08 Cavell TrioNew Discoveries
Cavell Trio
Blue Griffin Records BGR447 (bluegriffin.com)

A trio named for a heroic WW1 nurse, or for the mountain named for Edith Cavell, I’m not sure which, has compiled more than their share of recordings of new works and released them on this disc. Sharing five reeds between them, they also share a deft rhythmic sense and more-than-decent pitch; nor is this surprising, as they work together as section mates of the Tuscaloosa Symphony.

The material is charming and spunky, matched by solid and able instrumental performances by Shelly Myers (oboe), Osiris Molina (clarinet) and Jenny Mann (bassoon). They are at their best in the more challenging works, the opening track Devil Winds by Greg Simon, Ron Wray’s Trail Mix and Trois Pièces by Jeanine Rueff. Much of the other material suffers from an amiable sameness, exacerbated by unremitting reediness. The virtue of blend becomes somewhat a cloying sin over the course of this remarkably large collection. It is as though the composers who interest the group all choose similar movement durations, and stick to conventional sequences of mood and tempi. Or perhaps the group has developed a sort of signature set of tempi for slow, medium and fast. Or maybe there is simply too ample a range of pieces featuring this same group and too narrow a stylistic range of composers presented for it to be something to listen to straight through.

Carping aside, the playing is consistently good: their blend, pitch and rhythmic unity serve the composers well. The disc provides a resource for other trios who might want to pick and choose among the material presented.

09 John Mackey windsAntique Violences: Music of John Mackey
Michigan State University Wind Symphony; Kevin Sedatoale
Blue Griffin Records BGR449 (bluegriffin.com)

John Mackey (b.1973) is a much-commissioned American composer. On this disc the vocal writing and instrumentation of Songs for the End of the World (2015), written for the outstanding soprano Lindsay Kesselman, is appealing. It vividly re-imagines part of the Odyssey from the point of view of Kalypso on her island. Mackey’s setting of A.E. Jacques‘s text reflects her weariness from isolation, leaving room for Kesselman’s rich voice to grow vocally throughout the performance. In the second movement Kalypso recalls Odysseus washing up on shore after his shipwreck and, in Lydian mode phrases extending into Kesselman’s radiant top range, her healing of him and the love they developed. Bright harp, vibraphone and piano tones add lustre. But after seven years Odysseus leaves for Ithaca where Penelope awaits. The third movement’s title At Sea indicates Kalypso’s memory-haunted despair, captured in Kesselman’s mournful tone backed by an evanescent harp.

Antique Violences (2017), a four-movement trumpet concerto premiered with panache by Justin Emerich, evokes and questions mass violence throughout history. While admiring the composer’s wind symphony mastery and idiomatic trumpet part, I question whether the work realizes its stated musical ideas. According to program notes for the second movement “The music begins in a decadent French Baroque style, then unravels its shimmering mask to reveal the barbarism beneath.” But to me it is poor musical pastiche, lacking compensating artistic value. Asphalt Cocktail (2009) is a high-class car chase, with the Michigan State University Wind Symphony conducted by Kevin L. Sedatole attaining peak form.

01 Suzanne SnizekChamber Music (Re)Discoveries
Suzanne Snizek; Benjamin Butterfield; Keith Hamm; Joanna Hood; Yoomi Kim; Alexandria Le; Aaron Schwebel
University of Victoria

Imagine picking up a CD of music by three unknown composers named Bartók, Copland and Shostakovich, listening and wondering how you could not have heard of them. Listening to Suzanne Snizek’s new CD was a bit like this for me except the names of most of the composers really were unknown: Jan van Gilse, Petr Eben, Leo Smit, Mieczysław Weinberg, Boris Blacher. Their music, highly individual and accomplished, has languished forgotten for three generations, because they lived (and three died) in the cataclysms of Nazism and Stalinism.

The music on this CD, as Snizek points out in the notes, does not reveal the tragic and traumatic circumstances of the composers’ lives. The transcendent lyricism of the opening soliloquies of van Gilse’s Trio and Eben’s second Lied, played so simply and movingly by Snizek, speak of another reality, as do the exuberant abandon of the third movement of the van Gilse Sonata, the first and last movements of the Smit Sonata and the third movement of the Blacher.

Snizek’s artistry both as a soloist and as a collaborator is evident throughout, but nowhere more so than in her “dialogues” with tenor Benjamin Butterfield in Eben’s Drei Stille Lieder. She has spent a decade researching this lost, forgotten and neglected generation of composers. Her research, coupled with the artistry of all the performers on this CD, makes it an important addition to our knowledge and the repertoire of the mid-20th century.

Originally from Philadelphia, Dr. Snizek is now professor of flute and music history at the University of Victoria. Proceeds from CD sales, available through their website, will go to support the University of Victoria flute studio.

02 ARC Ensemble LaksChamber Works by Szymon Laks
ARC Ensemble
Chandos CHAN 10983

In 1942, Polish-Jewish composer Szymon Laks was deported to Auschwitz. Few prisoners survived that place. But, remarkably, the Nazis’ demands for Laks’ skills as a violinist, copyist, arranger and conductor kept him alive, as he explains in his harrowing, brilliant memoir.

This collection of his music is the third in the ARC (Artists of The Royal Conservatory) Ensemble’s Music in Exile series recovering lost works by composers suppressed by Hitler’s regime. Laks suffered dreadfully during the war, yet his continued neglect afterwards is certainly undeserved. His music may not be groundbreaking, but it is inventive, with alluring melodies, exciting rhythmic sequences, shifting moods and luminous harmonies.

