04 Claude ChampagneAs I write this in the early days of January it is fitting that I speak about my New Year’s resolution to be a better friend to my cello this year. With this in mind I’m getting together with my friends Anne (violin) and Adam (piano) for trio sessions after a lengthy hiatus. Having previously played music by Mendelssohn and Mozart, this year we have embarked upon Beethoven’s Piano Trio Op.1, No.2. It’s a piece that I worked on extensively some 20 years ago and have been inspired to revisit by a new release, Beethoven Complete Piano Trios performed by the Weiss Kaplan Stumpf Trio (Bridge Records 9505A/C bridgerecords.com). Yael Weiss (piano), Mark Kaplan (violin) and Peter Stumpf (cello) all have notable solo careers and have been playing together as a trio for more than two decades. What I particularly like about this 3CD package – in addition to the fabulous performances – is that in lieu of program notes for the familiar trios, the booklet includes essays by each of the three performers about their own connections to the music. In the case of Weiss, this involves a lineage of teachers reaching all the way back to Beethoven via her mentor Leon Fleisher, a student of Schnabel, who worked with Leschetizky, a student of Liszt, who studied with Czerny, a student of the great master himself. Kaplan and Stumpf each share their personal takes on the trios, and the occasion of the recording. 

Although not as frequently heard as the string quartets which span Beethoven’s entire career (some of which are among the last works he would compose), the piano trios represent his early and middle periods very well, from his earliest published works, to the mammoth “Archduke” Trio Op.97 of 1811 (my own introduction to the genre some 50 years ago in a recording featuring Emil Gilels, Leonid Kogan and Mstislav Rostropovich). This current recording reminds us however that Beethoven returned to the trio form in 1824 when he published the charming “Kakadu Variations” Op.121a, here paired with the very first trio from 1795. The eight trios therefore spanning three decades of Beethoven’s creativity, all in splendidly dynamic and idiomatic performances which kept me captivated for many hours over the course of the holiday season. 

02 Joan TowerIt seems Beethoven also provided inspiration to composer Joan Tower whose 1985 Piano Concerto – Homage to Beethoven is the title track on a new portrait CD from Gil Rose and the Boston Modern Orchestra Project (BMOP Sound 1093 bmop.org/audio-recordings). Soloist Marc-André Hamelin is in stellar form in the dramatic and often percussive work from 1985. Although there are no obvious quotations from Beethoven, Tower says “he had a huge influence on me in terms of how to try to create and motivate a strong dramatic structure.” She also says she included fragments from three Beethoven sonatas which are imbedded in the cadenzas. The most recent work is Red Maple, a bassoon concerto from 2013. Right from the extended solo opening, bassoonist Adrian Morejon establishes command, leading BMOP through the haunting quarter-hour virtuosic showpiece. There are two flute concertos bookending Red Maple, Rising for flute and string orchestra (2010, originally for flute and string quartet) and the 1989 Flute Concerto, both premiered by the outstanding Carol Wincenc who is the soloist here. This CD is a fitting tribute to Tower, the now 85-year-old American treasure whose successful career has spanned six decades. 

03 Dello JoioJoan Tower’s piano concerto put me in mind of one of my first exposures to modern (at the time contemporary) concertante works, more than half a century ago. I bought an LP of Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G featuring Lorin Hollander with the Boston Symphony Orchestra under Erich Leinsdorf that also included the premiere recording of Norman Dello Joio’s 1961 Fantasy and Variations for Piano and Orchestra. I fell in love with the Ravel, especially Hollander’s tender performance of the slow movement, but it was the Dello Joio that really caught my attention. Although that recording has recently been remastered, it is a piano concerto by his son Justin Dello Joio that I want to write about here. Oceans Apart: Concerto for Piano and Orchestra features Garrick Ohlsson with the Boston Symphony Orchestra under Alan Gilbert (Bridge Records 9583 bridgerecords.com). Composed in 2022, the title of the work refers, in part, to the “…the immensity, the oceanic vastness, of the polarization of our time. People seem to be moving irreparably apart. The waves of misinformation spreading relentlessly over the web, the belief that such a thing as ‘alternate facts’ can exist, and the swell of unharnessed power this has caused – these were in my thoughts.” Captured in a live performance, the work opens with “an unresolved tritone in the low register in the piano and the highest sounds, beyond any specific pitch, whispering incomprehensively and at the edge of audibility in the strings” which extends into a 20-minute dramatic contest between piano and orchestra. Ohlsson, for whom it was written, holds his own in a brilliant performance which, to paraphrase the composer, pits him like a surfer on a 100-foot wave against the daunting force of a large symphony orchestra. As the applause dies away we are treated to Due Per Due, two movements for cello and piano (Carter Brey and Christopher O’Riley), Elegia: To an Old Musician and Moto in Perpetuo. Written in 2011, three years after his father’s death, the first pays homage to Norman’s Prelude: To a Young Musician which Justin learned to play at the age of six. The second is as rambunctious and flamboyant as the title implies. This fine disc is completed by Blue and Gold Music written for the tricentennial of the Trinity School, in a sparkling performance by organist Colin Fowler and the American Brass Quintet. 

04 Claude ChampagneMy first exposure to the music of Claude Champagne (1891-1965) was an educational LP on the Canadian Music Enrichment label, one side of which was an uninterrupted performance of Symphonie Gaspésienne and on the other the same work with cues for a slideshow depicting the landscape of the Gaspé peninsula that inspired the work. Although not much attention was given to him in English Canada, where his contemporaries included Healy Willan and Sir Ernest MacMillan, Champagne was an important figure in the annals of classical music in Quebec, where his students included Violet Archer, Roger Matton, Pierre Mercure, Serge Garant and Gilles Tremblay among other notables. I was very pleased to see a new recording of Champagne’s brilliant tone poem featuring L’Orchestre symphonique de Laval under Alain Trudel (ATMA ACD2 4053 atmaclassique.com/en). Starting eerily in near silence, Trudel leads his orchestra through the gradually building portrait of the fabled peninsula with dramatic turns and climaxes along the 20-minute journey. Although the program notes mention Debussy and the Russian school as influences, I also hear echoes of Delius and Vaughan Williams in this marvelous one movement work. You can access the digital-only recording for free on the ATMA website. 

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05 China TownChinatown (Leaf-Music LM281 leaf-music.ca) is a striking new opera featuring the words of Giller Prize laureate Madeleine Thien and music by multiple-award-winner Alice Ping Yee Ho. The project was initiated by City Opera Vancouver back in 2017 and developed over the next five years through a myriad of workshops and public consultations with Vancouver’s Chinese community. During that process the importance of the Hoisan language to the history of Vancouver’s Chinatown became evident as that was the province of China where many of the original immigrants came from. Writer Paul Yee was engaged to translate portions of the opera into the Hoisan dialect. The result is the first opera to depict a Canadian Chinatown, and the first libretto to combine Hoisanese, Cantonese and English. The orchestration features traditional Chinese and Western classical instruments. It tells the story of two families and a chorus of ghosts, beginning with the building of the Canadian Pacific Railroad through to our own times. It deals with “violence and despair, the Head Tax, the Exclusion Act, paper sons, and paper promises.” The opera was staged in 2022 under the direction of Mary Chun and this is the original cast recording of the groundbreaking milestone of the musical stage. The booklet includes a synopsis for each of the 12 scenes of the two-act opera, program notes and biographies in English, French and Chinese pictograms. 

