05_saariahoSaariaho - D’om le vrai sens; Laterna Magica; Leino Songs
Kari Kriikku; Anu Komsi; Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra; Sakari Oramo
Ondine ODE 1173-2

Kaija Saariaho stands among today’s outstanding concert music composers. She was born in Finland (1952) but has been a long-time resident of Paris. Her research at IRCAM, the Paris institute where FM synthesis and electroacoustic techniques associated with spectral music have been developed, has had a profound influence on her compositions, which often combine live and electronic musical forces.

This CD features three recent all-acoustic works performed by some of Finland’s finest interpreters. Saariaho’s clarinet concerto D’om Le Vrai Sens, inspired by the famous La Dame à la Licorne medieval tapestries is almost operatic in scope, the solo clarinet virtuoso Kari Kriikku playing the protagonist to the orchestra’s lushly mysterious textures.

Saariaho’s dramatic orchestral piece Laterna Magica derives its title and theme from film director Ingmar Bergman’s memoirs, referring to an early type of manual film projector. The title underscores the composer’s fascination with boundaries: between observation and imagination; between objective light and subjective dream-like reality. The latter is represented in sound by shifting, colourfully orchestrated, alternating dense and wispy chords and evanescent hissing instrumental sounds. Whispered words uttered by the musicians, describing light’s effects both on objects and on human mood, are culled from Bergman, adding to the music’s mystery.

The four Leino Songs, built on texts by Finnish poet Eino Leino (1878-1926), were composed for the polished and nuanced voice of the Finnish soprano Anu Komsi and orchestra. Epigrammatic and voice-friendly, the songs follow the lyrics admirably, allowing the words to dictate the overall form and duration of each song. This is by far the shortest of the works here, yet its emotional impact is perhaps the greatest.

Concert Note: The Canadian Opera Company will present eight performances of Kaija Saariaho’s Love From Afar, featuring Russell Braun, Erin Wall and Kristina Szabó, February 2 to 22.

06_duo_resonanceFrom the New Village
Duo Resonance
Woodlark Discs (www.silverflute.ca)

German Romanticism of the 19th century, in spite of much turbulence at the time, was a golden age for the arts, especially for music and poetry. Duo Resonance is composed of guitarist Wilma van Berkel and flutist Sibylle Marquardt. The title is derived from the first set of compositions on the disc, Songs and Dances from the New Village by Dusan Bogdanovic, pieces based on traditional music from south-eastern Europe. The rest of the repertoire, with the exception of Toru Takemitsu’s Toward the Sea, is similarly related to folk or traditional music.

There is some invigorating music-making on this CD. In the first movement “Bordel” of Astor Piazzolla’s L’histoire du tango, for example, Marquardt’s robust sound, incisive articulation and precise rhythmic sense, coupled with van Berkel’s dynamic and fluid playing, propel the music forward to an exciting climax. Van Berkel‘s solo at the beginning of the contrasting second movement, exquisitely languid, sensitive and touching, sets a sultry summer mood.

Van Berkel also excels in Toronto composer Alan Torok’s idiosyncratically spelled Native Rhapsody in Hommage of James Brown. The writing for guitar, while neither particularly “native” nor “folk” to my ears, is rhythmically sophisticated and works well with the modal flute line.

The notation of Takemitsu’s Toward the Sea, described in the liner notes as “annotated to the point of excess,” proves effective, nevertheless, in drawing Marquardt, playing alto flute, into a more expressive mode than elsewhere on the disc, exploring a greater variety of tone qualities, colours and dynamics.

Kudos to the duo for coupling some of the better known repertoire for their instruments with lesser known contemporary compositions that need to be heard.

01_Corigliano_OppensWinging It - Piano Music of John Corigliano

Ursula Oppens; Jerome Lowenthal

Cedille CDR 90000 123 www.cedillerecords.org

John Corigliano is a musical dramatist who melds the past century’s innovations into his own compositional style. Equally comfortable in classical repertoire and in contemporary music, pianist Ursula Oppens is an ideal interpreter of Corigliano, with the delicate sensitivity and fearless assurance to meet his music’s wide-ranging demands. This disc spans nearly 50 years, from Kaleidoscope (1959) to Winging It (2008). The latter comprises three composer improvisations “translated” from recorded sequences to written compositions. Corigliano succeeds in maintaining an improvisational feel, as does Oppens in her exploratory interpretation.

