01_korngold_symphonyErich Wolfgang Korngold - Symphony in F Sharp

Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra; John Storgårds

Ondine ODE 1182-2

Here is a fine addition to the significant revivals and original works recorded by John Storgårds with the Helsinki Philharmonic. The precocious Erich Korngold was already writing chamber music, orchestral works, and operas at an age when many composers have barely started. But he was forced to leave Austria during the Nazi scourge and turned to Hollywood, becoming an innovator in the new art of film music. The Symphony in F sharp, completed in 1952 after his return to Vienna, is a wonderful summation of his concert and film music accomplishments.

Korngold was a story-teller when critical opinion prized abstract and esoteric music. Only recently have we appreciated his expressive persona, orchestral mastery, and judicious incorporation of musical modernity. The Symphony’s dramatic opening movement demonstrates all these qualities. Its angular melodies, dissonant harmony and interjections by brass and percussion (particularly the xylophone) show his mastery of newer idioms. Storgårds’ transitions assuredly through the work’s contrasting moods, as in a flute solo over hushed strings or in cinematic flashes featuring the horn section. The orchestration of the Scherzo is especially colourful and the Helsinki Orchestra takes it all in stride with tight ensemble work. I find their performance of the anguished slow movement extraordinarily moving. More cheerful and witty is the finale, whose popular American film idiom is interrupted by intense interludes. Rounding off this valuable disk is Korngold’s youthful Tänzchen, which receives a charmingly Viennese treatment by the Helsinki Orchestra.

02_part_symphony_4Arvo Pärt - Symphony No.4

Los Angeles Philharmonic; Esa-Pekka Salonen

ECM New Series ECM 2160

Arvo Pärt's fourth symphony is scored for tympani, concert harp, percussion and string orchestra. Although there is no choral element, one cannot imagine that the origins of this creation are not steeped in chant.

Shortly after I was tragically and very suddenly widowed, I attended the Canadian premier performance of this symphony (long before the ECM release). Supportive family members and friends had been encouraging me that once again I would find beauty in a world that seemed so empty, as it often does during the early stages of grief. I will never forget the profound sense of beauty, tonal balance and celestial bliss that surrounded me for the duration of the symphony. It truly was the first time I had encountered beauty amongst my suffering.

For many years, a quote from the Estonian composer has resounded with me: “I have discovered that it is enough when a single note is beautifully played.” This line speaks volumes of Pärt's tintinnabuli approach to musical expression.

With the ECM release of this symphony, I was eager to discover whether the same sense of wonder that I experienced live could possibly be documented. Esa-Pekka Salonen intimately and delicately conducts the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra in a way that masterfully conveys Pärt’s awe-inspiring composition.

This label has a long history of working with Arvo Pärt. His sparse and minimalist style (which seems to rely on silence as much as sound at times) lends itself perfectly to the label's established approach of audiophile recording techniques. It is a superlative recording that draws the listener right in, or rather, right above the front of the stage; there's a stunning balance of direct and reverberant sound, while still maintaining pinpoint imaging. I was also pleasantly surprised to find similar results with open back headphones.

Upon listening to this disc, I am reminded of a conversation I had with a friend who recently moved to Canada from Brazil to learn English. When the word “awesome” seemed to pop up commonly in conversation, I reminded him that the word is indeed overused as of late. It is in fact an adjective that once seemed to be reserved to describe those rare, most magnificent occurrences. I feel that this word could certainly be used to describe Esa-Pekka Salonen's interpretation of Arvo Pärt's Fourth Symphony.

03_mompouFederico Mompou - Silent Music

Jenny Lin

Steinway & Sons 30004

I understand Federico Mompou’s four books entitled Silent Music for piano (1959-67) as music to be co-constructed by creator and listener. The needed frame of mind, conditions, and responses must come from the listener. Then pensive moments may arrive that take us beyond ourselves. The Spanish title Musica Callada comes from mystical poetry by St. John of the Cross, the 28 pieces sharing a quality of monastic sparseness with soft dynamics and slow tempi.

Since acquiring ArkivMusic in 2008, Steinway & Sons has released several discs showcasing its topflight piano. This is a special recording where instrument, production, engineering, documentation, and performance are all superb. Jenny Lin displays flawless pianism with superb control of dynamics and occasional flashes of virtuosity. I am reluctant to single out particular favourites: the books create cumulative effects and listener responses will vary widely.

In Mompou’s own recordings, melodies are shaped more incisively, rubato is freer, and old-fashioned “breaking of the hands” is heard. As a contemporary listener, I much prefer Lin’s approach. But Mompou’s own passionate playing belies any notion of minimalist intentions. The mood is different than Satie’s and closer to Debussy at his most sparse, in the prelude …De pas sur la neige, or in Le petit berger from the Children’s Corner Suite.

One extra piece, Secreto, comes at the disc’s end. Here, criticism takes its leave and readers are invited to seek their own experiences with this remarkable music.

