iteration each on CD. Now, if we could have a recording of Barbara Pentland’s cello sonata from 1943 please…

December Editor scans 02 Sounds of Our TimeI grew up with the understanding that Weinzweig, Archer and Coulthard were the first generation of Canadian composers and they were already in the late stages of their careers as I was coming to musical consciousness. But the works presented by Harrison and Keillor are the creations of young(ish) composers, the most senior being Archer at the ripe old age of 43 (although she did revisit the work almost two decades later). In another Naxos Canadian Classics release, Sounds of Our Time (9.70212), we are given the opportunity to hear a new generation of composers, ranging in age from 22 to 35 at the time of composition. Again the works are for cello and piano, in this instance performed by the Mercer-Park Duo (Rachel Mercer and Angela Park), themselves emerging artists at the beginning of blossoming careers, who perform together in a variety of contexts including this duo, the Seiler Piano Trio, the Kang-Mercer-Park Trio and the piano quartet Ensemble Made In Canada. They have each received innumerable distinctions, perhaps most notably Mercer’s being awarded the loan of the 1696 Bonjour Stradivarius cello from the Canada Council Instrument Bank from 2009 to 2012 which is heard in all its glory on this recording. I said the works were for cello and piano, but in one instance this is not the case and we get to hear the Strad in duet with itself as Mercer plays both parts in Ex Animo for Two Cellos, a 2010 composition by 22-year-old Hunter Coblentz. Producer Norbert Kraft says the process of overdubbing was a new one for him as a classical recording engineer, where the norm is one player per instrument, but the end result is entirely convincing with no hint of prestidigitation in the warm and well-balanced performance.

Coblentz is just one of the names new to me here. The disc starts with William Rowson’s (b.1977) Sonata for Cello and Piano (2012) and finishes with I Thirst (2008) by Mark Nerenberg (b.1973), both composers I was unaware of. Rowson’s opens with belling chords in the piano and a lilting melody in the cello which is later traded back and forth between the players. Like all the works on the disc, chosen by the duo for their immediate appeal, there is strong lyricism and fairly traditional tonality combined with a sense of drama. Inspired by the Seven Last Words (of Christ on the Cross), I Thirst is a bit of an exception with its mood of quiet contemplation providing a gentle and effective end to a marvellous journey.

In between we encounter the work of a couple of more established composers, Kevin Lau and Abigail Richardson-Schulte, both laureates of the Karen Keiser Prize at the University of Toronto. Lau is currently an affiliate composer of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra, a post that Richardson-Schulte held from 2006 to 2009. She continues as the coordinator of the TSO’s annual New Creations Festival and is currently Composer-in-Residence with the Hamilton Philharmonic. Lau’s one movement work Starsail (2008) represents, in the composer’s words, “one individual’s journey into the great unknown, both beautiful and terrifying in its infinitude and mystery.” As the cello sails through the oft-stormy textures of the piano we are taken along for a wild ride with a transcendental ending. Richardson-Schulte’s Crossings (2011), although couched in a traditional four-movement chamber form, employs some interesting contemporary alternatives to standard practices which the composer outlines in the program note. Of particular interest to my ears is the quietly playful second movement in which the pianist explores the inside of the instrument with the aid of a ping-pong ball resulting in some unusual sounds. This work was commissioned by the Mercer-Park Duo and, like the rest of the pieces included here, is a world premiere recording. Throughout the performances are brilliant and the sound, recorded in Glenn Gould Studio, is flawless.

At the launch for this new “disc” I was surprised to learn that it is one of Naxos’ digital only releases. I wondered how this could be as I looked down at the hard-copy in my hand and was told that the duo had requested some physical product to sell at performances. Evidently this is the way of the immediate future. Naxos (and other companies) are quickly moving away from the production of discs and in many instances downloads will be the only way to obtain new releases other than from the artists themselves. As a staunch believer in full frequency listening (not possible with mp3s) I am initially skeptical about this new development. I have been assured however that “lossless” formats do exist and that Naxos will be offering “high definition” downloads that exceed the audio standards of the compact disc. I am not yet convinced, but will try to keep an open mind (and ear) as we explore the various options and possibilities in WholeNote articles in the coming months.