Corigliano’s Fantasia on an Ostinato (1985) is the most expressive minimalist work I know. His Etude Fantasy (1976) struck me as an outstanding and original work when I heard dedicatee James Tocco play it shortly after it was composed. Oppens’ interpretation maintains a wonderful sense of fantasy, while rising to the demands of five difficult pieces that never become strenuous technical exercises. For example, Etude No.3: Fifths to Thirds fits the hand beautifully.

Pianist and pedagogue Jerome Lowenthal joins Oppens in works for two pianos. In the evocative Chiaroscuro (1997) for pianos a quarter tone apart, the second piano suggests variously an out-of tune instrument, or “blue” notes, or high-register tinkling chimes! And in the early Fantasia (1959) Corigliano emerges as an Ivesian proto-Magic Realist, already with his own remarkable technique and colour-palette well established.

02_Daniel_BolshoyEduardo Sainz de la Maza - Sonando Caminos: Guitar Works

Daniel Bolshoy

ATMA ACD2 2635

The latest CD from the outstanding Canadian guitarist Daniel Bolshoy features the music of Eduardo Sainz de la Maza (1903-82), one of two Spanish guitarist/composer brothers whose lives spanned most of the 20th century. Bolshoy has a direct link to the other brother, Regino Sainz de la Maza (1896-1981): one of Regino’s students was Ricardo Iznaola, with whom Bolshoy studied at the University of Denver.

Unlike his brother, Eduardo rarely composed in the traditional Spanish style, being more influenced by jazz, and particularly by the music of Ravel and Debussy. The works here are mostly from the 1960s and 1970s, and are beautifully crafted and immediately accessible. The eight-movement Suite Platero y Yo (Platero and I) is the centerpiece of the recital: it was inspired by Juan Ramón Jiménez’s 1956 Nobel Prize-winning prose-poetry about a writer and his donkey, and the short excerpts from the chosen poems that the composer included in his score are also included here in Bolshoy’s excellent booklet notes.

Eight shorter original pieces and three arrangements – La Paloma, the cowboy song Colorado Trail and Swanee River, complete a delightful and thoroughly enjoyable CD that runs for over 77 minutes.

Bolshoy has a full, warm tone, with virtually no fingerboard or string noise. Recorded at the beautifully resonant Salle Francoys-Bernier at Domaine Forget in Quebec, the sound is close and intimate.

As an accordionist since childhood, I have seen the popularity of my instrument rise and fall in a fashion similar to current money markets. The accordion is on a sharp rise again at the moment, with a number of new releases that feature its rhythmic and melodic sensibilities in a variety of styles.

01_BreathboxFinnish accordionist/composer Antti Paalanen showcases his enviable bellows control and minimalist compositional ideas in the solo release Breathbox (Siba Records SACD-1005). The Finnish landscape is depicted musically in tracks like the heavy long tones and looping grooves of Permafrost and the ethereal high pitched harmonies of Northern Wind. The tiny detailed tones of Mementos waltz are as touching as looking at one’s favourite keepsakes. Paalanen is an excellent instrumentalist fully in control. Many of the repeated musical ideas seem to be drawn from traditional folk melodies creating an exciting and accessible “cross-over” effect, though some lengthy passages, especially in Gaza, could use a bit of editing.

02_NuntiumAccordionist Robert Kusiolek showcases his playing, compositional and electronics skills in Nuntium (Multikulti MPCC002). Along with Anton Sjarov, voice/violin, Ksawery Wojcinski, double bass, and Klaus Kugel, drums, etc., Kusiolek creates an atonal musical environment in seven chapters. The slow-moving vocal/violin improvisational mood of Chapter 1 sets the stage for a diverse range of ideas that is unbelievably coherent. Chapter 4, with its intricate conversations between the instruments, is the highlight. Each player is a star, with the accordion driving the jazzy music. The free improvisational feel of Nuntium adds to the unique sound of the accordion in this ensemble setting.

