The iconic American composer George Crumb died peacefully, at home with his family on February 6. He was 92. Of the many world-renowned composers I had the privilege to meet during my two-decade tenure at New Music Concerts, Crumb was among the most affable, knowledgeable and accomplished. In 2003 he spent most of a week working with NMC musicians, accompanied by his wife Elizabeth, son Peter and daughter Ann, who was the soloist in our Canadian premiere performance of Unto the Hills. It was a magical week and one that remains a cherished memory. Crumb had a long relationship with NMC and on a previous visit in 1986 he supervised the first performance of An Idyll for the Misbegotten, performed by its dedicatee Robert Aitken and three percussionists. You can find NMC’s recording of that work among others on George Crumb (Naxos American Classics 8.559205 In a tribute published by NMC, Aitken says “The music of George Crumb has the quality of an elixir, which keeps drawing you back through intricacies in time to a world you feel you know and look forward to enjoying but as many times as you have experienced it, the slightest change takes you to a different place, somewhere you have never been before and never thought of, but will never forget.” I said something similar in a July 2020 review of Metamorphoses Book I: “There are many references to Crumb’s earlier compositions and in many ways these new works sound familiar. One sometimes wonders ‘Why does Grandpa keep telling the same stories?’ but listen carefully; you’ll find vast new worlds buried within them.”

01 Crumb Volume 20In December Bridge Records released Volume 20 in their ongoing series devoted to Crumb’s complete works (BRIDGE 9551). Metamorphoses Books I & II features a remastering of Book I (2015-2017) and the first recording of Book II (2018-2020) performed by Marcantonio Barone, to whom the second book is dedicated. Subtitled Fantasy Pieces (after celebrated paintings) for amplified piano, each of the 20 depicts a different painting by such artists as Picasso, Chagall, Dali and Gauguin. In the excellent and extended booklet notes by Crumb scholar Steven Bruns we learn that “Rather than aiming for precise musical analogs, Crumb responds to the ethos, the characteristic tone of the painting, and often to the title as well. The music explores a dazzling expressive range, and Crumb positions the movements in each Book with the mastery of an expert gallery curator.” You can read my impressions of those in the first book here: Book II opens with two paintings by Paul Klee and includes others by Andrew Wyeth, Simon Dinnerstein, Gustav Klimt, Georgia O’Keeffe and the abovementioned Gauguin, Picasso and Chagall. The set ends with a stunning and ethereal interpretation of van Gogh’s The Starry Night

As always with amplification in Crumb’s pieces, the purpose is not to produce loud effects, although there are a few jarring interpolations, but rather to make the most subtle effects audible. The pianist is required to venture inside the piano to pluck and strum and dampen strings, use fists and other implements, vocalize and employ a variety of small instruments to expand the solo piano into a real orchestra of timbres. Barone worked extensively with Crumb for two decades and his understanding of the sensibility, and his command of the techniques required, and often invented, by the composer makes this recording definitive. Bridge Records here provides an exhilarating tribute and important addition to the recorded legacy of this master composer. The Complete George Crumb Edition now numbers 21 CDs and one DVD and is currently available at a special price (US$190) from the Bridge Records website (

02 Little Am I Born jpegThe oratorio Am I Born by David T. Little with libretto by Royce Vavrek (Bright Shiny Things BSTC-0152 is another spectacular work that finds its inspiration and context in a painting. The painting in question is Francis Guy’s 1820 Winter Scenes in Brooklyn, depicting a neighbourhood destroyed for the construction of the Brooklyn Bridge. Originally composed in 2011 for the Brooklyn Youth Chorus, Am I Born was the first collaboration between Little and Vavrek, who went on to great success with the operas Dog Days and JFK. This SATB version of the oratorio was commissioned by Trinity Church Wall Street where it premiered in 2019. Opening with big bass drums blazing and full fortissimo chorus reminiscent of Carmina Burana, the listener is captivated immediately. Throughout its half-hour duration the drama does not let up, although there are moments of respite along the way and beautiful soprano solos by Mellissa Hughes before the haunting denouement. The libretto draws on Ananias Davisson’s 1816 hymn Idumea with its lyric “And am I born to die? / To lay this body down! / And must my trembling spirit fly / Into a world unknown?” The solo soprano personifies Guy’s painting, which hangs in the Brooklyn Museum. She gradually draws consciousness and understanding from the crowds of spectators passing by each day, until, urged on by the chorus, she is “born” out of the frame and enters a confusing and lonely present-day reality. At that point, the philosophical speculation “am I born to die?” is modified to the much more pressing and immediate: “am I born?” Hughes and the Choir of Trinity Wall Street are accompanied in this powerful performance by the NOVUS NY orchestra, all under the direction of Julian Wachner. 

