08 David SampsonChesapeake – The Music of David Sampson
American Brass Quintet
Summit Records DCD 639 (summitrecords.com)

This CD, writes American composer David Sampson (b.1951), “came from my long-held desire to write for the members of the American Brass Quintet as individuals and close friends, amplifying their unique talents and sequencing the pieces to stand as an extended composition.” What I found particularly fascinating was Sampson’s varied sonic mix of one or two brass instruments plus electronics or percussion and piano in the first four pieces, each in three or four movements.

The opening, Breakaway, for two trumpets and electronics, presents echoes of Copland’s Fanfare for the Common Man and propulsive jazzy riffs that surround a darkly funereal cortege. In Powell Trio for trombone (the quintet’s Michael Powell), marimba and piano, two snappy, nervously syncopated movements, Flow and Eddies, burble around Stillwater, the quietly mysterious middle movement. Three Sides for trumpet/flugelhorn, vibraphone and piano begins with cheery repeated staccato brass notes over a rumbling accompaniment, followed by a slow bluesy solo supported by gentle arpeggios, before ending in playful, quirky syncopations and percussive punctuations. Just Keep Moving, for horn, bass trombone, marimba and piano, is more modern-sounding, rhythmically and harmonically complex; true to its title, though, it just keeps moving.

The concluding four-movement Chesapeake, for the entire quintet, depicts, writes Sampson, sailing trips with his friends down Maryland’s Chesapeake Bay. Sampson’s enjoyment of these trips is reflected in the bright, celebratory music, a fine conclusion to this fine, enjoyable disc.

08 South of the CircleSouth of the Circle
Siggi String Quartet
Sono Luminus DSL-92232 (sonoluminus.com)

While it should come as no surprise that contemporary Icelandic music should have – like music elsewhere across the globe – come of age, the sheer scope and breadth of its soundscape is, nevertheless, quite breathtaking. Riding the crest of a new wave created by Björk, Atli Heimir Sveinsson and Jóhann Jóhannsson is the dazzling Siggi String quartet founded by violinist and composer Una Sveinbjarnardóttir, whose work Opacity forms one of the five pillars of the quartet’s 2019 recording South of the Circle.

This follow-up to Philip Glass: Piano Works, the 2017 recording that the quartet shared with celebrated pianist and countryman Vikingur Ólafsson, is both sparkling and deeply reflective. The quartet’s interpretation of Sveinbjarnardóttir’s composition and those of three other Icelanders is marked by the poignancy of their playing. The music becomes part of a natural landscape that mixes beauty and danger. Whether evocative of freezing nights or long rainy days, each track takes us to a place – often wildly exhilarating – with trusted and inspiring musical friends.

Such warmth comes at no expense to either classical elegance or avant-garde subversion.

Throughout the quartet creates a compelling sound-bed for four voices of contrasting character. Although best expressed in the long inventions of the solos contained in Opacity, the virtuoso playing of the quartet is also expressed in their sculpting of the music of Daníel Bjarnason’s Stillshot, Valgeir Siguròsson’s Nebraska, Mamikó Dis Ragnarsdóttir’s Fair Flowers and Haukur Tómasson’s Serimonia.

10 PartchHarry Partch – Sonata Dementia
Bridge Records BRIDGE 9525 (bridgerecords.com)

Harry Partch (1901-1974) was a paradigmatic California outsider composer, embracing the pitches and rhythms of world music – Ancient Greece, Japan and Africa – and substituting a 43-tone scale in just intonation for the equal temperament of Western tradition. A romantic figure who constructed microtonal guitars as a depression-era hobo, he gained a significant audience when Columbia Records recorded him in the 1960s. His home-made instruments emphasized bending string tones and hyper resonant percussion, some made from the refuse of radiation experiments.

The ensemble PARTCH is as true to the letter and spirit of Partch’s music as his own groups, and John Schneider’s intoned vocals even sound like Partch. The group has been recording landmarks and unheard works alike and supplementing them with Partch’s own archival recordings. The opening Ulysses at the Edge of the World immediately suggests the breadth of Partch’s inspirations: originally composed for jazz trumpeter Chet Baker, it combines bass marimba, tuned bamboo drums, trumpet and baritone saxophone, and ends with a joke about wanderers (i.e., Ulysses, Baker, Partch) being arrested. Twelve Intrusions (1950) is a song cycle, alive with intoned vocals, elastic pitches, and a concluding chant transcribed from a recording of the New Mexico Isleta tribe. Windsong is a collage-like film score, while Sonata Dementia includes a Scherzo Schizophrenia, indicative of Partch’s multi-directional wit.

The CD concludes with Partch’s own 1942 recording of Barstow, the brilliant setting of hobo inscriptions here faster (and funnier) than the later Columbia recording.

