01_mcintoshPinnacles - Music of Diana McIntosh

Various Artists

Centrediscs CMCCD 15810

The CD cover picture of composer/pianist Diana McIntosh standing on Ophidian Glacier says it all – she loves the great outdoors. Her compositional inspirations range from Canadian glaciers to the peaks of Kilimanjaro in this intriguing new release.


McIntosh evokes nature's wide open spaces through her use of her wide open melodic intervals. (An interval is the distance between two adjacent notes). Any listener still wary of new music's dissonant qualities will quickly be won over by her use of sound to evoke images of natural beauty.


McIntosh is also an excellent pianist who is continuing the centuries old tradition of the composer performing their own works. Like popular music's singer/songwriters, nobody really plays her music better than McIntosh herself. However, she has guided the other featured instrumentalists to interpret perfectly. Of special note is violinist Karl Stobbe in the opening chamber music track Approaching Kilimanjaro, and to no surprise, the composer's longtime collaborator, local percussion superstar Beverley Johnston in the duet Uhuru Kamili. Only McIntosh's spoken text/narration in From Wapta Ice is slightly over the top in its emotive qualities, and could be more understated to better fit in with her musical sensibilities.


The good people at the Canadian Music Centre’s Centrediscs have yet again produced a high quality release. “Pinnacles” showcases the music of Diana McIntosh at the pinnacle of her artistic career.


02_wild_birdWild Bird
Duo Concertante; Barbara Budd
Centrediscs CMCCD 16110

Violinist Nancy Dahn and pianist Timothy Steeves formed Duo Concertante in 1997, and have had over a dozen works for violin and piano commissioned for them from Canada’s leading composers. Three – R. Murray Schafer, Chan Ka Nin and Kati Agócs - are represented on this fascinating and beautifully-produced CD from the Canadian Music Centre.


Schafer’s works open and close the disc. His tremendous three-movement Duo, premiered in 2008, is a real gem, and the best work on the CD for me.


Chan Ka Nin’s Late in a Slow Time is the longest - and most immediately striking – work of the four. In 2001 the composer heard Nova Scotia poet Carole Glasser Langille, a friend of the Duo, reading from her book of poems of the same title, and was inspired to write a musical work that would incorporate the recitation of the poems. Barbara Budd is an outstanding narrator in a work that draws you in and doesn’t let go.


Kati Agócs’ Supernatural Love follows, but on first hearing suffers somewhat in comparison, being perhaps more in the expected style of a contemporary work. Difficult at first, it repays repeated listening.


Schafer’s Wild Bird, originally for violin and harp, was written in 1997 for Jacques Israelievitch’s 50th birthday. Timothy Steeves transcribed the harp part at the composer’s suggestion. It’s a wonderful piece, intended to “celebrate the violin’s versatility”, as the excellent booklet notes tell us. That it certainly does!

01_henderson-kolkBach; Ravel; Castelnuovo-Tedesco; Lhoyer

Henderson-Kolk Duo

Independent (www.hkguitarduo.com)


The British rock star Sting is quoted as having once said, “An uncle of mine emigrated to Canada and couldn't take his guitar with him. When I found it in the attic, I'd found a friend for life.” Guitarists are a breed apart, frequently forming a deep personal bond between themselves and their instrument. Indeed, they often seem happiest when performing either alone, or else in tandem, as in this fine new recording by the Henderson-Kolk Duo. Formed in Toronto in 2004, the duo, guitarists Drew Henderson and Michael Kolk, is quickly establishing itself as one of Canada’s finest, regularly appearing throughout Canada and the US, and having made its European debut at the Mediterranean Guitar Festival in Cervo, Italy in 2006.


This recording, their second, is a delight, and features their own arrangements of keyboard pieces by Bach and Ravel in addition to original compositions for guitar by Antoine de Lhoyer and Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco. What a warm and intimate sound they achieve! This is evident not only in the tasteful arrangements of Bach’s Italian Concerto and selections from Ravel’s Le Tombeau de Couperin, but also in such pieces as the Lhoyer’s Duo Concertante in D minor. The reconstructions are particularly convincing, and sound as idiomatic for the guitar as they do for the keyboard.


I also find appealing the skilful sense of programming, which focuses on strictly classical and neo-classical repertoire – not a fandango to be heard! The excerpts from Castelnuovo-Tedesco’s Les Guitares Bien Tempérées are a study in contrasts, requiring a particular precision and virtuosity which the duo brings off with apparent ease. In all, this disc is a welcome addition to the guitar catalogue, featuring music both familiar and less than familiar. Well done, gentlemen - let’s hear from you again!


