01 Clifford CrawleyClifford Crawley – Moods and Miniatures
Maureen Volk; Christine Carter; Michelle Cheramy; Beverley Diamond
Centrediscs CMCCD 28621 (centrediscs.ca)

“Cliff was a master of the miniature,” writes pianist Maureen Volk, Memorial University professor emeritus. This CD presents 39 of them, most under two minutes, one only 17 seconds! It begins, though, with the three-movement, 13-minute iPieces, composed for Volk in 2010. iOpener and iDeal feature Gershwinesque bluesiness and dreamy nostalgia; iDears is a perky succession of different dance rhythms and a Gershwinesque finishing flourish.

England-born Clifford Crawley (1929-2016) came to Canada in 1973 and taught at Queen’s University for 20 years. In 2002, he moved to St. John’s where his wife, pianist-ethnomusicologist Beverley Diamond, joined the Memorial University faculty. Volk writes, “My colleagues” – including this CD’s flutist Michelle Cheramy and clarinetist Christine Carter – “and I met a soft-spoken and generous man with a ready smile and a sly sense of humour who soon became a good friend. We also discovered a composer who had written a trove of wonderful music that deserves to be more widely known.”

Listening to Toccatas and Twelve Preludes for solo piano, Ten a Penny Pieces for clarinet and piano, pieces-of-eight for flute, clarinet and piano and Kalamalka for piano-duet (Volk and Diamond), I was often reminded of Poulenc who, like Crawley, enjoyed juxtaposing dancehall and circus music with poignant, melancholic lyricism. Crawley’s playful waltz, tango, polka and foxtrot rhythms, combined with his innate melodic gift, created music that was surely gladdening to compose and, for this listener, definitely gladdening to hear.

02a Linda Catlin SmithLinda Catlin Smith – Ballad
Apartment House
Another Timbre at176 (anothertimbre.com)

Barbara Monk Feldman – Verses
GBSR Duo with Mira Benjamin
Another Timbre at177 (anothertimbre.com)

New discs from two Canadian composers – Linda Catlin Smith and Barbara Monk Feldman – and both are standouts. They are the latest releases in the invaluable Canadian Composers Series from Another Timbre. As we’ve come to expect from this innovative British label, the sound is stellar and the performances, by some of Britain’s top contemporary music specialists, are consistently terrific. As well, there are some significant recording premieres here.

Like many composers on Another Timbre’s roster, Smith and Monk Feldman engage directly with 20th-century game-changers John Cage and Morton Feldman, so tempos are slow, dynamics are subdued and textures are spare. But Smith and Monk Feldman have distinctively personal voices. Smith, a dynamic presence on the Toronto new music scene, has developed an ardent  international following, while Monk Feldman remains the only Canadian woman composer to have had an opera, Pyramus and Thisbe, staged in the Canadian Opera Company’s main hall (inexcusably rare for a Canadian, even rarer – so even more inexcusable – for a woman). 

It was a recording of Smith’s music, Drifter, which launched the Canadian Composers Series in 2017. Ballad is now her fourth album for Another Timbre. She wrote the two works here for her brother, cellist Andrew Smith. In Through The Low Hills, from 1994, cellist Anton Lukoszevieze and pianist Kerry Yong, both members of the much-fêted British ensemble, Apartment House, stylishly trace the twists and turns of Smith’s intriguing harmonic transformations. 

The title work, Ballad, is a lyrical, open-hearted, gorgeous, and, at 46 minutes, expansive work. Lukoszevieze and Yong listen to each other so intently that every phrase communicates eloquently.

02b Barbara Monk FeldmanMonk Feldman’s realm extends from the enchanted vistas of Duo for Piano and Percussion and the eerie mists of Verses for Vibraphone to the uplifting chorale-like contours of Clear Edge for solo piano.

The I And Thou, from 1988, is dedicated to Monk Feldman’s teacher and husband, Morton Feldman, who had died the previous year. Here she weaves a fabric of luminous stillness. Yet beneath the shimmering surface an uneasy presence stirs, unarticulated but palpable, especially with pianist Siwan Rhys’ sensitivity to the mood of longing that suffuses this moving work.

Monk Feldman has written that The Northern Shore, a trio for percussion, piano, and violin, takes inspiration from the landscape of the Gaspé region of Quebec. Reflecting such an immense expanse, this work is the longest here. And it covers a vast expressive territory, from precisely shaped and positioned tones to an unexpectedly effulgent passage of delicate piano chords marked “freely”. The responsiveness of percussionist George Barton and pianist Rhys is beautifully matched by the imaginative palette of colours from Canadian violinist Mira Benjamin (a member of Apartment House).

03 Francois TousignantMusic of François Tousignant
Myriam Leblanc; Catherine St-Arnaud; Vincent Ranallo; Ensemble Paramirabo
Centrediscs CMCCD 28821 (cmccanada.org/shop/cmccd-28821)

The varied career of François Tousignant (1955-2019) included music critic for Le Devoir (1994-2005), Radio-Canada columnist, professor at Universities of Ottawa and Montreal, and composer of over 40 works. In commemoration of the second anniversary of his death, this double-disc release features a memorable tribute concert recording of Montreal-based instrumental Ensemble Paramirabo, with three guest vocalists, brilliantly performing eight of his chamber pieces from 1973 to 1987.

