04 Villa Lobos concertosHeitor Villa-Lobos – Guitar Concerto; Harmonica Concerto
Manuel Barrueco; José Staneck; OSESP Ensemble; São Paulo Symphony Orchestra; Giancarlo Guerrero
Naxos 8.574018 (naxos.com)

The composer Heitor Villa-Lobos is to Brazil what Bach and Beethoven are to Germany, Liszt is to Hungary and Chopin to Poland. Uniquely, Villa-Lobos also became the cellist who played many other instruments, including guitar, on which he achieved a remarkable facility. Virtuosity across many instruments also became one of Villa-Lobos’ strong suits. Burle Marx, the conductor and close friend once asked Villa-Lobos if there was anything he did not play. “Only oboe,” was the reply; but when the two met shortly afterwards, Villa-Lobos was well on his way to mastering that instrument too.

Villa-Lobos’ Guitar Concerto was commissioned by Andrés Segovia in 1951; (performed in February 1956). It is different from the bright colours and seductive melodies of Rodrigo’s Concierto de Aranjuez. But it is highly virtuosic, emotional, and explores a range of techniques including glissandi, arpeggiation and harmonics. The Harmonica Concerto is emblematic of Villa-Lobos’ cross-instrument virtuosity. The appropriately numinous Sexteto místico is imaginatively poetic and the rhapsodic and sensual Quinteto instrumental is typical of the composer’s ability to communicate with feverish Brazilian passion.

The São Paulo Symphony Orchestra, under the baton of Giancarlo Guerrero, is in exquisite form throughout, as is the OSESP Ensemble. The warmth of guitarist Manuel Barrueco’s playing – like his tone and touch – is eminently suited to Villa-Lobos’ work. Harmonica wizard José Staneck’s performance is utterly unforgettable for his ability to communicate Brazilian saudade on so tiny, albeit exquisitely chromatic, an instrument.

05 Tyler NickelChristopher Tyler Nickel – Music for Woodwind Choirs
Various Artists
Centrediscs CMCCD 27019

The two large works on this CD, both composed in 2017, are Suite for Two Oboes and Two English Horns and Symphony for Flute Choir. Each is performed by a group of superb Canadian musicians, conducted by Clyde Mitchell, music director of the Lions Gate Sinfonia and former associate principal horn in the Montreal Symphony Orchestra. The performances are, to my ears, flawless and vital.

Nickel’s music is full of life: imagination, invention, variation – a deep understanding of the craft of composition. The artistry, for example, of the opening movement of the Suite, is evident from the first notes: the same note played three times on the English horns, to which the oboes reply with a five-note motif on three pitches. This is just the beginning of a journey, which leads us through an episode of melodic development and several contrapuntal episodes – in the complexities of which we never feel lost – and then back to a satisfying recapitulation. This is composition at its best – arresting and masterful.

The Symphony for Flute Choir brings comparable invention: in the first movement Nickel develops what sounds like an atonal theme – an engaging one – into 12 minutes of music, always interesting and all derived from this one short theme. In the second movement I was struck by Nickel’s extraordinary melodic flair, a satisfying blend of repetition and variation.

I hope there will be live performances of these wonderful works in the not-too-distant future!

06 Schwartkopf DetachDetach
Angela Schwarzkopf
Redshift Records TK472

Often, new music, as much as that term is understood within the worlds of jazz or art music, is put forward to provoke, to be forward thinking, or to be purposefully progressive. Among the many adjectives most frequently used to describe this interesting genre, beautiful and serene are, arguably, not often heard. That is, however, not the case with Detach, the debut recording from Toronto-based harpist Angela Schwarzkopf on Redshift Records. Her sublime instrumental touch and skillful manipulation of dynamics successfully draw in and activate listenership. With the extremely capable accompaniment featuring vibraphonists Michelle Colton and Étienne Levesque, Schwarzkopf highlights and bring to life a number of compositions by new and notable contemporary Canadian composers Monica Pearce, Cecilia Livingston, Patrick Arteaga, Mark Nerenberg, Elisha Denburg and Kevin Lau. 

There is an intriguing programmatic arc to this recording. After an initial bold musical statement, Detach moves slowly and gently through the rest of Pearce’s attach/detach before traversing a tremendous terrain of harmonic and rhythmic complexity. Compositional nuance and sophistication abound, as well as wide-ranging dynamics, before ending, after a 15-minute tour de force reading of Lau’s Castles in the Sand, with an arpeggiated cascading melodic line on solo harp. 

This recording is indeed progressive, forward-thinking and modern, but it is simultaneously engagingly listenable, melodic and beautiful. Congratulations to the Ontario Arts Council for having the good sense to support these important voices in contemporary Canadian music, and to Schwarzkopf and the vibraphonists for creating such a fine recording. Picking up on the hopeful success of this debut, I trust there will be more to come. 

