06 Jupiter QuartetAlchemy – Music by Jalbert; Stucky; Vine
Jupiter String Quartet; Bernadette Harvey
Marquis Classics MAR 81491 (marquisclassics.com)

Being a devotee of the piano quartet and quintet I’m gratified to hear four fine 21st-century examples originally commissioned by the Arizona Friends of Chamber Music. The American-based Jupiter String Quartet and Australian pianist Bernadette Harvey play these demanding works vividly and expressively, their virtuosity suited to the brilliant motions that American composer Pierre Jalbert induces in his Piano Quintet (2017) and Secret Alchemy for Violin, Viola, Cello and Piano (2012). The players also excel in reflective passages and evocative sonorities, such as the “outer space” part of the Quintet’s Mannheim Rocket movement. In Secret Alchemy’s movement, Timeless, mysterious, reverberant, Jalbert’s miraculous mood creation suggests a medieval cathedral in modern terms. For me it brought to mind, uncannily, the Notre Dame Cathedral fire earlier this year.

Australian Carl Vine’s Fantasia for Piano Quintet (2013) is in a lighter vein which the composer describes as “quasi-improvisational.” Featuring plenty of idiomatic virtuosity, I found the work’s style more conventional with recurring four-bar phrases in the last two movements that could have stood a few metric surprises. Finally, I can only offer the highest possible praise for the late, Steven Stucky’s outstanding one-movement Piano Quartet (2005). A long, sorrowful melody begins shortly after the opening, broken into motifs yet somehow finding the strength to go on. This work is too rich to describe in words; I hope readers will find their way to hearing it.

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01 Andre Mathieu chamberAndré Mathieu – Musique de chambre
Marc Djokic; Andréa Tyniec; Elvira Misbakhova; Chloé Dominguez; Jean-Philippe Sylvestre
ATMA ACD2 2784 (atmaclassique.com)

The turbulent life of the pianist and composer André Mathieu (1929–68) began in triumph and ended in tragedy. This son of professional musicians was hailed as “the Mozart of Québec” at his Parisian debut in 1936 but ultimately faded into in a haze of alcoholism and obscurity, succumbing to a heart attack at the age of 39. It is perhaps not surprising that Mathieu’s resolutely post-Romantic style, heavily influenced by Scriabin and Debussy and profoundly melodic and episodic by nature, was disdained in the new music circles of the 1960s. It is largely due to the advocacy of the Québécois pianist-composer Alain Lefèvre, a champion of Mathieu’s piano concertos, that his reputation has been restored in our post-modern era.

The album features Mathieu’s eight chamber works from the middle of the 20th century, the era of his finest compositions. It includes a selection of compact duets for violin and piano featuring pianist Jean-Philippe Sylvestre with violinists Mark Djokic and Andréa Tyniec alternating as soloists. Tyniec (who dazzled Toronto recently performing Ana Sokolović’s violin concerto for New Music Concerts) lays claim to the enjoyable though discursive Violin Sonata. Of particular interest are the Quintette for piano and string quartet and the Trio for violin, cello and piano, two substantial works in which Mathieu exceeds himself in the mastery of large-scale forms. The performances are uniformly excellent and production values are top notch.

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02 Canadian AmberCanadian Amber – Music by Latvian-Canadian Composers
Laura Zarina; Arthur Ozolins; Beverley Johnston; Canadian Opera Company Orchestra; Ninth Latvian Song Festival Orchestra; Alfred Strombergs; Maris Simais
Centrediscs CMCCD 26519 (musiccentre.ca)

Back in July 2019 I attended a concert which highlighted “significant contributions made by émigrés from Latvia to the music and culture of Canada.” Part of the Toronto XV Latvian Song and Dance Festival, it focused naturally on Latvia’s famous choral tradition, yet I was curious also to hear orchestral works by Latvian-Canadian composers including Tālivaldis Ķeniņš (1919-2008) and Imant Raminsh (b.1943). It is perhaps not surprising to hear works by the same composers on the CD Canadian Amber – dedicated to the same theme – with the addition of the slightly older Jānis Kalniņš (1904-2000). All three Latvian composers made Canada their home after World War II.

Kalniņš’ three-movement Violin Concerto (1945), firmly anchored in late-Romantic style, offers attractive lyrical passages for the soloist and orchestra, though overall the work sounds some 50 years past the style’s prime era. Raminsh is best known for his choral works. True to form, his Aria for Violin and Piano (1987) is imbued with arching, expressive melodies, framed by easygoing tonal settings with modal implications on the piano.

On the other hand Ķeniņš’ Concerto for Piano, Percussion, and String Orchestra (1990) reflects a very different sound world. The title, instrumentation, shear energy and terse, shifting dramatic moods evoke Béla Bartók’s expressionistic, modernist, chromatic musical language, though the instrumentation also brings to mind aspects of some Alban Berg works. Despite these surface homages, Ķeniņš’ idiosyncratic compositional voice emerges clearly, emotionally gripping us with effective writing for the piano soloist as well as for the strings and percussion. Here’s a work that begs for programming on both Canadian and Latvian stages.