03 Sofia GubaidulinaLike George Crumb, Sofia Gubaidulina (b.1931) has shown no signs of slowing down creatively in her later years. To honour her 90th birthday Deutsche Grammophon has released a disc of world premiere recordings of two recent works and the earlier The Light of the End, written in 2003 for the Boston Symphony ( Andris Nelsons conducts the Gewandhausorchester Leipzig for which Gubaidulina has served as composer-in-residence since 2019. The last-mentioned work is based on a fundamental conflict that characterizes the physics of music, namely, the irreconcilability between the natural overtone series, played here by the horns, and the tempered tuning of the rest of the orchestra. This conflict leads to a series of dramatic crescendos and climaxes and is illustrated to exemplary effect in a duet between solo horn and solo cello. 

The disc opens with Dialog: Ich und Du (Dialogue: I and You // Violin Concerto No.3). It was written for Vadim Repin in 2018, and he is the soloist here. This and the companion piece The Wrath of God are extrapolated from Gubaidulina’s oratorio On Love and Hatred (2016-2018), which constitutes her appeal to humankind to follow God’s commandments and to overcome hatred through the conciliatory power of love. The title of the violin concerto deliberately recalls religious philosopher Martin Buber’s Ich und Du (I and Thou) which describes the world as “dichotomous,” contrasting two things that are opposed or entirely different, here represented by a conversation, often interrupted, between the solo violin and the orchestra. The Wrath of God is a shimmering depiction of the Day of Judgement, or Dies Irae, for enormous orchestral forces. “God is wrathful, He’s angry with people and with our behaviour. We’ve brought this down on ourselves,” the composer explained in the preamble to the first performance in an empty Vienna Musikverein in November 2020, a result of the coronavirus pandemic. Gubaidulina has dedicated the piece “To the Great Beethoven” and we can hear hints of the Ninth Symphony peeking through in the dramatic finale.

04 Beethoven for ThreeSpeaking of Beethoven, following on their recording of his complete works for cello and piano, Yo-Yo Ma has once again teamed up with Emanuel Ax, this time with violinist Leonidas Kavakos, on Beethoven for Three – Symphonies Nos. 2 & 5 (Sony Classical The arrangements are by Ferdinand Ries, under Beethoven’s supervision (No.2), and the contemporary British composer Colin Matthews (No.5). 

It must be a daunting task to adapt the full resources of a symphony orchestra to just three players, even if we concede that the pianist’s two hands can render separate independent lines. Still we must realize that in Beethoven’s day arrangements were the norm, and in many instances the only opportunity to experience great works of orchestral repertoire. Recordings were still a hundred years in the future and orchestral concerts beyond the reach of most people. I am pleased to report in this instance both of the arrangements are convincing and satisfying. On the one hand I am amazed at how the trio is able to convey the musical scope and range of emotion of these familiar orchestral masterworks. On the other, I was intrigued to realize how reminiscent some of the movements were, especially the scherzo of the second symphony, of Beethoven’s early actual piano trios. I suppose that’s not really a coincidence.  

Satisfying as I found this recording, likely another result of COVID-imposed restrictions, I must confess it inspired me to revisit the cycle of nine symphonies in all their orchestral majesty, and for this I chose Simon Rattle’s live set from 2002 with the Vienna Philharmonic (EMI Classics). So thanks to Kavako, Ma and Ax for an inspirational and illuminating experience, and for an excuse to look up some old friends.

05 Queen of Hearts Claremont TrioFounded 20 years ago, the Claremont Trio (Emily Bruskin, violin; Julia Bruskin, cello; and Andrea Lam, piano) has been commissioning works for much of its existence that expand the repertoire and in some instances push the traditional boundaries of the contemporary piano trio. Queen of Hearts (Tria Records brings six of these works together with compositions by Gabriela Lena Frank, Sean Shepherd, Judd Greenstein, Helen Grime, Nico Muhly and Kati Agócs. Frank’s Four Folk Songs draws on her Peruvian heritage on her mother’s side for a set that ranges from lyrical to playful and to frankly disturbing. Shepherd’s Trio was commissioned for the opening of Calderwood Hall in the Isabella Stewart Gardiner Museum, Boston. It was inspired by the architecture of Renzo Piano and the three movements consider different aspects of the construction. Most compelling is the finale, Slow Waltz of the Robots.  

