20 Stefan HussongImaginary Landscape
Stefan Hussong; Rumi Ogawa; Yumiko Meguri
Thorofon CTH2664 (bella-musica.de/?s=imaginary+landscape)

The illustrious German accordionist Stefan Hussong’s audio catalogue was launched with his audacious 1987 recording of Bach’s Goldberg Variations and has since grown to an impressive discography of some 40 albums, many of which feature his mastery of the most challenging contemporary works. This latest album opens with Magnus Lindberg’s Metal Work (1984) for percussion and accordion, originally commissioned by the pioneering Finnish accordionist Matti Rantanen. This dazzling and virtuosic work features a swiftly evolving kaleidoscopic duel to the death between the accordion and an arsenal of ten metal instruments, effortlessly dispatched by percussionist Rumi Ogawa. 

Among the subsequent solo works expressly written for Stefan Hussong, one finds Elena Mendoza’s Découpé (2017), an essay derived from the Dadaist tradition of the random cutting and mashing up of fragments of text, or in this case, a random jumble of hackneyed clichés that, for my taste, went on a bit too long. Much more compelling is Martin Smolka’s intimate Lamento metodico (2000), in which strongly contrasting melodic elements are paired against each other in an expressively memorable composition. Two Canadian works are featured from the husband-and-wife team of composers Hope Lee and David Eagle. Lee’s work, Imaginary Garden V (2016), scored for accordion with Yumiko Meguri on piano, is part of an ongoing series of works under that title; this instalment features seven contrasting scenarios demonstrating an admirable stylistic diversity that kept this listener thoroughly engaged. Eagle’s innovative Refracted Tones (2016) for solo accordion involves replacing the normal reed ranks of the accordion with inserted sets of quarter-tone tuned reeds, creating an exotic, hallucinatory 24-tone octave guaranteed to bend your ears. Betwixt these two we find Heera Kim’s finely crafted The Art of Shading II (2019), which adroitly exploits the deepest registers of the accordion interspersed with percussive assaults on the instrument. 

Hats off to Herr Hussong for yet another well-balanced and compellingly performed album.

21 Founders End of TimeSongs for the End of Time Volume 1
Independent (foundersmusic.org)

What might a purist think of this reimagining of one of the 20th century’s most totemic works of chamber music? Fortunately for me, I’ll never have to answer that question, and instead can allow myself to take delight in the creativity of the young gang who call themselves Founders. 

Olivier Messiaen wrote his Quatuor pour la fin du Temps while languishing in a Nazi prison camp. The work has taken on a mystique beyond what is usually accorded musical works that remain in the repertoire, owing especially to that circumstance. So what brazen chutzpah this quintet has shown (!) by introducing implied harmonies into originally unison lines, or playing call and echo in the Abîme des oiseaux, which turns into a bluesy duet for clarinet and trumpet. Not only do they not have a pianist on board, they all put aside their instruments (add violin, cello and bass to the other two) to sing quotes from the Apocalypse and the Dies Irae. And wait a goshdarned second, did they just introduce humour into the whole thing with that wacky Interlude? SMH. Millennials!

They offer the work in homage to Messiaen, and I’ll allow it shows us a way to hear the original piece with fresh ears. It is also cheeky and, while never disrespectful, playfully affectionate. The writing is smart and the playing skillful. The quintet ranges easily back and forth between “popular” and “classical” idioms. You’ll be forgiven if you find suddenly you’re hearing something by Miles Davis, or for that matter, Darius Milhaud, or Guillaume de Machaut.

22 Louis KarchinLouis Karchin – Five Compositions (2009-2019)
Various Artists
Bridge Records 9543 (bridgerecords.com)

American composer/conductor/professor Louis Karchin has composed for such musical genres as orchestra, chamber music, vocal and opera. Here, five contrasting instrumental works written from 2009 to 2019 are performed.

