Mark Fewer; Jonathan Swartz; Andrés Díaz; Wendy Chen

Soundset SR 1033 (www.soundset.com)

Erich von Korngold’s Suite, Op. 23 (1928) is a remarkable though lesser-known work, commissioned by one-armed pianist Paul Wittgenstein and ably performed here by Jonathan Swartz and Mark Fewer, violins, Andrés Díaz, cello, and Wendy Chen, piano. The viola’s absence de-clutters the middle register, letting Korngold’s left-hand piano writing shine. At the Prelude and Fugue’s opening flourish the piano announces its full and equal participation, delivered here with superb virtuosity by Wendy Chen. Violinists Fewer and Swartz capture the disoriented giddiness of the Waltz while cellist Díaz leads similarly into the almost hallucinatory Groteske, which carries us through turbulent mood contrasts. The intense, post-Mahler Lied followed by the ingenious, energetic variations of the Rondo-Finale complete this exciting performance.

In Toronto-based Kieran MacMillan’s Fantasy Variations on a Theme by Charpentier, commissioned by Swartz for the same instruments, fantasy is the key element. The work weaves in and out stylistically from its theme, taken from a Marc-Antoine Charpentier cantata. I enjoyed the atonal flights in the evanescent Variation 3 and Messiaen-like piano flourishes in Variation 6. The tonal variations are evocative too, some tending to magic realism in suggesting glimpses of the past or the beyond. Mixing styles has been accepted since the 1960s when Foss, Rochberg, Colgrass, Kagel and others started quoting, re-working, or re-creating in the styles of earlier composers. And through being tasteful, aptly conceived for the instrumentation, and welcoming to the listener, these fantasy-variations are worth hearing too.

02_rorem_fluteNed Rorem - Chamber Music with Flute

Fenwick Smith; David Leisner; Ronald Thomas; Mihae Lee; Ann Hobson Pilot

Naxos 8.559674

Ned Rorem, now in his late eighties was, in his prime, better known for his published diaries than for his music, contributing no doubt to his belief that “society has abandoned its artists in favour of a philistine culture of increasingly embittering ugliness. He feels that his own work is neither recognized nor properly understood.”

Former Boston Symphony Orchestra flutist, Fenwick Smith is joined by pianist Mihae Lee, guitarist David Leisner, harpist Ann Hobson Pilot and cellist Ronald Thomas to play five of Rorem’s compositions. Smith navigates the varied challenges of the music with aplomb: in Queen Mab from the 1977 Romeo and Juliet suite for flute and guitar for instance, he uses dynamics effectively to build excitement, integrates flutter tonguing seamlessly, all the while maintaining great rapport with his collaborator. In …it was the nightingale from the same suite, we hear him as an accomplished virtuoso flutist, but for me the most moving moment in the whole CD was his rendering of Last Prayer from Four Prayers, written a mere five or six years ago, the last track on the disc. The performances can be considered definitive: according to the liner notes “Rorem worked closely with” and was “honoured to be so dazzlingly represented by” the performers on this recording.

Kudos to Naxos for bringing much deserved recognition to Ned Rorem’s work as a composer; I hope it will result in these works appearing more frequently in flute recital programmes everywhere.

01_xenakis_orchestralXenakis - Orchestral Works

Orchestre Philharmonique du Luxembourg; Arturo Tamayo

Timpani 5C1177 (www.timpani-records.com)

Iannis Xenakis (1922-2001) was a Greek composer based in Paris, with a long relationship to Canada: four premieres and many visits going back to the 1960s. For all that, there have been just two orchestral performances in Canada. Luckily, next March Esprit Orchestra will reprise its 2006 performance of Jonchaies (1977), a major work included in this set.

