04 Jacques HetuJacques Hétu – Musique pour vents
Pentaèdre; Philip Chiu
ATMA ACD2 2792 (atmaclassique.com/en)

Jacques Hétu (1938-2010) was among the leading Canadian classical composers and music educators of his generation, spending his academic career at several Montreal-area universities.

Hétu composed primarily for established forces including piano, string quartet, orchestral winds, symphony orchestra and opera in a style he once described as “incorporating neo-classical forms and neo-romantic effects in a musical language using 20th-century techniques.” His post-Alban Bergian idiom made him one of the most frequently performed Canadian composers during his career.

Commemorating the tenth anniversary of Hétu’s death, this album presents the Pentaèdre wind ensemble and pianist Philip Chiu in a program reflecting the composer’s keen and abiding interest in both wind instruments and the piano. The brilliant Quebec-based Pentaèdre currently comprising Ariane Brisson (flute), Élise Poulin (oboe), Martin Carpentier (clarinet), Louis-Philippe Marsolais (horn) and Mathieu Lussier (bassoon) takes centre stage on the album.

Hétu’s Wind Quintet and compositions for solo winds and piano invite us to discover afresh his idiosyncratic and imaginative modernist musical universe. The works draw out the best qualities of each woodwind instrument, at the same time stretching their technical, colouristic, expressive and ensemble capabilities. This music demands a high level of musicianship and Pentaèdre delivers.

The 12-minute 1967 Quintet is a standout. Mixing serial, modal and tonal languages, it’s skillfully scored, effectively showcasing each instrument and subgrouping. No wonder this dramatic work has become a favourite among Canadian wind quintets.

Listen to 'Jacques Hétu: Musique pour vents' Now in the Listening Room

05 Hamburger SymphoniesJaap Nico Hamburger – Chamber Symphonies 1 & 2
Ensemble Caprice; Matthias Maute; l’Orchestre Métropolitain de Montréal; Vincent de Kort
Leaf Music LM235 (leaf-music.ca)

Interesting, musical, inventive and new original Canadian classical music is a reason to celebrate indeed! Here, with two chamber symphonies, composer Jaap Nico Hamburger finds inspiration in honour of Remembrance Day and the 75th anniversary of the Liberation of the Netherlands to create beautiful and well-executed long-form pieces that, while dealing with the difficult theme of the brutality of war, leave listeners with an appreciation of musical excellence and a lingering sense of hopeful optimism. 

Recorded in Quebec in 2019 by Ensemble Caprice under the direction of Matthias Maute, Chamber Symphony No. 1 “Remember to Forget,” explores, as a tone poem, the metaphor of a train journey in sound, highlighting the teleological nature of life as we, individual agents, push forward through times of challenge and adversity towards forgiveness, atonement and a life worth living. Inspired by the sounds and biography of composer György Ligeti (1923-2006), the offering here is as complex and nuanced as the subject theme itself: strident at times, then mitigated by moments of tranquil introspection. Percussion heavy, the piece dips occasionally into carnivalesque sounds and emotions that imbue a playful and irreverent spirit into this otherwise serious piece. 

Chamber Symphony No. 2 “Children’s War Diaries” features l’Orchestre Métropolitain de Montréal and explores one of the darkest periods of history, the Holocaust, channelling the writing of Hamburger’s grandmother, Jannie Moffie-Bolle, whose autobiography Een hemel zonder vogels (“A sky without birds”) documented her experiences as a teenager in Nazi Germany. As the liner notes attest, the themes explored are sobering but important. These two Chamber Symphonies add much to the canon of Canadian classical composition and are well worth your time.

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06 John RobertsonJohn Robertson – Symphonies 4 & 5 Meditation: In Flanders Fields
Bratislava Symphony Orchestra; Anthony Armore
Navona Records nv6325 (navonarecords.com/catalog/nv6325)

Anachronism is no sin nor is theft a crime when it comes to making art, not if they are accomplished with subtlety or humour. My favourite 20th-century tomb raider was Alfred Schnittke, who suffered modernity’s loss of innocence, together with nostalgia for past forms. The suffering served as impetus for his most tragic and comic utterances. Which brings me to New Zealand/Canadian composer John Robertson, and his Symphonies 4 and 5.

This music seems happily, painlessly anachronistic, full of bright orchestral effects and warm, tonal harmonies. The second movement of Symphony No.4 is a Sicilienne, a gently progressing dance in 12/8 metre, wherein an oboe laments sweetly over ghostly strings and celesta. The familiar character in the opening of the same work’s first movement recalls so much the wind writing of Carl Nielsen. For a brief moment one hears Shostakovich call out a trill from his own Fourth Symphony at the opening of the third movement. Coincidence? Homage, perhaps, although the body of the theme sounds more like Holst: a jocular, folksong-march. 

