05 Quatuor BozzeniJürg Frey – String Quartet No.4
Quatuor Bozzini
Quatuor Bozzini CQB 2432 (quatuorbozzini.ca/en)

About his String Quartet No.4 (2021), Swiss composer Jürg Frey (b.1953) laconically observed, “My music is slow, sometimes static, often delicately shifting between standstill and movement. And yet, after more than an hour, this music has arrived at another place.” Music critic Alex Ross aptly compared Frey’s music to a “Mahler Adagio suspended in zero gravity.”

One of Canada’s leading string quartets, Bozzini specializes in contemporary music with an impressive 36 releases to date. Fostering a long and deep working relationship with Frey, their premiere recording of his sprawling five-movement Quartet No.4 is a remarkably poised musical testament to their collaboration. Beginning with whisps of sound the Bozzini morphs into a virtual, though still totally acoustic, orchestra. From pianissimo sustained string chords ghostly instrumental resemblances emerge; they sound like a French horn, harmonica, woodwinds, bandoneon and a soft pipe organ in succession. In Frey’s expansive soundscapes, timbral colour takes centre stage in the sonic field.

“… little happens – it is this atmosphere from which my music emerges and to which it always returns,” explains the composer. Listeners can choose to lay back and relax in Frey’s sound world observing the timbral transformations, the attractive chord and shifting mood changes. But then – just as we were enjoying the slowly scuttling clouds on a sunny Swiss summer day – those mysterious insistent pulsed cello pizzicati at the very end emerge to remind us of … what? … the passage of time?

06 India Gailey ProblematicaProblematica
India Gailey
People Places Records (peopleplacesrecords.bandcamp.com/album/problematica)

As a huge fan of cellist India Gailey’s first album, I was lucky to be in town for the launch of her latest release Problematica (“…used for organisms whose classification can’t be decided”) at the Canadian Music Centre. I was pleasantly surprised to see that even the most heavily multi-tracked or added effects were performed solo with laptop at hand. The final product is just as polished live as it is on the album. 

A more personal work than her previous album, Gailey gathers her closest collaborators to surround herself with a musical and spiritual base which she uses to launch herself into a plural universe. Beginning with Sarah Rossy’s I Long, gorgeous ethereal, long tones expand into harmonies and voice, growing and evolving into a beautiful vocal space-out before returning to Earth, deeply grounded in self. 

Nicole Lizée’s Grotesquerie employs foot stomps, loops, vocals and breath to become, as described, “a four-minute opera” of an amusing story best read in the notes. (There is also a video on Gailey’s website.) The subtle opening of Julia Mermelstein’s Bending, breaking through layers strand upon strand of delayed and effected cello, sneaking out quietly to leave a wonderous after-vision. Joseph Glaser’s Joinery uses an interesting combination of soundwalks and nature, to culminate into a question posed to a cello made from a tree: “did it hurt?”  Andrew Noseworthy’s supremely delicate Goml_v7….Final.wav is a testament to the collaborative partnerships Gailey continues to build. Fjóla Evans’ Universal Veil is exquisitely played, beautifully layered acoustic cello. The album closes with Thanya Iyer’s — Where I can be as big as the Sun, another opportunity for Gailey to circle back to her personal grounding. The whole album is coloured in textures, harmonies and vocals that continues Gailey’s path to be open and genuine.

07 Andree Ann DeschenesWanderings
Andree-Ann Deschenes
Independent (aadpiano.com)

The peripatetic pianist Andree-Ann Deschenes, possessed of a most wonderfully restless creative instinct, has put her prodigious musicianship on the line once again. She could be forgiven, of course, for plunging herself – body and soul – into the that tumbling ocean of Brazilian rhythm. The album that results is titled Wanderings although, truth be told, this is anything but an aimless journey into the musical heartland of a country brim-full and flowing over with the most extraordinary rhythm-driven musical culture.

Displaying the mind of a wizened musical apothecary Deschenes knows exactly where to go for the ingredients that make from this music a potion so potently magical that listeners are – in one elegantly executed rippling rhythmic phrase of her left hand – permanently seduced to enter her world of “brazilliance.” This she fashions out of hands that are delicate enough to lend themselves to the wondrous colourscape of Brazilian melody and harmony – powerful enough to handle the sinewy rhythm of the forró and the maracatu, even the mysticism of capoeira

The pianist reveals an intimacy with the poetics of Brazilian music that often eludes even the most well-meaning musicians. Moreover, she assiduously avoids the well-worn route to Brazil, taking, instead, the road less travelled. Music such as Andanças (Cassio Vianna), Chardi Kala (Jasnam Daya Singh), Two Moons (Bianca Gismonti), Nalad Ochun (Jovino Santos Neto) – and especially – Tanguinho (André Mehmari) suggest that Deschenes bears the mark of a maverick.

2024 BST EXO AmericanCounterpoints 3000x3000American Counterpoints
Curtis Stewart; Experiential Orchestra; James Blachly
Bright Shiny Things BSTC-0200 (brightshiny.ninja)

I’m writing this quickly so I can get back to hearing the music of Julia Perry (1924-1979) and Coleridge-Taylor Perkinson (1932-2004), the two absurdly neglected Black American composers featured on American Counterpoint. Included is a brief finale from Curtis Stewart, the violin soloist for several tracks, with orchestra leader James Blachly co-curator of the album.