Lest you begin to suspect that all the composers of the new generation are imbued with romantic tendencies and write only in traditional styles, or for that matter that Naxos is the only source for contemporary Canadian music, I want to disabuse you of both notions. The Canadian Music Centre continues to release a wealth of material on its Centrediscs label in a wide range of artistic styles and there are a number of independent sources as well. A case in point is young composer Nick Storring, recipient of the 2011 Toronto Emerging Composer Award administered by the CMC and supported by Michael M. Koerner and Roger D. Moore. The annual award “supports the creation of a new musical work or the completion of an existing music-based project. It will be offered to the candidate who best demonstrates artistic excellence matched by innovation, experimentation and a willingness to take risks.” Incidentally, the deadline for proposals for the next award is January 23, 2015.

December Editor scans 03 Nick StorringGardens (nickstorring.ca) is a 45-minute suite inspired by composer/arranger Charles Stepney and more specifically, pop icon Minnie Ripperton’s debut album Come To My Garden which Stepney produced a decade before Storring was born. While this may seem a surprising point of departure for a (post)classical composition, the result is an intriguing melange of sound that the composer says, contains no borrowed material. Storring also points out that there is no special effects processing involved in the production of the somewhat otherworldly sounds which all have their origins in live instrumental performance. The list of instruments is extensive, some four dozen in all, ranging from violin, cello, banjo and autoharp through a variety of electric strings and keyboards to percussion instruments, recorders, flutes, pan pipes and kazoo, plus a number of exotic sounding things the nature of which I can only imagine. All are played by Storring himself. The overall effect is vaguely dreamlike, at times reminiscent of Brian Eno’s ambient experiments with touches of Indonesian gamelan textures, Ry Cooder or perhaps Bill Frisell guitar slides, bagpipe-like drones (although I don’t see pipes listed) and bell-chime melodies suggesting Ripperton’s haunting soprano voice. All in all it must be heard to be believed. Certainly the seed money provided by the emerging composer award has come to full blossom on this disc.

December Editor scans 04 Magister LudiI first heard the music of Gordon Fitzell when New Music Concerts (of which, in the spirit of full disclosure, I will admit to being the general manager) presented Generation 2000, the first of what would become a bi-annual cross country tour by the Ensemble contemporain de Montréal (now ECM+) as part of the second Massey Hall New Music Festival. In the intervening years New Music Concerts and the Music Gallery have been the Toronto hosts for each of the subsequent tours, which feature four young composers selected by jury from across Canada, most recently this past November with Generation 2014. That occasion was also the launch of Magister Ludi – Music of Gordon Fitzell,the latest CD by ECM+ and their second on the Centrediscs label (CMCCD 20414).

Manitoba-born Fitzell studied at the Universities of Brandon and Alberta before completing his doctorate at UBC, and now teaches at the University of Manitoba. As mentioned, his relationship with ECM+ dates back a decade and a half and as director Véronique Lacroix relates in the liner notes, it has been something of an ongoing affair and a rewarding one at that. In addition to Flux, written for that first “Generation” tour, ECM+ commissioned the title track – a work for flute octet and solo cello – and premiered Pangaea Ultima, for bass clarinet, percussion, piano, electric guitar, violin and double bass. All of these are featured on this disc, along with violence, a work commissioned and previously recorded by the renowned American contemporary sextet eighth blackbird, and Evanescence for small ensemble (doubling on crystal glasses and ceramic bowl) with interactive electronics. This latter is actually based on the former work and was premiered by eighth blackbird at The Kitchen in New York in 2007. Since that time Evanescence has received nearly 100 performances (including one in Toronto by the New Music Concerts ensemble under the direction of Robert Aitken in 2011) and was the centrepiece of an ECM+ concert of the same name in 2014.

Fitzell’s work is often inspired by extra-musical ideas – Hermann Hesse’s Glass Bead Game being the basis of “an audacious expression of the fundamental and seemingly ethereal presence of the universe” in Magister Ludi, “exploring the phenomenon of perceived variances in the flow of experiential time” in Flux and reflecting on the “hypothetical supercontinent that is expected to form over the next several hundred million years as the result of a merging of the Earth’s landmasses” in Pangaea Ultima. His sound world involves extended instrumental techniques and extra-musical effects – the electronic processing and crystal glasses mentioned above and a prominent musical saw in Pangaea Ultima to name a few. The language is firmly based in the “hard core” school of contemporary composition with no hint of the neo-Romanticism so prominent among many younger composers, without however being particularly abrasive. There is a warmth and welcoming in the music that belies the fact that you won’t come away from the listening experience humming any catchy tunes. 

