04_vienna_art_satieThe Minimalism of Erik Satie

Vienna Art Orchestra

hatOLOGY 671 (www.hathut.com)

Re-orchestrating the quirky compositions of Erik Satie (1868-1925) may seem peculiar, but that’s what conductor Mathias Rüegg and the 10-piece Vienna Art Orchestra (VAO) do with élan on this 75-minute CD. Over the past 33 years, the VAO has effected similar transformations on the music of other composers such as Strauss, Brahms and Gershwin, not to mention many of jazz’s greatest themes. Here the procedures emphasize the pared-down and folkloric tendencies found in the music of France’s Satie, a transitional composer, whose eccentric titles and cabaret influences presaged experimental sounds.

Recasting the music of a composer known for his piano works, Rüegg’s arrangements feature no pianist, instead relying on the VAO`s soloists to put a personal stamp on Satie. Reflections on Méditation for instance, revolves around Lauren Newton’s squeaky scatting and Karl Fian’s whinnying and slurry trumpet lines. Reflections on Sévère Réprimande, balances Harry Sokol’s languid soprano saxophone solo on an undertow of mid-range brass and vibraharp textures. More radically, a composition such as Reflections on Gnossienne No. 1 becomes a romping circus-styled exposition with joyful contrapuntal rhythms courtesy of Wolfgang Puschnig’s Arabic-sounding sopranino saxophone and the reverberations from Wolfgang Reisinger’s tarabuka or goblet drum.

Rüegg’s transformation of Satie’s works as pared-to-the-bone minimalism is most apparent on the three variants on Vexations which the composer wanted performed slowly with many repetitions. Since one track lasts more than 23 minutes and the other two either side of nine, the VAO adds needed emotion to these exercises courtesy of, in one instance Newton’s melismatic vocalese, and in another Roman Schwaller’s sensual tenor saxophone lines.

02_chinese_recorderChinese Recorder Concertos

Michala Petri; Copenhagen Philharmonic; lan Shui

OUR Recordings 6.220603

This remarkable CD presents the premiere recordings of four concertos by living Chinese composers, two of whom currently work in the USA. The disc opens with Tian Jianping’s Fei Ge (Flying Song), originally written in 2002 as a concerto for dizi (Chinese bamboo flute) and pan-Asian instrumental ensemble. This transcription by the composer for western orchestra and recorder, on which Petri eloquently evokes the dizi in tone and effect, works beautifully with playing of the highest order from both orchestra and soloist.

Bright Sheng’s evocative and strikingly beautiful Flute Moon is more a full orchestral work than a concerto, and Petri plays solo parts originally assigned to the flute and piccolo. The piece revels in a rich array of orchestral colours, dazzling musical gestures, and dramatic shifts of mood. The three-movement Bang Di Concerto by Ma Shui-long is the composer’s best known composition, and is an extraordinarily effective fusion between Chinese and western musical languages. It receives an utterly virtuosic performance from all involved. Written for Petri by Chen Yi, The Ancient Chinese Beauty draws inspiration from Chinese figures, script, and flutes. The second movement, particularly in its evocation of the ancient xun or large Chinese ocarina, is particularly impressive.

For several decades now Michala Petri has been one of the busiest and most familiar recorder players to audiences around the globe, and with programs such as this she continues to do great things beyond the recorder’s more typical boundaries. She seems eminently at home here, making her own distinct music in a fascinating project designed “to creatively collaborate in an international musical dialogue.”

Kudos to her, to the wonderful Copenhagen Philharmonic and conductor Lan Shui – and to the composers of these wonderful pieces.

Concert Note: Chen Yi is the featured composer at this year’s New Music Festival at the Faculty of Music, University of Toronto with events January 23 through 29. Chen’s Yangko is also included in Soundstreams Canada’s January 25 concert “Tan Dun’s Ghost Opera” at Koerner Hall.

03_harrisonLou Harrison - Scenes from Cavafy

Gamelan Pacifica; Jarrad Powell

New World Records 80710-2 (www.newworldrecords.org)

The long list of non-Indonesian composers who have been intrigued and inspired by the instruments and music of the gamelan (an indigenous Indonesian orchestra) goes back some 250 years. Starting with Jean-Philippe Rameau in the 18th c., the lineage continues with Debussy and led to compositions by the Canadian Colin McPhee, and to works of Steve Reich and to many more musicians active today.

There was no more eager convert to the gamelan as a Western musical resource however than the American composer Lou Harrison (1917–2003). As well as composing dozens of works for various types of gamelans, Harrison served as a generous mentor to a generation of musicians who have subsequently taken the gamelan music model into their own musical domains. These include Toronto’s Evergreen Club Contemporary Gamelan and Seattle’s Gamelan Pacifica.

The top-notch musicians of the latter perform definitive versions of the three large-scale Harrison works for Central Javanese style gamelan on this album. The Seattle composer and expert gamelan musician Jarrad Powell convincingly directs the extended ensemble of instrumentalists, choir and vocal soloists in the three works here.

The Concerto for Piano with Javanese Gamelan (1987) is the most substantial of the eight Harrison works combining Western solo instruments and the gamelan. The piano is retuned to match the gamelan instruments. This is an effect which provides bracing listening at first, but to which friendly ears warm by the slow cantabile movement, a Harrison specialty.

A Soedjatmoko Set (1989) illustrating Harrison’s mature gamelan style, features Jessika Kenney, an outstanding American soprano. She manages the most difficult of musical tasks: to convincingly nail a sort of magical amalgam of both Javanese and late 20th c. American vocal style, articulation, timbre, intonation and mood, at the same time. Together with the excellent liner notes, this recording is a fitting tribute to Harrison’s ideal of the peaceful coexistence of world music cultures, demonstrated here at a very high level indeed.

01_james_harleyNeue Bilder - Music of James Harley

New Music Concerts; Robert Aitken

Centrediscs CMCCD 16010

One of the benefits of the endangered CD format is illustrated by the release of compilations such as this revealing in-depth look into the oeuvre of Canadian composer James Harley (b.1959).

On one hand we have detailed programme and biographic notes in the booklet allowing one-stop exploration of the creator’s mind and life leading up to compositions spanning 22 years. On the disc, we have the star performances of Toronto’s venerable New Music Concerts (NMC). Celebrating 40 years of dedication to new music this season NMC’s musicians consistently present interpretations of a high level, and these performances – many recorded live – live up to those standards of excellence. As a stellar example, NMC co-founder and internationally renowned flutist Robert Aitken’s brilliant performance of Harley's early solo flute piece Portrait (1984) is a demonstration of virtuosity in the service of the composer’s lyrical musical vision.

While the spirit of the Second Vienna School is alive in the eloquent and elegant music of Harley’s composition Neue Bilder (1991), the notes reveal that the work is actually based on the music of an earlier Austrian composer. “Algorhythmically” transforming abstracted material from an illustrious aria from Mozart’s opera The Magic Flute, this work is a testament to the magical possibilities inherent in musical metamorphosis in its many forms.

Judging from the five works here Harley, who presently teaches Digital Music at the University of Guelph, has a rare gift for sustained melodic line. The passionate flute and cello solos in Epanoui (1995) and the breathy, delicate bass flute exhalations in Tyee (1995) provide ample evidence of that. It’s a gift I appreciate receiving, repeatedly.

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.

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