03 Amy BrandonScavenger
Amy Brandon
Independent (amybrandon.ca)

The first sounds to greet the listener on Amy Brandon’s debut CD are electronic swirls and squiggles, likely guitar-based and clearly running backwards. Within seconds, however, one is in for a surprise, as the very pure sound of her acoustic, nylon-string guitar emerges. Brandon is a Nova Scotia-based musician whose work here regularly combines contrasting elements: her musical identity is a composite, arising in the gap between the electroacoustic elements and acoustic melodies and improvisations.

On Scavenger, most tracks include these pre-recorded sounds, some of them clearly reworked from her own guitar tapes, others likely using other elements, whether the sound source of the War Games backing tape is thunder, actual combat, a reverb unit or the resonant bass strings of a piano. The results are fascinating, in part because of Brandon’s instrumental approach: it’s a model of classical guitar clarity in the tradition of Segovia, Yepes and Bream, with lyricism and triadic harmony that can suggest idiomatic composers like Villa-Lobos and Rodrigo.

Along the way, Brandon invites others into her musical world. VL is a duet with the distinguished Montreal jazz guitarist Mike Rud, his glassy sound contrasting with Brandon’s warmth between otherwise similar approaches; in contrast, her duet with Ottawa-based acoustic guitarist Roddy Ellias on Ecoando is a clear mirroring of sound. This is a fascinating debut, and one looks forward to Brandon’s further explorations.

01 RomanzaRomanza – Music from Spain and South America
Azuline Duo
Independent (azulineduo.com)

The Azuline Duo’s program on this, their first CD, is a winning combination of well-known pieces by Granados, Villa-Lobos, da Falla and Piazzolla and music new to most of us by two Argentinean guitarists/composers, José Luís Merlin and Máximo Diego Pujol.

Some highlights are Villa-Lobos’ Distribuiçao los flores, where flutist Sara Traficante’s controlled vibrato and evocative changes of tone colour and dynamics are just right. In Piazzolla’s Libertango her extended technique tone-bending gets things off to a great start and she plays the tango as if she knows how to dance the tango (maybe she does!). She brings a lovely, haunting sound – a bit husky and not too loud – to Merlin’s Evocacion – conjuring up an air of mystery; and in his Joropo (a joyful Venezuelan dance, according to the notes) she handles the technical challenges with verve. However, particularly in the Spanish Dances by da Falla and Granados and in the Suite by Pujol I longed to hear more depth in her sound.

Emma Rush is a fine guitarist, a rock of stability, poised and rhythmically solid – a joy to play with, I’m sure Traficante would agree – although sometimes I found myself wishing she would let down her hair a bit and let her guitar “gently weep.”

These qualities, we all understand, take time and life experience to develop, and the excellent work so evident in this CD gives me confidence that they will come.

02 Hat TrickGarden of Joys and Sorrows
Hat Trick
Bridge Records 9472 bridgerecords.com

Review

This CD features the first recording of Debussy’s Sonata for Flute, Viola, and Harp (1915) using the new Carl Fischer edition, incorporating original score details differing from the initial publication. The opening Pastorale is somewhat reminiscent of Debussy’s piano prelude The Girl with the Flaxen Hair, yet more mysterious. The New York-based trio Hat Trick plays it with suggestions of light and colour, but without the languorous drooping at cadences I have heard sometimes. In the Interlude following, Hat Trick again resists over-interpretation, letting the tonal feast proceed unhindered. Articulation and ensemble are precise in their spirited Finale.

A conventional Terzettino (1905) by Théodore Dubois was the first piece for flute, viola, and harp, given here with appealing French sentiment. Uruguayan-born Miguel del Aguila’s commissioned work Submerged (2013) here receives its CD premiere. Hat Trick brings excitement and commitment to its dance rhythms and under-the-sea imagery. The group plays Toro Takemitsu’s And then I knew ’twas Wind (1992) with sensitivity to evocative contemporary timbres and textures, the work’s main attractions. I find the tonal material much derived from Messiaen’s scales, though. Sofia Gubaidulina`s 1980 Garten von Freuden und Traurigkeiten (Garden of Joys and Sorrows) is the lengthiest work. Its extended exploration of harmonics, glissandi, percussive harp and many other effects is realized here with maximal facility. Altogether this is a stellar production by Hat Trick – April Clayton, flute; David Wallace, viola; and Kristi Shade, harp – who indeed make every shot count.