Muhly’s Common Ground (2008) and Agócs’ Queen of Hearts (2017) mark the earliest and latest works on this compelling CD. Muhly’s title refers to the ground bass à la Purcell that appears in the final section of the work. Agócs also employs a repeating bass line, in this case alternating with a lyrical melody. She tells us that “A life fully lived may see challenges that can seem insurmountable. The work’s variation structure, by representing tenaciousness and ingenuity – continuously finding new ways to respond – ultimately reveals an inner strength and an emotional core that hold steadfast and unshaken no matter how they are tested. The title Queen of Hearts […] symbolizes resilience, magnetism, nobility, empathy, decorum, a flair for the dramatic, and a distinctly feminine power.” This piece makes a powerful end to a diverse disc with fine performances right across the board.

I spoke earlier about musical works inspired by paintings. I have experienced two artistic epiphanies in my life, one visual and one audial. The first was on a family trip to Washington in my teenage years when I turned a corner in the National Gallery and came face to face with Salvador Dali’s The Sacrament of the Last Supper. I gasped and said to myself “Oh, that’s what they mean by a masterpiece!” The second was in 1984 when I attended the CBC Young Composers’ Competition and had the most visceral musical experience of my first 30 years. Paul Dolden’s The Melting Voice Through Mazes Running, which won the only prize in the electroacoustic category that year, was unlike anything I’d ever heard before. Although it sent some audience members rushing to the exits with hands pressed over their ears, it held me riveted to my seat and ultimately inspired me to commission a new Dolden work (Caught in an Octagon of Unaccustomed Light) for my radio program Transfigured Night at CKLN-FM. Now, some three and a half decades later, Dolden has published his entire catalogue of works and writings and I’m very pleased that Nick Storring has agreed to review The Golden Dolden Box Set in these pages. Storring is a composer in his own right, a generation younger than Dolden, who uses some similar techniques in his own work. I believe his insights are extremely apt and articulately expressed and I welcome him aboard the WholeNote team. 

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

Elsewhere in these pages you will find reviews of new recordings of music by Bach: the English Suites performed by Vladimir Ashkenazy, Autour de Bach, woodwind arrangements of a number of his works as recorded by Pentaèdre, and two sets of Goldberg Variations, one with Sarah Hagen on piano and one with Cameron Carpenter in his own transcription for grand organ. The Goldbergs are arguably the most recorded, most transcribed and most adapted for other purposes of Bach’s works, and certainly the most often reviewed in The WholeNote. With the two reviews mentioned above I count 25 in as many years and here comes number 26. 

01 Gold.Berg.WerkWhen Karlheinz Essl (b. Austria 1960) was approached by the Orpheus Trio in 2002 to arrange an existing string-trio version of the Goldberg Variations with the addition of live electronics, his initial reactions were “astonishment and bewilderment: how could that be possible with this music? Was there any artistic necessity of doing so? The idea of manipulating the sound of the live instruments electronically, of ‘spicing it up,’ seemed almost sacrilegious.” The trio was persistent however and this eventually led to the first of four (so far) realizations of Gold.Berg.Werk: for string trio; for harpsichord; for saxophone quartet; and, most recently, for piano. It is a recording of this last variety, featuring Xenia Pestova Bennett (Ergodos ER33, that arrived on my desk last month. In Gold.Berg.Werk – a pun on Goldberg Work and Gold Bergwerk (to mine, as in mining for gold) – Bach’s Goldberg Variations are “confronted with electronic sounds that are played between groups of variations, bridging the gap between the sound world of the Baroque era and the sonic reality of the third millennium.” The electronics are based on the harmonic progression of the fundamental Aria, from which the composer stripped all figurations and ornaments. Through manipulation of the overtone spectrum and the use of granular synthesis – compressing, stretching, and stopping forward motion ad libitum carried out in real time with the help of compositional algorithms – Essl has created five electronic interludes, which in live performance are spatially projected in surround sound throughout the auditorium. Even in the binaural mix for CD the sound is immersive and compelling. Pestova Bennett’s outstanding performance of the selected movements, 20 variations chosen by Essl and arranged in groups of five, bookended by the signature Aria, is beautifully integrated into the overall fabric of this “new” work. Regarding Essl’s question as to whether there was any artistic necessity to enhance such an iconic piece in the first place, I suppose we each have to decide for ourselves. For me, Gold.Berg.Werk has brought a new perspective that, after initial resistance to the idea, I have embraced and found enchanting. 

