01_francaixJean Françaix 1912-1997
Trio di Colore
XXI XXI-CD 2 1580

 

Nadia Boulanger pronounced to the mother of 10-year old Jean Françaix: “I don’t know why we’re wasting our time teaching him harmony, which he obviously knows already. How he became so proficient at it is a mystery; he seems to have been born with it. Let us rather do counterpoint.” That love of harmony persisted throughout his life and career. Françaix was criticized in the 1950’s for not moving ahead with the serialists and dodecaphonic composers. His reply was disarming: “I would gladly be the spiritual grandson to Grand-Papa Haydn. The limpidity, the calm and the humour of his art seem to me the antidote to the contemporary idiom.”

 

Despite his protestations that he never changed, Françaix obviously evolved. As the composers of the minimalist movement (most notably John Adams) re-discovered harmony, so did Françaix discover his own version of minimalism. The perfect example of that evolution is one of his late compositions, the 1990 Trio for Clarinet, Viola and Piano. Together with his compositions from the 1970’s, 1940’s and even 1930’s, this disc becomes a great Françaix primer, beautifully executed by Trio di Colore. This young ensemble, formed at the acclaimed Indiana University – Jakob School of Music, received the First Prize and Gold Medal at the prestigious 2004 Fischoff Chamber Music Competition. The individual musicians are also winners of multiple competitions, guaranteeing an intelligent and beautiful reading of thes harmonic treasures by Jean Françaix.

 

02_elgar_schnittkeElgar & Schnittke - Viola Concertos
David Aaron Carpenter; Philharmonia

Orchestra; Christoph Eschenbach
Ondine ODE 1153-2
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I sometimes find the transcription of concertos hard to justify, suspecting that the motivation is possibly more practical than musical, and aimed primarily at increasing the repertoire.

If ever a recording ought to blow that feeling away, it’s this transcription of the Elgar Cello Concerto for viola. Viola concertos are pretty thin on the ground, and when the great virtuoso Lionel Tertis made his transcription in 1928 Elgar not only gave it his full approval but also conducted the first major performance with Tertis in 1930.

David Aaron Carpenter is a wonderful talent, and has built on Tertis’ transcription for this, his own arrangement, which he feels is “more attuned to what Elgar originally wrote.” He doesn’t say how, but no matter - the cello and viola share a tonal quality that makes this a natural progression, and in this marvellous performance the concerto remains a moving and supremely satisfying work.

The year of Elgar’s death - 1934 - was also that of Schnittke’s birth. His viola concerto was completed in 1958, only ten days before the major stroke that left him partially paralysed, and the work consequently had great personal significance for him. It’s a stunning, albeit dark, passionate and introspective work, clearly influenced by Shostakovich and also by Berg. Carpenter calls it “harrowing” and “emotionally draining”, and it’s easy to see - and hear - why.

A great recorded sound and top-drawer performances from Carpenter, Eschenbach and the Philharmonia make this an outstanding disc.

03_shostakovichShostakovich - Symphonies 1 & 15
Mariinsky Orchestra; Valery Gergiev
Mariinsky MAR0502
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The Mariinsky Theatre has followed the lead of The London and Chicago Symphonies, the Concertgebouw and other orchestras by creating their own, independent recording label. Their first release, Shostakovich’s opera The Nose (MAR0501, SACD/CD), was received with enthusiasm by the critics. They also have a HD video of their electrifying mounting of both Le Sacre du Printemps and l’Oiseau de Feu employing the original choreography and costuming as witnessed at their notorious Paris premieres (MARIINSKY/BelAir DVD, BAC041), reviewed in the September issue.

In the First Symphony Gergiev looks beyond Shostakovich’s precocious ideas and exuberant optimistic orchestration and finds a rather mature work by a prodigious composer. This is not to suggest that the interpretation is in any way anachronistic. Determining the composer’s mental attitude behind this or that composition, passage or reference remains a popular exercise among the pundits that, except in some rare cases, hasn’t produced a certain, or even approximate, QED. There is no better example than the 15th Symphony with its quotes from other composers, Rossini and Wagner, and allusions from other works. What is the sense in this symphonic autobiography and what does each reference and quotation mean? Whatever it may be, we hear what we wish to hear, like a musical Rorschach test.

This performance of the 15th is a distinguished interpretation that, if listened to and not overheard while otherwise occupied (text messaging seems to be today’s universal pre-occupation), leaves the listener sated and, perhaps, somewhat introspective. Such eloquent, empathetic, and searching performances as these do not just happen. They are the result of the artist getting inside the score and not simply on top of it. This was totally unexpected because here Gergiev reveals these immeasurable qualities that are missing from his earlier Philips CDs of Shostakovich symphonies, Four through Nine, recorded live between 1994 and 2002.

The astonishingly dynamic recording from hushed, barely whispered passages to unfettered outbursts, all in a realistic acoustic, is a credit to the ubiquitous, independent producer James Mallinson.

After, in fact, while, listening to these two familiar symphonies I hoped that this disc presages a complete cycle from this cast recorded in their own theatre.

