01 Hommaga a BoulezHommage à Boulez
West-Eastern Divan Orchestra; Daniel Barenboim
Deutsche Grammophon 479 7160

The West-Eastern Divan Orchestra is named after an anthology of poems by Goethe, inspired by a translation of the Persian poet Hafez. Goethe’s late work was a symbol of reciprocity between Occident and Orient, between Latin and Persian, Christian and Muslim, and German and Middle Eastern cultures. Co-founder Daniel Barenboim approached the 1999 formation of the Seville-based youth orchestra with similar intentions, bringing together musicians from Egypt, Iran, Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, Palestine, Syria and Spain, to promote principles of coexistence and dialogue between Israelis and Palestinians. In 2006, filmmaker Paul Smaczny made a documentary about the group entitled Knowledge Is the Beginning.

Having performed with Boulez since their 1964 concert of Bartók’s Piano Concerto No.1, (when Barenboim was 21) he chose to honour their working relationship with the 2-CD Hommage à Boulez, released in March 2017, a year after the composer’s death. The release of the recording coincided with the opening of the Pierre Boulez Saal, a Frank Gehry-designed chamber music hall in the Barenboim-Said Akademie in Berlin, which included the first concert of the newly formed Boulez Ensemble. The first CD contains live performances of the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra playing at the 2012 Proms in London, and the second includes their performances of pieces from Boulez’ 85th birthday celebration at the Berlin Staatsoper Unter den Linden in 2010.

Although Boulez conducts the live recording of Le marteau sans maître (at least his fifth recording of the piece, and second with contralto Hilary Summers (check out her website!)), I was most interested to hear a recent recording of Boulez’ music that wasn’t conducted by him, since the composer controlled the majority of recordings of his music. Considering the performances alone, this is a fantastic recording. Add to it that this is an orchestra made up of young musicians in an ensemble with admirable intent, and the recording is that much more impressive.

Barenboim conducts an energetically perambulant performance of the 49-minute Dérive 2, for 11 instruments. Jussef Eisa’s virtuosity is immediately evident in his live recording of Dialogue de l’ombre double, for clarinet, live electronics and pre-recorded tape, with off-stage piano providing resonance of the live clarinet sound projected from a speaker into the soundboard of the piano and redirected to the loudspeakers in the hall. The IRCAM live electronics team handles the computational side of this performance, as well as Anthèmes 2, demonstrating the most sophisticated instrument/computer interactions produced at IRCAM’s Paris research and creation facility. Hassan Moataz El Molla contributes a clear and elegant reading of Messagesquisse, for cello solo and six cellos. In their entirety, the flexible and colourful interpretations presented on this hommage support Stravinsky’s anecdote that Boulez is “Webern’s music sounding like Debussy.”

05 Prepared PianoWhat Are They Doing To That Piano?
Kate Boyd; Karolina Rojahn; J. Bradley Baker; Robert A. Baker; Stephen Gosling
Navona Records NV6100 navonarecords.com

Compiling this boxed set to document the history of post-20th-century piano must have been somewhat of a challenge for producer Bob Lord and Navona Records. But vexed they were not, judging by the results of What Are They Doing to That Piano? This boxed set of works for prepared piano shows how far ahead of the contemporary classical music game Lord and his label really are. It is only fitting then that this compilation begins at the beginning, with a stellar recording of the music that began it all: John Cage’s Sonatas and Interludes. This cycle of pieces was written between 1946 and 1948, and together represents one of Cage’s major contributions to the music of the 20th century. This “prepared piano” cycle was created for an instrument invented out of necessity: unable to fit a percussion ensemble onstage to accompany a dance performance, Cage modified a piano to produce “a percussion ensemble controllable by one player.” Among modern pianists, Kate Boyd’s performance of Sonatas and Interludes remains a benchmark one, just as Greta Sultan’s recording of John Cage’s Études was before that.