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02 PreludesAnd speaking of Bach, you would be excused for thinking that after last month’s column I might have had enough cello for a while, but not so gentle reader. Julia MacLaine’s Preludes would have fit nicely in that cello-centric column but it has only now been released by Analekta (AN 2 8914 MacLaine says that she found the inspiration for this project in a Juilliard recital by Bonnie Hampton some years ago in which the Preludes from Bach’s Solo Cello Suites were interspersed with contemporary works. With funding from the Canada Council, MacLaine commissioned six Canadian composers to write works “in response” to the Bach preludes. The result is an intriguing CD with six very different responses, from Airat Ichmouratov whose quite traditional Praeludium for Cello Solo in G Major, Op.69 quotes freely from Bach before venturing onto less familiar paths, through a gamut of approaches before culminating in Post Bach by Prince Edward Island fiddler and composer Roy Johnstone. This last work features rollicking dance sections juxtaposed with what MacLaine describes as a “grumbly […] glimpse of the underworld, the murky place that gave rise to the motives that permeate Bach – and Johnstone.” Along the way we are treated to Gabriel Dharmoo’s sarasaraahat, a piece inspired by the Prelude from the Suite in D Minor that uses the Indian Carnatic music of the composer’s cultural heritage to put the sound produced by the cello under a microscope, exploring the “very limit between pitch and white noise.” Carmen Braden’s Play Time asks the cellist to “play the score as if you just heard the Bach Cello Suite No.3 for the first time and now sit down and improvise, playful as a child.” In her signature way, Nicole Lizée employs technology to expand the palette of the cello, in the words of MacLaine “a marvellous, fantastical electronic world [with the cello] singing expressively above it, weaving in and out of it, and chasing after it.” Cris Derksen states “LAND BACH is my response to Bach’s fifth prelude as an Indigenous composer and cellist.” Her treatment includes a section of “looped rolled chords” which MacLaine says is characteristic of Derksen’s music. 

As I have said before, it must be extremely hard for a performer these days to find a way to present Bach’s iconic works – that have been recorded countless times – in a new light. I find MacLaine’s performances of both the Bach originals and the new companions insightful and convincing. While I have mixed feelings about “cherry picking” just the preludes from the Bach Suites, in this context where the composers are specifically reacting to the movements in question I find the project as a whole very well-considered and satisfying. I’ll give MacLaine the last words: “My hope is […] that you will hear Bach differently, as though past and present composers were having a conversation across the years, across the ocean.” 

03 Standing Wave 20CNicole Lizée is also among the seven composers commissioned by Vancouver’s venerable Standing Wave ensemble for its project 20C Remix (Redshift Records in which a number of iconic 20th century works are reimagined for the new millennium. With three decades under its belt, Standing Wave is touted as Western Canada’s foremost contemporary chamber ensemble. 20C Remix – a digital release with a limited edition vinyl run – opens with Stone’s Throw, Jocelyn Morlock’s ebullient take on Ann Southam’s Glass Houses No.9, adapted for full ensemble: flute, clarinet, violin, cello, piano and percussion. It’s a roller coaster ride for all concerned and I particularly enjoyed finding hints of Stravinsky in the mix. Jennifer Butler enhances Messiaen’s Le merle noir for piano and flute with the other members of the ensemble in a fairly straightforward and effective homage to the French master. Walking in Claude’s Footsteps is Jordan Nobles’ gentle take on Debussy’s Des pas sur la neige and Jared Miller finds Guilty Pleasures in his interpretation of John Adams’ China Gates. Unlike most of the works here which enlarge the original forces, Chris Mayo and Bekah Simms take orchestral textures and adapt them for the sextet. Mayo’s Oh Come Now! There is a Beautiful Place! is an arrangement “on a relatively miniature scale” of Reinhold Glière’s mammoth Symphony No.3. Although the liner notes tell us that the title is taken from a poem by Kenneth Patchen, there is no explanation of how this relates to the symphony and I’m left scratching my head. Simms’ Tenebrose explores the “night music” from the third movement of Bartók’s Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta with “approaches that I feel the composer would have been likely drawn to had he lived into the 21st century,” including microtonal glissandi and the use of non-tempered pitches while incorporating familiar motifs from the original. Lizée is represented with two tracks, her own inimitable treatments of songs by pop icons Dead or Alive (You Spin Me Round) and Justin Timberlake (Cry Me a River). While certainly a different sensibility from the other offerings here, they somehow manage to fit in seamlessly. I particularly enjoyed the bass clarinet and vibraphone lines in Epiphora, her take on Timberlake’s classic, which bring this very satisfying disc to a close.

