03_overheardOverheard – Music for Oboe and English Horn
Michele Fiala; William Averill;
Martin Schuring; Donald Speer
MSR Classics MS 1403
www.msrcd.com

Overheard is a refreshing disc of contemporary music for oboe and English horn, by composers born between 1952 and 1986. A professor of oboe at Ohio University who has performed internationally, Michele Fiala’s playing on this, her second recording, is certainly “world class,” in both display of solid technical facility and musical expression, with equally able piano accompaniment provided by William Averill and Donald Speer; but congratulations are also in order on the choice of repertoire which covers a gamut of styles from jazz to the incorporation of electronics.

One of three commissioned works on this disc is by Toronto composer Beverly Lewis — her Fundy Temperaments for English horn and piano is a dramatic work evoking the landscape of the Bay of Fundy, including a foghorn depicted through the use of multiphonics. Another commission, Peaches at Midnight, is a delightful work by Theresa Martin evoking the playfulness of childhood. Sheer technical brilliance is displayed in Gilles Silvestrini’s Three Duos for Two Oboes, in which Fiala is joined by Martin Schuring; the movements are named for works by French impressionist painters.

The concluding work on the disc is a personal favourite — Mark Phillips’ Elegy and Honk for English horn and electroacoustic music uses only processed English horn sounds for the background soundtrack of the slow and moody first segment, while Honk employs manipulated sounds of geese, ducks and a bicycle horn as a rhythmic backdrop to the live instrument. I found myself chuckling along with this last track on what is a thoroughly enjoyable and important contribution to the recorded repertoire for oboe and English horn.

04_andre_moisanAfter You, Mr. Gershwin
André Moisan; Jean Saulnier
ATMA ACD2 2517

I used to like jazz. Then something happened. Perhaps I’ve heard too many similar versions of the standards. Maybe I just realized that none of it was necessary after Monk. I also used to enjoy clarinet music but now too often I just curl up from over-exposure.

Nevertheless, there is hope for others, and it comes in the form of this wildly impressive collection of jazz-influenced repertoire performed by the estimable clarinettist André Moisan together with his frequent collaborator Jean Saulnier. Good lord these two can play, and have fun while at it too!

Odd that the disc opens with a recital encore, one of Béla Kovác’s Homages series. It is of course the title track, but in its sparkling brevity it delivers what might be the final word for the whole compilation. The next cut is the highly effective Cape Cod Files, a sonata by Paquito D’Rivera, the most substantial selection. For the first while my jaded ear was persuaded to attend, especially during the beautiful unaccompanied third movement. The conventional finale suggests the composer wanted to get on with other things.

The rest of the material ranges from heart-on-the-sleeve sentimentality (Daniel Mercure’s Pour mon ami Leon) to the clear and incisive Time Pieces by Robert Muczynski. This one is probably the least overtly jazz-inspired, but it’s got that crazy syncopated rhythm goin’ on. Joseph Horowitz’ Sonatina starts off sounding like watery British recital literature until the flashy third movement makes its argument for inclusion.

The playing is fine to fantastic. On occasion Moisan allows his tone to get thin and reedy, edging sharp in the higher range, but generally his sound is lovely, warm and expressive when it needs to be, and fluid and free for the assured passage work. I was glad to hear the clicking of his keys on some of the tracks, an effect as charming as close-miked guitar.

05_claire_chaseTerrestre
Claire Chase
Focus Recordings, FCR 122 DDD

Despite the cover image — Claire Chase, flute on her shoulder, staring directly into the camera — this CD is not all about Chase. It is an exhilarating ride through the music of five “modernist” composers; it is all about the music, which the high-voltage interpretations of Chase and her five equally capable collaborators render incandescent.

The title track, Terrrestre by Kaija Saariaho, moves from twitchy virtuosic bird songs in the opening movement, L’oiseau dansant, to luminous dreaminess in the second, Oiseau, un satellite infime. In both, the contribution of percussionist Nathan Davis must be mentioned.

Franco Donatoni’s Fili (Threads) and Elliott Carter’s Esprit Rude; Esprit Doux are both series of rhythmically erratic conversations, the first between the flute and the piano, played by Jacob Greenberg, the second between flute and clarinet, played by Joshua Rubin, with effortless ease and rhythmic agility equal to Chase’s.

Chase and Greenberg navigate Pierre Boulez’s now classic (ground-breaking at the time — 1946) Sonatine Op.1 with aplomb: it sounds as new as if it had been composed yesterday.

Kai Fujikara’s Glacier for bass flute concludes the CD. Chase plays the bass with exceptional fluidity and a lovely shakuhachi-like sound. The ending, a haunting figure repeated more and more quietly until it disappears, is exquisite.

The superb technique of the performers and their commitment to the “modernist” musical genre give us the opportunity to hear this very difficult music as (I imagine) the composers would want it to sound.

06_kagelKagel – Das Konzert; Phantasiestück; Pan
Michael Faust; Sinfonia Finlandia;
Patrick Gallois
Naxos 8.572635

Throughout his life the Argentinean-German composer Mauricio Kagel (1931–2008) explored every aspect of the evolving musical language of his time, including free improvisation, open form, electronic music, music theatre and purely instrumental music. He taught and organized forums for new music and was a masterful conductor of his own works. He also held an exceptional interest in broadcast media, completing several thought-provoking films in the 1960s for German television and producing radio programs of new music. His appearances in Toronto with New Music Concerts are fondly remembered by all who experienced them.