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06 Vivian FungEdmonton-born, Juno Award-winning composer Vivian Fung first studied with Violet Archer, went on to receive her doctorate from the Juilliard School and is currently based in California. Insects & Machines – Quartets of Vivian Fung (Sono Luminus DSL-92270 sonoluminus.com) features the Jasper String Quartet – who have admired Fung since first performing one of her quartets in 2019 – being “immediately captivated by the visceral energy and impeccable craft of her writing.” The four works included span 18 years of her chamber output. Fung, whose family survived Cambodian genocide, has travelled extensively in the Far East and drew on folk music of certain parts of Asia, including China and Indonesia, for her String Quartet No.1. It began as a short movement written on assignment at the Atlantic Center for the Arts in 2001 for performance by the American String Quartet. The success of that reading inspired her to add three more movements, also drawing on Eastern themes, to complete the quartet in 2004. To my ear is it reminiscent of the “night music” style of Béla Bartók, especially in the original pizzicato movement. (What young composer would not be influenced by Bartók’s incredible contribution to the string quartet genre? And, having spoken of musical lineage earlier in this column, I will mention that Fung’s teacher Archer was herself a student of that Hungarian master.) Fung states that “issues of my Asian identity underscore much of my work.” String Quartet No.2 (2009), also uses a Chinese folksong for its base, and String Quartet No.3 (2013) evokes “a non-Western song […] highly ornamented, powerful, and tuned to suggest the microtonal tendencies found in many non-Western scales.” String Quartet No.4: Insects & Machines is likewise inspired by travels to the Orient, this time Cambodia, where “I was especially attuned to the persistent noises of buzzing insects that accompanied my walk through the thick jungle.” The subtitle aptly describes the divisions of this one-movement work: Buzzing… whirring… glitching… ringing… thumping…. The members of the Jasper String Quartet – named after Canada’s Jasper National Park, although I cannot find another Canadian connection to the group – rise to the multiple challenges posed by Fung throughout these works, but especially in the unrelenting and virtuosic tour de force of this final quartet. But final is not the right word: Fung has recently completed a fifth for Victoria’s Lafayette String Quartet. 

07 Philip Glass DubeauSpeaking of string quartets, later on in these pages you will find Terry Robbins’ take on Quatuor Molinari’s latest installment of the quartets of Philip Glass. The Molinari is not the only Montreal-based ensemble to have an ongoing interest in the American minimalist master, and Angèle Dubeau & La Pietà have just released a follow-up to their 2008 Philip Glass: Portrait album. Signature: Philip Glass (Analekta AN 2 8755 outhere-music.com/en/labels/analekta) is comprised of 16 short movements drawn from a dozen “signature” works spanning most of four decades. Dubeau says that for many years she has found Glass’ music “nourishing intellectually and musically” and for this, her 48th album, she chose works she finds “significant and compelling” from his vast oeuvre. Opening (appropriately) with Opening from 1981’s Glassworks, the earliest work on the disc, we journey through the years with stops at such classics as Symphony No.3, Koyaanisqatsi, The Somnambulist, A Brief History of Time, Candyman Suite and several movements from Bent. New to me, and of particular interest, is the extended movement from the 2018 Piano Quintet and two Duos for Violin and Cello from 2010 (featuring Dubeau and Julie Trudeau). The arrangements and adaptations are by Dubeau and François Vallières and they are compelling indeed. 

08 Eno PianoAround the same time that I was discovering the music of Philip Glass in the late 1970s I was also intrigued by the ambient compositions of Brian Eno such as Music for Airports. Glass had a seminal influence on Eno who, in 1971 along with David Bowie, heard Glass perform at the Royal College of Art in London. Glass would later acknowledge a reciprocal influence, composing three symphonies based on Eno and Bowie’s Berlin Trilogy of albums. In 2015 Bruce Brubaker released Glass Piano and with his latest, Eno Piano (infiné iF1088 infine-music.com) the connections continue. Whereas Eno used a variety of techniques and tape loops to create the drones and sustained notes of his ambient creations, in effect making the studio his instrument, with aid of new technologies such as the EBow (an electromagnetic device used to make long notes on the strings of a guitar or piano) and the latest spatialization techniques from IRCAM, Brubaker has effectively turned the grand piano into a studio to be played in real time. It’s quite a stunning achievement. The tracks on offer are the three parts of Music for Airports along with three shorter works, The Chill Air (from Ambient 2 with Harold Budd, 1980), By This River (Before and After Science, 1977) and Emerald and Stone (Small Craft on a Milk Sea, 2010). 

09 SkjalftiAnother contemporary take on the ambient genre, Skjálfti (Quake) by composers Páll Ragnar Pálsson and Eðvarð Egilsson (sonoluminus-com/store/skjalf) extrapolates a 15-part suite from their soundtrack to the 2021 Icelandic film of the same name. Written and directed by Tinna Hrafnsdóttir, the film tells the story of Saga, an author and mother who, after an epileptic seizure, experiences memory loss at the same time as hidden memories of family secrets begin to resurface. The psychological drama the film explores is hauntingly realized in this effective expansion of the original soundtrack that comprised 40 very brief segments, developing them into a strikingly atmospheric stand-alone work. 

10 Poul Ruders Piano TrioHaving begun this column with Beethoven’s impressive cycle of piano trios, I will close with the world premiere recording of one of the latest contributions to that time-honoured genre. Renowned Danish composer Poul Ruders (b.1949) had written some two dozen orchestral works (including five symphonies), as many concertante works, and countless chamber pieces (including four string quartets), before embarking on his first Piano Trio in 2020. Written for the Trio Con Brio Copenhagen, featured here in a performance that lives up to the group’s name, the composer describes it as a Kantian “thing in itself” with no hidden agenda. As per the accompanying press release, “The outer movements zip by in a flurry of heightened virtuosity that verges on the ecstatic (or hysterical, depending on your mood).” The contemplative central movement, Slow Motion, provides some much-needed respite from the at times abrasive opening, and a chance to catch your breath before the whirlwind finale. This is a fine example of how older forms can serve contemporary purposes. Cudos to all involved in this exceptional project (Our Recordings 9.70892 ourrecordings.com)

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We invite submissions. CDs, DVDs and comments should be sent to: DISCoveries, The WholeNote c/o Music Alive, The Centre for Social Innovation, 720 Bathurst St. Toronto ON M5S 2R4 or to discoveries@thewholenote.com.

01 Infinite VoyageAfter a career of 47 years the renowned Emerson String Quartet is calling it a day and they have enrolled Canadian superstar Barbara Hannigan for their farewell offering, Infinite Voyage (Alpha 1000 outhere-music.com/en/albums/infinite-voyage). The disc opens gently with Paul Hindemith’s four-song cycle Melancholie, Op.13 which Hannigan’s pure soprano is the perfect vehicle for the poems of Christian Morgenstern. Set in memory of Hindemith’s friend Karl Köhler, whose death on the Western Front in 1918 left the composer devastated, noting “Everything is dreary and empty. I feel deathly sad.” This is followed by Alban Berg’s String Quartet, Op.3, with its references to Tristan und Isolde as a tribute to the composer’s beloved – and later its eerie prefiguring of the madness depicted in his own opera Wozzeck – in a deeply moving performance by the quartet. Pianist Bertrand Chamayou joins the others for Ernest Chausson’s Chanson perpétuelle, a setting of abridged verses from Charles Cros’ Nocturne in which the narrator, abandoned by her lover, prepares for suicide. At nearly half an hour, Schoenberg’s String Quartet No.2, in F-sharp Minor, Op.10 is the most substantive work presented here. The first two movements are scored for traditional string quartet. The first movement expands the tonality of the key signature without venturing too far outside the lines. Things begin to go astray in the second movement, when toward the end a fractured, but recognizable rendition of the popular song O du Lieber Augustine with it’s refrain “All is over” is heard. The third and fourth movements both feature soprano and the poetry of Stefan George: Litany built on motives from the previous movements using a text that opens “Deep is the sadness that gloomily comes over me”; and Ecstasy, in which there is no longer a key signature and the words begin “I feel air from another planet” as the work indeed leads us into a new world of tonality. Once again Hannigan’s is the perfect voice for this powerful and haunting work, which provides a fitting end to the Emerson Quartet’s “infinite voyage.” Their journey lasted most of half a century and they produced nearly three dozen recordings. The Emersons will be missed, but what a legacy!