Like so much of what ECM+ takes on, this is challenging repertoire and a brave undertaking. The ensemble proves itself once again well up to the task with its virtuosity and fluency in contemporary idioms. This disc is a testament to the vision and determination, not to mention the consummate musicianship, of Lacroix who has been at the helm since founding the ensemble in 1987. 

December Editor scans 05 Beethoven PendereckiIf there’s one genre I like above all others it is the string quartet, and it doesn’t get any better than late Beethoven. This is not to say it doesn’t get as good as that in for instance Bartók and Shostakovich, just that Beethoven is hard to beat. So it was with pleasant anticipation that I took up the latest release from the Penderecki String Quartet – Beethoven String Quartets Opp.132 & 135 (Marquis MAR 81449).

There is of course no shortage of recordings of Beethoven’s quartets; a quick search of the Atelier Grigorian website resulted in 95 to choose from, including complete cycles of all 16 by most of the major quartets of the 20th and 21st century. In a strange way this is why it is in a sense refreshing to have a single release from one of Canada’s premiere ensembles, encouraging focus on just a couple of great works rather than immersion in an entire oeuvre. These final two offerings (although as the liner note points out No.15, Op.132 was in fact composed before No.13, Op.130) stand alone in the canon and are surprisingly different from each other. Op.132 in A minor is extremely dark, but never lugubrious, over most of its 45 minutes, with a central Molto Adagio-Andante movement lasting more than a quarter of an hour. A stately, but at times still mysterious Alla Marcia provides a bridge to the uplifting Molto appassionato; Presto finale providing light at the end of the tunnel. The final quartet in F major, is relatively light-hearted with its Allegretto opening and scherzo-like Vivace second movement in which, in the words of annotator Jan Narveson, “the lower three instruments play the same slightly mad figure over and over (48 times!) while the first violin cavorts insanely above them.” A darker Lento assai is then followed by a finale that starts out Grave with Beethoven’s own question “Must it be?” but soon resolves into a sunny and ebullient response: “It must be!”

The Penderecki Quartet is in fine form throughout, with its nuanced inflections capturing the various moods of these mighty works. This release confirms that the PSQ is as at home in the standard repertoire as it is in the realm of the modern and contemporary where they are most often found. Known for their interpretations of such modern masters as Szymanowski, Bartók, Lutosławski and their namesake, the quartet also champions the work of Canadian composers including Harry Freedman, Alice Ho, Gilles Tremblay, Piotr Grella-Możejko, Glenn Buhr and Marjan Mozetich to name a few. The PSQ website lists 30 CD titles (some unfortunately out of print) including half a dozen on the Centrediscs label, as testimony to its myriad activities since being founded in Poland in 1986 (where it won the Penderecki Prize at the National Chamber Music Competition in Lódz, and with that the right to use the composer’s name). The PSQ has been in residence at Wilfrid Laurier University since 1991 and an integral part of creative life in Southern Ontario throughout the past two decades.

I began this article by saying that there was just too much of interest to actually cover in the allotted space. A couple of other quartet titles that caught my attention but which I will dutifully pass on to Terry Robbins for Strings Attached in the next issue, after enjoying them for a while longer, were the first installment of the Alcan Quartet’s Beethoven cycle (ATMA ACD2 2491) and the Ying Quartet’s complete Schumann (Sono Luminus DSL-92184). I mention them as more than worthy of note in case you don’t want to wait for Terry’s endorsement. Also received too late for assignment this month, an intriguing DVD and CD release from Centrediscs, Bookburners – Music by Nicole Lizée (CMCCD 20514). The DVD includes the multi-media works Hitchcock Études (a re-mix of Hitchcock scores replete with images from his films) and the title track for turntables and solo cello (featuring Stéphane Tétreault). Stay tuned for full reviews in February.

We welcome your feedback and invite submissions. CDs and comments should be sent to: DISCoveries, WholeNote Media Inc., The Centre for Social Innovation, 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.

David Olds, DISCoveries Editor

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