In Sonatas and Interludes, Cage exploits a wide array of sonorities, some bright and bell-like, others more delicate and subdued. Rhythmic motifs and patterns recur, producing an incantatory and hypnotic quality close to that produced by the gamelan, the percussion orchestras of Java and Bali. As Cage himself suggested, “control” was key. And Kate Boyd appears to have mastered the markings on Cage’s vertical score with cultured musicality and fastidious pianism. This performance replaces brute power with pellucid textures and a kaleidoscope of brilliant colours. Grinding motoric rhythms are superseded by an infinitely calibrated kinaesthetic sense of terrifying intensity. Transitions of tempo occur with the natural inevitability of a living, breathing organism. The precise dimensions and shapes of Cage’s structures appear in sharp focus. Such wizardry continues unabated into In a Landscape as Cage’s musical narratives, for all their wealth of detail, unfold with undistracted purpose. In all of this, Boyd’s dazzling virtuosity is never an end in itself but the servant of her vivid imagination.

If Cage’s Sonatas and Interludes is the anthemic torchlight of the prepared piano, then Stephen Scott’s Ice & Fire is one of the most significant pieces in this ongoing relay of Olympian proportions. It is almost impossible to imagine the true extent of how tight a fit it must have been to accommodate ten players around the well of even a 9-foot grand piano. However, fit they not only did but also have brilliantly executed Scott’s music to a nicety. Afternoon of a Fire and Vocalise on “In a Silent Way” sit at opposite ends of the Scott-spectrum. The former work is framed around American Indigenous, music and the latter conjures the ghost of Miles Davis’ repertoire from the 1970s; a veritable Mecca for moderns. In these and the eight other pieces, the Bowed Piano Ensemble takes a leap, intellectually, musically and instinctually, as they match Stephen Scott’s invention and originality throughout.

Sidney Bailin’s pieces 16-2-60-N-5 develop from beguiling, elegant threads, which are sewn together by his electronic manipulations with Karolina Rojahn’s arresting pianism, evoking stimulating mental pictures of mysterious narratives. And while Rojahn reappears with J. Bradley and Robert A. Baker to deploy an astonishing array of colours on Felt, Stephen Gosling breathes luminosity into Gheorghe Costinescu’s music on An Evolving Cycle to complete this glorious 5-disc set. More than that, though, these “new” works themselves deserve wider performance lives beyond this beautiful beginning provided them by Lord and Navona Records.

02 Harrison concertosLou Harrison – Violin Concerto; Grand Duo; Double Music
Tim Fain; Michael Boriskin; PostClassical Ensemble; Angel Gil-Ordóñez
Naxos 8.559825

This splendid CD contains two masterworks by Lou Harrison. I’m a long-time fan of Harrison and his mentor Henry Cowell, who introduced Harrison to both world music and John Cage, with whom Harrison would co-compose Double Music. (I was privileged to meet all three.)

In the first two movements of his Arabic-tinged Concerto for Violin and Percussion, the violin weaves sinuous melismas over punctuating percussion. They were composed in 1940 and revised in 1959, when Harrison added the finale, which offsets their fervent lyricism with a spirited belly-dance. Throughout much of the 20-minute concerto, Tim Fain has to play in the violin’s upper register; he does so, brilliantly.

The five-movement, Indonesian-influenced Grand Duo for violin and piano (1988) lasts 35 minutes. New to me, I found every minute enthralling. The violin’s long lines suggest a suling flute floating over the gamelan-like piano accompaniment provided by Michael Boriskin. A long, misterioso Prelude is followed by the up-tempo Stampede and gentle A Round. Air, the longest movement at nearly 11 minutes, is deeply downcast, similar in mood and impact to a Shostakovich Adagio. The Duo ends with the brief Polka, a lighthearted Europe-Indonesia hybrid. A great piece!

Double Music (1941), for which Harrison and Cage each independently wrote the music for two of the four players, is a long-standing percussion staple. Gil-Ordóñez’s meditative seven-minute interpretation takes over a minute longer than my swinging, Cage-conducted LP version. Different, but effective.

Heartily recommended!

03 Jennifer HigdonJennifer Higdon – All Things Majestic; Viola Concerto; Oboe Concerto
Roberto Díaz; James Button; Nashville Symphony; Giancarlo Guerrero
Naxos 8.559823 

Celebrated American composer Jennifer Higdon’s music has a personal voice linking to major 20th-century American composers. Her complex but meticulously scored suite All Things Majestic (2011) is more than ably represented on this disc by the Nashville Symphony under renowned conductor Giancarlo Guerrero. Hiking in the Grand Teton Range gave rise to titles and musical realizations, according to the composer. The orchestra of Music City goes from strength to strength in this work: inducing a majestic effect in the polytonal parallel chord streams of the first movement; shimmering exquisitely in different registers from which solo string figurations emerge in the following String Lake. Snake River, the third movement, is short and effective with fast runs leading into the rapids, while the closing Cathedrals features pitched percussion and harp in ethereal splendour.