02 TransfiguredTransfigured featuring the Kaleidoscope Chamber Collective and soprano Francesca Chiejina (Chandos CHAN 20277 chandos.net/products/catalogue/CHAN%2020277) presents a program of chamber music from the turn of the 20th century with and without voice. The disc begins with Alexander von Zemlinsky’s Maiblumen blühten überall for soprano and string sextet from 1898, a setting of Richard Dehmel’s gruesome poem that translates to Lilies-of-the-valley blossomed everywhere, which ends “and the sun burned him to death in the corn.” Anton Webern’s 1907 Quintet for Piano and Strings, at 13 minutes is one of the composer’s most sustained works. Written early in his studies with Schoenberg, it shows some influence of Zemlinsky, his orchestration teacher, and certainly an appreciation of Brahms, as well as an understanding of his new mentor’s ideas. Zemlinsky, Schoenberg’s teacher and later his brother-in-law, also numbered among his students Alma Schindler, who became his lover before her marriage to Gustav Mahler in 1902. She wrote a variety of compositions before her marriage, but Mahler decreed that his wife would have to give up composing. He later relented somewhat and in 1910 sent her music to Universal Edition who published some of the songs recorded here. Kaleidoscope pianist Tom Poster has arranged them quite effectively for soprano and string sextet and in this form they perfectly complement the other repertoire on the disc. Chiejina’s dark, dramatic voice is well suited to these songs which actually show more affinity with the world of Zemlinsky and Schoenberg than that of Mahler. In 1899 Schoenberg wrote the string sextet Verklärte Nacht (Transfigured Night) which remains his most celebrated work, with the possible exception of the mammoth Gurrelieder published a decade later. Like Zemlinsky’s Maiblumen and the first of Alma’s songs presented here, Die stille Stadt, it is based on an emotionally charged poem by Dehmel. In this case however, the text is interpreted solely through music in an extended and gripping tone poem replete with sturm und drang. As the notes tell us, “indebted to Brahms in its string sextet form, the work seemed to be a deliberate repudiation of such a soundworld and its harmonic rules.” Although still some years away from his development of the “atonal” 12-note system of composition, and still using a traditional key signature (D minor), in this seminal work Schoenberg expands the tonality, stretching it almost to the breaking point while still conveying the depths of emotion in this star-crossed love story. Kaleidoscope rises and falls exquisitely with all the rollercoaster twists and turns of the plot until eventually, a half hour later, the quiet and compassionate resolution brings this very satisfying disc to a resplendent close. 

03 Goldberg VariationsI have spent some time in recent months sorting through several thousand LPs in my basement and came across Glenn Gould’s two iconic recordings of Bach’s Goldberg Variations. I took the opportunity to give them both a spin and was surprised at just how much I appreciated Gould’s “mature” 1981 version (51 minutes) with its leisurely approach versus the sprightly, often breakneck tempos of his youthful 1955 debut (38 minutes). A few days after this comparative listening session a new recording of the Goldbergs by Icelander Vikingur Ólafsson arrived at my desk (Deutsche Grammophon 486 4553 vikingurolafsson.com) and to my surprise, I now have a new favourite of this much-recorded work. As the opening Aria began, I got the impression that, as with the elder Gould, I was in for another treat and settled in for a smooth and relaxing ride, but soon had to fasten my seatbelt; a number of the 30 variations proved to be as nimble and breathtaking as the young Gould’s renderings. It is simply astounding to me that fingers can actually move that quickly and articulately. That notwithstanding, the relationship between the slow and fast movements and overall arc of the trajectory from opening aria to closing reprise gave the impression of a thoughtful, relaxed and balanced performance. It has always surprised me that a work commissioned by an insomniac to ease him through long, sleepless nights is quite so active and engaging. I would have expected the intention to be more of a sleep-aid than an entertainment. In spite of his virtuosic dexterity in the faster variations, I found Ólafsson’s interpretation to be more in keeping with my own sensibilities in this regard. I was quite surprised to find that this new recording is virtually twice as long as Gould’s original, despite Ólafsson’s equally fast tempos in some of the variations. I had to refer to the score to confirm my suspicion that, as is somewhat common practice, Gould omitted the second (and I think even some of the first) repeats, whereas Ólafsson plays them all, giving an outstanding performance that lasts some 74 minutes.

04a Around the WorldOne of my great pleasures this past summer was reading Ma vie heureuse (My Happy Life) by Darius Milhaud (1892-1974). I was quite surprised to discover that this prolific French composer, a member of Les Six, is sadly underrepresented in current commercial recordings and on websites like YouTube and Spotify. My own collection, built over the past half century, is thankfully more complete than what’s out there currently, so I was nonetheless able to revisit some of Milhaud’s wonderful compositions in conjunction with his delightful memoire. That being said, I was pleased to receive a new disc from clarinetist Yevgeny Dokshansky recently featuring Milhaud’s Suite for Clarinet, Violin, and Piano Op.157b (1936), comprising charming movements excepted from the music for a play by Jean Anouilh. Around the World: Trios for Clarinet, Violin and Piano performed by Ensemble Next Parallel (Heritage Records HTGCD170 heritage-records.com) also includes work by Milhaud’s contemporary, Armenian Aram Khachaturian, and living composers Peter Schickele (USA) and Roger J. Henry (Trinidad and Tobago). Khachaturian’s trio has a Romantic sensibility, and its final movement draws on an Uzbek folk melody. In Serenade for Three, Schickele is up to his usual tricks, particularly in the final movement’s perpetually rising variations on a theme from his alter ego PDQ Bach’s oratorio Oedipus Tex. Henry’s Caribbean infused music is actually not dissimilar to the sounds of Brazil that so inspired Milhaud most of a century earlier. 

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04b From Jewish LifeYevgeny Dokshansky also included his earlier Heritage release featuring another of my mid-century favourite composers – From Jewish Life: The Music of Ernest Bloch – on which he is accompanied by pianist Richard Masters. Another welcome addition to my collection.

Regional Roots Roundup

As I write this in early November, I have just enjoyed a heady evening at the new Hugh’s Room Live. It was my maiden voyage to the venue on Broadview Avenue, and I must say I was mightily impressed with the layout and the acoustics of the former Broadview Avenue Congregational Church, an 1894 structure designed by iconic Toronto architect E.J. Lennox. Unfortunately the venue is not yet wheelchair accessible, but press releases assure us it is a priority to rectify this as soon as possible. 

05a Rule of ThreeThe occasion of my outing involved the launch of the Andrew Collins Trio CD The Rule of Three (andrewcollinstrio.com). The musicianship of this band is outstanding; between the three of them they cover mandolin(s), mandola, mandocello, string bass, guitar and fiddle(s). As to what kind of music they play, Collins is the first to admit it’s hard to describe. He’s even written a song about it that you can check out on YouTube: I Don’t Know (But I Like It). The influences are diverse. While leaning heavily to bluegrass, there’s a healthy mix of western swing, old-time, folky singer/songwriter, a bit of pop – including a tune by Pink Floyd – and straight up classical, with a remarkable rendition of Debussy’s Clair de Lune on this new album. Although mostly a string band, not all of the repertoire is instrumental. Vocals are mostly taken care of by Collins, with bass player James McEleney providing sweet harmonies and occasional leads. The Rule of Three opens with Contranym, which Collins explained refers to words which are also their own opposites, such as cleave or sanction. It’s not a word I was familiar with, but in one of life’s little synchronicities Contranyms came up as a category on the episode of Jeopardy I watched the very next day. Other highlights for me include the raucous How Do You Get to Carnegie Hall, the balladic title track, the dizzyingly virtuosic Fleabag and That Jethro Really Burns!, a swinging tribute to Kenneth C. “Jethro” Burns of Homer and Jethro fame. 

05b Love Away the HateCollins also spoke about the strange experience of sheltering in place during the pandemic, a time spent playing alone and writing mandolin tunes. The result was the 2022 solo release Love Away the Hate on which he performs admirably as a one-man band, combining mandolin, mandola, mandocello, violin and guitar arrangements of ten tunes also available in notation and tablature in an accompanying book of sheet music. I look forward to using this to hone my own mandolin skills!

