02_scelsiGiacinto Scelsi - Piano Works 4

Stephen Clarke

Mode 227 (www.moderecords.com)

Giacinto Scelsi (1905-1988) was a remarkable Italian innovator. His music is dissonant, improvisational, and often unorthodox rhythmically. Stephen Clarke’s virtuosity and artistic sensitivity are both evident on this disc of 1930s piano music by Scelsi.

The triptych Hispania (1939) opens by evoking flamenco guitar as it fans out from the pitches E-F. Clarke handles the “thrums,” ornaments, and “damped” tone clusters with panache. The wonderful slow movement starts at a slow tread, like a quest in the dark, and then becomes more agitated. Contrasting white-note modality prevails in the finale where slow chords effect peaceful closure

I particularly enjoyed Suite No. 5, “The Circus” (1935). These miniatures are appropriately gestural, at times dance-like. The 5th piece has a profusion of acrobatic arpeggios, leaping up higher and higher until they cover the instrument’s full range. The 6th is a tarantella like no other that rumbles in the depths! The last piece to me has hints of fascist marches at a time when World War Two approached. Clarke captures well the work’s whimsical and sometimes childlike sensibility.

Suite No. 6 (1939) has intriguing moments, though Scelsi’s trademark fast repeated notes here seem excessive. Yet Clarke has mastered them, as well as fiendish leaps to note clusters that differ slightly each time. Recorded in Berlin and Toronto, the disc is a labour of love whose recording quality equals that of the performances. I look forward to more Scelsi as the Mode Edition unfolds.

Concert Note: Stephen Clarke performs the music of Giacinto Scelsi in a benefit performance for Arraymusic at Gallery 345, 345 Sorauren Ave. on February 12.


Rachel Kiyo Iwaasa

Redshift Records (www.cosmophony.com)


Canada is blessed with a remarkable roster of talented pianists who are dedicated to championing work by our country’s composers. We can add Vancouver’s Rachel Kiyo Iwaasa to that roster. As her bio says, she has “a shameless passion for contemporary music” and it shows on this solo debut for the Redshift Music Society. “Cosmophony”, as defined in the extensive liner notes, is a noun built on Greek roots and literally means “sound of the cosmos.” It is also the banner under which Iwaasa unites her favourite Canadian composers to create a recital album inspired by the planets. Completed over three years, “Cosmophony” starts with Denis Gougeon’s fiercely virtuosic Piano-Soleil and extends out across the solar system in a series of ten works from West-Coast composers, nine commissioned by Iwaasa expressly for this project. She has selected her contributors well, among them Rodney Sharman, Jeffrey Ryan, Marci Rabe, Jordan Nobles, Jennifer Butler and Emily Doolittle. They all use juxtapositions of science, mythology and astrology to depict their selected planets and amplify their individual voices. From Sharman’s truly mercurial Mercurio dal Ciel In Terra to Rabe’s intimate yet eerie Venus, and from Ryan’s scintillating Saturn: Study in White to Butler’s submerged sonics of Neptune, Iwaasa covers a range of moods and styles with great mastery. Noticeably absent is Pluto, which was delisted as a planet during the project’s development. It’s replaced here with Doolittle’s optimistic but ominous Gliese 581, evoking a distant planet we had hoped inhabitable. Matching “Cosmophony” with George Crumb’s ambitious Makrokosmos Volume II: 12 Fantasy Pieces after the Zodiac is a brilliant touch of programming, not only for its showcasing of Iwaasa’s full virtuosity – calling on a range of extended techniques – but also for its counterpoint to the more traditional technique required by the Canadian collaborators. Excellent recording quality and lovely packaging make this a strong release.

04_vienna_art_satieThe Minimalism of Erik Satie

Vienna Art Orchestra

hatOLOGY 671 (www.hathut.com)

Re-orchestrating the quirky compositions of Erik Satie (1868-1925) may seem peculiar, but that’s what conductor Mathias Rüegg and the 10-piece Vienna Art Orchestra (VAO) do with élan on this 75-minute CD. Over the past 33 years, the VAO has effected similar transformations on the music of other composers such as Strauss, Brahms and Gershwin, not to mention many of jazz’s greatest themes. Here the procedures emphasize the pared-down and folkloric tendencies found in the music of France’s Satie, a transitional composer, whose eccentric titles and cabaret influences presaged experimental sounds.

Recasting the music of a composer known for his piano works, Rüegg’s arrangements feature no pianist, instead relying on the VAO`s soloists to put a personal stamp on Satie. Reflections on Méditation for instance, revolves around Lauren Newton’s squeaky scatting and Karl Fian’s whinnying and slurry trumpet lines. Reflections on Sévère Réprimande, balances Harry Sokol’s languid soprano saxophone solo on an undertow of mid-range brass and vibraharp textures. More radically, a composition such as Reflections on Gnossienne No. 1 becomes a romping circus-styled exposition with joyful contrapuntal rhythms courtesy of Wolfgang Puschnig’s Arabic-sounding sopranino saxophone and the reverberations from Wolfgang Reisinger’s tarabuka or goblet drum.

Rüegg’s transformation of Satie’s works as pared-to-the-bone minimalism is most apparent on the three variants on Vexations which the composer wanted performed slowly with many repetitions. Since one track lasts more than 23 minutes and the other two either side of nine, the VAO adds needed emotion to these exercises courtesy of, in one instance Newton’s melismatic vocalese, and in another Roman Schwaller’s sensual tenor saxophone lines.