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04 Xander Simmons Inner Landscapes ArtworkThe next release features two relative newcomers on the contemporary music scene, composer Xander Simmons and Montreal’s Collectif Novart. Simmons’ second release Inner Landscapes ( features five works for varying ensembles, opening with the contemplative Three Points for piano trio which gradually builds to a dramatic peak before receding. Pink Mountain is a four-movement work – Dawn, Daylight, Drift and Dusk – which is one of two works here that take direct inspiration from the painted landscapes of Peter Doig, the other being Grande Riviere, a work that adds ambient electronic textures to acoustic instrumentation. Solstice is in two parts, and utilizes the largest ensemble here, a nonet. Winter opens with a dark duet between contrabass and bassoon, slowly brightening as if the pale sun were shining through. Summer opens with busy flute over a bassoon ostinato and continues in a minimalist melisma of insect sounds with birds soaring above in the cloudless sky (my imagery). The composer describes the closing Vortices as a “collage of string performances mixed with synthesizers and field recordings.” As with the other pieces here, the language is consonant and tonal, but here the extra-musical materials add an edge to the layers of sound. Overall this is a strong release from a young composer, showing a breadth of interest and understanding that bodes well for future endeavours. The collectif is in fine form, with convincing performances and solid ensemble work.

Listen to 'Inner Landscapes' Now in the Listening Room

05 Petar KlanacI first heard the music of Petar Klanac (then known as Pierre-Kresimir Klanac) at Glenn Gould Studio back in November 1997 as part of New Music Concerts’ contribution to the Made In Canada Festival, and then in 2000 on the Ensemble contemporain de Montréal CD Nouvelles Territoires 1. In the intervening years he had fallen off my radar until a few weeks ago when he reached out to me about his new CD. 

Klanac has a surprisingly small presence on the Internet. The little biographical information I’ve been able to glean tells me that his principal instruments are violin and electric guitar and that he studied composition with Gilles Tremblay at the Montreal Conservatoire from 1992 to 1995 and later with Gérard Grisey and Marco Stroppa at the Paris Conservatoire and Denys Bouliane at the Rencontres de musique nouvelle du Domaine Forget in Charlevoix (Québec). He was a child chorister in the Maîtrise des Petits Chanteurs du Mont-Royal (Saint-Joseph’s Oratory, Montreal) for nine years and this seems to have strongly informed his compositional aesthetic. That first piece I heard was titled Le ressuscité de Béthanie (on the subject of the resurrection of Lazarus), a theme to which he returned two decades later in a work for Ensemble Nahandove. Many of the works in his oeuvre focus on religious themes, such as Agnus Dei for men’s choir, Pater Noster for tenor and string quartet and Sancta Parens for two saxophones and cello. When commissioned by the Société de musique contemporain du Québec to compose a new work for its 55th anniversary concert last December he presented the 18-minute chamber ensemble work Yerushalayim

Klanac has made his home in France for some time and his latest project, Pozgarria da (, was commissioned by Ensemble 0, a group whose members are based in different cities in France, Catalonia and Belgium, as part of 30th anniversary celebrations for the Institut Culturel Basque. Pozgarria da (How wonderful it is) is a setting of four poems by the Basque Franciscan Father Bitoriano Gandiaga for voice (Fanny Chatelain singing in the original language) and an unusual ensemble consisting of flutes, rebec and nyckelharpa, four organs, gamelan selunding and percussion. There is a sparse instrumental prelude and two interludes, all titled Maite dut bizitza (I love life), separating the first three poems, whose sparse and subdued settings are vaguely reminiscent of medieval music. The final movement, also Maite dut bizitza, is the most expansive by far at almost 17 minutes, and is also the most exuberant; a flamboyant minimalist – think cinematic Philip Glass – paean to “The joy of life / To my surroundings / that are alive. / I wish the joy of being alive / To everyone who lives / the grace of life.” Amen! A very welcome anthem and reminder in these unjoyful times.

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06 Davis HallAnd now for something completely different, although I find joy here too. “What if Dark Orchard (Jim Casson’s experimental music project) and ‘The Blues’ got together in New Orleans and watched Twin Peaks with Daniel Lanois?” That’s the premise behind Davis Hall & The Green Lanterns ( Originally conceived in the early days of COVID-19 as a remote collaboration with bass player Russ Boswell, Casson laid down drum tracks in his home studio that he shared with Boswell who added funky bass licks and a song outline. They invited Bernie LaBarge to add some guitar lines and Brent Barkman on organ; and Marshville Station, the second track on the current album, was born. Although the project was shelved for a while, the ongoing pandemic has provided the perfect opportunity to revisit the idea. 

