01 Merkelo TrumpetArutiunian; Shostakovich; Weinberg – Trumpet Concertos
Paul Merkelo; Jae-Hyuck Cho; Russian National Orchestra; Hans Graf
Naxos 8.579117 (paulmerkelotrumpet.com)

Since its creation in the Baroque era, the concerto has been dominated by keyboard and string instruments. If asked to provide a list of the greatest concertos of all time, one would likely list numerous piano and violin works, a cello concerto or two, and perhaps a piece for oboe or other woodwind.

Although its repertoire is limited when compared to other brass and woodwind instruments, the trumpet has had numerous concertos written for it from composers of the Soviet era and beyond. Three such works are featured here, including an adaptation of Shostakovich’s Piano Concerto No.1 in C Minor, Op. 35, arranged by trumpeter Paul Merkelo, principal of the Orchestre Symphonique de Montréal, himself.

While the trumpet is often used as a dramatic, high-volume instrument in orchestral settings, this disc demonstrates the remarkable versatility and subtlety that can be obtained from it, providing an illuminative look into the trumpet’s expressiveness and beauty. Armenian composer Alexander Arutiunian’s Trumpet Concerto in A-flat Major begins this recording and immediately strikes the listener with its alternating passages of lyricism and energetic buoyancy. Indeed, Merkelo’s immediately recognizable virtuosity makes even the most demanding moments sound effortless, with almost-unbelievable velocity never coming at the expense of the music itself.

Shostakovich’s Piano Concerto No. 1, originally titled Concerto for Piano, Trumpet, and Strings, follows a double concerto model, in which both piano and trumpet receive soloist responsibilities. Merkelo’s arrangement still features the piano, here performed by pianist Jae-Hyuck Cho, but with an expanded trumpet part that gives more evenly distributed responsibilities to each performer. Uncharacteristically playful yet undeniably Shostakovich, this work is a tour-de-force and a striking way to conclude a worthwhile exploration of one of music’s lesser-heard solo instruments.

Listen to 'Arutiunian; Shostakovich; Weinberg – Trumpet Concertos' Now in the Listening Room

02 Alberto HemsiChamber Works by Alberto Hemsi
ARC Ensemble
Chandos CHAN 20243 (rcmusic.com/performance/arc-ensemble)

This latest Music in Exile CD spotlights Anatolia-born Alberto Hemsi (1898-1975). In 1922, during the Greco-Turkish War, Hemsi fled to Rhodes, then moved to Egypt in 1928, founding and conducting the Alexandria Philharmonic Orchestra. He finally emigrated to Paris in 1957, Egypt’s Jews being non-grata following Israel’s Suez invasion.

Hemsi often drew from his Sephardic-Jewish heritage, plus varied Middle Eastern traditions. Méditation (in Armenian Style), Op.16 for cello and piano was published in 1931. For nearly seven minutes the cello chants dolefully over hammer-dulcimer-like piano tinkles. Also for cello and piano, Hemsi’s three-movement, ten-minute Greek Nuptial Dances, Op.37bis (1956) honours, respectively, the jolly mother-in-law, wistful bride and comical godfather, staggering drunkenly.

The nine-minute Three Ancient Airs, Op.30 (c.1945) are settings for string quartet of three of the 60 songs in Hemsi’s Coplas Sefardies. Ballata evokes a sultry dance, Canzone a plaintive serenade, Rondò a children’s game song. These melodies, accompanied by guitar-like plucks, reflect Sephardic Jews’ enduring ties to Spain, their homeland before being expelled in 1492.

Sephardic and Hebraic melodic tropes imbue the three-movement, 19-minute Pilpúl Sonata, Op.27 (1942) for violin and piano, light-hearted depictions of scholars engaged in pilpúl, nit-picking arguments about Talmudic texts. Hemsi avoided overt ethnic references in his 18-minute Quintet, Op.28 (c.1943) for viola and string quartet. Here, three dance-like movements frame a tender Berceuse.  

Once again, Toronto’s splendid ARC Ensemble (Artists of the Royal Conservatory) has redeemed a deserving composer from unwarranted “exile” in this important ongoing series.

Listen to 'Chamber Works by Alberto Hemsi' Now in the Listening Room

03 Black FishKeyan Emami – The Black Fish
Andrew Downing; Majd Sekkar; Ton Beau String Quartet; Louis Pino; Naoko Tsujita
Centrediscs CMCCD30422 (blackfishproject.com)

Toronto-based Iranian-Canadian composer Keyan Emami has composed a multi stylistic and instrumental masterpiece in his three-movement inspirational work based on the well-known Persian children’s book, The Little Black Fish, which tells the story of a little black fish who leaves his pond to explore the world. Commissioned by Ton Beau String Quartet, it is scored for string quartet, clarinet (Majd Sekkar), double bass (Andrew Downing), percussion (Louis Pino, Naoko Tsujita), with electronics and narration provided by Emami. The composed parts and improvised sections are performed brilliantly. 

