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 redshiftrecords.org), 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 skani.lv) 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 bis.se). (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 brightshiny.ninja) 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 inacircle-records.com/releases) 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 atmaclassique.com/en). 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.

Listen to 'Philip Glass – Complete String Quartets Volume One' Now in the Listening Room

02 Canadian SoundscapesCanadian Soundscapes: Schafer; Raminsh; Schneider (CMCCD29722 cmccanada.org/shop/cd-cmccd-29722) 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 cmccanada.org/shop/cd-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 (youtube.com/watch?v=3hb7fvsAJ2o) 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 joelquarrington.com/store) 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 digressionemusic.it). 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 hyperion-records.co.uk/dw.asp?dc=W1922_68377). 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 newfocusrecordings.com). 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 acisproductions.com), “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 cantaloupemusic.com/albums/sierra) 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 calliope-records.com). 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. 

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

In Terry Robbins’ Strings Attached column this month he reviews two new recordings of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, each paired with more recent pieces of the same name. Further on in these pages Matthew Whitfield and Tiina Kiik discuss very different approaches to the setting of traditional liturgical texts by György Ligeti, Martins Vilums, Heidi Breyer and Jóhann Jóhannsson. With this in mind, it seemed fortuitous when I also found intriguing new takes on these themes by Žibuoklė Martinaitytė and Cheryl Frances-Hoad on my desk. 

01 Cheryl Frances HoadFrances-Hoad (b.1980) composed the solo cello piece Excelsus (Orchid Classics orchidclassics.comreleases/orc100188-excelsus/) for Thomas Carroll in 2002 on the occasion of his Wigmore Hall YCAT debut. She says, “I’d known Tommy for over a decade: arriving at the Yehudi Menuhin School in 1989 as an eight-year-old cellist, I was soon very much in awe of this much more grown-up player. I have memories of playing many of the great string repertory works […] with Tommy leading the section and me right at the back. These experiences shaped me as a musician, and I still look back with astonishment at the opportunities I was given at such an early age. By the time Tommy asked me to write something for his Wigmore concert (coincidentally my first premiere at the hall too) my dreams of being an international concert cellist had long since been diverted: Excelsus would be the first piece in my portfolio towards my Composition PhD at Kings College London. […] Quite why I thought a Requiem Mass was the appropriate vehicle for a Young Concert Artist’s debut is beyond me these days. But I’m still proud of this early work which seems full of exuberance and utterly lacking in self-consciousness.  […] Musically the entire work is based on two themes: one melodic, the Rex Tremendae or ‘King of Awful Majesty’ theme, heard at the very opening; and one chordal, the Lux Aeternum (Light eternal) harmonies, not revealed in their pure form until the pizzicato passage that concludes the suite. Other subliminal influences were the Bach and Britten cello suites, which I loved to play as a teenager.” 

The composer’s self-described exuberance is an apt description of Excelsus, strange as that may seem for a requiem; perhaps more fitting for a celebration of life than a funeral service. The seven-movement work is uncompromising in the technical demands placed upon the soloist, but Carroll rises to the challenges with seeming ease in a mesmerizing and exhilarating performance of a breathtaking addition to the cello repertory.

02 MartinaityteThe Martinaitytė disc includes not only her own version of the cycle of the seasons, Sielunmaisema for solo cello and strings, but also instrumental works based on Latin texts, Ex Tenebris Lux (out of darkness, light) and Nunc fluens. Nunc stans., its title taken from The Consolation of Philosophy by Severinus Boethius: “Nunc fluens facit tempus. Nunc stans facit aeternitatum.” (roughly “the now that passes creates time; the now that remains creates eternity”). 

Martinaitytė is a mid-career Lithuanian composer based in New York City whose 2020 awards included a Guggenheim Fellowship and the Lithuanian National Prize for Culture and Arts. When I reviewed her previous Ondine recording Saudade in March 2021, I said “evoking stark landscapes, there is a wonderful lushness to the music, which seems to grow inherently out of the initial quiet in vast arcs of sustained tones and tremolos, occasionally erupting like bubbles exploding from some primordial soup. The music builds and recedes in many-textured layers with no melodies per se, just shifting moods and colours that draw us in with a sense of yearning.” Incidentally, Esprit Orchestra gave the Canadian premiere of Saudade earlier this year at Koerner Hall.

That description of her music could equally be applied to Žibuoklė Martinaitytė: Ex Tenebris Lux with the Lithuanian Chamber Orchestra under Karolis Variakojis (Ondine ODE 1403-2 naxosdirect.com/search/ode+1403-2). All the works here date from the past three years and are scored for string orchestra. Nunc fluens… includes a percussionist (Pavel Giunter), but his myriad instruments merely add to the dense, though gentle, textures. The title work, completed in 2021, involves 18 individual strings and was conceived as a commentary on the current world health crisis. The most substantial work is Sielunmaisema, which the composer says is a Finnish word meaning “soul-landscape, a particular place that a person carries deep in the heart and returns to often in memory. […] Soul-landscape is related to questions of identity and place which resonate with two parallel cultural identities that I carry within – my native Lithuanian and later acquired American. In this case, the piece itself becomes an ideal soul-landscape reflecting a native environment as seen through the prism of four seasons.” Scored for “at least” 21 strings and solo cello, as in nunc fluens… the soloist (Rokas Vaitkevičius) is not a protagonist in some mythic battle with the orchestra, but floats above the ensemble often playing tremolo monotones and simply adding textures to the whole. The work extends beyond half an hour and the four movements, which may also be taken as stand-alone pieces, are played without pause when performed together. While three of the seasons share the quiet density of Martinaitytė’s signature style, Spring bursts forth with an ebullience reminiscent of John Adams’ Shaker Loops before the work returns to rich, dreamlike swells and respites. Stunning!