I’ve been a sucker for blues tuba since I saw Taj Mahal at the Mariposa Festival 40-some years ago backed by a quartet of tubas headed by the late, great Howard Johnson (1941-2021). Well, that’s how this adventure begins, with the funky, N’awlins-flavoured Temperanceville co-written by Casson, tuba player N. Jay Burr and guitarist Wayne DeAdder, with Mike Branton sitting in on slide guitar. The personnel of the Green Lanterns changes from track to track, with Casson on drums, keyboards, autoharp and even theremin the only constant, but the result is always bluesy and frequently scorching. Burr, DeAdder, Boswell and Brandon make numerous contributions and guests include Steve Marriner and Al Lerman on harmonica, Stephen Miller on dobro, and an archival appearance by 60s DJ Bob Bowland from CHOW radio in Welland, Ontario. Casson explains the name of the group, and of the songs, as a tribute to the Niagara Peninsula, the stomping grounds of his formative years. “Davis Hall” was the name of the community centre in his hometown where he attended nursery school, “The Green Lantern” was the soda shop in town when he was a kid and the names of all the songs correspond to place names on the peninsula. Who knew that the fruit belt could be so darn funky? This one is guaranteed to lift your spirits (and your heels)! 

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

David Olds, DISCoveries Editor 

01 kloeckner bach 53yjaFor the past month or so I’ve been immersing myself in new cello recordings. Some of the repertoire selections are old friends, some new to me and some new to the world. Benedict Kloeckner: J.S. Bach – 6 Suites for Cello Solo (Brilliant Classics 96403 encompasses the old and the new brilliantly, with striking performances of the suites interspersed with miniatures he has commissioned that “can be seen as a response to the challenges of the present [pandemic] in interaction with the Bach suites.” Kloeckner’s Bach, idiomatic contemporary interpretations on a modern instrument, ranges from breakneck speed such as in the Prelude of the first suite to thoughtful and contemplative pacing in the Sarabande of the second; sometimes playful, but always carefully considered, with tasteful ornamentations and occasional surprising rubato passages, such as in the Bourée of the third suite. What makes this 3CD set special though is the new works and how they bridge and complement the original suites. The composers represent an international spectrum: José L. Elizondo (Mexico), Elena Kats-Chernin (Australia), Bongani Ndodana-Breen (South Africa), Éric Tanguy (France), Geoffrey Gordon (USA) and Dai Fujikura (Japan).

My first few times through the set I simply let the CDs play and enjoyed the commissions as interludes, kind of palette cleansers, before rushing into the next Bach suite. Sometime later however, I listened to the six miniatures in isolation and was pleasantly surprised to find that they made a satisfying suite themselves. Elizondo’s Under the Starlit Sky of the Rhine specifically references the sixth suite, albeit in passing, and pays tribute to the landscape of Kloeckner’s home region, the Upper Middle Rhine Valley. In I Am Cello, Kats-Chernin compares the slow opening to the blossoming of a flower and describes the lyrical miniature as “almost a song.” Ndodana-Breen, who had an active role in Toronto’s contemporary music scene in the early 2000s, says that Soweto Cello Riffs combines elements of Afropop and South African jazz, although not overtly. Tanguy’s In Between “addresses how emotions during the pandemic have vacillated constantly between uncertainty and hope.” In Gordon’s Nes qu’on porroit, from Machaud’s song “It is no more possible to count the stars […] than it is to imagine or conceive of the great desire I have to see you.” The composer says he was thinking of past pandemics – Black Death, Italian Plague, Spanish Flu – in relation to COVID-19. Although most of these new works make little direct use of Bach’s material, coming full circle Fujikura’s Sweet Suites opens with echoes of the prelude of the sixth Bach suite, but in a minor key, and after brief hints at other movements, dissolves into a quiet and lyrical coda which rises and fades away into the ether. Kloeckner and his colleagues have provided a beautiful new take on Bach’s masterpieces.

02 jonah kim fpvg5Young South Korean-American cellist Jonah Kim begins Approaching Autumn (Delos with what I feel is the most important solo cello work of the first half of the 20th century and perhaps the most significant contribution to the genre since Bach, Zoltan Kodály’s Sonata for Solo Cello Op.8 from 1915. In his very personal introduction to the disc, Kim tells us that he considers Janos Starker one of his biggest musical influences. He started corresponding with Starker when he was seven years old after hearing Starker’s Delos recording of the Kodály sonata and later was able to study with him. Starker had impeccable Kodály credentials having first played the solo sonata for the composer when his was 15 in his (and Kodály’s) homeland, Hungary, and then again in 1967 shortly before Kodály’s death. After that performance Kodály told Starker: “If you correct the ritard in the third movement, it will be the Bible performance.” Starker recorded the work four times, the last in 1970 and it is this one that later appeared on the Delos release. So may we assume the correction was made? At any rate, Kim’s own performance is outstanding – big, brash and gritty as called for in the outer movements; sensitive and lyrical in the Adagio (con gran espressione) – and his technique in this extremely challenging work is impressive. Kim is joined by pianist Robert Koenig for the remainder of the disc; the one-movement post-Romantic title work by American Mark Abel (b.1948) providing a kind of a bridge to Grieg’s Sonata for Cello and Piano Op.36 which concludes this excellent disc.

