01-Celebrating-WomenCelebrating Women! Music for Flute
and Piano by Women Composers
Laurel Swinden; Stephanie Mara
Independent LBSCD2012

The flute and piano duo has never had such a powerful and memorable moment as in this collection of music by women composers from past and present. Flutist Laurel Swinden has a sweet and distinct tone which, when combined with pianist Stephanie Mara’s full piano colour, creates a truly beautiful sound. The two musicians are remarkably tight and in sync as an ensemble. In sections of matching rhythms and harmonies, I thought I was hearing a third new instrument in the mix!

The more classical genre works are represented by Mel Bonis, Anna Bon di Venezia, Cécile Chaminade and Lili Boulanger. Though perhaps not household names, each composer’s work stands the test of time. Swinden and Mara perform them with elegance.

However the musicians really shine in the more contemporary works. Heather Schmidt’s Chiaroscuro is filled with mysterious harmonies and tension-filled rhythms. A technically challenging work, it is also the highlight. The duo creates a sense of sweeping moods in their performance. In contrast, Cecilia McDowall’s Piper’s Dream has both instruments emulate the sound of the pipes and draws on traditional folk music for its melodies and ambience. Swindon’s lengthy held notes are breathtaking in colour and duration. Anne Boyd’s minimalistic Bali Moods, Jean Coulthard’s Where the Trade Winds Blow and Katherine Hoover’s witty Two for Two complete the collection.

The production quality is clear, capturing even the most subtle of Swinden’s and Mara’s distinct musical nuances and technical abilities.

02-Between-Shore-and-Shipsbetween the shore and the ships –
The Grand-Pré Recordings
Helen Pridmore; Wesley Ferreira
Centrediscs CMCCD 17912

The fallout from the Acadian expulsion haunts Canadian amour-propre to this day. That is the fact lurking behind a release from Centrediscs called between the shore and the ships, a loose cycle of settings for voice and clarinet by eight Eastern-Canadian composers and performed with fitting solemnity by Helen Pridmore and Wesley Ferreira. The texts are varied and range from an extract from Longfellow’s Evangeline to contemporary reflections like Mouvence by Gerald Leblanc. The compositional range is somewhat narrower and though the pairing is highly effective — composers have often been drawn to the matching character of soprano and clarinet — the material rarely strays from dour and dreary elongations of vocal line and wandering clarinet decoration. A welcome change is the above-mentioned Mouvence as set by Jérôme Blais. The text is mysterious and fresh; he sets it for spoken voice and largely improvised bass clarinet. Interestingly, the only francophone composer to be included chooses a text that “carries the essence of the Acadian tragedy without ever referring to it directly.” Could the rest be too earnest in their expressions of retroactive guilt?

Singer Pridmore is fearless faced with repeated demands for expressive vowelizations entwining with a clarinet accompaniment that is sometimes played for pleasing dissonances: a challenge for the singer and usually rewarding for the listener. Her tone is on occasion nasal and raw and her pitch suffers in a number of instances, most noticeably the Robert Bauer setting of the Dykes of Acadie. Ferreira has a beautiful and controlled sound that he uses to support as well as he can the soprano and which he highlights beautifully in his solo passages. The overall effect is strong, but I have the urge to go hear some Zydeco and eat some blackened catfish just to feel better.


Secret-of-Seven-StarsSecret of the Seven Stars:
Music of Hope Lee and David Eagle
Stefan Hussong; New Music Concerts; Robert Aitken
Centrediscs CMCCD 18012

Three of this recording’s five selections feature German new music accordion virtuoso Stefan Hussong. Hope Lee’s Secret of the Seven Stars is performed by the New Music Concerts Ensemble with Joseph Macerollo as soloist. Hussong’s sound highlights a brighter, more metallic area of the instrument’s timbral range, while Macerollo’s accordion is deliciously deep and mellow sounding.

Composer David Eagle’s works make up the first half of the program and each relies on an electronically enhanced sense of acoustic space. This music requires a good delivery system, i.e. headphones or home stereo. Computer speakers won’t cut it, and MP3 is less than adequate, so buy a full quality download or, better still, the physical CD to get the added benefit of extensive printed information in a very nice package. (The same goes for my review of Janet elsewhere in these pages.) Eagle pursues an inventive array of strategies and techniques in combining and counterposing the live accordion with the computer’s “responses.” In his 2009 work for flutist Robert Aitken, Fluctuare, the computer interactivity elegantly supports Aitken’s warm and masterful interpretation of the solo part.

Hope Lee’s spiritually inspired, highly gestural style is featured in Secret of the Seven Stars and the unaccompanied solo and the end is the beginning. Here, the accordion’s extended resources are on display: pitch bending, bellows shaking and other titillating accordion exotica. Both works trace the emergence of entire soundworlds from a single, sustained pitch — a process the composer repeats in a consistently fascinating variety of ways. Lee’s approach to the contemporary quasi-concerto format in Seven Stars is more to combine solo and ensemble voices than to counterpose them, making her acoustic music sound just as “interactive” as Eagle’s electronica.