The Fifth Symphony revisits Shostakovich, Prokofiev and Samuel Barber as well. Included with the symphonies is a threnody: Meditation: In Flanders’ Fields. Leaving my thoughts on the poem out of this, I’ll say the music accompanying the recited text is fitting, including the requisite bugle call. Take up a quarrel with me on this if you must. 

Robertson is a capable composer, and not, apparently, a suffering genius à la Schnittke. The works are substantive and also pleasurable to hear, which is a refreshing anachronism in and of itself.

07 Julia Den BoerLineage
Julia Den Boer
Redshift Records TK476 (redshiftrecords.org)

French-American pianist Julia Den Boer confidently delivers Lineage, an album of contemporary solo piano music with ties to Montreal. Den Boer’s impressive technical prowess is brilliantly revealed from several angles as each piece on this recording presents high degrees of challenging material. 

First, Chris Paul Harman’s 371 Chorales (2016) is a wonderful gem full of shimmering charm and glistening high-register counterpoint – a delightful miniature that expands upon the composer’s predilection toward recontextualizing old material. Brian Cherney’s multi-movement Tombeau (1996) is a mature work of a modernist approach that sends the listener through a gamut of contrasting expressive landscapes – terrain that Den Boer handles with world-class musicianship. The serendipitous monophony of Matthew Ricketts’ Melodia (2017) is a deeply original work that relies on decidedly exposed lines. This music allows the piano to sing wonderfully in the hands of Den Boer, and is a refreshing reminder that newly composed piano works do not require a maximal approach to produce successful results.

Lastly, Reiko Yamada’s Cloud Sketches (2010) is a substantial work comprised of scalar flourishes and prickly interruptions that evoke a series of conversations and contemplative interludes. With such contrasting works, each demanding in wildly different ways, this release is a strong statement showing Den Boer’s importance as a contemporary music interpreter.

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08 Martin ArnoldMartin Arnold – Stain Ballads
Apartment House
Another Timbre at166 (anothertimbre.com)

Canadian composer Martin Arnold’s illustrious compositions over the decades are so very much his own sound. Here UK-based ensemble Apartment House perform four works in which Arnold strives to combine lyricism with formlessness in his self-described “stain ballads.” As Arnold explains on the Another Timbre label’s website, “Stains are … always stain-shaped but don’t present a form… form and content are the same thing.” 

Opening track Lutra (2017) for cello and humming is given a slow and reflective performance by Apartment House founder and director, Anton Lukoszevieze. The high-pitched cello opening leads to a lower-range bowed melody, with alternating high and low pitches united by humming and delicate cello lyricism. Stain Ballad (2016), for seven-piece orchestra, also encompasses the contrasting ideas of held string notes, here versus detached piano lines and percussion throbs, as all the instruments are musically balanced and blended in Arnold’s expert “story-telling” orchestration.

Arnold’s understanding of held string capabilities makes the cello/violin duet Trousers (2017) sound like a full orchestra. A more fragmented work with minimalistic touches, quiet breaks between phrases, bowed strings, pitch slides and mid-piece dissonant lines are just a few sounds Lukoszevieze and violinist Mira Benjamin play, sparking listening interest! Great inclusion is Arnold’s earlier career quartet Slip (1999), a jig-like dance with opening bass clarinet/violin/cello uneven phrases until the accented piano chordal entry adds percussive flavours.

Arnold’s tightly interwoven “formless” lyricism, combined with these dedicated performances, create captivating colourful music.

09 Linda Smith MeadowLinda Catlin Smith – Meadow
Mia Cooper; Joachim Roewer; William Butt
Louth Contemporary Music Society LCMS20201 (louthcms.org/recordings)

The enchanting stillness and hypnotic beauty of sprawling mossy fields has been captured ever so deeply by Linda Catlin Smith in her new work, Meadow, for string trio. This gentle music paints an endless moment amid the green-lit swaying turf. Sonorous pulsating chords and brief melodic offerings envelop the ears much like cascading grassy plains wrapping around bark and stone. Smith’s unparalleled command over the fusion of colour and harmony is immediately captivating. This sound world is a tapestry woven with delicate care and personal magic. At times, the distinctly fragmentary material forms echoes in the mind’s eye: glimpses of forgotten images begin to surface and radiate throughout the heath. The trio’s performance (Mia Cooper, violin; Joachim Roewer, viola; William Butt, cello) on this release was accomplished with extraordinary intimacy. The pureness of tone and capacity for expression result in a profoundly successful interpretation of Smith’s poetic intention. 

This recording comes as the first release in an initiative from the Louth Contemporary Music Society, titled out of silence, to produce meaningful recordings under the exceptional conditions of the pandemic. While the pandemic continues to be a struggle for many, we thank artists for their commitment toward creation and for reminding us why we need art in our lives. When listening to the striking grace of Smith’s Meadow, many things come to mind and many emotions are felt throughout – I suppose this can all be summarized with the phrase “Thank you.”

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