03 hannah collins resonance lines 6uuxgBach was not the first to write for solo cello and Hannah CollinsResonance Lines (Sono Luminus DSL-92252 opens with a Chiacona by Giuseppe Colombi (1635-1694) which predates the Bach suites by half a century. This sets the stage for a recital of mostly contemporary works: two by Kaija Saariaho, the brief Dreaming Chaconne and Sept Papillons; in manus tuas by Caroline Shaw, which draws on the Thomas Tallis motet of the same name; and Benjamin Britten’s Sonata for Solo Cello No.1, Op.72. The last track travels across two and a half centuries: Thomas Kotcheff’s Cadenza (with or without Haydn), a 25-minute work written in 2020 meant to serve (or not) as a cadenza for Haydn’s Cello Concerto in C Major from 1761.

Listening to this piece led to the realization of how a cadenza – traditionally a composed or improvised interlude in a concerto giving the soloist an opportunity show off – differs from a stand-alone work that needs to provide its own context and development. Collins tells us that “Kotcheff’s work contains musical nods to the other works on the album and ties everything together in an energetic and surprise-filled adventure.” It certainly does that. When listening to the disc before reading the program notes, one of those surprises was hearing Britten’s solo sonata, which I consider another milestone in the solo cello repertoire, quoted in a work “about” Haydn. The notes also give this a context however. It seems that Britten wrote a cadenza for Rostropovich for the same Haydn concerto and the result can be heard in a 1964 recording with Britten conducting “Slava” and the English Chamber Orchestra (it’s well worth searching out on YouTube). Collins rises to all the various challenges of the diverse repertoire on this collection, especially those of the “cadenza” which requires everything from virtuosic bombast to the most subtle intimacy. 

04 norgard saariaho cello w1kbmIt is fitting that Collins’ disc ends with a contemporary cadenza inspired by one of the first great cello concertos because that leads us to Remembering – Nørgård & Saariaho Cello Concertos (BIS-2602 featuring Jakob Kullberg. Kullberg (b.1979, Denmark) has worked extensively with both these composers and all of Per Nørgård’s cello writing in past 20 years has been dedicated to him. The two works by that Danish master recorded here, however, were written more than three decades ago when Kullberg was just a child. Between (1985) is a three-movement work in which the cellist begins in isolation, “unable to unite with the orchestral sound,” but is gradually able to integrate with the larger group with the help of four solo cellos from the orchestra. At one point the din from the larger group even includes the sound of car horns reminiscent of the prelude to Ligeti’s Grand Macabre. The second movement sees a gradual integration of the cello into the slow-moving textures of the orchestra. In the extended third movement, the cello takes a more traditional role but with a twist: the solo line is based on notes from the Javanese pentatonic scale slendro, giving it an exotic edge. Remembering Child was composed as a viola concerto in 1986 but is presented here in Kullberg’s adaptation for cello, including a new cadenza of his own design. The work honours Samantha Smith, an American schoolgirl, peace activist and child actress famous during the Cold War, who was killed in a plane crash at 13 in 1985, although Nørgård says the piece isn’t intended as a requiem.

The two works by Nørgård provide bookends for Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho’s Notes on Light written two decades later (2006). The first movement, Translucent, secret, takes place as if under water, picking up where her previous work for cello and orchestra Amers left off. After a “heated debate” between cello and orchestra in the second movement, On Fire, the gentler Awakening, which draws on material from Saariaho’s oratorio La Passion de Simone, includes a quiet two-minute-long cadenza in the higher reaches of the cello composed by Kullberg. It’s becoming obvious why these composers are happy to work with this creative soloist. As Aleksi Barrière’s detailed program note points out, at this point we might think that the concerto is over, as an inversion of the tradition three-movement form, here slow-fast-slow, has been completed. But there are two more movements to come. Kullberg gets a rest though in the shimmering fourth movement Eclipse, and then re-enters quietly for the final, Heart of Light, which glimmers and gradually builds, only to subside into quietude again. That’s actually how all three of these concertos end, “not with a bang, but a whimper.” There are more than enough bangs along the way however to hold our attention and make for a satisfying disc.  

