september editor 01September marks a milestone in the history of recorded classical music: 25 years since the establishment of the Naxos label. Originally regarded with disdain by the record business establishment, this “budget” line of CDs has gone on to become the largest manufacturer and distributor of classical CDs and digital downloads in the world. Later this month Naxos founder Klaus Heymann will be in Toronto for a media event celebrating the anniversary and the release of The Story of Naxos — The extraordinary story of the independent record label that changed classical recording for ever.

In the two months since the last issue we have received 21 CDs on the Naxos label and more than 80 on labels distributed by Naxos. And that is just the number that has physically crossed my desk; there were more than 200 separate titles listed on the August release sheets alone. For this month’s column I decided I would select a few of the discs that were of most interest to me personally from this wealth of material. This proved harder than I first imagined. Since my own area of expertise is music of the 20th century I decided to limit myself to this field and even so I ended up bringing ten discs home; a selection of works with which I was already familiar and a number which were new to my ears. Space precludes any in-depth analysis of the recordings, but suffice it to say that with minor hesitations as noted, none of the discs disappointed me and a number of them were very satisfying indeed.

02-ProkofievAlthough well versed in the chamber music and concertos of Sergei Prokofiev, I am less familiar with his other orchestral and particularly symphonic output (with the exception of the ever-popular “Classical” Symphony). I chose a recording of two works composed during the Second World War, the symphonic suite The Year 1941 and the Symphony No.5 in B-Flat Major, Op.100 performed by the São Paulo Symphony Orchestra under Marin Alsop (8.573029). The first of these works is, perhaps understandably, bombastic with its patriotic movements “In the Struggle,” “In the Night”and “For the Brotherhood of Man,” but nevertheless well crafted and well performed. The symphony is more abstract in nature and although still noticeably nationalistic is not overtly jingoistic.

03-WeinbergThe next up on my unknown list was the Symphony No.6, Op.79 and the Rhapsody on Moldavian Themes,works dating from 1963 and 1949 respectively, by another Soviet composer, Mieczyslaw Weinberg (8.572779), performed by the St. Petersburg State Symphony Orchestra under Vladimir Lande. Weinberg fled to Russia to escape the Nazi invasion of Poland and his music is receiving quite a bit of attention and a plethora of recordings in recent years. I first became aware of his music about five years ago on a CD featuring the ARC (Artists of the Royal Conservatory) ensemble, here in Toronto. Weinberg was a protégé of Shostakovich and his music is often reminiscent of that master’s work.

04-Weinberg-celloWhile I enjoyed the Naxos CD I found the Weinberg Cello Concerto, Op.43 contained on a recent Chandos release (CHSA 5107) of more interest, likely to do with my own kinship with that low member of the violin family. Although composed in 1948, the concerto had to wait until 1957 for its first performance. Rostropovich gave that premiere and the work is eminently suited to the big sound of that late maestro. Claes Bunnarsson proves himself well equal to the task in this performance with the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra under Thord Svedlund. The disc also includes the premiere recording (and perhaps first performance according to the detailed liner notes) of Weinberg’s Symphony No.20, Op.150 dating from 1988 (eight years before his death). I mention this recording here as Chandos is one of the many major labels now distributed by Naxos. I’m tempted to note that this is the first recording I’ve seen that includes a logo reflecting sponsorship from Volvo.

05-RautavaaraA second disc I was drawn to because of the prominence of the cello is on another label from Naxos’ distribution stable. Truls Mørk is the soloist in Einojuhani Rautavaara’s Towards the Horizon (Cello Concerto No.2) on a recent Ondine release (ODE 11782) which also includes the percussion concerto Incantations featuring Colin Currie, both dating from 2008, and the 1957 orchestral composition Modificata which was revised in 2003. All are performed with the Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra under John Storgärds direction. My proclivity for the cello notwithstanding, it was the percussion concerto with its (mostly) subdued use of mallet instruments which I found most satisfying.

06-DanielpourOne of Naxos’ most prolific lines is the American Classics series. Richard Danielpour, a composer whose work I first came across in a recording of a cello concerto written for Yo-Yo Ma, is featured on a recent release with the Seattle Symphony and Chorale under Gerard Schwarz (8.559712). What drew me to the disc was the Symphony No.3 “Journey Without Distance” when I first conceived of this column, thinking it would focus on modern symphonies. While the symphony is a striking work featuring soprano Faith Esham as the “voice of as angel” in a transcendent text by Helen Schucman, it was The Awakened Heart, a purely instrumental work (in spite of literary references in the movement titles) which captured my attention. It dates from 1990 and is a dramatic and often exuberant work, at times reminiscent of the hybrid of symphonic and theatrical music in Leonard Bernstein’s oeuvre.