06 So Glad Im HereThe new Hugh’s Room doesn’t have a kitchen, so rather than the dinner club aspect of the original venue, focus is on the intimate concert hall setting so well appreciated by the audience. One potential casualty of this format is Ken Whiteley’s Gospel Brunches, a treasured monthly feature at the old location. Fortunately, Whiteley has adapted his approach. The first Gospel Matinee took place on Sunday November 12 and presumably will continue in the new year. The first installment served as a launch for Whiteley’s latest CD So Glad I’m Here (kenwhiteley.com) featuring a special guest – Iranian tar and oud master Davod Azad – giving an ecumenical take on the gospel genre. On it, Whiteley plays a host of instruments, including guitar and resophonic guitar, accordion, mandolin and Hammond organ among others, with George Koller on bass, Bucky Berger on drums and half a dozen supporting musicians and singers, all making “a joyful noise unto the Lord.” The repertoire involves traditional gospel tunes adapted and arranged by Whiteley, along with several originals, including the anthemic (My God Is) Bigger Than That (a sentiment I much prefer to the one more common in this troubled world, “My God is Bigger than Yours!”). One of the real rockers is Gospel Ship which is kind of a family affair with brother Chris Whiteley on harmonica and son Ben on bass, along with full chorus. Azad’s ethereal introduction to Reverend Dan Smith’s This Is The Lord’s House sets the stage for a truly welcoming invitation for everyone to come in and “taste the bread of life.” Each of the nine songs is a treasure, but a highlight is the title track with Whiteley’s finger style guitar intro and Azad’s solo, which is a true stunner. The penultimate track, It’s Gonna Rain, is superb. 

07 Meredith MoonThere are several connections to the preceding in Constellations, the new album by Canadian Appalachian clawhammer-style banjo playing, guitar picking singer/songwriter Meredith Moon (True North Records TND807 meredithmoon.com). The CD was recorded, mixed and mastered by Andrew Collins and the Toronto launch took place at Hugh’s Room Live back in October. Eight of the ten tracks are self-penned, mostly self-accompanied ballads with an old-time feel. One exception is Soldier’s Joy including bass and subtle drums and a fiddle break from Tony Allen, with strangely dark lyrics about the whiskey/beer/morphine concoction used in the 19th century in lieu of anesthetic for battlefield surgeries. I had not heard the words before and only knew it as an upbeat traditional fiddle tune. Quite a surprise! The other is Needlecase Medley, another traditional offering, in this case solo banjo with Moon accompanying herself with podorythmie (foot tapping common in Québécois and Acadian music). Other highlights include the beautiful title track, a nostalgic look back at the wanderlust of Moon’s earlier days, and the closer, Slow Moving Train, a haunting depiction of time rolling on. 

08 Noah ZacharinI’m surprised and a little embarrassed to say that I had never heard of Canadian singer/songwriter Noah Zacharin until his ninth CD Points of Light (noahsong.com) landed on my desk. I’m sorry to have come so late to the parade because Zacharin is really something. In addition to his solo career in which he has opened for the likes of Odetta, Dave van Ronk and Fairport Convention, he has appeared as a musician or producer on some 65 albums by artists from across North America. This latest disc showcases his outstanding finger-style guitar chops accompanying his solo vocals in storytelling ballads, as well as full band versions of another half a dozen songs in various styles from the gentle and gorgeous (My Love is a) Red Red Bird featuring Denis Keldie (B3) and Burke Carroll (pedal steel) to some rollicking blues and honkytonk tunes to me reminiscent of the late Mose Scarlett and (Chris and Ken Whiteley’s) Original Sloth Band, with help from Gary Craig (drums), Russ Boswell (bass) with cameos from Kevin Turcotte (trumpet) and Roly Platt (harmonica). The disc opens in solo mode with Ten Tons of Road, a paean to love and the call of the road, and continues with one of my favourites 17 Minute, an anti-lament of sorts for past loves. Zacharin seems content to let the past go, with no hard feelings putting me in mind of Tom Rush’s iconic No Regrets. Something Like a River is a solo acoustic guitar instrumental depicting a stretch of the York River in the Canadian Shield where Zacharin spends time in an off-grid cabin. The disc ends quietly with the lovely Been a Long Day, just guitar and voice complemented by an inobtrusive, though lush, string arrangement by Drew Jurecka. I’m so glad that Points of Light found its way to me.

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We invite submissions. CDs, DVDs and comments should be sent to: DISCoveries, The WholeNote c/o Music Alive, The Centre for Social Innovation, 720 Bathurst St. Toronto ON M5S 2R4 or to discoveries@thewholenote.com

01 Enigmatic VariationsEnigmatic Variations consists of Canadian works performed by Calgary-based violist Margaret Carey and pianist Roger Admiral (Centrediscs CMCCD 32723 cmccanada.org/product-category/recordings/Centrediscs), opening with a piece by Malcolm Forsyth (1936-2011), Steps for Viola and Piano (1978). Traditionally melodic and idiomatically well-suited to the viola, the five movements are self-explanatory: Buoyant, Strange Light, Violent, Colours and Jocular, all played adeptly by Carey and Admiral. Milton Barnes (1931-2001) is featured on three tracks, Ballade for Solo Viola (1978) and Lament and Hymn Tune Pavane for Viola and Piano (1976). Barnes was a traditionalist by nature who was schooled in the 12-tone tradition but chose to avoid avant-garde idioms in favour of tonally based expression. The pieces included here, especially Ballade, are playfully rhythmic and melodic, at times reminiscent of childhood chants and songs. 

The title of the disc is taken from a 2021 work commissioned from Sean Clarke (b.1983). Clarke and Carey both studied at Mount Royal University Conservatory and the variations are inspired by the “virtuosity, playing and teaching style” of several of their teachers and colleagues, as well as a landscape drawing by Carey featuring Canadian flora and fauna imbedded in a Peruvian Inca Cross. Apart from occasional sharp outbursts, the variations remain as dark and enigmatic as the opening theme. 

The most substantial work on this disc is the Viola Concerto Op.75 by one of the most prolific composers from Quebec, Jacques Hétu (1938-2010). Hétu composed 16 concerted works for most of the instruments usually found in an orchestra and several that are not, such as ondes Martinon, amplified guitars and marimba, plus a Rondo for cello and string orchestra and a Symphonie concertante for flute, oboe, clarinet, French horn, bassoon and strings. Not to mention four full symphonies. I don’t believe any Canadian composer has come close to this orchestral output. The Viola Concerto (performed here in a piano reduction) is in four contrasting movements. Although Admiral does a fine job with the piano accompaniment, the lush colours of Hétu’s original orchestration are a bit lost in the translation. Carey’s solo viola is however, here as throughout the disc, full and present with all the nuance we would expect. 

In response to Carey’s request for a solo viola work, Stewart Grant (b.1948) transcribed his Two PoemsBreath of Life and The Rear View Mirror – originally composed for cello (2004). The disc concludes with a second 2021 commission, A Three Dog Night by the youngest composer represented here, Benjamin Sajo (b.1988). It’s another contemplative work, with the piano and dark-hued viola line perfectly balanced. 

02 Kevin LauAnother Canadian disc that has been in frequent rotation here this past month is Kevin Lau: Under a Veil of Stars featuring the St. John | Mercer | Park Trio (Leaf Music LM273 leaf-music.ca). Born in 1988, Lau is on track to give Jacques Hétu a run for the money in orchestral output. An almost ubiquitous figure on the GTHA music scene, Lau has served as composer-in-residence or affiliate composer with the Toronto, Mississauga and Niagara Symphony Orchestras, the Banff Centre and currently, the Manitoba Chamber Orchestra. In addition, his works have been performed by the National Arts Centre, Winnipeg Symphony, Vancouver Symphony, Hamilton Philharmonic and Tampa Bay Symphony Orchestras and the National Ballet of Canada, for which he has composed two major works. This release is devoted to his chamber music, including works for piano trio and subsets thereof. 