03_NavidadThe bandoneon with its free reed mechanism, is a distant relative of the accordion, so the inclusion here of Navidad de los Andes (ECM 2204) is fitting. Bandoneonist/composer Dino Saluzzi breathes sonic beauty into this “Christmas in the Andes” ensemble collection. The excellent programmatic liner notes provide a guiding hand through the 11 tracks without getting lost in technical details, aiding the listener to envision the Christmas story in a personal way. From the arid, bleak opening track, many South American musical traditions (like the ever popular Tango) are brilliantly performed by Saluzzi, cellist Anja Lechner and tenor sax/clarinettist Felix Saluzzi.

04_Tarkovsky_QuartetThe Tarkovsky Quartet (ECM 2159) is the brainchild of composer/pianist François Couturier. His music, which is inspired by the work of the late filmmaker Andre Tarkovsky – thus the name of the quartet – draws upon his life and work. Couturier’s new age tonal music shifts slowly like a scene frozen in lush cinematography allowing Parisian accordionist Jean-Louis Matinier to sit on long held notes with solemn colour. Cellist Anja Lechner and soprano saxophonist Jean-Marc Larche add their own unique contributions to the mix. Though the impressionistic compositions are in the style of movie music, it is the collective improvisations on three tracks that are the highlights. Here the harmonic world opens to more punchy chords while accordion melodies race through florid legato lines and extreme staccatos.

05_UnikoNow, literally, off to the movies. Uniko (Cmajor 707108) was written by Finnish rock star status accordionist/vocalist Kimmo Pohjonen and his colleague, electronics master Samuli Kosminen. The Kronos Quartet was introduced to Pohjonen’s music while on tour in Finland, and loved how he had expanded the possibilities of the accordion. All are featured in this concert film. There are lots of shots of fingers playing but the stark stage set and lighting supports the stark rhythmic explosiveness of the music. The looping musical ideas are perfect for the film idiom. Do not be misled by Pohjonen’s on-stage persona – his expertise on the accordion is solid. However, it always amazes me that nobody ever needs to turn a page…

There is a vast world of music available for the accordion and it should be no surprise that in solo and ensemble settings the “squeezebox” keeps pushing and pulling its way into contemporary music.

08_maki_ishiiMakii Ishii Live
Ryan Scott; Esprit Orchestra; Alex Pauk
Innova 809 www.innova.mu

With a strong international reputation, Maki Ishii (1936-2003) stands among the foremost Japanese composers in the avant-garde concert hall tradition. Ishii had a strong predication for the purity and drama inherent in percussion sounds and the three concerti on this CD, first recordings all, place them and the percussionist front and centre.

Ishii’s idiosyncratic musical universe revealed in these works reflects his mature style, one that straddled two musical worlds - combining the language, compositional methods and sound palette of European and Japanese musical traditions.

The solo parts are here masterfully performed from memory by the Toronto percussionist Ryan Scott. Twice nominated for a Juno, Scott has built a career playing percussion with many Toronto and American ensembles and orchestras.

Saidoki (Demon) (1989-1992) features new instruments called Cidelo Ihos, metal sculptures created by Kazuo Harada and Yasunori Yamaguchi for this work. They are sounded by striking and bowing, creating unpitched metallic soundscapes, framed dramatically by the Esprit Orchestra spread out throughout the hall. Adding to the metal sounds is a battery of wood and skin instruments constructed for this work by Ryan Scott. The orchestral writing emphasizes its concerto nature, clearly revealing the voice of the percussion soloist. By the rumbling ghostly ending Ishii’s programmatic aim, to evoke the vigour and energy of a “rough demon” with the “inner soul of a human,” has been imaginatively evoked.

The earlier, equally virtuoso Concertante for Marimba (1988) was composed for a 5-octave marimba solo accompanied by an ensemble of 6 percussion instruments. It is overall more transparent in texture than Saidoki, though possessing no fewer theatrical gestures. The third Ishii concerto, South-Fire-Summer (1992) utilises a large battery of standard orchestral percussion instruments. Initially framed with sparse orchestral accompaniment with plenty of sonic room for soloist Ryan Scott to display his mallet control and fine musical taste, it builds to a roaring climax.

The clear live sound, recorded over a number of years by CBC Radio 2, clearly reveals the timbral and textural details of these works. Kudos to producer David Jaeger and recording engineers David “Stretch” Quinney, Doug Doctor and Steve Sweeney.

Concert Note: Ryan Scott is featured in Maki Ishii’s South-Fire-Summer at the Esprit Orchestra concert at Koerner Hall on November 30.

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