02_chinese_recorderChinese Recorder Concertos

Michala Petri; Copenhagen Philharmonic; lan Shui

OUR Recordings 6.220603

This remarkable CD presents the premiere recordings of four concertos by living Chinese composers, two of whom currently work in the USA. The disc opens with Tian Jianping’s Fei Ge (Flying Song), originally written in 2002 as a concerto for dizi (Chinese bamboo flute) and pan-Asian instrumental ensemble. This transcription by the composer for western orchestra and recorder, on which Petri eloquently evokes the dizi in tone and effect, works beautifully with playing of the highest order from both orchestra and soloist.

Bright Sheng’s evocative and strikingly beautiful Flute Moon is more a full orchestral work than a concerto, and Petri plays solo parts originally assigned to the flute and piccolo. The piece revels in a rich array of orchestral colours, dazzling musical gestures, and dramatic shifts of mood. The three-movement Bang Di Concerto by Ma Shui-long is the composer’s best known composition, and is an extraordinarily effective fusion between Chinese and western musical languages. It receives an utterly virtuosic performance from all involved. Written for Petri by Chen Yi, The Ancient Chinese Beauty draws inspiration from Chinese figures, script, and flutes. The second movement, particularly in its evocation of the ancient xun or large Chinese ocarina, is particularly impressive.

For several decades now Michala Petri has been one of the busiest and most familiar recorder players to audiences around the globe, and with programs such as this she continues to do great things beyond the recorder’s more typical boundaries. She seems eminently at home here, making her own distinct music in a fascinating project designed “to creatively collaborate in an international musical dialogue.”

Kudos to her, to the wonderful Copenhagen Philharmonic and conductor Lan Shui – and to the composers of these wonderful pieces.

Concert Note: Chen Yi is the featured composer at this year’s New Music Festival at the Faculty of Music, University of Toronto with events January 23 through 29. Chen’s Yangko is also included in Soundstreams Canada’s January 25 concert “Tan Dun’s Ghost Opera” at Koerner Hall.

03_harrisonLou Harrison - Scenes from Cavafy

Gamelan Pacifica; Jarrad Powell

New World Records 80710-2 (www.newworldrecords.org)

The long list of non-Indonesian composers who have been intrigued and inspired by the instruments and music of the gamelan (an indigenous Indonesian orchestra) goes back some 250 years. Starting with Jean-Philippe Rameau in the 18th c., the lineage continues with Debussy and led to compositions by the Canadian Colin McPhee, and to works of Steve Reich and to many more musicians active today.

There was no more eager convert to the gamelan as a Western musical resource however than the American composer Lou Harrison (1917–2003). As well as composing dozens of works for various types of gamelans, Harrison served as a generous mentor to a generation of musicians who have subsequently taken the gamelan music model into their own musical domains. These include Toronto’s Evergreen Club Contemporary Gamelan and Seattle’s Gamelan Pacifica.

The top-notch musicians of the latter perform definitive versions of the three large-scale Harrison works for Central Javanese style gamelan on this album. The Seattle composer and expert gamelan musician Jarrad Powell convincingly directs the extended ensemble of instrumentalists, choir and vocal soloists in the three works here.

The Concerto for Piano with Javanese Gamelan (1987) is the most substantial of the eight Harrison works combining Western solo instruments and the gamelan. The piano is retuned to match the gamelan instruments. This is an effect which provides bracing listening at first, but to which friendly ears warm by the slow cantabile movement, a Harrison specialty.

A Soedjatmoko Set (1989) illustrating Harrison’s mature gamelan style, features Jessika Kenney, an outstanding American soprano. She manages the most difficult of musical tasks: to convincingly nail a sort of magical amalgam of both Javanese and late 20th c. American vocal style, articulation, timbre, intonation and mood, at the same time. Together with the excellent liner notes, this recording is a fitting tribute to Harrison’s ideal of the peaceful coexistence of world music cultures, demonstrated here at a very high level indeed.

01_james_harleyNeue Bilder - Music of James Harley

New Music Concerts; Robert Aitken

Centrediscs CMCCD 16010

One of the benefits of the endangered CD format is illustrated by the release of compilations such as this revealing in-depth look into the oeuvre of Canadian composer James Harley (b.1959).

On one hand we have detailed programme and biographic notes in the booklet allowing one-stop exploration of the creator’s mind and life leading up to compositions spanning 22 years. On the disc, we have the star performances of Toronto’s venerable New Music Concerts (NMC). Celebrating 40 years of dedication to new music this season NMC’s musicians consistently present interpretations of a high level, and these performances – many recorded live – live up to those standards of excellence. As a stellar example, NMC co-founder and internationally renowned flutist Robert Aitken’s brilliant performance of Harley's early solo flute piece Portrait (1984) is a demonstration of virtuosity in the service of the composer’s lyrical musical vision.

While the spirit of the Second Vienna School is alive in the eloquent and elegant music of Harley’s composition Neue Bilder (1991), the notes reveal that the work is actually based on the music of an earlier Austrian composer. “Algorhythmically” transforming abstracted material from an illustrious aria from Mozart’s opera The Magic Flute, this work is a testament to the magical possibilities inherent in musical metamorphosis in its many forms.

Judging from the five works here Harley, who presently teaches Digital Music at the University of Guelph, has a rare gift for sustained melodic line. The passionate flute and cello solos in Epanoui (1995) and the breathy, delicate bass flute exhalations in Tyee (1995) provide ample evidence of that. It’s a gift I appreciate receiving, repeatedly.

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