04 EinaudiLudovico Einaudi – Chamber Music
Cameron Crozman; Quatuor Molinari; Pentaèdre
ATMA ACD2 2805 (atmaclassique.com/En/Albums/AlbumInfo.aspx?AlbumID=1650)

Considered by many to be the world’s most popular classical composer, Italian Ludovico Einaudi’s vast collection of compositions has appeared in films, television series and on countless albums recorded by soloists, ensembles and the composer himself. Musique de chambre features four of Einaudi’s extended works, written for both soloists and chamber ensemble, performed by prominent Quebec musicians.

Each of the pieces on this album demonstrates Einaudi’s ability to create an atmospheric soundscape using harmony and rhythm, incorporating minimalist elements to great effect. This is not classical music in the style of Mozart and Beethoven: rather than being foundational material, melodic lines are the exception to the rule; throbbing, pulsing rhythms and large-scale harmonic shifts bring Philip Glass and Michael Nyman to mind, but with the striking contrasts of dynamic and character that are indicative of Einaudi’s unique compositional voice. 

Corale, for example, juxtaposes vital and exuberant string passages with soft and subdued statements, the “choral” sung amidst the outbursts. Zoom (aptly titled, given our current reliance on the eponymous technology) combines a lengthy, slow opening with a speedy and chaotic conclusion – what begins as a seemingly ironic subversion of the title erupts into a virtuosic reflection of what it means to “zoom.” 

Canto and Ai margini dell’aria are, in both title and sound, reflective of vocal music, featuring prominent lines, sometimes many at once, over discordant accompaniment. For those who appreciate Einaudi’s style and want to look beyond the keyboard works, Musique de chambre is a fine place to start.

05 John Oswald coverCLASSICS from the Rascali Klepitoire (teaser) EP
John Oswald
fony (pfony.bandcamp.com)

This Toronto composer/saxophonist/improviser/electronics/artistic genius John Oswald release is an exciting cross section of masterfully created old and new projects illuminating Oswald’s unique talents in electronic and live sound creation, something this reviewer can attest from decades playing free improvised music with him in various settings. 

Oswald recently revised an earlier dance piano/ensemble soundtrack to disklavier for from exquisite lune. Linda Caitlin Smith’s score is one that Oswald subcontracted for his suite based on Debussy’s Clair de Lune, and here her slow reflective piece with wide spaces is breathtaking to the final high-pitched piano sounds. The Oswald and James Rolfe co-composition bird, based on Leonard Cohen, is fascinating with the opening solo female voice warbling, high notes, pace change, spoken words and final almost folk oompah groove backdrop. 

Plunderphonics galore in a sum of distractions* (concerto for conductor and orchestra), as the conductor/soloist is wired for sound, and fingertip triggers set off musical quotes against flute melody, intermittent orchestral crashes and superimposed familiar lines for new listening experiences. sounds of sigh… opens with a Simon and Garfunkel Sounds of Silence -sounding riff as overlapping symphonic held notes, groove patterns, intense sustained horn and atonal effects abound. 

Also included are lontanofaune, and ariature & panorama. But the biggest thrill is the “silly bonus track” 5th. Beethoven’s classic symphony now contains such treats as electronically produced sounds, squeaks, instrumental effects, grunts, all in classic Oswald plunderphonics bravado.

Oswald has also been releasing reissues on Bandcamp. Highlights include Grayfolded “radio edit” (1994), his infamous groundbreaking reworking of music played by the Grateful Dead. Discosphere (1991) is a cross section of Oswald’s “soundtracks for dance.” Kissing Jesus in the Dark is a 1970s “found sound” release by Pause Pirate – Oswald, Marvin Green and Miguel Frasconi.

Timeless fun music by a great Canadian musician!

06 New England TriosNew England Trios
Joel Pitchon; Marie-Volcy Pelletier; Yu-Mei Wei
Bridge Records BRIDGE 9530 (bridgerecords.com/products/9530) 

With the release of this exquisitely produced, recorded and performed disc, the skilled trio of John Pitchon (violin), Marie-Volcy Pelletier (cello) and Yu-Mei Wei (piano) have explored the New England connection between iconic American composers Ronald Perera, Walter Piston and Leonard Bernstein. All three of these seminal, 20th-century artists found common ground in their mutual New England upbringings and their education at Harvard University in Boston. Written at the age of 19, Bernstein’s 1937 trio is a very early work by the genius who would ultimately blur the lines between classical, jazz and ethnomusics, which led to the very definition of contemporary American musical theatre. Interestingly, recordings of the other three trios (the two by Piston from 1935 and 1966, and the Perera from 2002) have not been available in recent years, making the disc an especially important addition to the catalogue. 

Highlights of the ambitious CD are Piston’s Allegro from Piano Trio No.1, a vivacious, intense and passionate interpretation, punctuated by strong, sinuous, unison lines and deep, throbbing cello work from Pelletier, and Bernstein’s aforementioned Adagio non Troppo – piu mosso – Allegro Vivace, which is almost unbearably romantic, and yet rife with dark references to all-consuming passions, creative obsession and an all-too-brief creative euphoria. How prophetic those unguarded motifs are when viewed in context with Bernstein’s life and work. 