03 Anna ThorvaldsdottirI reviewed Icelandic composer Anna Thorvaldsdottir’s earlier Sono Luminus disc Enigma last September, noting her music “is replete with extended techniques, extra-musical effects, unusual timbres and juxtapositions. There are few melodies per se, but rather moments and strings of events that constantly surprise and command rapt attention.” That release has been followed by the Sono Luminus (SL) reissue of the 2014 Deutsche Grammophon disc Aerial with the six original tracks supplemented by the addition of Aura from an earlier SL release featuring the LA Percussion Quartet. All the tracks have been remastered by Daniel Shores for this reissue (SLE-70025 sonoluminus.com). The sound is exceptional, but unfortunately the packaging is just as sparse as the original, with no program notes or biographical information. Fortunately the publicist was able to provide an article by Doyle Armbrust from Music + Literature dating back to the DG release that includes his extensive analysis of the works and interview excerpts with the composer, which provided a welcome context for this quite abstract fare. 

Much like Žibuoklė Martinaitytė, Thorvaldsdottir’s music is all about textures and colours. It moves at a seemingly glacial pace, or perhaps that of a cooling lava flow. In the pieces on offer here, the instrumentation is mostly sparse although the timbres are rich and dense. Aeriality, performed by the Iceland Symphony Orchestra under Ilan Volkov, is the only work for forces beyond a small chamber ensemble. As a matter of fact the opener, Into – Second Self for seven brass and four percussion, is performed by only three players through overdubbing, one each of percussion, trombone and horn. The overall effect is similar to R. Murray Schafer’s Music for Wilderness Lake where 12 trombonists positioned around the periphery of a small lake play meditative music at dawn or dusk. 

The longest work, at 15 minutes, is Trajectories for piano (Tinna Thorsteinsdóttir) and an electronic track is which we seem to hear, amongst other things, the tinkling of ice crystals as if in an arctic cove before freeze-up. True to its name, Shades of Silence for violin, viola, cello and harpsichord, written for and performed by Nordic Affect, is deeply meditative once again. The whole album unfolds as if in slow motion, but if you surrender to its pace, Aerial can be a transcendental experience. 

04 MessiaenThe final classical selection this month is Olivier MESSIAEN QUATUOR pour la FIN DU TEMPS (Our Recordings 6.220679 ourrecordings.com). The quartet is the only chamber-ensemble piece composed by Messiaen, and was written during his internment at a Silesian German POW camp in 1940-41. It is scored for musicians who were fellow prisoners in the camp, a violinist, a clarinettist and a cellist, with Messiaen himself at the piano. Messiaen was a deeply religious person and served as organist at l’Église de la Trinité in Paris for most of his career, even after he became world renowned as a composer. The eight movements of the Quatuor, with the exception of a brief Interlude, are based on biblical themes with titles such as Liturgy of Crystal, Praise for the Eternity of Jesus and Dance of Fury for the Seven Trumpets (of the Apocalypse).

The musicians on this recording, violinist Christina Astrand, clarinettist Johnny Teyssier, cellist Henrik Dam Thomsen and pianist Per Salo are all principals in the Danish National Symphony Orchestra and their performance is flawless. (My only quibble is the abrupt cutoff of the final note of the opening movement). Their unisons are so aligned that I keep finding myself straining to try and figure out just how many of them are playing at any given time. And Teyssier’s dynamic control when building from absolute silence in his solo movement, Abîme des oiseaux, is amazing! But the real reason to add this disc to my extensive Messiaen collection was the excellent essay by Jens Christian Grøndahl. It incorporates passages based on eyewitness testimony, descriptions and statements from Rebecca Rischin’s book For the End of Time: The Story of Messiaen’s Quartet, as well as Messiaen’s own preface to the score and excerpts from the Book of Revelation. There is also a translation of three stanzas of the poem Enfant, pale embryon (Child, pale embryo) by Messiaen’s mother Cécile Sauvage who said “I suffer from an unknown distant music” before the composer’s birth. It’s truly enlightening.  

Listen to 'Messiaen: Quartet pour la Fin du Temps' Now in the Listening Room

05 Cree CountryI recently read Permanent Astonishment, the latest from acclaimed playwright and novelist Tomson Highway. It’s a memoir of his first 15 years, growing up in northern Manitoba where it borders Saskatchewan, the Northwest Territories and what is now Nunavut. Far beyond where all roads end, access to the outside world was only by bush plane and local transport (i.e. a several hundred mile radius) was by dog sled and canoe. In spite of the hardships growing up in the bush with little-to-no amenities, Highway tells a charming story beginning with his birth (and near death) in a snowbank in December 1951. And later, of spying on his older sisters as they gather round a transistor radio to listen to country music from down south thanks to aberrant AM radio waves reflected through the atmosphere late at night. Even his time spent at a residential school is told fondly, albeit without glossing over the abuses perpetuated by some of the Christian Brothers.

