01 The Water CycleThe Water Cycle & Tango Inoxidable
Organum Vulgarum
Independent (amichaibenshalev.bandcamp.com/album/the-water-cycle-tango-inoxidable)

Canadian-born musician/teacher/composer Amichai Ben Shalev was raised in Israel and lived in Buenos Aires from 2005 to 2020 where he graduated in 2012 from the Manuel de Falla Conservatory specializing as a bandoneon soloist under the tutelage of Rodolfo Daluisio. His career there included collaborations with contemporary tango composers and international appearances. In 2020 Amichai moved to Montreal and in 2022 founded the contemporary music ensemble Organum Vulgarum for bandoneon and string quartet/quintet to explore this instrumentation’s sonorities.

Amichai’s seven-movement contemporary composition The Water Cycle, is inspired by the continuous movement of water on earth and in the atmosphere. Heat opens with ascending string intervals moving to higher bandoneon held notes, with faster lines as the water gets warmer, to an amazing closing with a held high note and a slightly rippling ending. Evaporation has lower pitched held notes, fades and swells creating musical evaporation. Chill has sharp “freezing” bandoneon accents contrasting with longer lower “puddle” strings. Precipitation features pizzicato string raindrops, low held note thunder blasts, and bandoneon bellows shakes increasing the storm effect. Brilliant tight ensemble playing and interpretation of Amichai’s reflective “watery” music reminiscent of summers at the lakeside.

Amichai expresses two common tango aspects, “Desolado” (solitary and sad) and “Reo” (rough) throughout his Tango Inoxidable. His virtuosic playing is featured here as bandoneon bellows create a wave effect, followed by dramatic string lines and bandoneon rhythms. Quieter remorseful bandoneon lines lead to intricate musical conversations with the strings.

The Organum Vulgarum instrumentalists’ performances meld together memorably, at times amazingly, almost sounding like one instrument. Amichai’s sonority explorations are unforgettable.

02 Marc Bourdeau CMCCD 32023Montréal Musica
Marc Bourdeau
Centrediscs CMCCD 32023 (cmccanada.org/product-category/recordings/centrediscs)

Like so many things in life, the inverted U-shaped curve best represents the ideal balance of exposure and mystery within a solo recording. Too much unveiling leaves nothing to the imagination in its fulsome exposition. Conversely, an unwillingness to unmask and musically disclose (the so-called “warts and all”), can come across as coy and not revelatory enough to strike a personal connection between artist and listener. But, when the forces align and an appropriate balance is struck, there is often magic contained within the performance that follows. Such is the case with Montréal Musica, a fine new recording by respected pianist, chamber musician and pedagogue Marc Bourdeau on Centrediscs, the record label of the Canadian Music Centre.

Spanning nearly a century of Canadian composition linked together not by style, genre or epoch, but rather uniformly tethered to the island of Montréal where Bourdeau calls home, this excellent 2023 release is notable for both its beautiful fidelity and acoustic capture of the instrument, as well Bourdeau’s bold decision to be stylistically agnostic and take on a mixed bag of intriguing repertoire whose only point of connection is the geographic origin of the composers. Although on the surface there may be little that unifies the music of Claude Champagne and Oscar Peterson, in the skilled hands of Bourdeau, the angles are found despite the stylistic discrepancies, and repertoire and artistry coalesce nicely to form a compelling and unified musical statement. Other composers represented include François Morel, André Mathieu, Jacques Hétu, John Rea, Denis Gougeon, Rachel Laurin and Marc-André Hamelin.

03 Colin EatockColin Eatock – Choral and Orchestral Music
Sinfonia Toronto; Soundstreams’ Choir 21
Centrediscs CMCCD31023 (cmccanada.org/product-category/recordings/centrediscs)

Following up on the Canadian Music Centre’s release of Colin Eatock: Chamber Music in 2012 (CMCCD 17812) this second volume features Eatock’s orchestral and choral works in performances by Sinfonia Toronto conducted by Nurhan Arman and the Soundstreams’ Choir 21 under the direction of David Fallis.

A baker’s dozen of Eatock’s choral works are on offer here. A number of them are based on sacred texts: The Lord Is Risen!, Three Psalms and Benedictus es: Alleluia are straightforward, major key settings in a largely syllabic and homophonic style, conventionally adorned with fleeting imitative passages, serene modulations and an abundance of sighing suspensions. Cast in a similar vein, the secular selections exhibit a somewhat darker tone and feature settings of texts by well-known authors Walt Whitman, Amy Lowell, Christina Rossetti and the exceedingly obscure 16th-century poet Francis Kindlemarsh. 