In his later years Kagel’s music took on an aspect one might call “post-modern,” freely incorporating the extended instrumental techniques of the 20th century in a frequently ironic dialogue with traditional musical conventions. These shadows of the hallowed past occur frequently in the late period works on this disc. Kagel’s 1988 Phantasiestück, a quasi-Schumannesque work that devolves from an atonal to a purely diatonic realm, appears in two versions, one for flute and piano with pianist Paulo Alvares and an expanded version with string quartet and two clarinets performed by Michael Faust’s own Ensemble Contrasts conducted by Robert HP Platz. The brief and delightful Pan for piccolo and string quartet (1985) is a pastiche on Papageno’s pan-flute solo from Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte. Das Konzert is a theatrical work that was written at the request of Michael Faust and premiered by the Deutsche Oper am Rhein in 2003 with a dozen performances in Duisburg and Düsseldorf. It is a schizophrenic “anti-concerto” for flute and chamber orchestra expertly performed here by the Sinfonia Finlandia Jyväsklä, sympathetically led by fellow flutist turned conductor Patrick Gallois. This is an entertaining yet thought-provoking disc that repays repeated listening.

Editor’s Note: As a long standing friend of the composer, Canadian flutist Robert Aitken was invited to share the soloist’s role in the creation of Kagel’s Das Konzert, alternating the first performances with Michael Faust and giving the Düsseldorf premiere. Aitken went on to give the world premiere performance of the concert version of the work with Esprit Orchestra in Toronto in January 2004.

07_saariahoSaariaho – Works for Orchestra
Various Orchestras
Ondine ODE1113-2Q

There must be something in the water in Helsinki. For a country of just over five million people, Finland seems to produce a disproportionate amount of musical talents — instrumentalists, vocalists, conductors and composers. Kaija Saariaho is no stranger to Toronto audiences: the COC produced the hauntingly beautiful L’amour de loin this season, along with notable performances by the TSO and Soundstreams.

In a sparsely populated Nordic country, an artist feels connected to nature and light (or the lack thereof). Many of the works on this compilation — Lichtbogen, Solar, Orion, Notes on Light — look to the cosmos, and Saariaho’s writing is starkly beautiful. Her use of electronics is meticulously intertwined and delicately masterful — undoubtedly the result of her time at IRCAM in Paris, and the influence of spectralism pioneers Tristan Murail and Gérard Grisey. But it is the diptych Du cristal and … à la fumée that confirms this composer’s inimitability: as in a crystal, macroscopically the structure seems complete, but upon closer inspection, we see not only detail, but growth. Her polymorphic textures progress like an ethereal sublimation.

Saariaho’s connection to the voice is mesmerizing: she integrates text into her orchestrations in a strikingly unique way. Cinq reflets de “L’amour de loin” revisits the music from the opera, but in her process, she has created a completely new work. Grammaire des rêves sets poems of French Surrealist Paul Éluard (not to be confused with her other great vocal work, From the Grammar of Dreams). The voice is treated as instrument, and the ensemble as voices in a texture that rivals (and perhaps surpasses) the great vocal works of Berio. Of all the fantastic singing, I would be remiss not to mention Mirage, featuring the powerful lyric soprano Karita Mattila, whose luminous sound is more often heard in the world’s leading opera houses.

For me, the highlight of the set is undoubtedly cellist Anssi Karttunen, who lends his acrobatic and nuanced virtuosity to four substantial works. But it is difficult to single out a star player on this Finnish powerhouse team that includes conductors Esa-Pekka Salonen (with the Los Angeles Philharmonic), Jukka-Pekka Saraste (with the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra) and Hannu Lintu (leading the superb Avanti! Chamber Orchestra).

I could say that Saariaho’s orchestral writing fuses the stark grandeur of compatriot Sibelius, with the stratified texture of Stravinsky, with the slowness of process heard in Ligeti — but it would not do her music justice. Over 20 years of music on four discs reveals a distinguished voice in contemporary orchestral writing; I look forward to hearing the next 20. And she is welcome back to Toronto anytime.



01_Julian_WachnerWachner, Julian – Triptych;
Concerto for Clarinet
Scott Andrews; McGill Chamber Orchestra; Julian Wachner
ATMA ACD2 2319

Sparked by multiple talents of composer-conductor Julian Wachner, this disc succeeds on all fronts! In Triptych, commissioned for the 100th anniversary of St. Joseph’s Oratory, organist Philippe Bélanger and Montreal’s Orchestre Métropolitain offer an exciting, insightful performance. Out of orchestral chaos the organ enters with chordal grandeur in the introductory “Logos.” An introspective two-part organ passage plus its aggressive string response become the bases for the following allegro. I was especially struck by the quiet return of the organ passage over a pedal note, now continued effectively with chimes. Bélanger and selected instrumentalists are beautifully reflective again in the middle movement “Agape,” the violins serene and inspired in the closing melody. The organist shines in the final “Angelus,” building steadily with the orchestra through tricky metre changes to a great, moving conclusion. Himself a virtuoso organist, Wachner has created long sonorities, repeated chords, and busy passages that are static harmonically to suit the highly reverberant space. Producer Johanne Goyette and engineer Anne-Marie Sylvestre deserve special mention for the sonic results.

On a lighter plane, Wachner’s eclectic Concerto for Clarinet and Orchestra receives loving treatment from St. Louis Symphony principal clarinettist Scott Andrews and the McGill Chamber Orchestra. Andrews’ clarinet manages to be Coplandesque, jazzy, klezmerish and more in the expressive introduction and motoric allegro. Highly recommended.

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