01a Turagalila GimenoMessiaen – Turangalîla Symphony
Marc-André Hamelin; Nathalie Forget; Toronto Symphony Orchestra; Gustavo Gimeno
Harmonia Mundi HMM 905366 (harmoniamundi.com/en/albums/messiaen-turangalila-symphonie/)

As I was preparing this review, I learned that the long-ailing Seiji Ozawa had died in Tokyo on February 6th at the age of 88. It seems a fitting memorial then in any discussion of this centennial celebration recording from the Toronto Symphony to also honour the legacy of the musician whom Olivier Messiaen (1908–1992) described as “the greatest conductor I have known.”

Messiaen’s monumental ten-movement hymn to love was commissioned for the Boston Symphony, by Serge Koussevitzky. Leonard Bernstein, filling in for an indisposed Koussevitzky, premiered the work in 1949, though he never recorded it himself. Among Bernstein’s many conducting assistants during his legendary tenure at the New York Philharmonic a young Japanese conductor by the name of Seiji Ozawa stood out. In 1965 Bernstein called TSO managing director Walter Homburger to recommend Ozawa as an ideal candidate to replace the departing Walter Susskind. Homburger eagerly signed him up and Ozawa soon rose to international prominence, culminating in his directorship of the Boston Symphony for an unprecedented three decades. He later confided in a 1996 interview with the Globe and Mail that “Every repertoire I ever conducted in Toronto, I did for the first time in my life – Tchaikovsky, Beethoven, Mahler, everything.” 

Canada’s Centennial Commission saw fit to subsidize the landmark recording of Messiaen’s Turangalîla Symphony in 1967. It was a wise investment indeed. The acclaim this recording received promptly landed Ozawa, the Toronto Symphony and the composition itself firmly on the map of great performances. Subsequently the thoroughly hyped Ozawa eagerly suggested to Homberger that the TSO should stage a festival of Messiaen’s music. Alas, his proposal was summarily dismissed. For some reason Messiaen is a tough sell in Toronto; perhaps there is too much of a muchness about it all for some. I myself witnessed how the TSO audience trickled away in a 2008 performance (in the series “Messiaen at 100” – yet another centennial!) of this sprawling work under Peter Oundjian’s direction. Let us return to our recordings however. 

In comparison to Gimeno’s bold and impulsive interpretation, Ozawa’s tempi for all ten movements are consistently fractionally slower than their modern counterpart by an average of 30 seconds. The analog sound of the era and the rich acoustic of the Massey Hall venue lend a welcome warmth to the sound – the bass register projects wonderfully. Our modern Roy Thomson Hall is comparatively weak at those frequencies but provides greater clarity for the often dense orchestral textures. This is especially notable in Gimeno’s superbly performed fifth movement whose complicated rhythms are dispatched at a blistering pace that would have been a severe technical challenge for the musicians of the 1960s. Kudos as well to the precision of the expanded percussion section, a sterling example of what a hotbed of the percussive arts Toronto has become. 

It is also important to note that the performance is that of the revised orchestration of the work that Messiaen issued in 1990. The 2023 recording is mostly sourced from live performances and a patching session without, as far as I can tell, any digital jiggery-pokery from the Harmonia Mundi engineers. 

The Ozawa performance (originally released on vinyl in 1968) was recorded under the supervision of Messiaen himself with Yvonne Loriod as piano soloist and her sister Jeanne Loriod playing the ondes Martenot. It was remastered for a Japanese CD release in 2004 on the RCA Red Seal label and is also available on a 2016 compilation disc from Sony (88875192952). Both TSO recordings are essential components in the discography of this seminal masterpiece of the 20th century.

Listen to 'Messiaen: Turangalîla Symphony' Now in the Listening Room

02 ICOT RecurrenceRecurrence
ICOT Chamber Orchestra
Leaf Music LM256 (leaf-music.ca)

The ICOT Chamber Orchestra was founded by five Toronto-based composers and musicians of Iranian descent who set out to produce concerts that musically bridge Canadian and Iranian culture. Over the last 13 years it has produced operas, ballets and works for orchestra, chamber ensemble and voice. ICOT’s newest release Recurrence explores the many nuances of the notion of musical repetition through new compositions by Canadian composers Jordan Nobles, Nicole Lizée, Keyan Emami, Maziar Heidari and Saman Shahi. For this project ICOT consisted of strings (New Orford String Quartet), flute, clarinet, bass clarinet, upright and electric bass, piano and two percussionists. 