Over the 40-some years of his career, Xenakis wrote 40 orchestral scores, an amazing output considering that he composed 100 or so other works as well. Until recently, few of the orchestral pieces were available on disc. Thankfully, in 2000, conductor Arturo Tamayo and the Orchestre Philharmonique du Luxembourg began recording these works for Timpani Records, a French label. Over the past decade, five discs have been released, now collected in a handy box set. Of the 23 works presented, only a few have been recorded before. The fifth disc includes Achorripsis (1957) for ensemble rather than orchestra. As it is out on disc already, one wonders why it was included. That quibble aside, this is an important collection, very well recorded and performed. Tamayo is a fine, intelligent conductor who performs a great deal of contemporary music all around Europe.

Xenakis’s seminal scores, Metastaseis (1954) and Pithoprakta (1956), have long been available on disc through reissues of early recordings. This new one is a revelation, not only for the pristine quality but for the assurance of the string players, who now very well know how to perform the glissandi, steely non-vibrato, and other extended techniques that earlier musicians struggled with. Hiketides (1964) is a little-known orchestral suite derived from incidental music for the Aeschylus tragedy The Suppliants, and is a fascinating mixture of textural music and archaic-sounding modal passages.

The majority of the works recorded for this set date from the 1980s and 1990s. Most are scored for full orchestra, although Syrmos (1959) and Shaar (1983) are for strings alone, and Akrata (1965) is for winds. Two are concertante works for piano, dazzlingly performed by the young Japanese pianist Hiroaki Ooï: Synaphaï (1969), where the piano part is infamously written on 10 staves, and Erikhthon (1974). The other work in this set featuring soloists is Aïs (1980), written for the extraordinary voice of Spyros Sakkas, jumping between baritone and falsetto. He is heard along with a solo percussion part ably performed by Béatrice Daudin. This work opens the set, and is truly evocative and emotionally gripping. The latest pieces included in the set date from 1991: Roaï, Kyania and Krinoïdi. An extraordinary year! Even more amazing is the variety of character and material between these works. While Xenakis was at that time already suffering from ill health, it certainly does not show in these forceful, sophisticated, beautiful works.

In listening through all this music, various strands of the composer’s thought and expression surface; some — like the glissando textures, the layered polyrhythms, or the modal melodies harmonized in blocks — reappear. Others appear then submerge, giving rise to new ideas. The evolution from one orchestral score to the next is quite organic, and the visceral intensity of the music remains constant. Try listening chronologically as well as following the order presented on the discs.

What is most apparent, in the end, is that all his life Xenakis drew extraordinary inspiration from the symphony orchestra. The important contribution he made to the genre can start to be understood and appreciated with this fine box set.

02_e-greS. C. Eckhardt-Gramatté - The Six Piano Sonatas

Marc-André Hamelin

Centrediscs CMCCD 16611

Outside Canadian music circles where her legacy lives on in a prestigious music competition, the colourful name of Sophie-Carmen Eckhardt-Gramatté (1899-1974) might not be particularly well known. But rest assured, this woman led an equally colourful life as performer, composer and pedagogue. Born in Moscow, she entered the Paris Conservatory at age eight, studying piano and violin, and went on to a successful concert career on both instruments. Later, two marriages brought her to Barcelona, Berlin, Vienna, and finally to Winnipeg where she settled in 1953 when her second husband Ferdinand Eckhardt became the director of the Winnipeg Art Gallery. There she broke new ground as a teacher and composer, her contemporary style very much steeped in the romantic tradition. Among her compositions are six piano sonatas, written between 1923 and 1952 – and who better to perform this technically challenging music than piano titan Marc-André Hamelin? This two CD Centrediscs set is a re-issue of an Altarus recording from 1991.

These sonatas, covering a thirty year period, display a wealth of contrasting styles. The first, written in 1923, pays homage to the Baroque period – think 1920s neo-classicism. Conceived as a two-part invention, the mood is buoyantly optimistic, and Hamelin easily meets the technical demands required to bring it off convincingly. Considerably more subjective is the second sonata, completed only a year later. In four movements, the piece aptly describes Eckhardt-Gramatté’s emotional state over a two year period, from the dark days in Berlin during the Great War to the more cheerful time when she and her first husband, artist Walter Gramatté settled in Spain.