In Perera’s Incisivo, Pitchon shines with appropriate incisor-like attack and intonation, and all three trio members move through this piece as an unstoppable single-celled organism. Of special mention is Piston’s Allegro con Brio, which is a technical thrill ride, with pianist Wei dynamically clearing the path through the mysterious pizzicato forest. On this composition, Piston, being the senior of this composing triumvirate, displays his joy of experimentation that would echo generations into the future.

Listen to 'New England Trios' Now in the Listening Room

07 Heard in HavanaHeard in Havana
Third Sound
Innova Recordings 990 (innova.mu/albums/third-sound/heard-havana)

In 2015, the American Composers Forum sent a delegation of musicians and composers to Cuba. Their mission: to present a program of contemporary classical American music at the Festival de Música Contemporánea de La Habana. It was the first such concert to take place in Cuba since the Cuban Revolution. 

The ensemble chosen to perform was the newly formed New York City-based quintet Third Sound, comprising some of NYC’s top chamber musicians. In preparation, ACF and Third Sound held a national call for scores for flute, clarinet, violin, cello and piano. Heard in Havana showcases the ten works chosen, the product of a diverse group of composers from across the USA reflecting the variety of American classical composition today.

I admire much of the music of the truly international Kati Agócs. Though born in Windsor, Ontario and a JUNO Award winner, she retains three citizenships, American, Canadian and Hungarian (European Union). Her work embraces both her North American and Hungarian parental and musical lineages. Agócs’ elegant and elegiac 2007 Immutable Dreams II: Microconcerto [in memoriam György Ligeti] on this album is no exception. Writes the composer, it is a “miniature piano concerto… a tribute to my Hungarian roots and to György Ligeti’s influence.” I also hear multiple echoes of the music of another great 20th-century Hungarian: Béla Bartók. Agócs’ Microconcerto concludes with a haunting, musically enigmatic and gentle metacrusis. 

Summing up the album, there aren’t many common threads among the ten pieces chosen. But perhaps that’s the point. An abundant variety of artistic expression is a core value I can also get behind.

08 Chinary UngChinary Ung Vol.4 – Space Between Heaven and Earth
Various Artists
Bridge Records 9533A/B (bridgerecords.com/products/9533)

American-Cambodian composer Chinary Ung began his career writing music highly inspired by 20th-century modernist techniques in what was typical in the post-Second Viennese School climate. After a ten-year hiatus from composing to help with the Cambodian genocide and resultant refugee crises, Ung re-emerged to write in a new and highly personal compositional voice exploring cross-cultural practices. This is doubtless a by-product of Ung’s efforts to preserve Khmer traditional music during the Cambodian crises. In an effort to create a substantial document of Ung’s mature style, Bridge records has committed to a series of recordings of the composer’s mature works. 

In Volume 4 we receive a two-disc collection of five vastly original and accomplished chamber works. Ung has created a world of highly ritualistic gestures and mysterious auras. In the Grawemeyer Award-winning composer’s own terms, his mature style may be summarized as “futuristic folk music” – a term that aptly describes Ung’s use of quotation and evocation in a truly contemporary landscape. Throughout each piece, we as listeners are surrounded with entwined modal intricacies, suggestive drones, and shimmering percussive magic – all creating the elixir of undiscovered, and yet familiar, cultural scenery. This, together with world-class performances from the musicians, transports the listener to a place where time seems lost, and instead, sound pervades a sense of instance.

Listen to 'Chinary Ung Vol.4 – Space Between Heaven and Earth' Now in the Listening Room

09 PBO Caroline Shaw Front CoverPBO & Caroline Shaw
Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra & Chorale; Nicholas McGegan
Philharmonia PBP-12 (philharmonia.org/product/shawcd)

Listen to this: an unexpected, lush, open-hearted triumph of a record featuring an oratorio and song cycle, written for period instruments by the singular, esteemed, Caroline Shaw (USA, b.1982). Recently, the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra established a “New Music for Old Instruments” initiative, aimed at creating fresh works expressly for period instruments. The fruits are already being born, as radiant, alluring music by Shaw proves on this disc, featuring extraordinary artistic talents such as Anne Sofie von Otter.

Opening with a song trilogy, Is a Rose, this album immediately transports the listener to a vibrant, fantastical soundworld fashioned from bygone Baroque molecules, now re-energized anew. The terrific musicianship of the PBO and its longtime director, Nicholas McGegan is on full display here. Glorious sonorities complement von Otter’s soaring vocal lines. (This will be McGegan’s final recording with the orchestra.) 

And it just gets better: The Listeners, a full-scale oratorio by Shaw, is up next, brimming over with cosmic warmth and light. The libretto is derived from five centuries of English poetry, supplemented with recorded excerpts from Carl Sagan’s Golden Record, as launched into space in 1977. 

Oratorio is the ideal vehicle for Shaw’s creativity and an idiom that seems to be gaining newfound popularity these days amongst other composers. The genre’s inherent humanity is perhaps what remains attractive and we need it today more than ever, as our 21st-century world faces novel challenges, now in its third, disquieting decade.

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