The extended title work is in three movements that are evocatively brought to life in the music: The Stars are Never Still; Land of Poison Trees and In that Shoreless Ocean. In his intimate program note Lau describes the impetus for the work, and how it changed with the death of the dedicatee, violinist Yehonatan Berick. Berick, along with his life partner cellist Rachel Mercer and pianist Angela Park comprised the AYR Trio who commissioned the work. Lau says the three movements depict a life cycle chronicling childhood, adulthood and old age. Renowned soloist and chamber musician Scott St. John has taken on the emotionally difficult task of replacing Berick in this trio’s configuration, not only in the trio works but also in Intuitions No.2, a violin and cello duo written for Berick and Mercer, and If Life Were a Mirror for violin and piano. This latter work comprises reflections on Arvo Pärt’s Spiegel im Spiegel (Mirror in the Mirror), in which we hear numerous echoes of familiar tunes from Bach and other icons, “musical artifacts that reflect one another like a hall of mirrors.” The former was composed as part of a set of pieces designed to be played by partners living in the same bubble during the pandemic lockdowns, and the latter was completed just before the COVID-19 outbreak. 

The other trio works include two from 2007, Piano Trio No.1 and Timescape Variations, and A Simple Secret from 2019. The Dreamer for solo piano fills out the disc. Mercer and Park have worked together in various combinations over many years, including the piano quartet Ensemble Made in Canada, and their compatibility and intuitive partnership are on fine display here. St. John’s playing fits with these two like a glove, partly I’m sure due to Lau’s idiomatic and skilfully crafted music. A very satisfying release.

03 Gerald CohenGerald Cohen – Voyagers presents chamber music by this American composer performed by the Cassatt String Quartet with guest soloists Narek Arutyunian (clarinets) and trombonist Colin Williams (innova 090 innova.mu). Cohen (b.1960) is a Jewish cantor and professional baritone as well as a composer and his music often reflects his religious roots. Playing for Our Lives was written for the Cassatt for a 2012 concert devoted to music by composers interned at the Nazi concentration camp Terezin (Theresienstadt) near Prague. The quartet asked for a contemporary memorial and tribute to the musical life at that place, a transit camp on the road to Auschwitz and other death camps. The three movements draw on material related to Terezin: a Yiddish folk song Beryozkele (Little Birch Tree) which had also been set by Viktor Ullmann who perished in Auschwitz; a lullaby from Hans Krasa’s children’s opera Brundibar, composed and performed at Terezin; and Verdi’s Requiem, a piece championed at the camp by conductor Rafael Schachter, from which Cohen fashioned his Dies Irae (Day of Wrath). The music is at once angry, contemplative, full of angst, uplifting and haunting, ultimately ending in sublime quietude. 

The title work for clarinet and string quartet is a tribute to the Voyager spacecraft, launched in 1977 and headed to the outer reaches of the solar system. It was inspired by the music of the Voyager Golden Record, an audio time capsule intended to give extraterrestrial beings an impression of human culture on Planet Earth. Cohen “chose several of these [sound samples]: a Beethoven string quartet (Cavatina), an Indian raga (Bhairavi) and a Renaissance dance (Galliard), weaving them together in a composition that celebrates humanity’s quest to explore the universe, and the power of music to express the rich emotions and cultures of human life.” The final movement Beyond the Heliosphere brings back aspects of the first three using the Beethoven as its central element and ending with a direct quote from the Cavatina of Beethoven’s Op.130 quartet before fading out with a repeated high note from the bass clarinet “as if the signal of the Voyager keeps going, ever fainter, as it continues its interstellar voyage.” 

The disc ends with Preludes and Debka, written in 2001 for the unusual combination of trombone and string quartet. Three contrasting preludes lead to the concluding debka, a Middle Eastern dance popular in both Arab and Israeli communities, introduced by a trombone cadenza. This finale is “mostly lively and playful, eventually becoming rather wild before reprising the debka theme at the conclusion” bringing this intriguing and sometimes surprising disc to an end. 

04 Telegraph QuartetThe early 20th century was an exciting time in the development of European concert music, with a plethora of new approaches. With Divergent Paths – Schoenberg & Ravel (Azica ACD-71360 azica.com) the Telegraph Quartet has embarked on a project to present and juxtapose some of these diverse directions. Although born one year apart, Ravel (1875-1937) and Schoenberg (1874-1951) could in many ways not be farther apart, and the same could be said of the quartets presented here, written around the same time (1902 and 1907 respectively). The excellent and extensive liner notes claim that this is the first time the two have been recorded together, and point out that they rarely, if ever, appear on the same concert program. Following in the footsteps of Debussy’s quartet of a decade earlier, Ravel’s is the epitome of French Impressionism while Schoenberg’s expanded tonality points the way to his later development of the 12-note system adopted by the Second Viennese School; together they paint a telling portrait of the changing times. Although there is some sturm und drang in the vif et agité final movement of the Ravel, the overall impression is that of beauty and balance. Schoenberg’s String Quartet No.1 in D Minor, Op.7 starts stormily, in the relative minor key to Ravel’s F Major, making a good case for their pairing, but there the similarities stop. There is a lushness in the Schoenberg, especially in the third movement, but it is a much darker mood than the mostly playful Ravel. Heard now, more than a century after it was composed, the Schoenberg no longer sounds shockingly abrasive and there is even a Romantic sensibility in its quieter moments, making me wonder why it is still so infrequently heard in the concert hall. Fortunately, there are a number of historic recordings available of Schoenberg’s four quartets by the likes of the Juilliard, LaSalle, New Vienna, Schoenberg and Pražák string quartets. Hopefully this committed and thoroughly nuanced performance by the Telegraph Quartet will bring this first to a wider audience. I look forward to where they take us next in their exploration of Divergent Paths

05 Leopold van der PalsAlthough relegated to obscurity in recent decades, the prolific composer Leopold van der Pals is currently undergoing a renaissance, thanks in large part to the efforts of cellist Tobias van der Pals, the great-grandson of Leopold’s younger brother, conductor Nikolaj. Leopold was born in St Petersburg in 1884. His father was the Dutch consul there, while his Danish-born maternal grandfather was Julius Johannsen – composer, music theorist, professor at and later director of the St. Petersburg Conservatory. Music had a central role in the van der Pals home, where the composers Glazunov and Tchaikovsky were regular guests, and it was on Glazunov’s recommendation that the young Leopold began his tuition as a composer. At Rachmaninoff’s suggestion he went to study with Reinhold Glière in Berlin, under whose tutelage he completed a symphony that was accepted for performance by the Berlin Philharmonic, an auspicious beginning indeed. The outbreak of WWI forced him to leave Germany and the October Revolution in Russia meant he could not return there either. Van der Pals settled in Switzerland where he remained until his death in 1966.  

Tobias van der Pals has been immersed in his great uncle’s life and legacy for more than 20 years and in 2018 had the opportunity to move Leopold’s entire archive to Copenhagen. There are now over 700 compositions being prepared for publication by Edition Wilhelm Hansen with Tobias as editor. Following a CD of orchestral works and another of solo concertos, CPO has recently released Leopold van der Pals – String Quartets Vol.1 performed by the Van Der Pals Quartet, of which Tobias is a member (CPO 555 282-2 vanderpalsquartet.com). Van der Pals completed six quartets and the first three are included here, along with a brief late work, In Memoriam Marie Steiner. Born a decade after Ravel and Schoenberg, he too wrote his first quartet around the age of 30, beginning it shortly after his move to Switzerland. That decade seems to have made a difference in the confluence of styles, and in van der Pals’ writing we see something of a blending of the cultural differences of the elder masters. 

Although van der Pals returned to the medium at several points in his life, the first three quartets were completed within a span of a dozen years. Strangely he didn’t publish the second and only heard a fragment of it performed in his lifetime. It was given its world premiere by this ensemble in 2018. The lyrical third quartet dates from 1929 and was very well received by public and critics alike as, it seems, was all his music. This makes its disappearance during the latter part of the century even harder to fathom. Kudos to Tobias van der Pals and his colleagues and to the folks at CPO for bringing these forgotten gems to light. I am eager to hear more.