07 Zosha di CastriZosha Di Castri – Tachitipo
Various Artists
New Focus Recordings FCR 227 (newfocusrecordings.com)

Right from the beginning of her career, Canadian composer Zosha Di Castri has been stirring up great enthusiasm – and some controversy. This recording, the first devoted solely to her compositions, offers up the altogether worthwhile experience of entering Di Castri’s adventurous sound world. 

There is a lot going on in these works, with their constant shifts in mood and texture. But the inventive details add up to much more than a series of engaging episodes. Each work is tautly structured, creating an invigorating momentum. Above all, these works are inescapably moving, whether on a personal level, or when confronting the global issues that concern Di Castri. 

The best moments are the most unexpected. Take the burst of reflectiveness at the end of the title work Tachipito. Or the way the explosive glissandi in Quartet No.1 are interrupted by magical other-worldly harmonics. In Dux, virtuosic passages of unprompted rhapsodizing create a reassuring dream state. In Cortège, from 2010 the earliest composition here, the repetition of the opening motif throughout creates a poignant sense of longing. 

Each work is played by a different set of musicians. The array of performers gathered here is truly exceptional, from solo pianist Julia Den Boer playing Dux to the 13 musicians of the Talea Ensemble under Lorraine Vaillancourt performing Cortège.

Di Castri’s fresh, imaginative voice carries forward the vital lineage of the avant-garde at its most enjoyable. With these works she manages to both challenge and delight.

08 Mercer SistersOur Strength, Our Song
Akemi Mercer-Niewoehner; Rachel Mercer
Centrediscs CMCCD 27719

In a recent issue of The WholeNote, David Jaeger wrote at length about cellist Rachel Mercer. Jaeger produced this new release with Rachel and her violinist sister Akemi Mercer-Niewoehner playing six duo works by Canadian women composers. 

Violet Archer’s Four Duets for Violin and Cello (1979) is a four-movement work composed “especially” for violinist Tom Rolston and his then 12-year-old cellist-daughter Shauna. Family fun galore, as the opening Brooding movement starts with a slightly grim low-pitched cello mood leading to a more reassuring violin line. Love the upbeat plucks in the dramatic Paean fourth movement. More tonal rhythmic sounds in Jean Coulthard’s Duo Sonata for Violin & Cello (1989) as repeated patterns and plucks unite this orchestral-sounding piece. Barbara Monk Feldman‘s Pour un nuage violet (1998) is a welcome change of pace with nature-inspired subtle rhythmic original sounds.

The Mercer sisters are phenomenal in their passionate performances of their commissioned works. Rebekah Cummings’ Our Strength, Our Song (2018) features conversational counterpoint, high and low staccatos, and dynamic shifts written in traditional Bulgarian folk-singing style. Jocelyn Morlock’s (2019) Serpentine Paths’ use of intense sound effects like high violin and low cello pitch contrasts, fast intense and slower passages, is a race to the performance finish line! Alice Ping Yee Ho’s Kagura Fantasy (2018) is an exciting listen with contemporary string effects, theatrical feel, dance-like sections and Asiatic folk-music influences.

The Mercer sisters are inspirational to both musicians and families alike.

09 Focus guitar duoFocus
Adam Cicchillitti; Steve Cowan
Analekta AN 2 8792 (analekta.com/en)

Canadian guitarists/friends Adam Cicchillitti and Steve Cowan formed this duo in 2015. Their dedication to performing, commissioning and collaborating with living composers from contemporary classical to popular music styles is heard here in five works by Canadian composers.

A wide cross-section of styles can be heard. The duo’s Canada Council commission Focus (2018) by Harry Stafylakis is a unique mix of pop, jazz, and classical. The first movement is more pop-sounding while the more classical second movement, based on a theme from Beethoven’s seventh symphony, opens with a single-pitch melody and develops through contrapuntal writing to a strumming rock-like closing. Andrew Staniland’s Brazilian-inspired Choro: the Joyful Lament for Villa-Lobos (2017) is a virtuosic rhythmic work. Cicchillitti and Cowan’s 2017 arrangement of José Evangelista’s five-movement Retazos (2010) is impressionistic, with reflective, haunting, mellow tonal melodies and contrasting florid fast runs. Their commission Ombres et lumières (2017) by Patrick Roux has a grief-stricken lyrical first movement and a contrasting faster rock-groove-flavoured second movement. Originally for two harps, composer Jason Noble impeccably arranged his more atonal programmatic two-movement River and Cave for the duo in 2018. The opening water rippling effect is achieved by delicate repeated pattern playing. The slower low-cave section emulates cave echo effects with lower strums, longer silences and staccato drips. 

Cicchillitti and Cowan are fabulous duo guitarists who perform together to perfection in all styles. No wonder this recording is on CBC’s Top 20 Canadian Classical Albums of 2019!

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