07a-Maxwell-Davies-207b-Maxwell-Davies-3I was not previously familiar with the symphonic output of British composer Peter Maxwell Davies although certainly aware of his cycle of string quartets (commissioned by Naxos) and such modern classics as Eight Songs for a Mad King and Orkney Wedding, with Sunrise. I was a little surprised to learn that he has written nine symphonies and if recent releases are an indication I assume we will see all of them from Naxos in the coming months. I added Symphony No.2 (1980) (8.572349) and Symphony No.3 (1984) (8.572350), both performed by the BBC Philharmonic under the composer’s direction,to my carry home bag and have enjoyed both of these textural pieces. I would almost consider them concertos for orchestra rather than symphonies, not because of sectional virtuosity but because they seem to be more about the different sonic possibilities inherent in the ensemble than in thematic development. The caveats I mentioned earlier in this article have to do specifically with these two discs. Each of the symphonies is accompanied by what I would call an incidental piece. Although the premise of each — St. Thomas Wake (Foxtrot for orchestra on a pavan by John Bull) and Cross Lane Fair — is “serious” enough, with separate dance band and Northumbrian pipes and bodhran respectively, they come across as merely pastiche. This is not to suggest that they are not a worthy part of Maxwell Davies’ oeuvre, simply that I would prefer a so-called “separation of church and state” — discs of symphonic repertoire on the one hand and of the more theatrical music on another.

With my space rapidly running out I will just briefly mention my “old favourites” revisited in recent Naxos recordings.

08-PendereckiThe abrasive music of then young Polish composer Krzysztof Penderecki was an important aspect of my introduction to the music of the 20th century. There have been a number of recent Naxos Penderecki releases, each of which combines his youthful output with more conservative works of his mature years. Fonogrammi/Horn Concerto/Partita (8.572482) includes Fonogrammi for flute and chamber orchestra, Anaklasis for string orchestra and percussion and De natura sonoris I for orchestra, all from the 1960s, with several works from the 70s and the much more recent Horn Concerto “Winterreise”(2009).With a variety of soloists the Warsaw Philharmonic Orchestra and Anthony Wit provide definitive performances.

09-MessiaenOlivier Messiaen’s Et exspecto resurrectionem mortuorum (8.572714) is a devotional work from 1964. The Orchestre National de Lyon gives a strong performance under the direction of Jun Märki, but without ecstatic interludes such as those included in the earlier Turangalîla Symphony, to my ears the piece is a little “too much of a muchness.” The disc is redeemed however by the inclusion of two early orchestral works which provide welcome dramatic contrast: Le Tombeau resplendissant (1931) and Hymne (1932).

10-BartokSaving the best for last, Marin Alsop returns with a recording of Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra (1943) and Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta (1936) (8.572486). In this instance she is conducting the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra in performances that rival any I’ve heard of these two works which number among my very favourites.

Naxos is to be commended for its commitment to thoroughness, excellence and affordability. This small sampling of recent output only includes the art music of our time. It must be pointed out that the Naxos catalogue is just as extensive, one could say exhaustive, in classical repertoire from the Renaissance through the Baroque, Classical and Romantic eras. And as Nicholas Soames, author of The Story of Naxos and director of Naxos AudioBooks would certainly point out, the Naxos catalogue extends far beyond the scope of classical music. There are two things I look forward to in the coming month: finding the time to read Soames’ story of this innovative company that has changed the history of recorded music in our time, and the newest addition to the Naxos Canadian Classics series, Dreamscapes, featuring orchestral music by Vivian Fung due out on September 23.

Of related interest: Jerry Fink, former CEO and President of Naxos of Canada Ltd., will present a ten-week class surveying the history of Western “classical” music from a Jewish viewpoint. Jewish involvement in the development of “classical” music from before the Byzantine Empire to the present day will be explored historically and examined musically. Examples from the presentation include: the Psalms and their use in Christian church music; Jewish troubadours of the Middle Ages; a Jewish national music school in pre-Soviet Russia. Thursday evenings beginning October 4 at Holy Blossom Temple. Tuition fee $235 (416-789-7400).

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 We welcome your feedback and invite submissions. CDs and comments should be sent to: The WholeNote, 503–720 Bathurst St., Toronto ON M5S 2R4. We also encourage you to visit our website,, where you can find added features including direct links to performers, composers and record labels, “buy buttons” for online shopping and additional, expanded and archival reviews. 

— David Olds, DISCoveries Editor

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

We welcome your feedback and invite submissions. CDs and comments should be sent to: The WholeNote, 503–720 Bathurst St., Toronto ON M5S 2R4. We also encourage you to visit our website where you can find added features including direct links to performers, composers and record labels, “buy buttons” for online shopping and additional, expanded and archival reviews. 

—David Olds, DISCoveries Editor,

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