Both composers were recognized and successful to a degree in their lifetimes. So why does one hear about Barber and Ives and Copland and Bernstein but not Perry and Perkinson? Guess. 

It sure isn’t because they weren’t excellent at their craft. Just compare the first cut, Perkinson’s Louisiana Blues Strut: A Cakewalk with his Sinfonietta No.1 two tracks later. It would be impressive to have either piece in one’s catalogue, but having the range shown by owning both puts one in the company of the greats. With his skills in conducting and performing, the obvious comparison is with Leonard Bernstein. Two maestros, one celebrated, the other overlooked. The neo-classical Sinfonietta opens with a Sonata Allegro movement in which Perkinson deploys counterpoint that might put Copland’s to shame (but evokes Hindemith); the third movement, Rondo-Allegrf furioso, doubles down on rhythmic energy; in between he summons Romanticism à la Samuel Barber in Song Form: Largo. 

Then there’s Perry, who composed in a thoroughly modernist and individual style, had studied with Luigi Dallapiccola and Nadia Boulanger, but went largely unregarded by mid-century audiences. How audacious, to write a serious string orchestra work, Symphony in One Movement for Violas and Basses, sans violin and cello voices. Astonishing dark colour, beautiful and sad or angry utterances. All respect to Perkinson, who achieved material success as a commercial composer, but Perry’s light is brighter, or deeper. 

Fine playing by Stewart and the Experiential Orchestra. Great disc.

09 Jones Three ConcertosSamuel Jones – Three Concertos
Joseph Alessi; Jeffrey Khaner; Michael Ludwig; Boston Modern Orchestra Project; Gil Rose
BMOP Sound 1095 (bmop.org/audio-recordings)

“My music always has a lyrical basis,” writes American Samuel Jones (b.1935). That’s evident as three superb soloists join with the Boston Modern Orchestra Project conducted by Gil Rose.

Montreal-born Jeffrey Khaner, principal flute of the Philadelphia Orchestra, ranges from haunting plaintiveness to breathless exuberance in Flute Concerto (2018). Lament memorializes two brothers – Jones’ and Khaner’s. Interludio is a cheerful scherzo. Dream Montage – The Great Bell: America Marching incorporates familiar patriotic tunes, Jones’ hymn The Great Bell Rings for All and a jubilantly ascending, final flourish from the flute.

New York Philharmonic principal trombone Joseph Alessi brings mellow tone and technical wizardry to Jones’ Trombone Concerto, subtitled Vita Accademica (2009). The trombone represents a university student and Jones has composed what he calls “a universalized ‘Alma Mater’ and a stylized ‘Fight Song’.” Andante vigoroso is warmly sentimental; Romanza: Andante amabile is a tender love song. Chimes launch Allegro moderato, the student’s triumphal graduation.

Violin Concerto (2014) begins darkly. Andante con moto features ominous, softly throbbing timpani, grumbling winds and menacing orchestra tuttis, the violin alternating between a sombre, upward, yearning melody and agitated downward figurations, all ending in tentative serenity. In Larghetto con moto: Largo cantabile the violin sings a long-lined, sweetly nostalgic melody over a gentle chordal cushion. Allegro inquieto ed appassionato mixes rapid violin passagework with yet more extended lyricism. Michael Ludwig, former Buffalo Philharmonic concertmaster, brilliantly masters the expressive and virtuosic extremes of this splendid concerto.

10 Russell HartenbergerRussell Hartenberger – Arlington
Ryan Scott; Russell Hartenberger; Various percussionists
Nexus Records 11053 (russellhartenberger.bandcamp.com/album/arlington)

Despite Ionisation (1931), that great work for percussion by Edgard Varèse, and many other fine works by the great Michael Colgrass, David Saperstein, Henry Cowell and Charles Wuorinen (to name but a few), literature written specifically for percussion remains relatively rare. One reason could be that outside of contemporary blues and rock ensembles with prominently featured drum sets, in classical music, string instruments are often called upon to play pizzicato and col legno battuto to simulate percussion.

But the paucity of literature is not the reason why we must praise Russell Hartenberger’s disc Arlington; for it is a disc where melody, harmony and certainly rhythm are all celebrated in abundance. Hartenberger is a composer and a virtuoso percussionist as well. A founding member of Nexus, he is also what you may call a musical anthropologist who has mined the art and sculppure of percussion of drummers from West Africa and Europe and Indigenous drummers from the Near and Far East to North and South America.

However, it is not simply uncommon scholarship that informs the two large works for percussion on this disc. Hartenberger’s works seem not simply designed to show off the instruments that play them but also to illuminate the music itself: Arlington rises above being a funerary tattoo to celebrate the spectral spirits dancing in the rarefied air above every tombstone. The symphonic Red River is a large-scale musical metaphor that gushes with exuberance celebrating earthly life in all its protean variety.

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