01 Istvan AnhaltIstvan Anhalt – …the timber of those times…
SALT Festival Orchestra; Hungarian RSO; Ajtony Csaba
Centrediscs CMCCD 26419 (musiccentre.ca)

Right from the portentous opening chords to the ghostly final drumbeats, this recording of Istvan Anhalt’s monumental ...the timber of those times... (...a theogony...) works a spell. It’s is an adventurous, colourful work, depicting the gods who ruled the world of the ancient Greeks and continue to fascinate today. The terrific performance by the Hungarian RSO includes a fiery galvanizing violin cadenza from soloist Vilmos Oláh. Conductor Ajtony Csaba deftly sustains the momentum throughout.

In Four Portraits from Memory, chant-like textures suffuse evocations of loved ones whose recent deaths Anhalt is grieving. I found it deeply beautiful, and profoundly heart-wrenching, the serene atmosphere enriched by rhapsodic passages featuring pianist Tzenka Dianova. The SALT Festival Orchestra brings a level of polish and precision which allows the lines to shimmer and breath, suggesting layers of sounds yet to be discovered.

Anhalt, who was born in 1919, wrote some of his finest works at the very end of his career – he died in 2012. These are his last orchestral works, both from 2006. They differ in striking ways from each other, a testament to his remarkable versatility. But whether focusing inward to contemplate his own experiences, or reaching out to distant times to interpret those experiences, both works are deeply personal – and all the more moving for that.

This significant recording makes a fitting way to honour the centenary of the birth of a matchless trailblazer in Canadian music.

02 JACKFiligree – Music of Hannah Lash
JACK Quartet
New Focus Recordings FCR228 (newfocusrecordings.com)

Experimental, electrifying, a wonderland of colours – Filigree is a laboratory of sounds, impermanent yet consistent. With this recording the JACK Quartet delivers select pieces by American composer and harpist Hannah Lash and does it with their typical commitment and conviction. Every note, every phrase, is placed and nuanced with clarity of musical expression and clear understanding of Lash’s compositional language. JACK plays with an abundant energy that is beaming with emotional fluency.

Although encompassing a period of five years, chamber music pieces on this recording share a similar contemporary approach to multi-layered string technique(s) and a unique balance of intellectual and visceral elements. The album opens with Frayed, my favourite piece on this recording. The opening chords resemble a series of breaths, tense and unadorned, giving the impression of bringing out intimate mementos. That is, however, interrupted with a dynamic and powerfully unsettling section that slowly takes over, and it is the interlacing of different worlds that gives a tangible intensity to this piece.

Suite: Remembered and Imagined, stands in contrast with its playfulness and showcases a variety of textures. The album concludes with Filigree in Textile for harp and string quartet, inspired by the tapestry arts of the Middle Ages. The lush mood of the first movement, titled Gold, is followed with the rhythmically uniform Silver. The harp threads brilliant lines and brings everyone together in Silk.

This album is notable and well worth your attention.

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The Machine is Broken
Terry Rusling (1931-1974)
Spool Spurn 3 (spoolmusic.com)

Shed Metal
equivalent insecurity (dk & Dan Lander)
Spool Spurn 1 (spoolmusic.com)

Car Dew Treat Us (pages from Cornelius Cardew’s Treatise randomly selected)
dk & the perfectly ordinary
Spool Spurn 2 (spoolmusic.com)

Uxbridge, Ontario-based label Spool’s new Spurn series is titled irreverent. The brainchild of musician Daniel Kernohan, there are currently three releases in this group of possibly difficult-to-classify, yet ear-opening, enjoyable music. Spool also has other series with numerous eclectic releases available.

05a Spool UTEMSAn intriguing cross section of electronic works by Canadian composer Terry Rusling (1931-1974) are featured in the 2019 third Spurn release, The Machine is Broken. Rusling’s experience as an engineer for CBC understandably gave him the necessary technical grounding to create his unique sound. At composer Morris Surdin’s suggestion, Rusling worked at the University of Toronto Electronic Music Studio (UTEMS), which lead to further international studies/work, and tape collaborations with such artists as Earle Birney, Gwendolyn MacEwen and public tape performances at Yorkville’s Bohemian Embassy. Rusling’s short life resulted in an immense creative output that is only touched on here. Producers David Porter and Daniel Kernohan have selected 17 tracks, arranged in a listener-friendly order to maintain interest. The almost two minute opening Reel 1H sets the stage with sound effects, quiet spaces, and brief moments of tonalism. Creaky effects, crackling sounds, loud volumes, slides and glisses highlight Reel 2A’s early electro sound. The spoken male/female statements at the start of Title add a human dimension to the electronic effects. Rusling’s use of silent spaces between electronic sections in his works builds subsequent musical interest, such as Reel 2B where the silences set up such intense effects as the classic electronic sounds of that time, like washes, repeated notes, feedback and for lack of a better description, loud crashing about. Rusling’s early electronic music holds current sound appeal while also, at its very best, foreshadowing future sounds.

05b Spool Shed MetalThe earlier two Spurn releases also feature contemporary sounds. Shed Metal stars Equivalent Insecurity in performance. Kernohan, (named dk on the sleeve), and colleague Dan Lander play 22 tracks on their self-described “instruments, toys, stuff, sound.” Recorded in Toronto in 1987-89, their sound brings back wonderful memories of the Toronto improvisational scene of the time. The clear recording opens with a march-like feel and an almost sing-along melody interspersed with electronic effects. Too much fun being had by the two performers, as the music includes washes, electronic shrieking effects, occasional almost pop groves, pulses, horns, vocalizations, moments of anxiety, etc. Especially love the water sounds in track three. It is a gift to the listener that their music was even recorded, and later released.