The opening movement Dailiness immediately catches the listener’s attention with held notes and spooky string repeated two-note intervals. The more upbeat middle section features clarinet lead melody, bass and percussion transforming to more Middle Eastern idioms and a slower closing. The dramatic, moody 18-bar theme passacaglia Dreaming combines classic strings feel, jazz bass and all styles clarinet music with spoken words inspired by Attar of Nishapur’s bird poem. The final movement Swimming In D is inspired by Terry Riley’s minimalistic In C. Emami’s short stylistic diverse 48 melodic patterns add dramatic quasi minimalist ideas and movement in alternating dynamic, instrumental and stylistic sections from frolicking to calming to loud crashing effects. Sekkar’s colourful tones and wailing clarinet, and Emani’s allowing the performers freedom to repeat patterns as they wish, are highlights.

Emami’s masterful ability to combine children’s story ideas with his well-developed symphonic, jazz/rock, Persian, world, improvisational and contemporary inspired composing makes this music for all ages.

04 Bekah SimmsBekah Simms – Bestiaries
Various Artists
Centrediscs CMCCD 30022 (centrediscs.ca)

Canadian composer Bekah Simms is no stranger to the concert stage having been the recipient of over 30 composition awards, but her latest work Bestiaries takes us into a new realm of height and depth. This album comprises three chamber works, and highlights Simms’ fine orchestral colouring, as well as exacting leadership from Brian Current’s Cryptid Ensemble and Véronique Lacroix’s Ensemble Contemporain de Montréal, the former being created for the express purpose of this album. At times feeling chaotic, the work never loses a finely crafted sensibility of every note being exactly where the composer wants it to be.

The opening of Foreverdark has us awakening in what could be described as a subway tunnel and very quickly drags us through underwater culverts and dark machinery. Led by amplified cello, this is stunning work from Toronto’s Amahl Arulanandam, with whom Simms enjoys a close relationship. This is an incredibly exciting piece I would love to see performed live.  

From Void is a chilling and aggressive piece, after which we welcome Bestiary l+ll, a cinematic journey broadcasting a depth and width of oceanic proportions. We are floating over landscapes of rock, darkly shrouded shipwrecks and elegant sea creatures. Simms pulls us in, taking us along on her deep dives into her personal Neverworld like a school of fish following in her journey to the oceanic underworld, led by the brilliant waves of vocal elasticity from Charlotte Mundy’s beckoning Siren call and pulling us up for air with bird calls and what Simms describes as her “sonic ecosystem.”

Simms crafts a tapestry of strict essentials that are tensile without being harsh, like finely knit silk crochets transforming to steel mesh. Is there such a description as densely translucent? This would be it.

05 Yang ChenYang Chen – longing for _
Various Artists
Independent (peopleplacesrecords.bandcamp.com)

Longing for _ is, at its core, a beautiful story about possibilities of friendships, creative collaborations and music in between, in a world affected by pandemic restrictions. This album by Toronto-based percussionist Yang Chen threads a delicate line between pushing boundaries and maintaining a state of serenity throughout. Each of the eight compositions is done in collaboration with a different artist and is a testament to a creativity generated through friendship. As a result, the album is a curious mixture of musical styles and individual personalities – here we have elements of electronic, experimental, modern composition, pop, R&B and free improvisation. Worth noting is that all compositions are accompanied by a video, a visual representation of textures and narratives we hear.

Chen is innovative and experimental in their approach and gently unapologetic about their ideas. They masterfully employ an array of percussion instruments on this album, the most innovative being using a bicycle to create sounds, textures and movement (Stephanie Orlando’s crank/set ). The energy ranges from grungy and provocative (Andrew Noseworthy’s All Good Pieces Have Two Things) to a contemplative solo vibraphone triptych (Charles Lutvak’s rest/stop). With violinists/composers Yaz Lancaster and Connie Li, Chen explores dreamy and psychedelic worlds, respectively, in EUPHORIC and Nighttime renewals toward more friendship, more love, like snowfall, I want to sing with you. Sara Constant’s silt and Jason Doell’s through intimate, swims, are big textural adventures. The surprising switch comes in the form of Sarian Sankoh’s till the dam breaks, an R&B track with warm vocals and gentle steel pan. 

This is an adventurous, probing, charming debut album.

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