01 AntheilGeorge Antheil – Symphony No.1; Suite from Capital of the World etc.
BBC Philharmonic; John Storgårds
Chandos CHAN 20080 (chandos.net)

This is the third in a series of invaluable volumes devoted to the orchestral works of the notorious “Bad Boy of Music,” the pistol-packing composer, pianist, inventor, author and occasional glandular advice columnist, George Antheil (1900-1959). A protégé of Ernest Bloch, he left America in 1920 in hot pursuit of his then girlfriend whose mother had banished to Paris, in an attempt to discourage their relationship. It proved a lucky break for him, for upon his arrival his piano recitals were soon lionized by the intellectual elite of the capital. He cemented his European reputation in 1926 with the literally riotous premiere of what will always remain his best known work, the sensational Ballet Mécanique for multiple pianos and percussion. Alas, the clouds of war gradually intervened and he returned to a less-than-impressed America, ending up in Hollywood scoring obscure movies. 

Of the shorter pieces on this disc the opening McKonkey’s Ferry Overture of 1948 is a boisterous depiction of George Washington’s celebrated crossing of the Delaware River at a site not far from Antheil’s birthplace of Trenton, New Jersey. The Golden Bird is a delicately scored fragment of chinoiserie, derived from a 1922 piano piece. The waltzing Nocturne in Skyrockets dates from 1951, while the Capital of the World suite is a vividly coloured, Latin-tinged anthology from Antheil’s 1952 ballet score. 

The most ambitious work on offer is Antheil’s First Symphony from 1922, an impressive declaration of patriotic American nostalgia which received only a partial premiere by the Berlin Philharmonic but was not heard again until the beginning of this century. It’s quite a winning work, polystylistic in the extreme with a little something for everyone to enjoy. Antheil was an expert and innovative orchestrator whose timbral flair is vividly brought to life by the enthusiastic ministrations of John Storgårds and his expert BBC ensemble.

02 MessiaenMessiaen – L’Ascension; Le Tombeau Resplendissant; Les Offrandes Oubliees; Un Sourire
Tonhalle-Orchester Zürich; Paavo Järvi
Alpha-Classics.com ALPHA 548 (naxosdirect.com)

To celebrate Paavo Järvi’s appointment as their new music director, the Tonhalle-Orchester Zürich has released this admirable collection of early orchestral works by Olivier Messiaen (1908-1992), a composer demonstrably dear to Järvi’s heart. The disc begins with Le Tombeau resplendissant (1931), a lesser-known work that reflects a crucial time in Messiaen’s life; it bears an unsettling autobiographical program note that begins, “My youth is dead: it was I who killed it.” Perhaps feeling it was too personally revealing, he withdrew the work from his catalogue for decades. It was eventually published in 1997. This is followed by the transcendent “symphonic meditation” Les Offrandes oubliées (1930), one of his most successful works in this genre. 

Notably absent in the works of the 1930s, Messiaen’s preoccupation with birdsong is front and centre, alternating with retrospective hymnal passages reminiscent of his earlier style, in the late Un sourire (1989), which premiered  December 5, 1991, as Messiaen’s exquisite contribution to the bicentenary of Mozart’s death. The recording concludes with the original orchestral version of the lengthy, supremely Catholic devotional tone poem L’Ascension – Quatre méditations symphoniques (1932/33); the later 1934 version, with a different third movement, is a well-known crown jewel of the organ repertoire. 

Järvi maintains an excellent command of the orchestra throughout. The dense harmonies projected by the Zürich strings are sublime and expertly balanced, the percussion section is impressively resonant and solo passages are outstanding. A very fine job indeed by the recording team, sourced from live performances from January and April 2019.

03 Ginastera HarpGinastera – Harp Concerto Op.25
Sidsel Walstad; Norwegian Radio Orchestra; Miguel Harth-Bedoya
LAWO LWC1182 (naxosdirect.com/)

Astor Piazzolla may be more celebrated a musical figure in contemporary Argentina, but Alberto Ginastera is perhaps its most exalted composer. His career spanned almost 50 years (1934-1983). Through all three phases – objective nationalism, subjective nationalism and neo-expressionism – Ginastera remained the greatest exponent of the Argentinean gauchesco tradition which holds that the gaucho – a native, landless horseman – is the icon of Argentina. In the last decade or so of his life, the composer’s appeal was so great, his influence stretched into many musical styles including jazz and so-called progressive rock.

The selections on this disc, featuring harpist Sidsel Walstad and the Norwegian Radio Orchestra conducted by Miguel Harth-Bedoya, are emblematic of Ginastera’s great gift for creating epic compositions that evoke Argentinean music and dance traditions. These he skillfully integrated into classical forms contemporaneous with the 20th century. Romanticism is never very far away, of course, and this is clear from both Harp Concerto, Opus 25 and the 12 Variaciones concertantes, Op.23. 

Both Walstad and the orchestra deliver fine performances of two of Ginastera’s eminently paradigmatic works. Walstad’s playing is eloquently dreamy and distinctively ripe in tone. Her performance, based on the 1968 revision (also performed by Nicanor Zabaleta), is scintillating. The orchestra, under Harth-Bedoya’s baton is stunning. What musicians across the board deliver is startlingly fresh and alive.