06 Amalie StalheimI had hoped to include one more disc, but I see I have run out of space so I will just give it honourable mention here. Stravinsky | Poulenc | Debussy (LAWO Classics LWC1260 lawo.no) features excellent performances by Norwegian cellist Amalie Stalheim and pianist Christian Ihle Hadland of Stravinsky’s Suite Italienne, an arrangement of Baroque-inspired dances extracted from his ballet Pulcinella, and cello sonatas by Poulenc and Debussy, the latter being one of the Impressionist master’s final works. A collection to treasure, with immaculate sound, balance and ensemble playing. 

We invite submissions. CDs, DVDs and comments should be sent to: DISCoveries, The WholeNote c/o Music Alive, The Centre for Social Innovation, 720 Bathurst St. Toronto ON M5S 2R4 or to discoveries@thewholenote.com.

01 BernsteinJumping the gun a wee bit, I’d like to start with a world premiere recording of Leonard Bernstein’s “long lost” Music for String Quartet (1936) that will not be released officially until September 8 (Navona Records nv6577 navonarecords.com). Composed by an 18-year-old Bernstein during his studies at Harvard, the piece has been “steadfastly shepherded from its re-discovery to this historic release” by former Boston Symphony Orchestra librarian John Perkel who discovered it in the Library of Congress. The two-movement work lasts just over ten minutes, beginning with an extended angular, though melodic, dance-like fast movement followed by a brief and somewhat mournful slow one. It’s not clear whether this latter, recently found in the Library of Congress, was intended as a final movement – it ends somewhat inconclusively with a pizzicato pattern fading into oblivion. Complete or not, this is an interesting addition to the string quartet repertoire and an important key to understanding the young Bernstein who would go on to become such an iconic figure in American music. It is convincingly performed by violinists Lucia Lin and Natalie Rose Kress, violist Danny Kim and cellist Ronald Feldman. Kress and Kim are also featured in the contemplative duo Elegies for Violin and Viola by Aaron Copland, a musical mentor, collaborator and dear friend of Bernstein’s.

02 ShatterSticking with American music for string quartet, Bright Shiny Things has recently released Shatter, three world premiere recordings performed by the Verona Quartet (BSTD-0186 brightshiny.ninja). The works include Julia Adolphe’s Star-Crossed Signals, Michael Gilbertson’s Quartet and Reena Esmail’s Ragamala, which features Hindustani singer Saili Oak. It is this latter four-movement work that opens the disc and comprises almost half its length. Ragamala interweaves Eastern and Western traditions. Each movement opens the same way, inspired by Esmail’s experience of attending concerts in India, with traditional drones here provided by the string quartet. Each movement is based on a different raag: Fantasie (Bihag); Scherzo (Malkauns); Recitative (Basant); and the Rondo (Jog) all sung by the sultry Oak over the lush textures of the strings. Adolphe’s Star-Crossed Signals juxtaposes issues of empowerment and the assertion of dominance with a yearning for connection. The movement titles, DELTA X-RAY and KILO KILO come from nautical signal flags used by ships at sea, which the composer’s father used in his early paintings. The first, which means “keep your distance” and “watch for my signals,” is quite aggressive in contrast to the second, “I wish to communicate with you” in which the composer says “the strings gently reach for one another, enveloping and folding each line in a kind of dance.” Gilbertson’s Quartet was in progress during the 2016 U.S. presidential election, after which it became a personal reaction to those events. Feeling the need to compose something comforting, Gilbertson chose as the basis for the first movement Mother Chords a gesture like the pulsing chords that open Sibelius’ Second Symphony. The second movement Simple Sugars, which Gilbertson describes as “carbs that are metabolized quickly and provide an immediate rush, but no nutritional substance” is an allusion to the movement’s restless energy. The Verona Quartet rises to all the challenges of these diverse works. 

03 Ashley Bathgate 8 TrackFrom quartets to octets now, in a manner of speaking. My first exposure to Steve Reich’s music for multiple instruments of the same family was Vermont Counterpoint for solo flute and an ensemble of ten flutes, or pre-recorded tracks of the piccolos, flutes and alto flutes as performed by the soloist, this latter being the case in the 1982 Ransom Wilson EMI release. In 2003 Reich composed Cello Counterpoint for eight cellos on a joint commission for Maya Beiser (who will appear later on in the column). On the recent New Focus Recordings release 8-Track (FCR373 newfocusrecordings.com) we are presented with Ashley Bathgate’s layered realization of the work, along with new compositions in the same format by Canadian/Icelandic composer Fjóla Evans and Americans Emily Cooley and Alex Weiser. Evans’ Augun was inspired by a traditional Icelandic song and features overlapping motives to create shimmering, undulating textures. Cooley tells us that composing Assemble was like “assembling a sort of puzzle;” only at the end do the pieces come together in one voice. Weiser’s Shimmer unfolds through gradual and dramatic changes, in a waxing and waning of the canonic relationship between each cello and the soloist. This is the closest in minimalist spirit to Reich’s original which concludes this inspired disc. Bathgate’s technical control and musicality shine through each of these contrasting works within a common context, resulting in a mesmerizing recording. My only concern is that the two most similar sounding works, Weiser’s and Reich’s, are placed side by side. I would have preferred the disc to begin with Cello Counterpoint thus presenting a context for the project.

Listen to '8-Track' Now in the Listening Room

04 Kate Ellis Strange WavesKate Ellis’ Strange Waves is a digital release that takes this same approach to the cello ensemble, but this time presenting an extended six-movement work by collaborating Irish composer Ed Bennett (Ergodos Records ergodos.bandcamp.com). Ellis has been a member of Crash Ensemble, Ireland’s leading new music group, for the past two decades and currently serves as its artistic director. Strange Waves is a predominantly ambient work with the multiple cellos blending in a dreamlike texture of glissandos and drones creating a foggy haze into which field recordings from the County Down coast and Ireland’s northernmost island, Rathlin in the North Atlantic, are subtly integrated. A truly meditative experience.

05 Bach BeiserInfinite Bach is Maya Beiser’s very personal take on the iconic Suites for Solo Cello by Johann Sebastian Bach (Islandia Music Records IMR012 islandiamusic.com/releases). In the words of Beiser, best known for her work as an avant-garde cellist, “I spent 2022, my 60th year of life, immersed in recording, and rerecording, deconstructing and decontextualizing, experimenting and exploring sounds, reverberations, harmonics in my converted barn in the Berkshires, Massachusetts, engaging with Bach’s cello Suites. Having dedicated the past 35 years to creating new music, work that reimagines the cello on a vast canvas in multiple disciplines, I radically departed from the conventional classical cello sound. Yet, the Suites were ingrained in my daily practice. Even as I was getting ready to perform a new work by Steve Reich, Louis Andriessen, or David Bowie, I would still begin every day playing a movement from the Suites. Over the years I was experimenting with the process of unlearning the doctrine I was taught about this music, until last year when I took the time to relearn it anew.” The result takes some getting used to, sounding at times as if recorded from a different room, with extreme reverberation sometimes supplemented with sympathetic drones and overlays, and some radically altered tempos. I also find the arrangement of the suites surprising. Spread over three discs (itself not unusual) Beiser has chosen to pair the suites according to major and minor tonality, the G major and C majors (nos.1 and 3) on the first disc, the D minor and C minor (2 and 5) on the second and the E-flat major and D major (4 and 6) on the last. While my initial reaction was that this was too much of the same mood on each disc, I eventually came around to appreciate the continuity. And once I let myself let go of expectations and prejudice about how these works were supposed to sound, I was able to immerse myself in Beiser’s vision and enjoy the ride. Although Infinite Bach is available in Full Dolby Atmos Spatial Audio via Apple Music and in an Immersive Binaural Mix for enhanced headphone listening, I must say the plain old-fashioned CDs sound pretty good on my old stereo system too.