The first disc features five earlier compositions. Lyrical colourful solo Conflits (1973) has artistic director/flutist Jeffrey Stonehouse musically perform the long meditative phrases with alternating high and lower pitches. It is also an introduction to Tousignant’s widespread compositional tool of attention-grabbing silent breaks between phrases. Quatre incantations (1974) is another easy-to-listen-to early work, with wide-ranging soprano Myriam Leblanc vocals set to Tousignant text answering pianist Pamela Reimer’s clear melodies and well-placed occasional atonalities.  (1975), set to a Charles Baudelaire text, is an intelligently contemplated atonal yet never dense work, featuring cello (Viviana Gosselin) and flute (Stonehouse) plucks, detached notes, and trills and slides, magnetic tape effects (Tousignant) and baritone Vincent Ranallo’s low mysterious singing and closing shining laughter. More atonality and large silent breaks in the alternating crashing and reflective piece Anatole, sans paroles (1982) for cello and piano. Reimer’s virtuosic solo performance Sonate pour clavecin (1983) features a multitude of contemporary harpsichord effects.

The second album features three later works. Virtuosic contemporary Histoire (1984) opens with Reimer’s contemplative piano detached notes and Charlotte Layec’s held, reflective, clarinet notes. Shifts in mood, like loud piano ringing notes and clarinet swells and changes in articulation, create a slow, sad and occasional explosive mood.  (1986) is set to a Rainer Maria Rilke poem. Violinist Hubert Brizard and soprano Catherine St-Arnaud perform this very contemporary piece with atonalities, string vibrations, vocal high held notes and spoken words, and more Tousignant compelling “what’s next” silences between phrases. The closing Trois paysages proustiens (1987) is considered Tousignant’s most famous work – set to words by Marcel Proust. Reimer and St-Arnaud are joined by percussionist David Therrien Brongo. Longer abstract percussion and piano atonalities, spoken/sung vocals, shorter mood section and silent breaks abound.

Understandably, Tousignant did not compose during his years as the music critic. His output reflects a composer with modern atonal technique, clear delicate lyrical scoring and respect for the written word. 

 

04 Lemay EtudesRobert Lemay – Cinq Études for Alto Saxophone
Jean-François Guay
Centrestream CMCCT 11621 (cmccanada.org/shop/cd-cmcct-11621)

Our world of streaming media has a few benefits including how the creation and distribution of music projects is less expensive and simpler than a decade or two ago. This ease of production makes niche products more accessible and an excellent example is Cinq études for alto saxophone by Robert Lemay (commissioned and exquisitely performed by Jean-François Guay). 

The five movements total just 18 minutes and Cinq études is released as a stand-alone digital offering. While Cinq études works as a concert piece, its unique purpose is to demonstrate different playing techniques, including double and triple tonguing, multiphonics, altissimo, rapid register changes and subtones. These techniques are heard in most contemporary saxophone works, but can pass by so quickly we may miss identifying them. Doublez ou triplez la mise is a great demonstration of double and triple tonguing which Guay performs cleanly and with verve, while Additions & multiplications has some subtle and quiet melodic lines leading into some excellent multiphonic work. 

The liner notes state: “Each piece is a tribute to a great saxophonist/pedagogue: Marcel Mule, Jean-Marie Londeix, Eugene Rousseau, Frederick Hemke and Daniel Deffayet.” I am surprised the altissimo section is not dedicated to Sigurd M. Rascher whose Top Tones for the Saxophone (which I purchased decades ago) is a standard in saxophone literature. This small quibble aside, Cinq études is worth a listen for its inventive and musical demonstration of multiple techniques.

05 Nexus So PercussionSteve Reich
Nexus; Sō Percussion
Nexus 11042 (nexuspercussion.com)

A collaboration between two leading percussion groups, veteran Toronto-based Nexus and younger-generation New York-based Sō Percussion, this album features four percussion-centred scores by American composer Steve Reich. 

Reich’s music is generally characterized by repetition, canons, slow harmonic changes and, for a time, the adoption of selected musical notions from West Africa and Indonesia. By the mid-1960s Reich sought to create music in which his compositional process was clearly discernible by the audience in the music itself. From 1965 to 1971, his style was dominated by a process called “phasing,”  a kind of Escher-like perceptual magic where incremental changes to the music being performed are revealed to the listener in real time.

All those compositional and performative approaches deeply colour the brilliantly performed music on this album: Clapping Music (1972), Music for Mallet Instruments, Voices, and Organ (1973), Mallet Phase (2016, based on Piano Phase 1967), and Quartet (2013). The first three, controversial in their day, have become contemporary standards. , a jazz-inflected work scored for two vibraphones and two pianos, is an outlier in this program. Reich called it “one of the more complex [pieces] I have composed.” While frequently shifting key and continuity by restlessly changing metres, the outer sections maintain a pulsed momentum, a recognizable link to Reich’s earlier compositions. In stark contrast, the middle slow movement introduces chordal harmonies unusual in his music, evoking a peaceful, pensive mood.

This is Nexus’ 31st commercial album release – and a resounding way to celebrate both its 50th anniversary and its deep and enduring relationship with Reich.

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