05 WeinbergWeinberg – Symphony No.13; Serenade for Orchestra
Siberian State Symphony Orchestra; Vladimir Lande
Naxos 8.573879 (naxosdirect.com/items/weinberg-symphony-no.-13-serenade-459920)

Starkly contrasting works by Mieczyslaw Weinberg fill this disc of world-premiere recordings, part of Naxos’ projected 17-CD compilation of Weinberg’s orchestral music conducted by Vladimir Lande.

The 13th of Weinberg’s 22 symphonies, dating from 1976, is dedicated to the memory of his mother, killed in the Holocaust along with his father and sister. (In 1939, after Germany invaded, the 19-year-old Weinberg fled from Poland to live in the USSR.)

Weinberg’s sombre Symphony No.13 begins with a downcast melody for strings that seems to wander, as if lost in a fog, for more than three minutes. Scored for a large orchestra (triple woodwinds, six horns), the one-movement, 38-minute Symphony contains other such long, gloomy, sparsely textured passages, separated by agitated, anguished tutti climaxes. It closes as bleakly as it begins, with a few plucked harp notes quietly fading away. Significantly, Weinberg quotes from the opera he considered his finest creation, The Passenger, set mostly in wartime Auschwitz. This symphony, so similar in mood and intensity to a grief-laden adagio by Shostakovich (Weinberg’s friend and stylistic inspiration), is a truly haunting, powerful statement of personal pain and heartbreaking loss.

Nothing could be more different than the four-movement, 18-minute Serenade (1952) – bright, cheerful, playful, with charming dance-like melodies. The finale is even titled Allegro giocoso – nothing giocoso, of course, in the Symphony.

Conductor Lande is clearly committed to Weinberg’s music, these vibrant performances helping to make this CD utterly unforgettable.

Morton Feldman – For John Cage
Aisha Orazbayeva; Mark Knoop
all that dust ATD 1

Matthew Shlomowitz – Avant Muzak
Asamisimasa; Håkon Stene
all that dust ATD 2

Séverine Ballon – Inconnaissance
Séverine Ballon
all that dust ADT 3

The new label all that dust (allthatdust.com) has been established by the outstanding pedigree of its founders – composers, performers, instrument-builders and forthright musical creators and innovators – who have cut their teeth on the most demanding concert halls across the world of contemporary music. Now from founders, soprano Juliet Fraser, Newton Armstrong and Mark Knoop come these three of the first five releases on their exciting imprint. The tongue-in-cheek title of this label, All That Dust, and the bold statements of the music under review, will probably not be lost on the listener.  

06a all that dust FeldmanMorton Feldman’s For John Cage – literally the premiere release, which also features label co-founder and pianist Mark Knoop, together with brilliant violinist Aisha Orazbayeva – heralds something of a reborn American avant-garde, primarily concerned with the sensual qualities of sounds themselves, rather than the shaping and ordering of those sounds. Always typical of this tendency, Feldman’s sound-world here consists of small, soft and unhurried musical gestures which emphasise the physical detail of instrumental timbre. The work in question seems a conscious attempt at formalizing a disorientation of memory. The effect is of a hallucinatory stasis, not dissimilar to the canvases of Mark Rothko, where little happens – very beautifully.

06b all that dust ShlomowitzMatthew Shlomowitz’s music is characterized by its bizarre theatricality and biting irony couched in subversive and surreal quantum miniatures. The disc begins with four segments titled Popular Contexts 7: Public Domain Music, all of which are almost immediately recognizable since the segments are reminiscent of elevator and mall music upon which they are based. The next five segments feature variations with similar public-music settings, this time featuring the percussionist Håkon Stene who augments Asamisimasa, a kind of Lewis Caroll-like equivalent of a jazz quintet. Avant Muzak – five sketches regarding tempi and locale – brings this entertainingly satirical disc to a close.

06c all that dust BallonThe effect of Séverine Ballon’s musical odyssey Inconnaissance is best elaborated as a masterpiece of music whose microscopic elements of tone, pitch and tempi are conflations of musical ideas miraculously welded together: new, alert and alive. Ballon’s transparent, lyrical cello resides in an opulent sound world.

07 Hands and Lips of WindHands and Lips of Wind
Diagenesis Duo
Independent (diagenesisduo.com)

You know that you’re already in for something special when you read that the Diagenesis Duo comprises a soprano – Heather Barnes – and a cellist – Jennifer Bewerse. That Barnes turns out to be decidedly bel canto with an ability for breathtaking coloratura and that Bewerse draws from her instrument every possible sound short of a human voice is the seductively beckoning cherry on the proverbial cake.

The two settings of Mischa Salkind-Pearl’s profoundly ethereal Hands and Lips of Wind are intensely dramatic. This work, together with con mortuis in lingua mortua, Stephen Lewis’ powerfully elegiac piece, and a fresh arrangement of the constantly shifting Travels by Adam Scott Neal were commissioned by the duo. The album also includes the viscerally sprung Nine Settings of Lorine Niedecker, a series of miniatures by Harrison Birtwistle; all of which is music made in the realm of heaven.