03 Music in the BarnsBolton; Godin; Oesterle
Music in the Barns
New Focus Recordings FCR226 DDD (newfocusrecordings.com)

Classical traditions seldom come together so gloriously with the unpredictability of the avant-garde than on this disc titled after its contributing Canadian composers Rose Bolton, Scott Godin and Michael Oesterle. When that happens, it somehow seems fortuitous that Toronto’s Music in the Barns – a quintet where violinist Lance Ouellette and violists Carol Gimbel and Pemi Paull sometimes play musical chairs – should be tasked to play their repertoire.

Bolton’s The Coming of Sobs is a particularly intense work. But even here the musicians make the black dots literally fly off the page intensifying the experience that the composer has written into the work. After a relatively quiet opening the music develops – through a series of pulses and crescendos to a shattering fortissimo that emphasizes its darkly dramatic and veritably vocal human cry as brilliantly expressed by the string ensemble.

Godin’s work, all that is solid melts into the air,is more ephemeral and calls for a more nuanced performance, one which Music in the Barns delivers in spades. Breathing their way into the composition that spans over 150 years of humanity, the ensemble traverses a work bookended by the visceral world of Charles Baudelaire and the beguiling symbolism of master-builder Robert Moses with transcendent splendour.

The disc comes to an end with Oesterle’s Daydream Mechanics. The quintet brings a near-rhapsodic reverie inspired by the spare lyricism of Nicole Brossard’s poetry into a sensuous awakening on a disc to die for.

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04 Messiaen SmithOlivier Messiaen; Linda Catlin Smith
Apartment House
Another Timbre at143 (anothertimbre.com)

Toronto-based composer Linda Catlin Smith has been well represented in Another Timbre’s ten-volume release of contemporary Canadian composers, including the eight varied pieces of The Wanderer and the two-CD set, The Drifter. Here she shares a disc with that work of concentration-camp genius, Messiaen’s, Quatuor pour la fin du temps. They’re performed by the English ensemble Apartment House, and share the instrumentation of violin, cello, clarinet and piano.

This is the second recording of Smith’s Among the Tarnished Stars (1998), following the Toronto ensemble The Burdocks. Apartment House stretches the piece to 28 minutes, making the most of Smith’s subtle sonic exploration, from the opening’s ascending arpeggios through an almost accordion-like blend of clarinet and strings to some wonderfully resonant ensemble clusters that ring out into the emptiness of space.

The resonance and harmony make Among an ideal companion for Quatuor, a piece that transcends the grim circumstances of its composition and initial performance. Apartment House doesn’t do anything to contort the work into a post-modern aesthetic, but they do give its gestural elements new life in a rendering that never struggles to add overt emotional content to Messiaen’s materials. Clarinetist Heather Roche, however, does succeed in finding a sonority of rare resonance in the brief Intermède.

Perhaps what’s most interesting about the CD is the way in which the two works live side by side, the proximity emphasizing the celestial spirit that informs Smith’s work.    

06 Spring ForwardSpring Forward: Music for Clarinet and String Quartet
David Shifrin; Miró; Dover; Jasper String Quartets
Delos DE 3528 (delosmusic.com)

Since 1981, David Shifrin, former principal clarinet of the Cleveland Orchestra, has served as artistic director of Chamber Music Northwest, the Oregon organization that commissioned these works by three well-established American composers.

In Spring Forward (2014) by Peter Schickele (aka P.D.Q. Bach), Shifrin performs with the Miró Quartet. The 22-minute, five-movement piece, typical of Schickele’s gently rocking, listener-friendly charm, evokes warm memories of springs past, including A Perfect Picnic (the last movement), fondly recalled by Schickele as one he shared with his wife at sunset by the Hudson River.

Richard Danielpour’s 18-minute Clarinet Quintet (2015) is subtitled The Last Jew in Hamadan. Danielpour’s father was born in Hamadan, the Iranian city traditionally known as the burial place of the biblical Queen Esther. Danielpour writes that the first movement, Agitato, con energia, with its bouncy mix of klezmer and the Middle East, derives from vivid childhood memories of visiting Iran with his parents. The following Adagietto e triste is a meditative lament for Iran’s mostly vanished Jewish community under the ayatollahs. Shifrin is joined by the Dover Quartet, recent performers at Toronto Summer Music.

Finally, Shifrin and the Jasper Quartet perform the 18-minute Perpetual Chaconne (2012) by Aaron Jay Kernis. Kernis writes that the piece “maps an emotional journey from mournful lyricism to increasingly abstract, harsh gestures and back.” It’s all rather bleak, lacking Kernis’ usual tendency to sentimentality. A bit of sentiment would have helped, much as it enhanced the pieces by Schickele and Danielpour.

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