Guest Chilean-American soloist Roberto Díaz’s full, well-rounded tone pervades the Viola Concerto (2014). The opening movement was to me unconvincing compositionally; its major-scale (pandiatonic) harmony seems too prevalent, as is the falling seventh interval in the viola. The second and third movements, though, are successful with witty and complex rhythms, including irregular subdivisions of the beat reminding me of today’s electronic dance music. In the pastoral opening of the one-movement Oboe Concerto (2005), Nashville principal oboist James Button’s rich timbre suffuses an extended melodic line. A contrasting motivic and rhythmic section gradually emerges with quirky orchestration, creating sparks that energize the rest of this convincing work.

04 PiccoloworksPiccolo Works
Natalie Schwaabe; Jan Philip Schulze
metier msv 28562 (divineartrecords.com)

Shrill, raucous, vulgar, strident! All too easily these adjectives seem to attach themselves to, and prejudice us against, the hapless piccolo. Yet for Piccolo Works, Natalie Schwaabe’s excellent debut CD, these notions are utterly debunked. From the outset this outstanding piccoloist of the Bavarian Radio Symphony (a world’s top-ten orchestra) presents a challenging and varied program of 21st-century delights, delivered with impeccable intonation, rhythmic precision, sensitive musicianship and finesse.

The opener, Levante Gyöngyösi’s Sonata for piccolo and piano (2007) (rapidly becoming a staple of the canon), shows ample clarity and energy of ensemble playing with collaborator Jan Philip Schulze. This sparkling, polished team has much to offer in interpretation and excitement. Amidst the other composers’ works are two originals composed for Schwaabe: Gert Wilden’s sometimes sorrowful, sometimes jazzy, always melodic two and a half piece and Kanefzky’s charming Pied Piper of Hamelin for flute/piccolo and narrator. Here the piccolo appears only as the magical voice of the piper’s instrument while Schwaabe’s nuanced command of the flute belies any myth that piccoloists are somehow less accomplished flutists. Unfortunately for unilingual audiences, Schwaabe’s narration is in German.

Mower’s Sonata, the perilous multiphonics of Donatoni’s NIDI Mikalsen’s starkly brutal Huit ilium where Schwaabe’s fluid control of even the highest notes is dazzling, and the Canadian Derek Charke’s wrenchingly sad Lacrymose round out this utterly brilliant CD. If this recording were to become essential listening, it would surely unfetter the piccolo from its enduring prison of prejudice.

06 FarahTime Sketches
John Kameel Farah
Neue Meister 03009045NM (johnfarah.com)

John Kameel Farah is a composer, pianist and visual artist who these days makes his home in both Toronto and Berlin. His piano-centric compositions have long attracted attention. During his University of Toronto music student years he twice received the Glenn Gould Composition Award.

Farah’s musical influences are extremely broad and cosmopolitan. They embrace the musics of Renaissance keyboard composers, J.S. Bach, Arabic maqam, Schoenberg and Ravel, as well as that of the minimalists, free improvisation and vernacular genres such as drum and bass. He performs all of them with precision and panache. Even more surprising, perhaps: in Farah’s live solo concerts he often deftly mixes many of these seemingly disparate elements, performing on piano, harpsichord, organ, synthesizer and computer. While his concerts primarily focus on his signature hybrid of composition, improvisation and electronic music, he often adds classical works, lending his programs a Euro-American historical perspective.

There is much to listen to and savour in Time Sketches. The relatively contained Behold! for piano and pipe organ is the example I’ll choose to talk about today. Set in a 20-beat metric cycle, it echoes the musical vocabulary developed mid-century by the American minimalists. The effect of the music is somewhat counterintuitive; it’s lilting and soft-spoken. Ending on a single, surprisingly gentle, middle-octave B-flat on the piano, it reminds this listener of mid-career Terry Riley’s keyboard music. Farah had private lessons in 1999 with that pioneer minimalist master, and Behold! is a worthy miniature addition to the minimalist music canon.

I recommend Time Sketches as a worthy addition to your quality listening time.

Back to top