06 Bach ThorsteinsdottirSæunn Thorsteinsdóttir is another cellist who has made the Bach Suites “her own,” re-interpreting them, although in a much less radical way than Beiser. In the liner notes to Marrow – The 6 Suites for Solo Cello by J.S. Bach (Sono Luminus DSL-92263 sonoluminus.com) she says “There is an Icelandic saying, ‘mergur málsins,’ which directly translates to ‘the marrow of the matter,’ and these Suites, to me, speak directly to the essence of being human. As for many cellists, these Suites have been my steady companion throughout my life with the cello, first as a vehicle to learn counterpoint, style, and harmony, then as material with which to explore personal expression and interpretation, and today they are a mirror, reflecting the deeper truth of the human experience, revealing more layers of meaning each time I come back to them.” Thorsteinsdóttir feels Bach “pushes the boundaries of the expressive and technical possibilities of the instrument with each succeeding Suite.” As she began playing the Suites as a set, she heard a dramatic through-line begin to emerge, finding the first “innocent” and the second as a “first taste of bitter disappointment,” in the third a “renewed optimism,” the fourth “bold and brash,” with “dark tragedy” in the fifth and “glorious redemption” in the sixth. To clearly illuminate this arc, she presents the Suites without the printed repeats “so that we may more closely follow this universal storyline.” This also has the advantage of making it possible to present them all of a piece, in one sitting. The two CDs of this set clock in at 90 minutes, and present the suites in numerical order conserving the original major-minor-major groupings. The performance is exhilarating and makes for a satisfying, if intense, listening session.

07 Harnoy HerriottThe final selection also features solo cello, but in a very different context. In a trip down memory lane, Portrait (mikeherriott.com/bwg_gallery/discography) featuring cellist Ofra Harnoy and her life partner trumpeter Mike Herriott, takes me back to my days as a music programmer at CJRT-FM. Harnoy’s RCA discs of Haydn and Vivaldi concertos (several of which were world premiere recordings) with the Toronto Chamber Orchestra under the direction of former CJRT music director Paul Robinson were staples of our library. The current disc with the H&H Studio Orchestra, a hand-picked ensemble of Toronto’s finest studio musicians, features many of the jewels of the operatic repertoire that were often heard during CJRT’s exhilarating all-hands-on-deck fundraising campaigns. These include Una Furtiva Lagrima from L’elisir d’Amore, The Flower Duet from Lakme, Au Fond du Temple Saint from The Pearl Fishers, along with several selections from Porgy and Bess and Somewhere from West Side Story. These vocal treasures have been masterfully arranged by Herriott and feature cello and trumpet alternating in the solo roles. All the performances are outstanding and my only quibble is that overall mood, lyrical and slow moving, is a bit too similar from track to track. That being said, it’s still a marvellous journey, which ends with Harnoy’s moving transcription for cello and trumpet of Larry Adler and Itzhak Perlman’s languid duet arrangement of the iconic Summertime

We invite submissions. CDs, DVDs and comments should be sent to: DISCoveries, WholeNote Media Inc., The Centre for Social Innovation, 503 – 720 Bathurst St. Toronto ON M5S 2R4.

David Olds, DISCoveries Editor
discoveries@thewholenote.com

01 Aux Deux HemispheresAux deux hémisphères features two sonatas and three stand-alone works by Quebec cellist and composer Dominique Beauséjour-Ostiguy, accompanied by pianist Jean-Michel Dubé, (Société Métropolitaine du disque SMD 311-1 dominiquebeausejourostiguy.com). Although the CD’s extensive liner notes are unilingual French, the composer’s website gives detailed context in English for the project from which I take the following: “The title is a reference to two of my main sources of inspiration, namely the lyricism and the torment found in Russian post-Romantic music as well as the relentless rhythmic energy of Argentinian tango music. These two hemispheres are very present in my music and represent the two poles of my musical personality. Indeed, my compositions frequently alternate between introversion and extroversion [creating] a cinematographic flavour with a lot of intensity and contrasts. The two hemispheres are also a way of expressing the duality and the complicity between the cello and the piano, constantly in dialogue and each occupying a place of equal importance.” On repeated listening to this disc, the word that kept coming to my mind was “soaring.” The music itself is enthralling, both conventional and adventurous at the same time, and the multi-award-winning performers, are in top form. As pointed out by Terry Robbins elsewhere in these pages, the facilities at Domaine Forget where it was recorded in late 2021 “guaranteeing top-level sound quality,” this album is a real treat for chamber music enthusiasts. 

02 Duo CavatineNuages is another outstanding Canadian cello and piano disc, showcasing Noémie Raymond-Friset and Michel-Alexandre Broekaert respectively, collectively known as Duo Cavatine (KNS Classical KNS A/121 duocavatine.com). The title for this debut disc, which translates as clouds, comes from its centrepiece, producer David Jaeger’s Constable’s Clouds for solo cello. I spoke in my February column about a reworking of this piece with electronics for violist Elizabeth Reid, so I welcomed the opportunity to get to know this original set of variations inspired by the cloud studies of John Constable. Jaeger tells us the variations “of widely differing character” were inspired by the “magical and endless variation we see in the shapes of clouds streaming by.” Raymond-Friset, who gave the work’s premiere, rises to all the technical challenges Jaeger presents in these nuanced nuages. The disc opens with a rarely heard yet charming sonata by Francis Poulenc dating from the occupation years of the Second World War. It’s from the gentle second movement Cavatine that the duo has taken its name. Alfred Schnittke’s powerful Sonata for Cello and Piano No.1 reverses the normal order of things by starting and ending with Largo movements bookending a diabolic moto perpetuo Presto. Throughout the disc, whether in the lyricism of Poulenc or the abrasiveness of Schnittke, Raymond-Friset and Broekaert shine, with technique and musicality to burn. Recorded at Glenn Gould Studio the sound is, as we have come to expect from engineer Dennis Patterson, impeccable.

Listen to 'Nuages' Now in the Listening Room

03 Brian BaumbuschIn the Pot Pourri section this month you will find Andrew Timar’s thoughtful and informative account of three new discs by the California based Gamelan Sinar Surya, an ensemble devoted to preserving the traditional gamelan music of Indonesia and its diaspora. In contrast, following in the footsteps of his West Coast predecessor Lou Harrison, American composer Brian Baumbusch has created his own instruments in the Balinese tradition while also envisioning new performance practices through innovative building designs and special tunings. He has worked closely with the Balinese ensemble Nata Swara and in 2022 donated his instruments to them and shipped – 1,800 pounds of them – to Bali. He then went to Bali himself to record the album Chemistry for Gamelan and String Quartet with Nata Swara and JACK Quartet (New World Records 80833-2 newworldrecords.org/search?q=Brian+Baumbusch). The disc opens with the exhilarating Prisms for Gene Davis for gamelan, completed in 2021, the most recent work presented. This is followed by Three Elements for String Quartet (2016), Helium, Lithium and Mercury. Performed by JACK, the work, an extreme example of Baumbusch’s “polytempo” style, features close harmonies and some abrasive textures amid doppler effects and the breakneck speed of its final movement. The disc closes with Hydrogen(2)Oxygen (2015) featuring both ensembles. The work reconsiders the earlier Bali Alloy for quartet and gamelan in which the composer attempted to unite the disparate instruments. This later work takes into consideration the irreconcilability of its two sound worlds, i.e. the harmonic overtone series naturally produced by the string instruments and the inharmonic series of partials of the steel and cedar bars of the gamelan instruments. This allows the string quartet and gamelan to exist side-by-side, exploiting their combinations and contrasts for expressive effect; in the words of Stephen Brooke after the premiere, “building from an ethereal opening into a raging torrent of asymmetrical rhythms, phase-shifting patterns and beautifully strange harmonies [...] magnificent, and as intoxicating as a drug.” 

04 Jason DoellThere are times when Baumbusch’s textures sound unearthly and it’s hard to reconcile the sounds with acoustic instruments. The same is true of Jason Doell’s Becoming in Shadows – Of Being Touched (Whited Sepulchre Records WSR043 jasondoell.com), although in this instance there are electronic manipulations at work. All the sound materials originate from the composer’s daily piano improvisations recorded while in residency at the Banff Centre in early 2020 (although some of it seems to have been performed by Mauro Zannoli on a “frozen” piano, exhumed from a snowbank). These are, to greater and lesser degrees, subjected to a piece of simple generative music software developed by Doell. The program blends user-defined parameters with decision-making procedures to determine how sounds from an audio database are strung together, layered and transformed, all the while guided by the composer’s aesthetic. A kind of humanized AI design. The result is a dreamlike landscape, a labyrinthine journey where microtonal pitches are blended with soft percussive sounds, all recognizable as emanating from a piano, albeit an otherworldly one. 