04_daniel_jankeDaniel Janke - Cinco Puntos Cardinales

Mark Fewer; Coro In Limine

Centrediscs CMCCD 16911

In part compositions for violin solo, a men’s chorus, mixed instrumental ensemble and soundscapes from South America, the unifying principle of this eclectic collection is its design as an accompaniment and essential text to a modern dance work by the Lima Peru dance company, Danza Contemporanea.

The work’s title may be translated as “Five Cardinal Points” and its choreographer Yvonne von Mollendorff suggests a metaphysical reading: the four directions of the compass plus the fifth – “the self, the observer.” The work’s sections range widely in kind from three austere solo violin pieces eloquently performed by Mark Fewer, to the rhythmic sound of palm fronds in Guyana, to the lush male sounds of the Peruvian Coro in Limine. Composer Daniel Janke deftly merges international and his own Canadian musical influences and creates a work that verges on the cinematic in scope. The variety of performing ensembles and where they were recorded geographically reminds one of Janke’s more recent career as a film writer, composer and director.

Adding to the kaleidoscope of aesthetics and genres is a track recorded with some of Toronto’s top improvisers, as well as a West African tinged track Miawezo. The latter composition alludes to Janke’s studies of the kora (West African harp-lute) in the 1970s and ‘80s with some of its leading hereditary Jali musicians.

Long devoted to incorporating world music influences in his compositions, Daniel Janke continues to boldly bridge parts of our globe through the music on this album.

Chamber Music for Harp

Valérie Milot; Antoine Bareil; François Vallières; Raphael Dube; Jocelyne Roy

Analekta AN 2 9985

Gifted young artist Valérie Milot here performs significant twentieth-century works with vigour and elegance. Trained in Quebec and at Juilliard, Milot opens with Germaine Tailleferre’s Sonata for solo harp (1953), capturing telling moments in this occasionally bittersweet piece. She gives a straight-ahead reading of the march-like opening movement, changing moods for the sultry habanera. Milot’s accomplished technique fully realizes accumulating dance-like energies in the finale.

Ravel’s piano Sonatine appears in Carlos Salzedo’s transcription, as reworked by violist François Vallières who joins Milot and flautist Jocelyne Roy. It doesn’t take orchestral colour to transcribe Ravel effectively! His impeccable voice-leading and harmonic “nudges” bring solo lines alive, as the performers demonstrate.

Chez R. Murray Schafer the outdoors beckons. Apparently Wild Bird (1997) received its title from violinist dedicatee Jacques Israelievitch’s “rather orange hair.” Whatever ― skittering, trilling, “nyah-nyah’s” among other birdcalls characterize the leading violin, the harp playing a supporting role. While birdsong and scale constructions evoke Messiaen, the flair, drama, and humour that violinist Antoine Bareil and Milot bring out are pure Schafer.

Philippe Hersant’s chant-based Choral features cellist Raphäel Dubé with Milot. Evocative harp sonorities undergird passionate cello outcries, resolving in a mystical close. Then all performers join in Jean Françaix’s engaging Quintet No. 2 for Flute, String Trio, and Harp for a fine upbeat ending.

02_wolpe_pianoMusic of Stefan Wolpe Vol. 6

David Holzman

Bridge Records Bridge 9344 (www.BridgeRecords.com)

Stefan Wolpe (1902-1972) is still one of the underappreciated great composers of the twentieth century. It has been said by someone that Wolpe has all the complexity of Carter or Boulez, but with the added bonus that Wolpe can swing.

Pianist David Holzman is a persuasive advocate of Wolpe, having known and studied with him. This is his second disc for the Bridge label’s ongoing Wolpe series, his first from 2002 garnering a Grammy nomination. The works span 1926-1959 and range from epigrammatic to large-scale forms. The breadth of Wolpe’s character is in evidence here. An impassioned dramatic sense, rigorous intellect, lightness and wit all have a place.

Four Studies on Basic Rows (1936) is a work for only the most intrepid pianists, exploring particular intervallic relations while making extraordinary pianistic demands. The fourth of these, Passacaglia is a masterly construction of tempestuous drama and brooding introspection. Mr. Holzman’s ability to bring clarity to the dense counterpoint and thick textures is remarkable. An entirely different interpretation from Peter Serkin’s excellent 1986 recording on the New World label, Holzman brings an earthiness to this important work. The Toccata in Three Parts (1941) is a similarly challenging work, its double-fugue finale again presenting Mr. Holzman’s virtuosity.

The disc also features many aphoristic miniatures. Pastorale, a gem from 1941 will surprise those familiar with Wolpe with its gentleness and lyricism. Wolpe’s interest in Jewish folk music is represented by the dance-like Palestinian Notebook (1939), written after his sojourn in Jerusalem (1934-38).

One very enjoyable feature of both of Mr. Holzman’s Wolpe discs are his own liner notes, with a personable and sometimes amusing quality.

Astounding complexity and unabashed simplicity co-exist in Wolpe’s musical world. The concluding miniature Lively. Why not? will put a smile on anyone’s face.

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