Karchin conducts The Washington Square Ensemble in his three-movement Chamber Symphony (2009). He writes he was able to explore a range of colours and fluidity in this group of “approximately one of each instrument.” Sparkling opening arpeggiated tonal flourishes and tempo and instrumental contrasts lead to a march-like section with intermittent horn lines building tension. The slower second movement, scored for smaller ensemble, has calming tonally diverse pitches and piano-pedalled note vibrations. Karchin’s accurately self-described “rambunctious” third movement is in modified rondo form with energetic instrumental chordal interplays, flourishes and dramatic low-pitch held notes. 

Rochester Celebration (2017) is a solo piano commission celebrating Karchin’s undergraduate Eastman piano professor, Barry Synder. A “must listen to” virtuosic Romantic-feel composition for all pianists, as Karchin’s thorough piano high/low pitch sounds and effects knowledge are captured in Margaret Kampmeier’s exquisite performance.

Postlude (2019) has Sam Jones on trumpet with bucket mute play beautiful slower melodic lines with resonating high-pitch held notes to pianist Han Chen’s accompaniment. Love Alice Teyssier’s flute trills emulating Ashley Jackson’s harp rolls in Quest (2014). Violinist Renée Jolles and harpist Susan Jolles drive the exciting closing track Barcarole Variations (2015) forward with their sensitive instrumental effects.

Louis Karchin is a fabulous contemporary composer with thorough instrumental knowledge.

Listen to 'Louis Karchin: Five Compositions (2009-2019)' Now in the Listening Room

23 Pablo MarchettiniPaolo Marchettini: The Months have ends
Various Orchestras and Conductors
New Focus Recordings FCR280 (newfocusrecordings.com/catalogue)

The notes D, E-flat, F and G walk into a bar… this set-up describes the opening of Mercy, from a collection of the orchestral music of Paolo Marchettini. An E-natural creeps in, bringing ambiguity with it. Sometimes the E sounds a note of warmth, other times it harshly clashes with two neighbouring pitches.  Where is mercy, one might ask? The walls of this perfect fourth confine the ear, or protect it: prison or sanctuary? The gentle tone, and palette limited to the colours of strings, senza vibrato, gives way to menace in the middle section, brassy bombast overpowering the opening textures. Mercy is deferred until the final minutes, where a violin solo offers kindness.

The Months have ends sets five Emily Dickinson poems for soprano and orchestra. Alda Caiello has the necessary vocal power to match the forces accompanying her, but the mix sometimes favours the instrumentals to the point of overpowering the voice. I find the brashness of the music at odds with my feeling for Dickinson’s words, but it is bracing to hear her poetry brought into the contemporary idiom. There are audible artifacts of live performance here and elsewhere, some emanating from the podium!

Notturno follows the pattern of Mercy, exploring relationships of pitches and tone within a limited frame, here juxtaposing a perfect fourth against a contrasting whole-tone dyad. Marchettini performs ably as soloist in his Concertino for Clarinet, an effective introspective addition to the contemporary rep for the instrument. The orchestra of the Manhattan School of Music mostly keeps their end of the bargain in these two pieces. Aere perEnnius is an homage to Marchettini’s compatriot colleague, Ennio Morricone; it alternates between melancholia and bombast.

Listen to 'Paolo Marchettini: The Months have ends' Now in the Listening Room

01 Jeffrey RyanJeffrey Ryan – My Soul Upon My Lips
Various Artists
Redshift Records TK469 (redshiftrecords.org)

A labour of love by Canadian composer Jeffrey Ryan, My Soul Upon My Lips is a collection of music for solo woodwinds ten years in the making. Two larger works with piano bookend eight short solo pieces for a full complement of instruments from the woodwind family. Ryan captures the essence of each instrument with the use of a variety of 20th-century techniques to masterfully explore a range of colours and emotion. Aside from the use of the usual winds from an orchestra, Ryan also employs the tárogató and the alto saxophone, adding a unique timbre not often showcased in classical music, making this albums’ repertory approach uniquely his own.