Concert Note: On June 18 at Array Space the TONE Festival features Jason Doell as he launches his album Becoming In Shadows ~ Of Being Touched

05 Alice Ho BlazeAlthough there is an electronic aspect on one of the tracks of Christina Petrowska Quilico’s latest CD Blaze featuring piano music of Alice Ping Yee Ho (Centrediscs CMCCD 31323 cmccanada.org/product-category/recordings/Centrediscs), the rest are purely acoustic. Ho tells us “The eight works in this collection have short, descriptive titles, with inspiration drawn from abstract paintings, forces of nature, the last journey of a female pilot, a horror film, plus a show piece from a piano competition. These compositions are both introspective and personal, designed to elicit evocative ‘images’ or ‘impressions,’ visually and psychologically. It is a great honour to have these works recorded by Christina Petrowska Quilico, an astounding musician as well as an acclaimed visual artist. The poetic metaphors in these pieces not only showcase her powerful performer’s persona but also uniquely resonate with her beautiful and vibrant paintings.” Among the paintings depicted are Van Gogh’s Starry Night and Dali’s The Persistence of Memory. Erupting Skies evokes Amelia Earhart’s last journey: “The solo piano is a symbolic representation of a female voice; […] the electronic track is a combination of Earhart’s voice with multiple layers of engineered acoustic and synthesized sounds.” The range of emotions depicted and the sheer virtuosity of several of the works make demands on the pianist that a lesser musician would find daunting. Petrowska Quilico, still at the top of her game after more than 50 recordings, rises to every challenge without breaking a sweat. Stay tuned for the upcoming Centrediscs release Shadow & Light, a double concerto CD with Petrowska Quilico and violinist Marc Djokic with Sinfonia Toronto under Nurhan Arman featuring music by Ho, Christos Hatzis and Larissa Kuzmenko. 

06a Future is Female 1If it is due to the efforts of Christina Petrowska Quilico that we are aware of as many Canadian women composers as we are, it is thanks to American pianist Sarah Cahill that the world is becoming increasingly aware of the presence of women composers throughout history. The Future is Female (firsthandrecords.com) is a project launched in March 2022 encompassing 30 composers ranging from Elisabeth Jacquet de la Guerre (1665-1729) to the more familiar 19th and early 20th-century names of Clara Schumann, Fanny Mendelssohn-Hensel and Germaine Tailleferre, and on into modern times with two dozen more including Betsy Jolas and Meredith Monk to name just a couple. Bringing the series to a close, Vol. 3 At Play (FHR133) was released in May 2023 and features works by Hélène de Montgeroult (1764-1836), Cécile Chaminade, Grażyna Bacewicz, Chen Yi, Franghiz Ali-Zadeh, Pauline Oliveros, Hannah Kendall, Aida Shirazi and Regina Harris Baiocchi, pieces by the last four having been composed in the 21st century. Cahill says “Like most pianists, I grew up with the classical canon, which has always excluded women composers as well as composers of color. It is still standard practice to perform recitals consisting entirely of music written by men. The Future is Female, then, aims to be a corrective towards rebalancing the repertoire. It does not attempt to be exhaustive, in any way, and the three albums represent only a small fraction of the music by women which is waiting to be performed and heard.” Each of the three volumes has a theme – In Nature, The Dance and At Play – and is arranged chronologically, with ten works spanning three centuries per CD. In this way each recital brings a fresh perspective and expands our understanding of the history of Western music from the classical to the modern era. Kudos to Cahill for convincing performances of the music of all these diverse styles and composers, for giving them voice and for opening our eyes and ears. 

07 Bruce CockburnSome half a century ago I spent many hours at my kitchen table trying to figure out a song from Bruce Cockburn’s eponymous first album, the inaugural release on Bernie Finkelstein’s True North Records label. That song, Thoughts on a Rainy Afternoon, has recently come back into my repertoire thanks to guitarist Brian Katz who attended one of my backyard music gatherings last fall. It’s taken a while to get my chops back for Cockburn’s intricate chord progressions and finger patterns, but it’s been worth the effort. So imagine the pleasure I felt to find Cockburn’s O Sun O Moon (True North Records TND811 truenorthrecords.com), in my inbox last month. Over the years Cockburn’s music has gone through changes from that pristine acoustic first offering through many sides of pop music and hard-edged songs, but he has always maintained his moral compass, celebrating life and protesting abuse and ignorance. On his latest album the opening track On a Roll is reminiscent of some of his rockier outings, but the overall feel of the disc is gentle and, as always, thoughtful and thought-provoking. Predominantly acoustic, Cockburn plays guitar, resonator guitar and dulcimer and is joined by a handful of A-list musicians including guitarist Colin Linden, who also produced the recording, with vocal support from Shawn Colvin, Susan Aglukark, Allison Russell and Ann and Regina McCrary. Highlights include the mournful yet anthemic Colin Went Down to the Water, When the Spirit Walks In the Room with violinist Jenny Scheinman and Janice Powers on B3 organ, the cryptic King of the Bolero – who is it plays like that? – and the instrumental Haiku. Cockburn’s voice has weathered somewhat over time, but he uses the gruffness to good effect, and he has not lost any of his musical charm or character. “O Sun by day o moon by night | Light my way so I get this right | And if that sun and moon don’t shine | Heaven guide these feet of mine – to Glory…”

08 Outside the MazeThat first True North Record was produced by Eugene Martynec, as were many of the label’s subsequent offerings including, in that same inaugural year, the haunting track December Angel on Long Lost Relatives by Syrinx, a seminal Toronto electronic ensemble featuring the synthesizers of John Mills-Cockell. Martynec is still an active part of the Toronto music scene, albeit after spending some years abroad, and his current project is the free improvising collective Gilliam | Martynec | McBirnie in which he’s in charge of electroacoustics, with pianist Bill Gilliam and flutist Bill McBirnie. Their latest release, Outside the Maze (gilliammcbirniemartynec.bandcamp.com/album/outside-the-maze), consists of ten diverse tracks, no two of which sound the same. While the piano and flutes (C and alto) are pretty much distinguishable throughout, Martynec’s contributions vary from atmospheric to percussive. At times it is hard to imagine the convincing sounds are not being created on physical drums and cymbals; at others it’s hard to imagine what their origins are. It’s also hard to imagine that these cohesive “compositions” are being created spontaneously in real time without premeditation or formal structure. The results are entrancing. 

09 Eliana CuevasA final quick note about Toronto’s Latin diva Eliana Cuevas’ latest release Seré Libre (Alma Records ACD472323 shopalmarecords.com). The Venezuelan-Canadian singer is accompanied by the Angel Falls Orchestra – named for the world’s highest waterfall located in Canaima National Park, Venezuela – conducted by the album’s producer Jeremy Ledbetter. Cuevas says “I created this 27-piece orchestra, as it was the one missing piece to realize my dream of fusing the incredibly rich traditions of Venezuelan folk rhythms and classical music.” The album explores loss – the deaths of Cuevas’ father and grandfather – and her mission to continue the centuries old folk music traditions they taught her. The title song, which translates as “I shall be free,” is a nine-minute epic journey which Cuevas says she always dedicates to her troubled homeland, but “it can be interpreted as being about finding freedom from whatever is holding you back.” With Cuevas’ gorgeous voice and the lush orchestrations played by an orchestra that includes many of Toronto’s finest pit musicians, this is truly a glorious album. There will also be a theatrical film release of the project which will be available online by the time you read this. 

Listen to 'Seré Libre' Now in the Listening Room

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David Olds, DISCoveries Editor
discoveries@thewholenote.com

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