04 Villa Lobos concertosHeitor Villa-Lobos – Guitar Concerto; Harmonica Concerto
Manuel Barrueco; José Staneck; OSESP Ensemble; São Paulo Symphony Orchestra; Giancarlo Guerrero
Naxos 8.574018 (naxos.com)

The composer Heitor Villa-Lobos is to Brazil what Bach and Beethoven are to Germany, Liszt is to Hungary and Chopin to Poland. Uniquely, Villa-Lobos also became the cellist who played many other instruments, including guitar, on which he achieved a remarkable facility. Virtuosity across many instruments also became one of Villa-Lobos’ strong suits. Burle Marx, the conductor and close friend once asked Villa-Lobos if there was anything he did not play. “Only oboe,” was the reply; but when the two met shortly afterwards, Villa-Lobos was well on his way to mastering that instrument too.

Villa-Lobos’ Guitar Concerto was commissioned by Andrés Segovia in 1951; (performed in February 1956). It is different from the bright colours and seductive melodies of Rodrigo’s Concierto de Aranjuez. But it is highly virtuosic, emotional, and explores a range of techniques including glissandi, arpeggiation and harmonics. The Harmonica Concerto is emblematic of Villa-Lobos’ cross-instrument virtuosity. The appropriately numinous Sexteto místico is imaginatively poetic and the rhapsodic and sensual Quinteto instrumental is typical of the composer’s ability to communicate with feverish Brazilian passion.

The São Paulo Symphony Orchestra, under the baton of Giancarlo Guerrero, is in exquisite form throughout, as is the OSESP Ensemble. The warmth of guitarist Manuel Barrueco’s playing – like his tone and touch – is eminently suited to Villa-Lobos’ work. Harmonica wizard José Staneck’s performance is utterly unforgettable for his ability to communicate Brazilian saudade on so tiny, albeit exquisitely chromatic, an instrument.

05 Tyler NickelChristopher Tyler Nickel – Music for Woodwind Choirs
Various Artists
Centrediscs CMCCD 27019
(cmccanada.org)

The two large works on this CD, both composed in 2017, are Suite for Two Oboes and Two English Horns and Symphony for Flute Choir. Each is performed by a group of superb Canadian musicians, conducted by Clyde Mitchell, music director of the Lions Gate Sinfonia and former associate principal horn in the Montreal Symphony Orchestra. The performances are, to my ears, flawless and vital.

Nickel’s music is full of life: imagination, invention, variation – a deep understanding of the craft of composition. The artistry, for example, of the opening movement of the Suite, is evident from the first notes: the same note played three times on the English horns, to which the oboes reply with a five-note motif on three pitches. This is just the beginning of a journey, which leads us through an episode of melodic development and several contrapuntal episodes – in the complexities of which we never feel lost – and then back to a satisfying recapitulation. This is composition at its best – arresting and masterful.

The Symphony for Flute Choir brings comparable invention: in the first movement Nickel develops what sounds like an atonal theme – an engaging one – into 12 minutes of music, always interesting and all derived from this one short theme. In the second movement I was struck by Nickel’s extraordinary melodic flair, a satisfying blend of repetition and variation.

I hope there will be live performances of these wonderful works in the not-too-distant future!

06 Schwartkopf DetachDetach
Angela Schwarzkopf
Redshift Records TK472
(redshiftrecords.org)

Often, new music, as much as that term is understood within the worlds of jazz or art music, is put forward to provoke, to be forward thinking, or to be purposefully progressive. Among the many adjectives most frequently used to describe this interesting genre, beautiful and serene are, arguably, not often heard. That is, however, not the case with Detach, the debut recording from Toronto-based harpist Angela Schwarzkopf on Redshift Records. Her sublime instrumental touch and skillful manipulation of dynamics successfully draw in and activate listenership. With the extremely capable accompaniment featuring vibraphonists Michelle Colton and Étienne Levesque, Schwarzkopf highlights and bring to life a number of compositions by new and notable contemporary Canadian composers Monica Pearce, Cecilia Livingston, Patrick Arteaga, Mark Nerenberg, Elisha Denburg and Kevin Lau. 

There is an intriguing programmatic arc to this recording. After an initial bold musical statement, Detach moves slowly and gently through the rest of Pearce’s attach/detach before traversing a tremendous terrain of harmonic and rhythmic complexity. Compositional nuance and sophistication abound, as well as wide-ranging dynamics, before ending, after a 15-minute tour de force reading of Lau’s Castles in the Sand, with an arpeggiated cascading melodic line on solo harp. 

This recording is indeed progressive, forward-thinking and modern, but it is simultaneously engagingly listenable, melodic and beautiful. Congratulations to the Ontario Arts Council for having the good sense to support these important voices in contemporary Canadian music, and to Schwarzkopf and the vibraphonists for creating such a fine recording. Picking up on the hopeful success of this debut, I trust there will be more to come. 

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