In close collaboration with individual performers, each piece has been tailored to play to the strength of their instrument and highlight its spectrum of possibility – ingeniously invoking feelings from haunting to celestial and everything in between. My Soul Upon My Lips is an emotionally inspirational collection of character pieces that gives first place in title to no one instrument, uniting all in a stylish reformation of 20th century form in a 21st-century embodiment. 

With a starry lineup of instruments and Ryan’s soaring imagination, these pieces are a welcome addition to any artist’s repertoire and would prove to be an engaging and exhilarating selection for a recital.

Listen to 'Jeffrey Ryan – My Soul Upon My Lips' Now in the Listening Room

Jan Järvlepp – Concerto 2000 and other works
Pascale Margely; Janáček Philharmonic; Zagreb Festival; Moravian Philharmonic
Navona Records nv6291

Jan Järvlepp – Flights of Fancy: Chamber Works
Various Artists
Navona Records nv6323

02a Jarvlepp 2000It is a pleasure to review two retrospective discs of music by Ottawa-based composer Jan Järvlepp (b.1953). Growing up, he played classical cello, popular music on several instruments and studied composition, then turned in a post-modern direction – incorporating influences from pop, jazz and Hispanic, Arab or Nordic folk styles. The disc Concerto 2000 includes orchestral music from the last 30 years while Flights of Fancy contains chamber music composed and recorded in the 1990s. Three orchestras, mostly Czech, were recorded for the former between 2017 and 2019. I am especially impressed by the title work, with outstanding flute soloist Pascale Margely. Each movement is characterized by a folk style: Caliente! with exciting flamenco rhythm, wood instruments and hand clapping is appealing; the atmospheric Nocturne, which evokes Arabic singing, is a deep, increasingly complex and tragic work. In Memoriam (2016) is a processional work for strings that I found solemn and dignified. Camerata Music (1989) is a highly successful minimalist composition, with a pentatonic string ostinato soon doubled at the fifth by a flute. This is an example of the pervasive parallelism that is a fingerprint of Järvlepp’s music. Here it produces interesting harmonies and occasional clashes with increasingly divergent motifs and phrases above, as the ostinato breaks up. Other instruments are added and the work builds well. The other tracks are more pop-influenced, including the recent Brass Dance (2018) in which parallelism applies to diminished chords and train-horn sounds. But though they are entertaining, for me the pop elements sound familiar and somewhat tongue-in-cheek.

Listen to 'Concerto 2000 and other works' Now in the Listening Room

02b Jarvlepp Flights of FancyFlights of Fancy: Chamber Works is the other current release. It opens brilliantly with Pierrot Solaire (1994), an extended tour de force that is clearly pop in derivation, but with substantial smooth and contrasting interludes led by the violin. Later, there is cross-cutting between shorter music segments, and towards the end instruments become frenetic virtuosos. A three-movement Saxophone Quartet (1996) is played by the excellent ensemble, Saxart. The opening movement, Cadillac, is a perpetual motion piece, blues-evoking and witty with virtuosic solo turns by each saxophone for contrast. Space does not allow for every work on this disc, but we must note that the versatile composer has played with and composed for many musicians in the Ottawa area, establishing lasting connections. He appears as electric guitarist on Tarantella (1996) and as cellist on Trio No.2 (1997). In the latter, flutist Margely and violist Kevin James join with Järvlepp in a piece whose opening movement achieves unique and beguiling combinations involving string harmonics. Another aspect of these chamber pieces is the composer’s adeptness with instrumentation for many different instruments, something that has facilitated his orchestral composing. In fact, though the chamber works are earlier than the orchestral ones, these two CD’s belong together – the working out of a long and productive compositional practice.

Listen to 'Flights of Fancy: Chamber Works' Now in the Listening Room

Back to top