02_hamelinMarc-André Hamelin - Études

Marc-André Hamelin

Hyperion CDA67789

Up to now, the Montreal-born Boston-based pianist Marc-André Hamelin has been rightly regarded as something of a pianistic supernova, a musician whose technical prowess and innate musicality have gone hand in hand with his efforts at promoting piano music by lesser-known composers. But with this new Hyperion recording, titled simply “Études” we see him in a new role, that akin to a 19th-century “pianist-composer.” The CD is comprised of original material written over a 24- year period, featuring 12 Etudes in all the minor keys, Little Nocturne, five movements from a set of pieces titled Con intimissimo sentimento, and finally, a Theme and Variations.

Of the twelve études, eight are based on works by other composers, along the lines of Godowsky’s re-creations of the 24 Études by Chopin. For example, the first in the set, written in 1992, is based on the Chopin Étude Op.10 No.2, while the third is a clear adaptation of the famous Liszt-Paganini étude La Campanella – but very much taken a step further! These pieces are breathtaking in their virtuosity – amateur pianists such as myself can only marvel at the brilliant technique displayed here, which at the same time demonstrates such subtle nuances of tone and colour. The Little Nocturne from 2007 provides a languorous contrast to the pyrotechnics of the études, while the pieces from Con intimissimo sentimento are quietly introspective, showing a wholly different side to Hamelin’s creative style. Over the years, more than a handful of composers have written music expressing their love for a “significant other” and Hamelin is no exception. His Theme and Variations (“Cathy’s Variations”) is a poetic and intimate love-song honouring his fiancée Cathy Fuller.

For anyone who is sceptical about “pianists who compose” this disc is a highly worthy addition to the catalogue. We were always aware of Mr. Hamelin’s supreme gifts at the keyboard, but now he has now shown us another dimension of his talents.

03_mack_imprintsImprints - Music by Colin Mack

Various Artists

CanSona Arts Media CAM 09001 (www.cansona.com)

This 25 year retrospective disc presents profiles of Ottawa composer Colin Mack in chamber music, songs and solo piano pieces. Mack has a confident ear, writes sensitively and idiomatically for instruments and voice, and creates arresting moments. Performances are distinguished throughout.

The atonal Starry Night for piano is particularly successful. Beautiful handling of the instrument’s resources seems to evoke not only stars but supernovas, constellations, and more mysterious astronomical phenomena. The 12-part structure derived from the signs of the zodiac is reflected in a variety of contrasting sections, clearly delineated in the convincing performance by Shoshana Telner.

The modest Piano Trio: In Memoriam Dimitri Shostakovich is an apt tribute. Only settings of Gwendolyn MacEwen poems in Shadow-Maker disappoint, despite their moving performance by soprano Doreen Taylor-Claxton. For example Dark Pines is more than a nature poem. It turns an iconic Canadian image upside down, suggesting hidden depths, dark and dangerous. Here Mack’s conventional tonal language feels too timid for MacEwen’s mystical depth and ironic bite.

But Winterseen for flute, percussion, and piano, ably performed by Robert Cram, John Wong, and Claudia Cashin-Mack, makes a fine conclusion to the disc. Evocative vibraphone writing begins a transformation: from winter to spring. Jazz-accented gestures move us forward, then magical resonances of an electronically-enhanced flute. An exciting ostinato-based conclusion enacts the bursting forth of spring’s new life. I hope that this disc will bring to listeners’ notice a composer definitely worth hearing.

04_lutoslawski_nmcLutosławski's Last Concert

Fujiko Imajishi; Valdine Anderson; New Music Concerts; Witold Lutosławski

Naxos 8.572450

The late Polish composer, Witold Lutosławski (1913-1994) enjoyed well deserved recognition and his music was regularly performed and recorded by the world’s greatest orchestras and instrumentalists. A new Naxos CD features an elite group of Toronto musicians, the New Music Concerts Ensemble, under the direction of the composer recorded at a live concert in the Premier Dance Theatre on October 24, 1993.

The program opens with the Partita for violin and orchestra (1988) with brilliant playing by Fujiko Imajishi. Lutosławski’s complex textures are made transparent by both the crisp ensemble and a well balanced recording. The quiet and haunting Interlude (1989) was written as a bridge between Partita and an earlier concerted work for violin, Chain 2 (1985), which follows. Once again Imajishi provides a stunning performance.

Soprano Valdine Anderson also shines as she easily manages the nine delightful and quirky songs comprising Chantefleurs et Chantefables (1990) in a voice ranging from the purity of a boy soprano to broad operatic proportions.

Like Chain 2, Chain 1 (1983), the final work on this disc, is an amusing piece full of vitality and humour, somewhat reminiscent of Poulenc or even Stravinsky, executed to perfection by members of the group.

Lutosławski died at the age of 81 a few months after this concert was recorded for broadcast by the CBC and this Toronto performance was his last conducting appearance anywhere. The recording has plenty of atmosphere, taking the listener right into the theatre. Originally released independently in 1998, it speaks well of founding director Robert Aitken and his New Music Concerts Ensemble that Naxos has chosen to bring this valuable document to international attention.

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!


Back to top