A notion such as repetition is an intriguing theme for a series of compositions – one which each of the composers decided to make their own via real-world lenses. Ecology, geological processes, social (in)justice, mathematics and fashion design were all themes harnessed. 

Two approaches caught my attention. Lizée cites visionary fashion designer Alexander McQueen as a direct inspiration for her Blissphemy. It reflects his work’s embrace of beauty in unexpected places and reach for artistic risks – much like the composer herself. Emami’s Kian in Rainbows is a moving musical memorial to those who died in 2022 in Iran, shot by government security forces during the crackdown on the Mahsa Amini protests. The nine-year old Kian Pirfalak was one of the victims, his memory evoking the innocence and fleeting beauty of childhood. Another sad inspiration for Kian in Rainbows: the sudden death last year of Canadian composer Jocelyn Morlock at 53.

Listen to 'Recurrence' Now in the Listening Room

03 Matt Haimowitz Primavera IVPrimavera IV the heart
Matt Haimowitz
PentaTone Oxingale Series (theprimaveraproject.com)

I was excited to find that the new Matt Haimovitz album The Primavera Project is based on a collaboration between two great works of art and 81 contemporary composers. The dynamic and athletic cellist’s latest release is number four in a cycle of six CDs; with his vast experience in contemporary and classical music, the cellist makes this major undertaking look easy. 

The two visual works in the spotlight are Botticelli’s Renaissance Primavera (c.1480) and contemporary artist Charline von Heyl’s triptych Primavera (2020). You could just dive into the CD with no reference at all, but I would recommend starting with the website accompaniment which displays the von Heyl painting and the accompanying map of the corresponding musical chapters: The Wind, The Rabbits, The Vessel and now the fourth in the collection, The Heart. Seeds of inspiration are sprinkled on von Heyl’s painting as live hyperlinks, which then open to each playlist. A stark contrast to the Botticelli version, Von Heyl notes “Kitsch is not ironic the way I use it. Kitsch, for me, means a raw emotion that is accessible to everybody, not just somebody who knows about art. That’s where kitsch comes from to begin with: it was basically art for the people.” (evenmagazine.com/charline-von-heyl)

Haimovitz tears into every nuance of colour from the compositions, and our journey takes on many of this decade’s greatest composers and musical storytellers. Each track references a particular motif notated in either painting. Justine Chen’s playful Iridescent Gest and Nina C. Young’s pentimento for solo cello and electronics are standouts, as are Tyshawn Sorey’s edgy and cinematic Three Graces and Canadian Vincent Ho’s jazz-inspired Blindfolded Cupid (which Haimovitz pulls off as if he wrote it). The album closes with Gordon Getty’s richly melodic miniature-sonata Winter Song.

Explore the website dedicated to the project. The creative and beautiful videos include visuals of von Heyl’s work on YouTube; they bring the artwork to life, anchoring the disc within the scope of the project. Haimovitz plays with an energetic and powerful core, and a dedication to each composition that only his stunning skills could match.

04 Jean DeromeJean Derome – La chaleur de la pensee
Various Artists (including Ensemble SuperMusique)
ambiences magnetiques AM 276 CD (actuellecd.com/en/accueil)

I looked at some images from the great early surrealist artist Francisco Goya while listening to the new release of quasi-improvisatory pieces by Jean Derome. Somehow the one activity made the other more terrifying. It’s hard to express praise or admiration for this composer’s output, but the effectiveness of his creativity is undeniable. This is high-concept and/or/but high-quality artistic material. 

Derome provides a visual reference to Onze Super (petit) Totems: pictures of his own somewhat crude sculptures; protections, per the liner notes, against various evils. A through-composed sectional work, the totems are distinct sonic explorations, with one or two segues. The first one is full of mad birdsong alternating between chaotic twittering chirps and sustained chords of close treble voices, punctuated by deep huffing yells that spur the switching between those textures. 

