02_tenneyOld School: James Tenney
Zeitkratzer Productions ZKR 0010

Without the necessity for surround-sound or other methods of sonic dissemination, James Tenney (1934-2006) composed tension-laden pieces such as the three here, whose crescendos and decrescendos derive from concentrated orchestration. As the Berlin-based, ad hoc Zeitkratzer ensemble of two woodwinds, two brass, three strings, percussion and director/pianist Reinhold Friedl demonstrate on this exceptional CD, properly performing the themes of the long-time (1976-2000) York University music professor depends as much on harmonic convergence as intonation, attack and acoustics.

Most fascinating and mostly fortissimo is 1988’s Critical Band. Based on standard pitch A and its fundamentals, this exercise in tonal expansion undulates on pitches that concentrate and divide as they modulate infinitesimally and recurrently. Only when the final variation arrives can the capillary timbres of Matt Davis’ trumpet and Hayden Chisholm’s alto saxophone be distinguished from the others.

Slightly lengthier, 1976’s Harmonium #2, which details the deliberate build-up and break-down of a chord, exposes fundamentals, as the harmonic progression expands through Friedl’s intense keyboard clusters. After variants on the narrative – related to the circle of fifths – reflect inwards onto themselves as they advance chromatically, the resolution involves a crescendo involving articulating Hilary Jeffrey’s trombone reverberations plus thick piano patterns.

Distinctive, the performances are both authoritative and inventive.

01_arc_ensembleTwo Roads to Exile
ARC Ensemble
RCA Red Seal 88697 64490 2

“A sense of exile”, the opening of the CD booklet notes tells us, “is not always accompanied by geographical displacement.” Hence the title of this outstanding disc of virtually unknown works by Adolf Busch – who, although not Jewish, chose to leave Germany when Hitler came to power in 1933 – and Walter Braunfels, who, while half-Jewish, chose to remain in Germany despite the implications for his career and personal safety.

Toronto’s ARC Ensemble (Artists of The Royal Conservatory) specializes in reviving long-buried and essentially-forgotten repertoire, especially the works of composers whose lives were fundamentally altered by the Second World War and in particular by the Holocaust.

Both Busch, now remembered primarily as a violinist and as leader of the Busch Quartet, and Braunfels were established composers in 1920s Germany. Busch’s String Sextet Op.40 from 1928 (revised in 1933) remains unpublished, however, and Braunfel’s String Quintet Op.63, from 1945, has never been recorded before. Both works are strongly in the German Romantic tradition, a factor which worked against both composers in the post-war years, despite their treatment by the Third Reich.

The ARC members – Marie Bérard and Benjamin Bowman (violins), Steven Dann and Carolyn Blackwell (violas), Bryan Epperson and David Hetherington (cellos) – are superb throughout. Recorded in the RCM’s Koerner Hall last November, every nuance of their performance is magnificently captured by producer David Frost. The recording has the distinction of being the first produced in this acoustically superior new concert venue. The excellent booklet notes are by ARC Artistic Director Simon Wynberg. An absolute gem of a CD.

05_adesThomas Adès – Tevot; Violin Concerto
Berliner Philharmoniker; Sir Simon Rattle; Anthony Marwood; Chamber Orchestra of Europe; Thomas Adès
EMI Classics 4 57813 2

This tremendous CD of recent orchestral works by the English composer Thomas Adès offers convincing proof that, while contemporary composers may have difficulty gate-crashing the standard repertoire, their efforts deserve - and reward - our fullest attention.

Born in 1971, Adès is clearly a composer with ‘something to say’. There isn’t a weak or unconvincing track here, and the orchestration is outstanding. Tevot, written for Simon Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic in 2007, is a live recording from a Berlin concert the same year. The haunting Violin Concerto, Concentric Paths, written in 2005 for Anthony Marwood and the Chamber Orchestra of Europe, is a live 2007 performance by them at London’s Barbican Hall, with Adès conducting. The same concert included the UK premiere of Three Studies from Couperin (2006), fascinating re-workings of Couperin keyboard pieces that retain the same number of bars as the originals as well as the same rhythms and harmonies. Finally, the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain under Paul Daniel gives us the richly decadent Overture, Waltz and Finale, the suite that Adès made in 2007 from his first opera, Powder Her Face, although this time using full orchestra instead of the original 15 instruments.

It’s tempting to play the ‘sounds like…’ game – here’s Britten (Adès was artistic director of the Aldeburgh Festival from 1999 to 2008); there’s Janacek; that’s Ravel – but there is no doubting that this is an original and accomplished individual voice.