05c Spool Car DewCar Dew Treat Us features Kernohan and the perfectly ordinary (Allison Cameron, Rod Dubey and Lawrence Joseph) with different guest artists reciting intermittent text fragments from Cornelius Cardew’s Treatise against an electronic soundscape featuring clicks, held tones, wavering dynamics, wobbling tones, bell sounds, atonalities and percussive effects in a challenging soundscape. Some may find it difficult to listen to but worth the effort to experience.

Bravo to Spool’s Spurn series for these three contrasting releases showcasing amazing Canadian experimental talent.

06 Jupiter QuartetAlchemy – Music by Jalbert; Stucky; Vine
Jupiter String Quartet; Bernadette Harvey
Marquis Classics MAR 81491 (marquisclassics.com)

Being a devotee of the piano quartet and quintet I’m gratified to hear four fine 21st-century examples originally commissioned by the Arizona Friends of Chamber Music. The American-based Jupiter String Quartet and Australian pianist Bernadette Harvey play these demanding works vividly and expressively, their virtuosity suited to the brilliant motions that American composer Pierre Jalbert induces in his Piano Quintet (2017) and Secret Alchemy for Violin, Viola, Cello and Piano (2012). The players also excel in reflective passages and evocative sonorities, such as the “outer space” part of the Quintet’s Mannheim Rocket movement. In Secret Alchemy’s movement, Timeless, mysterious, reverberant, Jalbert’s miraculous mood creation suggests a medieval cathedral in modern terms. For me it brought to mind, uncannily, the Notre Dame Cathedral fire earlier this year.

Australian Carl Vine’s Fantasia for Piano Quintet (2013) is in a lighter vein which the composer describes as “quasi-improvisational.” Featuring plenty of idiomatic virtuosity, I found the work’s style more conventional with recurring four-bar phrases in the last two movements that could have stood a few metric surprises. Finally, I can only offer the highest possible praise for the late, Steven Stucky’s outstanding one-movement Piano Quartet (2005). A long, sorrowful melody begins shortly after the opening, broken into motifs yet somehow finding the strength to go on. This work is too rich to describe in words; I hope readers will find their way to hearing it.

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01 Andre Mathieu chamberAndré Mathieu – Musique de chambre
Marc Djokic; Andréa Tyniec; Elvira Misbakhova; Chloé Dominguez; Jean-Philippe Sylvestre
ATMA ACD2 2784 (atmaclassique.com)

The turbulent life of the pianist and composer André Mathieu (1929–68) began in triumph and ended in tragedy. This son of professional musicians was hailed as “the Mozart of Québec” at his Parisian debut in 1936 but ultimately faded into in a haze of alcoholism and obscurity, succumbing to a heart attack at the age of 39. It is perhaps not surprising that Mathieu’s resolutely post-Romantic style, heavily influenced by Scriabin and Debussy and profoundly melodic and episodic by nature, was disdained in the new music circles of the 1960s. It is largely due to the advocacy of the Québécois pianist-composer Alain Lefèvre, a champion of Mathieu’s piano concertos, that his reputation has been restored in our post-modern era.

The album features Mathieu’s eight chamber works from the middle of the 20th century, the era of his finest compositions. It includes a selection of compact duets for violin and piano featuring pianist Jean-Philippe Sylvestre with violinists Mark Djokic and Andréa Tyniec alternating as soloists. Tyniec (who dazzled Toronto recently performing Ana Sokolović’s violin concerto for New Music Concerts) lays claim to the enjoyable though discursive Violin Sonata. Of particular interest are the Quintette for piano and string quartet and the Trio for violin, cello and piano, two substantial works in which Mathieu exceeds himself in the mastery of large-scale forms. The performances are uniformly excellent and production values are top notch.

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02 Canadian AmberCanadian Amber – Music by Latvian-Canadian Composers
Laura Zarina; Arthur Ozolins; Beverley Johnston; Canadian Opera Company Orchestra; Ninth Latvian Song Festival Orchestra; Alfred Strombergs; Maris Simais
Centrediscs CMCCD 26519 (musiccentre.ca)

Back in July 2019 I attended a concert which highlighted “significant contributions made by émigrés from Latvia to the music and culture of Canada.” Part of the Toronto XV Latvian Song and Dance Festival, it focused naturally on Latvia’s famous choral tradition, yet I was curious also to hear orchestral works by Latvian-Canadian composers including Tālivaldis Ķeniņš (1919-2008) and Imant Raminsh (b.1943). It is perhaps not surprising to hear works by the same composers on the CD Canadian Amber – dedicated to the same theme – with the addition of the slightly older Jānis Kalniņš (1904-2000). All three Latvian composers made Canada their home after World War II.

Kalniņš’ three-movement Violin Concerto (1945), firmly anchored in late-Romantic style, offers attractive lyrical passages for the soloist and orchestra, though overall the work sounds some 50 years past the style’s prime era. Raminsh is best known for his choral works. True to form, his Aria for Violin and Piano (1987) is imbued with arching, expressive melodies, framed by easygoing tonal settings with modal implications on the piano.

On the other hand Ķeniņš’ Concerto for Piano, Percussion, and String Orchestra (1990) reflects a very different sound world. The title, instrumentation, shear energy and terse, shifting dramatic moods evoke Béla Bartók’s expressionistic, modernist, chromatic musical language, though the instrumentation also brings to mind aspects of some Alban Berg works. Despite these surface homages, Ķeniņš’ idiosyncratic compositional voice emerges clearly, emotionally gripping us with effective writing for the piano soloist as well as for the strings and percussion. Here’s a work that begs for programming on both Canadian and Latvian stages.

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