The String Quartet No.4 deserves a place in every quartet’s repertoire. In fact, all six of the works on this disc merit frequent performances and recordings, including the lively, angular Divertimento, the rhapsodic Sonatina (one of the few works by Laks to survive from before the war) the tender Concertino, the poignant Passacaille and the Piano Quintet on Popular Polish Themes, brimming with vivid character.

These are all premiere recordings, though some works were previously recorded in different versions, and the Quartet No.4 is just out on a welcome new recording of Laks’ three surviving string quartets by the Messages Quartet (DUX 1286).

The members of the ARC Ensemble (Joaquin Valdepeñas, clarinet; Erika Raum, Marie Bérard, violin; Steven Dann, viola; Winona Zelenka, cello; David Louie, Diane Werner, piano; Sarah Jeffrey, oboe; Frank Morelli, bassoon) are all notable soloists who teach at the Royal Conservatory’s Glenn Gould School. Laks provides plenty of opportunities for each to shine individually. But it’s their thrilling ensemble work that makes the most compelling case for Laks’ music.

04 Gregory MertlGregory Mertl – Afterglow of a Kiss; Empress; Piano Concerto
Solungga Liu; Immanuel Davis; University of Minnesota Wind Ensemble; Craig Kirchhoff
Bridge Records 9489 (bridgerecords.com)

Ever-changing restless rhythms, often punctuated by sudden blasts of brazen colour, make these works by American Gregory Mertl (b.1969) compelling listening, even throughout the 42-minute duration of his Piano Concerto.

In the CD booklet, Mertl writes that he intended “to subvert” the traditional model of a piano concerto in which the “pianist is hero,” choosing instead to “compose a concerto where the soloist would discover herself over the course of the work.” His Piano Concerto certainly sounds different – not least because the accompanying winds and percussion, lacking strings, create an icy, “heavy metal” backdrop for the piano, strongly played by Solungga Liu.

Jagged, almost jazzy syncopations dominate the Piano Concerto’s first and third movements. The second movement, the longest at 17 minutes and the only movement with a title – Coupling – is a slow, seemingly improvised ambulation by the piano with the orchestra providing chordal pedal points and, as in the outer movements, occasional declamatory outbursts.

The sprightly seven-minute Afterglow of a Kiss for solo flute (Immanuel Davis), winds, strings, harp, celeste and percussion shares the Piano Concerto’s sense of improvisation, busy rhythms and glittery sonorities. I found the atmospheric, 12-minute Empress for winds, strings, harp and percussion particularly evocative, with melodic threads continually emerging from and disappearing into a tapestry of timbres.

Mertl’s distinctive style here receives vivid support from conductor Craig Kirchhoff, who commissioned the Piano Concerto, and the University of Minnesota Wind Ensemble.

You Haven’t Been; Me to We; The Current Agenda; Love in 6 Stages
Frank Horvat
Iam who Iam Records LTLP05 - LTLP08 (frankhorvat.com)

Horvat You Haven't BeenFrank Horvat is one of the most inventive songwriters to come out of the contemporary scene in Canada. Although not a full-blooded minimalist, his music is frequently spare-sounding, unmistakable, with its repetitions of cell-like phrases, often built on brightly coloured piano sounds, sometimes enhanced by bright horns and mallet percussion, soothing strings and vocals. Best of all, Horvat’s work is exquisitely eventful and almost insidiously effective. Horvat has also recently found another way in which music can be organized: around rhythmic ideas instead of around structure, where rhythm forms the structural basis of the music instead of merely being a necessary ornament. Moreover, Horvat’s ideas are suspended in a kind of bohemian dynamic and come alive in their thrilling combinations of trademark repetitions and overlappings with an almost ceremonial theatrical grandeur.

Horvat Me to WeHis recent work comprises You Haven’t Been, music for solo piano; Me to We, which is music written for duo and trio settings, The Current Agenda, which is a dark record of music featuring solo, duo, trio and quartet music, intensely socialist in nature, and Love in 6 Stages, a work where minimalism meets art song and where the two milieus collide in the visceral physicality and psychology of love. Clearly it appears time for Frank Horvat to take the gloves off musically and declare that he is free to roam as he pleases, wherever the music beckons. In return for such dramatic freedom, he returns the favour by recording the events of this long and difficult expedition in deeply personal and profoundly beautiful music.

Horvat The Current AgendaOf the four recordings recently released, Me to We and You Haven’t Been are so deeply personal that listening to the music on each requires an intrusive mindset. In the former recording the probing duos appear to tear through the composer’s innards not simply to discover his heart, but to gather its myriad pieces and bind them back together again. This is done, at Horvat’s urging, through dark, warm sounds that evoke healing, through music that is mysterious and exotic as well as long-limbed and almost aria-like without the vocals.

Horvat Love in 6 StagesOn The Current Agenda Horvat focuses his outward vision and glares at the world in all its nakedness. What he sees results in music filled with anger, a mesmeric and hypnotic visual account of a world gone mad. Portentous piano and deep, chanting voices meld with floating, reflective moments (as in the solo piano of Lac-Mégantic), which return eventually into haunting music, tumbling to earth once again. Love in 6 Stages is the most elevating of the four recordings. Between Horvat’s piano (and its soporific arpeggios) and Laura Swankey’s rich, peachy vocals, the six aspects of love turn into something superbly aerodynamic.

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