05 margaret maria b5iddSometimes I wonder if it is possible to write for solo cello without referencing the iconic Bach Suites. Certainly Margaret Maria, in her most recent release Where Words Fail – Music for Healing ( does so in the opening track with arpeggiation reminiscent of the first Prelude, but it feels natural and is only one of its many dense layers. As with previous releases, Maria’s music is lush and melodic, using many overlaid solo cello lines to create an orchestral atmosphere that is warm and welcoming. The current offering is the result of personal trauma, a response to almost losing her sister, who was on a ventilator and in a medically induced coma for more than two weeks as a result of COVID-19. The resulting compositions bear such names as Blessing of Awakening (written in advance of, and in hope for, her sister’s return to consciousness), Raindrops from Heaven (with an ostinato reminiscent of Pachelbel’s Canon) and From the Brink (with a fluttering bed track and eerie harmonics ultimately resolving into peaceful pizzicato under a gentle rising motif that resembles a hymn of praise). The disc (actually a digital release) concludes with the gentle Turning Broken into Beautiful, a meditative wash of soothing colours over Pachelbel-like pizzicato bass, providing a joyful resolution to this healing journey. Maria provides real comfort for these terrible times.

Listen to 'Where Words Fail' Now in the Listening Room

06 del sol dust in time cn13wThe next work, which I would also consider healing music, is a string quartet that starts with an extended, somewhat melancholy duet between cello and viola. Chinese-born US-based composer Huang Ruo composed A Dust in Time (Bright Shiny Things as a response to the worldwide COVID pandemic. It is a meditative and cathartic work written in collaboration with the Del Sol Quartet who first performed it using the labyrinth of Grace Cathedral in San Francisco as its stage, livestreaming the premiere from the empty church. In the booklet notes – the booklet is actually a colouring book featuring stylized mandalas created especially for this project by high school student Felicia Lee – we learn that the first performance was preceded by an open-air rehearsal for a few friends in the park across the street from the cathedral. “Soon we were joined by passersby who paused with their dogs and strollers to listen as Huang Ruo’s hour-long palindromic passacaglia grew from silence to euphoria and then faded back into the wind, sirens and jackhammers of the city.” Listening to this recording in the relative quiet of my home I have to imagine the Cage-ian ambience of that experience, but the arc of the music is immersive and compelling, and indeed cathartic. The Del Sol Quartet are tireless champions of contemporary music and in the last three decades have commissioned or premiered literally thousands of works from such composers as Terry Riley, Chen Yi, Mason Bates, Pamela Z and Gabriela Lena Frank to name just a few. You can find excerpts on YouTube of another project Huang Ruo has been working on through the pandemic – a production of M. Butterfly in collaboration with playwright Henry David Hwang for the Santa Fe Opera.

07 winterreise hilary demske njzjeMany readers will be aware of my affection for Schubert’s Winterreise in its many and varied interpretations, including Hans Zender’s contemporary chamber orchestra setting, replete with bells and whistles, and Philippe Sly and the Chimera Project’s reworking with klezmer ensemble. All of the versions I have encountered maintain the melody line more or less intact, and feature a voice of one range or another. When I encountered Richard Krug’s transcription for string quartet and baritone, however, I found myself imagining a rendition in which the soloist would be a cellist. I haven’t found a cello version yet, but this month I did encounter another purely instrumental adaptation. Pianist Hilary Demske, creator of Journey for One: A Winterreise Fantasy for Solo Piano (Navona Records is quick to point out that it was not her intention to “arrange or improve the original work but to offer a different lens and add my individual perspective […] to an intimate glimpse into grief, the simple story of a young man rejected by love [that] conveys the universal experience of searching for peace.” She goes on to say “Foremost in my mind was the text and meaning of Müller’s poetry. I built many pieces around individual lines that resonated with me and reflected the overall poem, leading to increasingly dramatic compositions and unusual techniques.” The booklet includes the German titles and English translations of Müller’s poems (something that even some vocal versions neglect to do) and lists the piano preparations and other instruments employed on each track. These include such extraneous materials as timpani mallets placed on the piano strings, castanets, aluminum foil, drumsticks wedged between piano strings, xylophone mallet on wood block and rubber floor mat on strings, among others.

Devotees of traditional lieder and fans of Schubert may not get much out of this quite extreme interpretation of Winterreise, but I found it quite satisfying. Rather than a transcription per se, it’s an exploration of the poems themselves in Demske’s personal voice, during which Schubert’s melodies and rhythms occasionally shine through, glistening like familiar gems. A particular highlight was the antepenultimate movement Mut (Courage) which in Demske’s percussive performance (drumsticks on woodblocks and strings) I found reminiscent of the Baby Shark song that my young neighbours Henry (five) and James (two) take endless delight in exuberantly declaiming. 

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David Olds, DISCoveries Editor

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