The Tombeau de Marin Mersenne provides relief of a kind. Three movements (Tombeau, Rigaudon, Galope), materially determined by the arcane formulae of a16th century mathematician. At first blush they just seem a bit mechanical and dispassionate. Perhaps that’s the point. I’m not sure how flattered I’d be by this Tombeau if I were the ghost of Mersenne, but Derome has a fascination with the crossover of music and math. The inaptly titled Galope hobbles from slightly up-tempo to the near opposite, like a click track disturbed by the percussive interjections to continuous running hemi- or semi-quavers in the piano. 

The title track features improvisatory responses to a middle C doinked or plunked out at varying intervals, a sort of torture for any mind given to expectation. Allowing one’s thoughts to warm up around the steady pitch is a more receptive attitude. And stay away from Spanish painters.

05 Quatuor BozzeniJürg Frey – String Quartet No.4
Quatuor Bozzini
Quatuor Bozzini CQB 2432 (quatuorbozzini.ca/en)

About his String Quartet No.4 (2021), Swiss composer Jürg Frey (b.1953) laconically observed, “My music is slow, sometimes static, often delicately shifting between standstill and movement. And yet, after more than an hour, this music has arrived at another place.” Music critic Alex Ross aptly compared Frey’s music to a “Mahler Adagio suspended in zero gravity.”

One of Canada’s leading string quartets, Bozzini specializes in contemporary music with an impressive 36 releases to date. Fostering a long and deep working relationship with Frey, their premiere recording of his sprawling five-movement Quartet No.4 is a remarkably poised musical testament to their collaboration. Beginning with whisps of sound the Bozzini morphs into a virtual, though still totally acoustic, orchestra. From pianissimo sustained string chords ghostly instrumental resemblances emerge; they sound like a French horn, harmonica, woodwinds, bandoneon and a soft pipe organ in succession. In Frey’s expansive soundscapes, timbral colour takes centre stage in the sonic field.

“… little happens – it is this atmosphere from which my music emerges and to which it always returns,” explains the composer. Listeners can choose to lay back and relax in Frey’s sound world observing the timbral transformations, the attractive chord and shifting mood changes. But then – just as we were enjoying the slowly scuttling clouds on a sunny Swiss summer day – those mysterious insistent pulsed cello pizzicati at the very end emerge to remind us of … what? … the passage of time?

06 India Gailey ProblematicaProblematica
India Gailey
People Places Records (peopleplacesrecords.bandcamp.com/album/problematica)

As a huge fan of cellist India Gailey’s first album, I was lucky to be in town for the launch of her latest release Problematica (“…used for organisms whose classification can’t be decided”) at the Canadian Music Centre. I was pleasantly surprised to see that even the most heavily multi-tracked or added effects were performed solo with laptop at hand. The final product is just as polished live as it is on the album. 

A more personal work than her previous album, Gailey gathers her closest collaborators to surround herself with a musical and spiritual base which she uses to launch herself into a plural universe. Beginning with Sarah Rossy’s I Long, gorgeous ethereal, long tones expand into harmonies and voice, growing and evolving into a beautiful vocal space-out before returning to Earth, deeply grounded in self. 

Nicole Lizée’s Grotesquerie employs foot stomps, loops, vocals and breath to become, as described, “a four-minute opera” of an amusing story best read in the notes. (There is also a video on Gailey’s website.) The subtle opening of Julia Mermelstein’s Bending, breaking through layers strand upon strand of delayed and effected cello, sneaking out quietly to leave a wonderous after-vision. Joseph Glaser’s Joinery uses an interesting combination of soundwalks and nature, to culminate into a question posed to a cello made from a tree: “did it hurt?”  Andrew Noseworthy’s supremely delicate Goml_v7….Final.wav is a testament to the collaborative partnerships Gailey continues to build. Fjóla Evans’ Universal Veil is exquisitely played, beautifully layered acoustic cello. The album closes with Thanya Iyer’s — Where I can be as big as the Sun, another opportunity for Gailey to circle back to her personal grounding. The whole album is coloured in textures, harmonies and vocals that continues Gailey’s path to be open and genuine.

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