Bewerse is not the only one who pushes the envelope, vaulting and diving up and down the registers of the cello – no easy task given its tuning in perfect fifths an octave beneath the viola and an octave above the contrabass – but swathed in the leaping melisma and daring coloratura of Barnes, the duo sculpts this diabolically complex music with impossible precision. It is music seemingly in the twilight of tonality but it is utterly seductive, with the cerebral clarity and the stunning instinctiveness with which both musicians approach the five gems in this repertoire.

01 Costas guitar and fluteCostas – Works for Guitar and Flute
Duo Beija-Flor
Big Round Records BR8953 (bigroundrecoreds.com)

The days of November are increasingly colder and grayer, so what better way to dispel any pre-winter gloom than a flute and guitar duo performing music with a strong Mediterranean focus. The Montreal-based Duo Beija-Flor – guitarist Charles Hobson and flutist Marie-Noëlle Choquette – began playing together during their student days at Concordia University and officially became a duo in 2010. Since then, they have performed throughout Canada, the United States and Argentina.

This disc, titled Costas – referring to the Latin coastlines of the Atlantic – is a delight, featuring music by such diverse composers as Manuel de Falla, Astor Piazzolla, Celso Machado and Roddy Ellias. What is particularly striking from the very beginning is the wide variety achieved with respect to style, mood and tempo within a thoughtfully chosen program.

De Falla’s set of Seven Spanish Folksongs was originally arranged for soprano and piano in 1914 and this transcription is particularly convincing. Less familiar is Celso Machado’s languorous Quebra Queixo. Machado, a world music guitarist now based in Vancouver, wrote the piece in homage to a popular Brazilian candy!

Not all works on Costas are by Hispanic composers. Roddy Ellias is a Canadian performer and composer whose piece Havana Street Parade was especially commissioned by the duo. Its quirky and syncopated rhythms are an intriguing blend of jazz and Latin elements, performed with much aplomb.

Throughout the disc, the addition of extraneous effects – percussive tapping on the guitar and the sound of wind created by the flute – further heightens the listening experience. Infectious rhythms, a diverse program and superb playing by both performers make this CD ideal not only for a cool gray day but any time of year – highly recommended.

02 Dreams Laid LowDreams Laid Down – New Music for Classical Guitar
Alan Rinehart
Ravello Records RR7996 (ravellorecords.com)

“Poetic” is surely the word for British Columbia-based classical guitarist Alan Rinehart’s new solo disc. For example, the six pieces of the title work Dreams Laid Down (2013) by American composer Michael Karmon are each based on a poem from a collection by Rinehart’s wife Janice Notland. And Vancouver composer David Gordon Duke states that his own Soliloquies and Dreams (2003, evocative miniatures written for Rinehart) “alternate between the declamatory and the lyric” while the guitar “speaks as an actor, musing on ideas and thoughts.” In my view, these words also apply to Rinehart’s sensitive expression and tone.

Of the disc’s three other compositions, the Rinehart-commissioned Ancient Heroes Suite by composer and guitarist John Oliver is a major work honouring poetic (e.g. Rumi) and guitar-connected greats. Couperin’s Ghost draws the connection between the French clavicinist and lute music. Especially attractive is Passacaille, which evokes not only the variation form but the dance’s steady tread and patterns. Richard Gibson’s Variaciones sobre una tema de Juan Lennon (2013) effectively brings together John Lennon’s song Julia and the classical guitar’s Spanish tradition. Finally, Canadian guitarist and composer William Beauvais’ Beginning of the Day (2017, dedicated to Rinehart) asserts the improvisational aspect of the instrument, extending it with exciting metrical intricacies. For several decades Rinehart has been a key performer, educator and, as we have seen, supporter of new repertoire; it is now a pleasure to recommend this disc.

03 Bekah SimmsBekah Simms – impurity chains
Various Artists
Centrediscs CMCCD 26118 (musiccentre.ca)

Bekah Simms released impurity chains in early September this year. On it are three tracks between six and seven minutes, three between ten and fifteen. Microlattice is controlled chaos. Like many of these works, it follows an ABA structure. Tonally it neatly divides into three roughly equal lengths. Bells announce new sections. A coda juxtaposes the two tonal areas, the closely layered pitches generating a new colour. Metre is shrouded by the expansive pace.

Next are two quartets, both using material derived from folk songs. Slept Unwell is for SATB vocal quartet featuring gasps, whispers and cries, the voices slightly extended with electronic effects. Newfoundland folksong The Maiden’s Lament is the source code; listen carefully. Swallow/Breathe, for string quartet, is a fresh take on the much-loved She’s Like the Swallow. Her coda quotes the melodic source material exactly, like a serving of dessert.

Granitic is for larger ensemble, but of a shorter length. The piece is an ominous sonic mobile, the ten voices suspended in space slowly rotating about, gradually revealing the discernible pulse and in the electric guitar, rock-like riffs. The title may well be a pun. Is there a Kid A (National Anthem) quote in the closing section? This is my favourite.

Everything Is… Distorted, brings back the slow pace of terror I felt in the opening track, while impurity chains is a 15-minute long solo for electric guitar via vocoder. This is a tough slog, and, to quote the helpful liner notes, marked by “various abstruse texts…embedded into the timbral fabric.”

Listen to 'Bekah Simms – impurity chains' Now in the Listening Room

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