01 PoulencFrancis Poulenc – Kammermusik
Ensemble Arabesques; Paul Rivinius
Farao Classics B 108103 (farao-classics.de)

Certain composers of the 20th century were determined to complete cycles of works for all of the orchestral wind instruments. Paul Hindemith largely succeeded, Carl Nielsen fell short of his intention to write a concerto for each member of the Danish Winds, and Francis Poulenc gave the world a wealth of pieces for all of them. His contributions are given a representative sampling on this disc featuring the wind quintet Ensemble Arabesques, joined by the excellent Paul Rivinius on piano.

The largest work (from 1932, revised 1939) is the Sextet for Winds and Piano. In it you’ll hear echoes and precursors of material Poulenc used in all of his smaller ensembles, notably of his final three wind sonatas: for Flute (1956), Clarinet (1962), and Oboe (1962). He intended to add a sonata for bassoon, but died shortly after completing the oboe work. The sextet is full of fun, played with sparkle and élan, but also with the disguised melancholy found in the three later works. Like Matisse’s paper cutouts, Poulenc’s pieces can seem like collages of recurrent musical gestures and tropes, and his forms repeat through most of these pieces. For my money, naturally, the clarinet sonata is the most beautiful, played here by Gaspare Buonomano. The second movement is heartbreaking and so simple. Buonomano’s rendition is understated, elegant and respectful of the music, though sadly not without the clarinet’s most vexing pitch peccadilloes. Eva Marie Thiébaud’s flute sonata is utterly fine; likewise Nicolas Thiébaud on oboe.

02 Instruments of HappinessThe Happiness Handbook
Instruments of Happiness
Starkland ST-232 (starkland.com)

Tim Brady is internationally recognized as a leading experimental guitarist and a prolific composer of chamber, orchestral and music theatre works. He writes, “For over 30 years I have been exploring a new approach to the electric guitar, a vision as both a composer and a guitarist. Instruments of Happiness [IOH] is … the next step in this evolution.” Leader of IOH groups, Brady considers the guitar an “instrument of happiness,” and he gave that title to the electric guitar ensembles he formed as a platform for his wide-ranging music projects.

IOH performs in three formats: as a 100-piece electric guitar orchestra rendering site-specific new works; as a 20-piece ensemble; and as a quartet performing new compositions. It’s the last configuration we hear on The Happiness Handbook in premiere recordings of works by six Canadian composers: Brady, Jordan Nobles, Scott Godin, Maxime McKinley, Gordon Fitzell and Emily Hall. The music on the album reflects many of Brady’s own musical interests. These include contemporary classical, experimental and musique actuelle, but also embrace guitar-based vernacular genres such as blues, progressive rock, flamenco and the electric guitar sounds popularized by 20th-century innovators Duane Eddy and Link Wray.

If you enjoy virtuoso electric guitar shredding, edgy minimalism, jaggedly incisive rhythms, noisy textures and rock’s propulsive energy paired with the guitar’s gentler voice – soft harmonics, cantabile slide guitar and sustained tones – then this is an album to savour and add to your collection.

03 John RobertsonJohn Robertson – Virtuosity
Sofia Philharmonic Orchestra; Anthony Armoré
Navona Records NV6223 (navonarecords.com)

In my review of a CD of orchestral works by John Robertson (Navona NV6167) that appeared in the September 2018 issue of The WholeNote, I called his neo-Romantic music “unfairly neglected” and praised his “lyrical gift… colourful and inventive scoring, unpretentious and essentially cheerful.”

Not all of Robertson’s music is “essentially cheerful,” however, as shown by this latest CD. In three concerted works featuring as soloists three principal players of the Sofia Philharmonic Orchestra, the Kingston-based Robertson (b.1943) reveals his more inward-looking side, at times tinged with melancholy. His “lyrical gift,” though, remains evident and continues to please in his Concerto for Clarinet and Strings Op.27 (1989), Concerto for Trumpet and Orchestra Op. 58 (2013) and the tone poem Hinemoa and Tutanekai Op.22 (1987), based on a legend of two Maori lovers from rival warring tribes. In it, Hinemoa hears and responds to the plaintive sound of Tutanekai’s flute as it wafts across the lake that keeps them apart.

Robertson’s even darker side is displayed in the opening Andante of his 27-minute Symphony No.3, Op.71 (2017), filled with dramatic foreboding, sinister repeated arpeggios and pounding rhythms. The mood lightens with the syncopated, Latino-like accents of the Vivace, while the concluding Allegro is lighter still, even “cheerful.”

In my previous review, I wrote that Robertson’s music “should be welcomed by Canadian orchestras and audiences.” The increasing exposure of his music on CD might just be what it takes to make that happen.

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