02-Vagn-HolmboeVagn Holmboe – Chamber Symphonies
Lapland Chamber Orchestra;
John Storgårds
DaCapo 6.220621

Danish composer Vagn Holmboe (1909 –96) composed three chamber symphonies over the span of his career. Holmboe described his compositional approach as “metamorphosis technique,” a concept he developed from his close relationship with nature — the liner notes state he planted 3,000 trees himself over his lifetime! The subtle changes in say, for example, a blade of grass, did not go unnoticed by him. He expanded this metamorphosis idea into his music. Each symphony abounds with subtle tone colour shifts, while a short melodic (aka a blade of grass) idea will be transformed by instrumentation, harmony and rhythm.

Chamber Symphony No.1, Op.53 (1951) is the most “classical” sounding of the three. The music develops within a more traditional harmonic framework. In Chamber Symphony No.2, Op.100 “Elegy” (1968), the turmoil in the composer’s life appears as short ideas and motives. Still tonal, it is the independent instrumental lines that never quite coincide, and a dramatic and unexpected pause in the middle of the third movement that makes this the strongest work here. Chamber Symphony No.3, Op.103a “Frise” (1969–70) is a curious six movement work. Each movement seems like an independent score with the witty percussion part adding to the rhythmic vitality. The unexpected appears as a quiet tone at the work’s conclusion.

Conductor John Storgårds achieves a detailed and colourful performance with the Lapland Chamber Orchestra. The string section especially is tireless in its execution of whirling lines and ensemble precision. A very enjoyable world premiere recording!

02-KrenekErnst Krenek – Complete Symphonies
NDR Radiophilharmonie; Alun Francis; Takao Ukigaya
cpo 777 695-2

Ernst Krenek’s orchestral music receives loving attention from Takao Ukigaya on this four disc package recorded 1993–2006. The Viennese composer’s atonal language connects to Schoenberg and Berg; he tries to inherit the symphonist mantle of his fiancée Anna’s father, Gustav Mahler. His Symphony No.1 in nine linked movements is a wide-ranging exploration departing from previous symphonic concepts. Krenek’s orchestration is idiomatic; solo winds and strings of the Hanover Radio Symphony shine particularly in the third movement. The composer’s predilection for counterpoint is especially clear in the eighth movement, as is his quirky side in the final movement’s disintegration into Webernesque whispers.

Ukigaya and the Hanoverians deliver a masterful performance of the sprawling Symphony No.2 (1922). Krenek’s own metaphor for this work is of a giant trying to get out of a cage. (Perhaps the “giant” was the 22-year-old Krenek himself, struggling with his teacher, the more conservative Franz Schreker!) The Third Symphony (also 1922) is more economical; Krenek parodically sneaks in a popular march-like melody, foreshadowing the eclectic Potpourri Op.54 (1927) also on this disc. The last two symphonies composed in the late 1940s develop logically from the earlier works. The Symphony No.4 disc is conducted by Alun Francis; both it and Krenek’s Concerto Grosso No.2 are given capable readings, with beautiful pacing in the processional of the latter’s Adagio leading to its moving climax.

01-Bouliane-Gougeon-ReaBouliane; Gougeon; Rea Joseph Petric;
Nouvel Ensemble Moderne;
Lorraine Vaillancourt
ATMA ACD2 2395

Lorraine Vaillancourt and the Nouvel Ensemble Moderne (NEM) deliver a vibrant performance in this most recent of an ongoing series of releases celebrating the new music of Montreal. Equally precise and passionate, they play the music like they own it.

Denys Bouliane’s Rythmes et échos des rivages anticostiens is an exciting work based on his imagined historical reconstruction of the music of Anticosti Island. The composer is particularly interested in the encounter between European and First Nations cultures, a project in which he brings to bear both his European academic background and more recent research into First Nations music. Sophisticated use of devices such as simple repetition achieve highly complex results, propelling the piece though an intense and inventive timbral tour of the NEM’s resources.

In En accordéon, Denis Gougeon, the self-described “knitter of sounds,” bases his ideas on the alternating squeezing and stretching of the accordion’s bellows. Dramatic gestures abound in this contemporary rendition of the classic concerto genre, as Joseph Petric’s virtuosic passage work and the silvery tone of his accordion are juxtaposed and combined with the sound of the ensemble. In Mutation, the composer’s use of musical gesture lengthens to encompass the entire work, giving it a strong sense of sweep and clarity.

John Rea’s fascination with music’s essential foundation, time, connects him with György Ligeti, to whom his piece Singulari-T is dedicated in its subtitle. Listeners will be fascinated to follow various musical manipulations of our sense of time: from metronomically steady, speeding up or slowing down, to irregular and unpredictable. At certain moments, some tendency reaches a breaking point and everything suddenly changes.

In all, a highly recommended album.

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