Highway’s latest project is a CD – Cree Country (tomsonhighway.com) – featuring a dozen of his songs in classic country style sung by his frequent collaborator Patricia Cano. I first heard that incredible Peruvian-Canadian singer in Highway’s play The (Post) Mistress in which she sang in English, French and Cree and for which she won the Toronto Theatre Critics Award for Best Actress in a Musical in 2017. In this outing it’s all Cree, but thankfully, English translations are included. As I say, it’s in classic country style and I imagine it’s not much different than the music he would have heard growing up in the 1950s on those long nights in the sub-Arctic. Highway penned all the music and lyrics, but the production and arrangements are by Toronto jazz singer John Alcorn, who also adds some background vocals. The band includes some big names in Canadian country music: Mike “Pepe” Francis (guitars and direction), John Dymond (bass), Steve O’Connor (piano), Sean O’Grady (drums), Don Reed (fiddle) and Steve Smith (steel guitar). Reed and Smith are stellar throughout, with authentic down-homey solos, and Francis’ high-string acoustic accompaniment on Sassay Tipi-Skow (It’s Night Already) is a real treat. Most of the songs are up-tempo, and even the ballads and laments are hopeful and uplifting rather than maudlin. No “high-lonesome” moaning here, even in Ateek Igwa Adele (Ateek and Adele), the story of 20-year-old Ateek, affianced to Adele, who drowns one day when “A wind came up | and the waves grew in size | He started sinking, Ateek’s canoe started sinking | He drowned. He drowned. | Adele!”  Interestingly Highway also gives us his take on the four seasons in the contemplative Ooma Kaa-Pipook (When It’s Winter) “When it’s winter, there is snow everywhere | But when it’s spring, the snow disappears | When it’s summer, the sun shines | But in the fall, the Earth will soon sleep. Life on this Earth | It works the same way | You are born, you live | But in the fall, you, too, begin to die.” 

Concert note: Tomson Highway hosts the launch of Cree Country at the Horseshoe Tavern on May 23. It’s a digital release available now on all streaming platforms.

06 Thieves of DreamsIt’s too late to attend the launch of Thieves of Dreams: Songs of Theresienstadt’s Secret Poetess, the latest by Toronto-based Czech singer Lenka Lichtenberg (lenkalichtenberg.com) which took place at the Paradise Theatre on Mother’s Day. That date had a double significance for Lichtenberg because it was also the anniversary of the liberation of the Nazi “camp-ghetto” Theresienstadt (Terezin), where Lichtenberg’s mother, grandmother and grandfather were interned during the Second World War. Although her mother and grandmother survived, her grandfather was transported to Auschwitz where he was executed in a gas chamber. 

Lichtenberg says “When my mother Jana Renée Friesová passed away in 2016, I was sorting

through her desk in Prague and discovered two small notebooks. They were filled with poetry my grandmother, Anna Hana Friesová (1901-1987), wrote in the Terezín concentration camp. I knew that both my mother and grandmother were imprisoned in Terezín during the war — my mother wrote a book about it in 1996, Fortress of My Youth. However, I knew nothing of my grandmother’s experience. Most of us, if we’re lucky enough, have a brief window with our grandparents. That time isn’t typically spent listening to their traumatic stories. But there before my eyes were tattered pages with the handwritten dreams of my grandmother — and her nightmares in the camp, stories she never told me. So, I embarked on a quest to share her writing from the ‘hell on earth,’ to quote Primo Levi, and to bring her voice back to life in the way I best knew how: as music, in a project spanning eight decades and three generations.”

Thieves of Dreams is the culmination of this project to set the poems of her grandmother to music. She wrote eight of the 16 tracks, produced the album and is responsible for most of the arrangements. The remainder of the songs were composed by her collaborators Milli Janatková, Rachel Cohen, Jessica Hana Deutsch, Shy-Anne Hovorka, Zita Petrak and Lorie Wolf. The styles range widely from pensive ballads and torch songs to jazz-tinged sketches, folk-inspired chorales and anthems. The vast cohort of musicians involved includes many familiar names such as David Buchbinder (trumpet and flugelhorn), Jessica Deutsch (violin, viola, cello), Beverley Johnston (marimba), George Koller (double bass), Fern Linzon (piano), Tomáš Reindl and Anita Katakkar (tablas) among a host of others, with harmony vocals by Auri Fell, Murray Foster, Milli Janatková and Andrew McPherson. Mám vlastni trud (I have my own grief) features narration by Lichtenberg’s late mother. All of the songs are sung in Czech as in the original texts. The booklet includes facsimiles of the pages of Friesová’s notebooks and full English translations. This is a glorious achievement and a wonderful tribute to Lichtenberg’s forebears.  

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

Back to top