02_ebony_bandPolish Masterpieces

Barbara Hannigan; Ebony Band; Werner Herbers

Channel Classics CCS 31010 (www.channelclassics.com)


I have to admit that this recording started for me as an enigma. Having been born, and for the most part, educated in Poland, I consider myself relatively well versed in my homeland’s musical heritage. Alas, the names of Jozef Koffler and Konstanty Regamey were completely unknown to me. Much to my relief, I found out I was in good company. The manuscripts of Jozef Koffler, including his haunting Die Liebe – Cantata Op. 14, sung beautifully here by the Canadian soprano, Barbara Hannigan, were gathering dust in the archives of the Music Library of the University of Warsaw. It is a revelation to hear music composed according to Schoenberg’s principles infused with both Jewish and Polish culture. Why this national extension of dodecaphony is not wider known - now, that’s a true enigma. The works by Regamey, although apparently better known, are also restricted in their circulation – due mostly to the fact, that after the war, the composer left Poland for Switzerland.


Kudos to the Ebony Band (players from the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra) for bringing these composers to our attention. One could argue, albeit not very successfully, that the technical demands of their music prevent its frequent inclusion in concert programs. Here, in a live recording, Werner Herbers and friends bring it with great panache to an enraptured audience. You don’t have to consider yourself an aficionado of the modern musical idiom to experience the wonder and the gratitude at discovering these unknown, true masterpieces.


shostakovich_8Shostakovich - Symphony No. 8
Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra; Vasily Petrenko
Naxos 8.572392

The Eighth Symphony of Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975) was composed in the summer of 1943 as Soviet forces turned the tide of war with their decisive victory at the Battle of Kursk. Though it is less well-know than its much-hyped predecessor, the garish “Leningrad” Symphony, it is in all respects a far superior work. The epic five-movement structure of the Eighth is balanced on a pair of memorable Scherzo movements that move from biting sarcasm to sheer terror, flanked by a poignant 25-minute opening movement and a finale terminating in an atmosphere of serene resignation. The ambiguous, highly personal language of the work was criticized for its dearth of overt patriotism and was poorly received. Christened the “Stalingrad” Symphony by Soviet propagandists, performances of the work were officially banned in 1948 and the work was not heard again in Russia until 1956.

This superb Naxos disc marks the third installment of a very promising series of Shostakovich symphonies conducted by Vasily Petrenko with the Liverpool Philharmonic. Though a mere 34 years old, the Russian maestro clearly has the Liverpool ensemble in his thrall. With his uncanny knack for drawing together the disparate elements of Shostakovich’s prolix language into a coherent argument and an equally fine ear for subtle interpretive details, Petrenko makes a very strong impression indeed. The recording is bright and spacious, the performance is excellent, and the price can’t be beat.

Ara Malikian; Daniel Del Pino
Non Profit Music NPM0911

01b_malikian_no_seasonsNo Seasons
Ara Malikian; Non Profit Music Chamber Orchestra
Non Profit Music NPM093 (www.nonprofitmjsic.org)

The Lebanese-born Armenian violinist Ara Malikian is one of the younger generation of soloists who, while classically trained, are not afraid to let other musical styles influence their playing.

Malikian, currently concert-master of the Madrid Symphony Orchestra, has recorded the solo works of Bach, Ysaÿe and Paganini, but is clearly very much at home in these two CDs of mostly contemporary – and mostly Spanish and Argentinian – works, where his love of gipsy and tango music in particular makes him an ideal interpreter.

The “Minds” CD is a selection of shorter works for violin and piano. Only Gerald Finzi’s lovely Elegy and an early Kodaly work, the Brahmsian Adagio, are not recent compositions. Astor Piazzolla’s Tanti Anni Prima is a beautiful opening track; Lera Auerbach’s Postlude is short but sweet.

Marjan Mozetich’s Desire at Twilight is recorded here for the first time, as is Agua y Vino by Fernando Egozcue, formerly one of Piazzolla’s arrangers.

Jorge Grundman’s sonata What Inspires Poetry, also a premiere recording, is the biggest work on the disc, but also unfortunately the least appealing for me, with too much formulaic writing and little character. Elena Kats-Chermin’s Russian Rag, in the same vein as William Bolcom’s Graceful Ghost, is a charming closer.

There are three larger works on the oddly-titled “No Seasons” CD. (An RTVE concert of the same works by the same artists was called – more logically - 12 Seasons)

Piazzolla’s Four Seasons of Buenos Aires were originally written as separate pieces for his quintet with bandoneon between 1964 and 1970. This arrangement is by Leonid Desyatnikov, who added direct quotes from Vivaldi’s Four Seasons. Malikian is again clearly in his element with Piazzolla’s idiosyncratic music.

Joan Valent’s Four Seasons in Mallorca fits Malikian’s style perfectly, but Grundman’s Four Sad Seasons Over Madrid, for soprano, violin, piano and string orchestra, is a disappointment. Susana Cordon has a big voice, but really struggles with her English pronunciation. Not that it matters – despite her singing at full belt, the unsympathetic setting and heavy orchestration make her words almost inaudible.

Each CD comes in a beautifully-produced hard-cover booklet in English and Spanish, although the English translation is awkward at times. Sound quality is excellent throughout.

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