The extended opening track, a setting of Whitman’s Ashes of Soldiers, is an expansion of a work that also appeared in Eatock’s previous chamber music disc, heard here in a setting for string orchestra and harp with an extended instrumental introduction featuring a beautifully played introspective clarinet solo by Kornel Wolak followed by soprano Lynn Anoush Isnar’s sensitive interpretation of the text. Only the final selection of the disc is purely instrumental, a delightfully quirky Sinfonietta for chamber orchestra in three concise movements that are by turns bumptious, plangent and just plain silly, all tied together by a chromatic four-note garland seemingly based on transpositions of the B-A-C-H motive of yore (and perhaps the analogous D-S-C-H motive as well in light of the galloping Shostakovich-style rhythms of the finale!). 

All performances were expertly recorded at Toronto’s sonically legendary Humbercrest United Church by Robert DiVito. The clarity of diction is superb throughout.

04 Paul FrehnerPaul Frehner – Sometimes the Devil Plays Fate
Mary Beth Nelson; Dominic Desautels; Hamilton Philharmonic Orchestra; Gemma New
Centrediscs CMCCD 31423 (cmccanada.org/product-category/recordings/centrediscs)

This release features a fine ensemble of musicians from the Hamilton Philharmonic under the superb leadership of Gemma New, with mezzo-soprano May Beth Nelson singing the title track. The chamber ensemble comprises string and woodwind quintets, plus trumpet, trombone, percussion, keyboards and harp. The undertaking was accomplished in the impossibly short timeframe of two days last September, a fact all the more astonishing given that New was rehearsing Saint-Saëns’ Organ Symphony with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra during the same week.

Poems by Dane Swan provide text for Sometimes the Devil Plays Fate (which is a line from one of the two: Epitaph 8; Eclipse), along with an excerpt of a poem by Charles Mingus (also called Eclipse). Frehner shows a subtle appreciation for the themes expressed, repeating sections and giving them different musical treatments. The ensemble provides a commentary behind the incantation, sometimes syllabic, sometimes lyric. Nelson’s mezzo colour is perfectly suited to the dark material. Sometimes the balance is off, to the detriment of depth of sonic field. Recording this complex music under these time constraints might be to blame. Regardless, Frehner is a skilled orchestrator and knows exactly how to set players and voice in complementing strengths.  

Voluptuous Panic is the intriguing title of the work filling the final two tracks: Escape Velocity and Saltarello – Proxima Centauri; Frehner captures vertiginous sensation, often employing a “circus band” aesthetic. The middle cut is a piece I know and love: Cloak; Concerto for Clarinet and Ensemble (2016, revised 2022). Soloist Dominic Desautels gives a hyper-dramatic reading of the piece. The revisions work well, making me want another shot at it myself.*  

Editor’s note: Max Christie was the soloist in the premiere of Cloak with the New Music Concerts ensemble under Robert Aitken at Betty Oliphant Theatre in December, 2017.

05 Robert LemayRobert Lemay – Lignum et Spiritus
Stephen Tam; Anthony Thompson; Ron Cohen Mann; Kevin Harris; Yoko Hirota
Centrediscs CMCCT 12323 (cmccanada.org/shop/cmcct-12323/)

Composer Robert Lemay has, in a recording he calls Lignum et Spiritus, attempted to fuse four kinds of woodwinds instruments with the piano and enlisted pianist Yoko Hirota to facilitate this fusion with four instrumentalists. The performing artists include Stephen Tam (flute), Anthony Thompson (clarinet), Ron Cohen Mann (oboe) and Kevin Harris (bassoon) respectively for works titled Point d’équilibre, Shared Visions, Play Off and Au courde-à-courde.

Lemay’s intention to “fuse” two musical instruments suggests an attempt – albeit both scientific and intellectual – not so much to inextricably bind, but to allow the two fused entities to create something new. The attempt, he says is non-pedagogical. He means for the music to organically redirect the physical nature of each of the individual instruments – wood or Lignum – by exerting a spectral force, which suggests breathing a new spirit into the sonic nature of the instruments, hence the Spiritus in the title.

Each pair of instruments produces alternating timbres that magically create new organic-sounding variations. Lemay’s imaginative creations and Hirota’s inspirational pianism preside over duets which are mystical Schoenbergian odysseys that create new musical space transformed by vertical (pitch) and horizontal (rhythm and permutation) forces.

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