04_lindbergMagnus Lindberg – Graffiti;
Seht die Sonne
Helsinki Chamber Choir; Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra; Sakari Oramo
Ondine ODE 1157-2

Magnus Lindberg is on a roll these days, carving out a solid position as the leading Finnish composer of his generation. Graffiti is Lindberg’s first major choral work, and it’s a winner. Its text, derived from first century Latin texts preserved on the walls of the doomed city of Pompeii, would certainly have appealed to Carl Orff, and while it is true that there are archaic harmonies to be heard from the thirty throaty voices of the admirable Helsinki Chamber Choir, Lindberg’s bracing sonorities and teeming orchestral textures are far more daring than anything Orff could possibly have imagined.

The title of the companion work, Seht die Sonne (Behold the Sun), is derived from the conclusion of Schoenberg’s Gurrelieder, that composer’s lavish vocal farewell to Romanticism. Lindberg’s work, originally commissioned by Simon Rattle for the Berlin Philharmonic, received its Canadian premiere by the Toronto Symphony during Lindberg’s memorable visit to Toronto in 2008. It is a broad work on the scale of a Sibelius tone poem, flamboyantly rhapsodic and emotional. Though the abrupt and often unaccountable changes of mood make this a more challenging item than the immediately accessible Graffiti, Oramo and his Finnish radio orchestra prove themselves up to the challenge. Though texts and translations are provided and Kimmo Korhohen provides pithy program notes, it’s a pity that neither the soloist for the prominent piano part in Graffiti nor the solo cellist in the subsequent work are identified.

03_schlagartigSchlagArtig – Percussion Solo
Markus Hauke
New Classical Adventure 60171

Percussion can be an alien world. It speaks, however, with a language strangely familiar to some deeper part of us that doesn’t need a “tune” to recognize music. Those who write for it and those who play it understand its architecture and philosophical constructs well, but even audiences can be drawn quickly and seductively into this world of sounds.

The interpretive role of the performer as guide on any such journey is critical. Deciphering the “code” of notation into a meaningful aural experience is no less daunting when a composer leaves much to the imagination of the player. German-born Markus Hauke is brilliant in his ability to illuminate the manuscripts of composers like John Cage, Iannis Xenakis, Bryan Wolf and Maki Ishii on this disc. His own composition, based on rhythmic themes from Wagner’s “Ring” is also testimony to his ability to speak the language convincingly.

While the array of percussion instruments on this recording seems like something capable of delivering an artillery salvo, Hauke nevertheless brings a great subtlety and sense of nuance to his playing along with the highly complex rhythms that we expect of a professional percussionist.

Most unusual on this CD is the piece by American composer Bryan Wolf. Dedicated to Hauke, the piece uses only metal instruments along with some electronic sounds. The distinctive ringing quality of the work suitably echoes its place in the Triptych “Trails of Glass”.

Surprisingly, this CD will sound as satisfying on your modest computer speakers as on your principal home sound system.

02_castelnuovo-tedescoCastelnuovo-Tedesco; Respighi; Guastavino – Violin Concertos
Jose Miguel Cueto; St. Petersburg Symphony Orchestra; Vladimir Lande
Marquis 81407

José Miguel Cueto has often performed rarely heard music. Here he assembles a recital that combines not just little-known compositions but also the intricacies one would expect of a piece by Castelnuovo-Tedesco commissioned and premiered by Heifetz. In fact, all the pieces he selects are virtuosic and technically demanding.

The Castelnuovo-Tedesco Concerto looks to religious inspiration; Jewish melodies grace what the composer described as a biblical concerto. Those looking for the solemnity of synagogue liturgy, however, must wait for the second movement - the first introduces more popular, folkloric arrangements. For all that, this music remains virtuosic throughout - Cueto’s playing in the third movement underlines his reputation.

Concerto gregoriano was not well received, which disappointed Respighi. This adverse criticism is hard to understand. In the second movement one may listen to Cueto’s sensitive interpretation of the andante espressivo; in the third, masterful playing of music deeply influenced by Gregorian Chant awaits.

And so to Guastavino - a chemical engineering graduate, no less, before flourishing as a composer. Despite first impressions, Guastavino avoided direct inspiration from folk-music. And yet these last four minutes, evocative of Guastavino’s Argentine background and transcribed by Cueto himself, is a wonderful way to celebrate José Miguel Cueto’s choice of pieces, whether influenced by religion or folklore.

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