04_rautavaaraEinojuhani Rautavaara - 12 Concertos
Various artists; Helsinki Philharmonic
Orchestra
; Leif Segerstam
Ondine ODE 1156-2Q

Finland’s enterprising Ondine label has faithfully recorded the music of the eminent composer Einojuhani Rautavaara (born 1928 in Helsinki) for decades and has assembled from their extensive catalogue of his works this immensely valuable collectors’ edition of four discs documenting a dozen concertos composed by him over the past 30 years. All of the recordings were supervised by the composer and feature outstanding soloists accompanied in most cases by the Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra under the direction of the redoubtable Leif Segerstam.

Rautavaara’s extant series of concertos (though a recent percussion concerto has yet to be recorded) begins with the 1968 Cello Concerto, heard here in a performance by Marko Ylönen, and extends to the lengthy 2001 Clarinet Concerto in a masterful performance by its dedicatee Richard Stoltzman. My personal favourites include the stunningly evocative 1972 Concerto for Birds and Orchestra “Cantus Arcticus”, which amalgamates the composer’s own field recordings of the waterfowl of northern Finland in a halo of shimmering orchestral sound, and two compositions from 1977, the kaleidoscopic scoring and stream-of-consciousness impunity of the single movement Concerto for Organ, Brass Quintet and Symphonic Winds with Kari Jussila the soloist and Elmar Oliveira’s affectionate account of the capricious mood swings of the Violin Concerto. The collection also includes a lively Flute Concerto with Patrick Gallois, a succinct Ballad and prolix Concerto for harp, and an uncanny Concerto for Double Bass.

Rautavaara’s three Piano Concertos, the first two performed by Ralf Gothoni with the Leipzig and Bavarian Radio Symphony orchestras and the third performed and conducted from the keyboard by Vladimir Ashkenazy in Helsinki, provide an excellent overview of the composer’s stylistic evolution over the decades. Considered by many as one of the greatest musical figures in Finland after Jean Sibelius, Rautavaara’s compositions are infused by a rich palette of expression that consistently reward the listener while remaining admirably contemporary in their approach. All the selections feature excellent production values and constitute a loving tribute to this important composer’s considerable achievements.

05_bradyworksMy 20th Century
Tim Brady; Bradyworks;
Quatuor Molinari
ambiences magnétiques AM 189 CD-DVD

Canadian composer and innovative guitarist Tim Brady has created music in a huge range of genres and I was wondering what to expect in his new double disc release. The back cover states it clearly enough: “My 20th Century: A music/video/theatre narrative in 4 works”. The attractive package contains an audio CD and a DVD of the work, thus neatly representing the opus’ various aspects.

Didn’t someone once claim that the 20th century was the century of the guitar? The first two works here serve as homage to two of the past century’s iconic electric guitarists, whom one assumes are composer Brady’s guitar heroes too. The jazz great Charlie Christian’s famous Solo Flight (1941) is radically re-constructed in a post-modernist manner for a small ensemble in Traces; Brady’s own electric guitar riffs adding a fuzzy-toned note of 20th century angst.

Strumming (Hommage à John Lennon) is perhaps the most approachable work presented here, informed by a clear slowly unfolding structure and propelled by frequent dramatic timbral and metric shifts. One especially catchy composite meter: 4/4 + 2/4 + 3/16 caught the ear of this happy metric camper.

The third work is scored for a string quartet with an electronic soundscape, while the fourth features a “virtual string quartet” plus piano, saxophone, percussion and electric guitar. I found #4, Double Quartet (Hommage à Dmitri Chostakovitch), particularly engaging throughout its three movements. The elegiac movement An Infinity of Four with images from the siege of Leningrad was particularly moving.

With the future of the audio CD in question, could this sort of combined video + audio disc package become common even for purely music projects?

Concert note: New Music Concerts hosts the Toronto stop on Tim Brady’s national “My 20th Century” tour with the Bradyworks ensemble and videographers Martin Messier and Oana Suteu at Isabel Bader Theatre on October 17.

06_Ancia NAXOSShort Stories - American music for saxophone quartet
Ancia Saxophone Quartet
Naxos 8.559616
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Borrowing from popular music has almost defined American “classical” music since the time of Ives, and the Ancia Saxophone Quartet has compiled a disc of commissions and favourites that capture Twentieth Century America.

The Chorale from Ives’ String Quartet No. 1 opens this disc, which also includes the third movement of his Fourth Symphony. Ives would have embraced the organ-like sound of the saxophone quartet for his collage of hymns.

The influence of Elliott Carter can be seen in Fred Sturm’s Picasso Cubed (a reworking of a Coleman Hawkins improvisation, perhaps as seen through a kaleidoscope), and in David Bixler’s Heptagon (seven short jazzy Webernesque movements). Accordionist Dee Langley joins for Elusive Dreams, where composer Carleton Macy demonstrates how well the instrument blends with saxophones.

The minimalist movement is represented by Michael Torke’s July. Written one hundred years after the Ives, Torke also likes to borrow from popular music: “Whenever I am drawn to a particular… pop song, I scratch my head and think, ‘I like that, how could I use it?’”

Jennifer Higdon – who is popular now in the orchestral world – wrote the title track, Short Stories, for the Ancia Quartet. Each picturesque movement invokes a film while listening. Higdon knows each instrument, and writes very well for saxophone quartet.

The American Classics Series on NAXOS continues to record a wide range of music and artists, and Ancia’s disc is an enjoyable listen.

Wallace Halladay

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