03 Weinberg KremerMieczyslav Weinberg – Chamber Symphonies; Piano Quintet
Kremerata Baltica; Gidon Kremer
ECM New Series 2538/39

Review

In his late 60s, Mieczyslav Weinberg began reaching back over 40 years, transforming three unpublished string quartets into three Chamber Symphonies for string orchestra, making numerous changes and composing new movements for each. Many Hindemith-like neo-Baroque melodies and sequences indicate Weinberg’s early stylistic orientation.

 Chamber Symphony No.1 (1986) is sunny, graceful and dance-like, its Presto finale resembling an episode from Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet. No.2 (1987) is darker and more dramatic, the newly composed middle movement a wry Mahlerian ländler. No.3 (1990), based on a quartet from 1945, is darker still, its first and third movements sombre reflections of their wartime origins. The vigorous second movement suggests the influence of Shostakovich, Weinberg’s friend and mentor whose stylistic fingerprints cover many pages of Weinberg’s scores, including the newly composed, eerily haunting Andantino that ends No.3.

 As much as I enjoyed No.3, I was unprepared for the emotional impact of Chamber Symphony No.4 (1992), Weinberg’s last completed work, containing quotations from several of his mature compositions. Here, Weinberg truly sounds like no one else but himself. In this profoundly affecting music, I hear a lifetime of experiences – long-ago loves, losses, pleasures and griefs, the klezmer clarinet an aching echo from Weinberg’s childhood in Poland, before he fled the Nazis to live in Russia. I consider it a masterpiece.

 Weinberg’s youthfully robust Piano Quintet (1944), arranged by Weinberg enthusiast Gidon Kremer and percussionist Andrei Pushkarev, completes this very significant and satisfying 2-CD set.

04 KurtagGyörgy and Márta Kurtág play Kurtág
György Kurtág; Márta Kurtág
BMC Records CD 233 (bmcrecords.hu)

In February 2016 the city of Budapest celebrated György Kurtág’s 90th birthday with something few living composers receive: an eight-day festival. The internationally renowned Hungarian composer is also a pianist, who for decades served as an influential professor of piano and later of chamber music at the Franz Liszt Academy of Music. Márta, his wife of over 65 years, is also a pianist, and they have performed and recorded together for almost as long.

Of the 43 pieces/tracks on the CD, 39 are from the composer’s Játékok (Games). Begun in 1973, Játékok is an ever-growing extensive collection of aphoristic solo and duo piano “pedagogical performance pieces.” Presently numbering eight volumes, they mark significant stages in the development of Kurtág’s oeuvre.

Kurtág explains his initial motivation for the Játékok series was “suggested by children playing spontaneously…for whom the piano still means a toy.…They pile up seemingly disconnected sounds, and if this happens to arouse their musical instinct they look consciously for some of the harmonies found by chance and keep repeating them.”

This disc presents previously unreleased live concert recordings as well as those made by the Kurtágs for Hungarian Radio over a period of 23 years. Performed close to the date they were composed, they preserve the composer’s germinal vision for the works, many of which are meant as miniature memorials for friends or musicians. Here is one of the paradoxes of these works: the remarkable power of a sonic fragment to suggest vast space or timelessness.

Not simply a series of dry pedagogic piano exercises, Játékok explores Kurtag’s signature sound world marked by concentration and sonic intensity hand in hand with the exploration of a very wide range of human experience. It’s a world in turns playful and intellectually exploratory, evoking flowers as much as death and tears. This is music which richly rewards repeated visits.

05 Eliot BrittonEliot Britton – Metatron
Architek Percussion
ambiences magnetiques AM 232 CD (actuellecd.com)

Metatron was composed as part of Eliot Britton’s doctoral dissertation at McGill a couple of years ago, and it has now happily been recorded by Montreal-based quartet Architek Percussion. This music is the result of a very purposeful collision of two different sound worlds: the kaleidoscopic sounds of Architek’s drums, cymbals, other percussive instruments and synthesizers are woven together with recorded samples of old vinyl, mostly jazz and swing music. Britton has deftly integrated these two sources, not only exploiting the obvious sonic dissonances between them, but also finding surprising ways to bring them into harmony with each other.

The liner notes say that Britton was partly inspired by memories of destroying his childhood piano with a chainsaw, an experience that led him to reflect on the relationships between technology, history, and our musical lives. At times the pummelling power of the percussion certainly feels like it is annihilating the sampled music, but Britton also reserves sparser passages for the samples to stand on their own, offering brief glimpses of earlier musical aesthetics between the percussion and electronics.

Metatron is a thrilling record, though perhaps not one for all occasions. Bristling with a youthful energy and fearlessness, at times it reaches the same rhythmic intensity as techno, making it a record that is more likely to give you a jolt than soothe you.

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