The mercurial nature of these sonatas, with their ever-changing moods presents no challenge to Hamelin. The vivacious finale from the fifth sonata is handled as deftly as the languorous Nocturne of the Sonata No.4.

Eckhardt-Gramatté’s music might not be to everyone’s taste. Some might find it too strident, while others, too deeply-rooted in late romanticism. Nevertheless, she occupies a unique place in 20th century music, and this set is a fine tribute to a composer who undoubtedly deserves wider recognition.

03_lussierMathieu Lussier - Passages

Pentaedre; Louise Lessard; Claudia Schaetzle; Fraser Jackson

ATMA ACD2 2657

Bassoonist and composer Mathieu Lussier’s compositions here feature wind instruments and piano in various combinations, some conventional and others unusual. Lussier writes fluently and eclectically for winds in solo and chamber music that has won support of major performers. His works align with the French neoclassical woodwind tradition, and add distinctive touches. I particularly like his Sextet for wind quintet and contrabassoon, a concise three-movement work in which the contrabassoon provides both weight and wit!

Lussier plays and conducts early music, and a baroque influence is noticeable. It shows up in harmonic progressions and in the presence of the siciliano and chaconne, for example. Also, there are popular elements along with the baroque; after all, repeated chord progressions in pop songs can be compared to the ground bass which appears in the last movement of the Sextet and in Passages for bassoon and piano. In the White Rock Sonata syncopation provides a rhythmic spark to the earlier style.

The latter two works show Lussier himself to be an expressive and technically facile bassoon soloist. I am also particularly taken with clarinettist Martin Carpentier’s performance of the Introduction and Sicilienne. In fact the wind soloists are all of high calibre, including also flautist Danièle Bourget, oboe d’amore player Normand Forget, alto saxophonist Claudia Schaetzle, French horn player Louis-Philippe Marsolais, and contrabassoonist Fraser Jackson. Finally, Louise Lessard’s exemplary pianism not only accompanies but periodically steers well-paced and convincing interpretations.

04_PRESPRES Revisited: Józef Patkowski in Memorium

Various Artists

Bolt Records DUX 0812/13 www.boltrecords.pl

Fascinating in its bravado, this set joins one CD of 1960s and 1970s recordings of important musique concrète by five Polish composers with another CD of acoustic improvisations on these themes by three British and two Polish players. The result not only captures cerebral variants of the compositions but also affirms the originality of the sounds created in the days of bulky tape recorders and thick coaxial cables.

Honouring Józef Patkowski (1929-2005), co-founder of the Polish Radio Experimental Studio (PRES) in 1957 and its director for 28 years, the original recordings revisit the musical freedom offered by PRES during those Cold War years. For instance Krzysztof Penderecki’s Psalmus (1961) uses electronic filtering and flanges to deconstruct vowels and consonants initially created by the bel canto gurgles and quivering yodels of male and female singers. John Tilbury’s contemporary piano version is more chromatic, with vibrating and strumming strings resonating on top of basso keyboard rumbles. After the tune reaches satisfactory linearity, he shatters the mood by shrilling a lifeguard’s whistle.

Or compare Eugeniusz Rudnik’s 1967 recording of his Dixi with cellist Mikolaj Palosz’s reimagining of it four decades later. Originally a tape collage, the performance swells to forte as dissonant, processed delays almost visually pulsate then dissolves in gradually less audible undulations. Taking an opposite approach, Palosz’s variant mixes strident, spiccato string squeaks at different tempos, reaching raucous volume that sound as if the strings are being splintered as he plays and concluding with string popping fading into dissolving shrills.

Appropriately the final track is a Hommage to Bogusław Schaeffer’s Symphony. Here Tilbury, Palosz, violinist Phil Durrant, guitarist Maciej Śledziecki and percussionist Eddie Prévost combine to coalesce stretched string glissandi, snare ratcheting and cymbal clangs plus faux-romantic piano chording into an ever-shifting performance, which like the Polish composer’s work is both aleatory and multiphonic.

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