01 Avoid the DayThis month, once again, a good book has brought me back to some of my favourite music and provided a few discoveries. Avoid the Day: A New Nonfiction in Two Movements by Jay Kirk (Harper Perennial harpercollins.ca/9780062356178/avoid-the-day) is an intriguing read on many levels. The two “movements” have completely different settings and contexts: the search for the autograph score of Bartók’s String Quartet No.3 which takes us to the University of Pennsylvania, the city of Budapest and ultimately to Transylvania; and a luxury eco-cruise to the land of the midnight sun. This latter is ostensibly for the purpose of producing a documentary for a travel magazine, but the author’s and director’s creative impulses kick in and the project turns into a horror film, referencing Frankenstein’s monster’s banishment to the Arctic and various Hollow Earth theories, with a nod to Thomas Pynchon’s Against the Day. Each adventure conveniently provides Kirk with an excuse to “avoid” spending time with his father, on his deathbed back in the United States. Somewhat reminiscent of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s autofiction My Struggle, although at 370 pages only about ten percent of its length, Avoid the Day is a no-holds-barred exposé of some of Kirk’s seedier sides – alcohol and barbiturate abuse being primary preoccupations. This would not normally be of interest to me, but the tales are so well written and cleverly layered that I found it compelling. And of course the musical references were like so many bread crumbs for me to follow. 

02 Bartok VeghMusic is the major focus of the first movement and I found myself digging deep into my vinyl collection to find recordings of some of the works mentioned, including Bartók’s Bluebeard’s Castle and Cantata Profana – talk about dark nights of the soul! – and his final work, the Third Piano Concerto. It must be 30 years since I listened to any of these pieces, well, 28 for Bluebeard, because I did attend the COC’s original presentation of Robert LePage’s production in 1992. I found I had two recordings of the Cantata. The Romanian legend of The Nine Enchanted Stags tells the story of a widowed father’s shiftless sons, whose only skills are hunting and hanging out in the woods, who are transformed into magnificent animals with enormous racks of antlers, and of the subsequent confrontation with their father. I was surprised to realize that my Turnabout Vox recording is sung in English. It seems Bartók translated the Romanian story into Hungarian and added some texts of his own to provide the libretto and although it was completed in 1930, its premiere was in London in 1934, performed in an English translation. The Cantata was not presented in Hungary in Bartók’s original translation until 1936 and it is this version found on the Hungaroton Bartók Béla Complete Edition. In both performances the lead stag’s solos – tenors Murray Dickie in English and Jószef Réti in Hungarian – are stunning. My 1973 Angel LP of the Third Piano Concerto features Daniel Barenboim as soloist, with Pierre Boulez conducting the New Philharmonia Orchestra. Need I say more?  

My first exposure to Bartók’s six string quartets was the historic 1959 recording – the first American recording of the cycle, I believe – by the Fine Arts Quartet, which I found on the budget Concert-Disc label at Sam the Record Man around the time I began collecting in the early 70s. The music was an epiphany for me and provided one of my earliest entries into the world of “contemporary” music, notwithstanding the fact that Bartók had died almost three decades before. This was soon followed by the Juilliard String Quartet’s 1963 Columbia cycle, on vinyl at the time but now available on Sony CD, and then, under the tutelage of Eddie Santolini, my mentor at Sam’s, the (perhaps) definitive 1972 recording by Quatuor Végh. The quartet’s leader Sandor Végh had completed his studies at the Franz Liszt Academy of Music in Budapest in 1930 and worked with Bartók on the Hungarian premiere of the String Quartet No.5 as a member of the Hungarian String Quartet before the composer fled Europe for the United States in 1939. Végh founded his own quartet the following year. Since that time almost every string quartet of note has undertaken to climb these legendary peaks and you can find reviews of some of the most notable ascents in our archives at thewholenote.com, including those of the Vermeer, Penderecki, Hungarian, Guarneri, Alexander, Chiara, Arcadia and Takács Quartets.

I have twice in my life had the pleasure and privilege of hearing all six Bartók quartets performed live over a two-day period, once by the Juilliard at the Guelph Spring Festival in my formative years and about 15 years ago by the Penderecki at the Kitchener-Waterloo Chamber Music Society. Both were incredible experiences and I recommend the recordings of these ensembles, but for me, the ultimate is still the Quatuor Végh which I am sorry to say I never had the opportunity to hear in person. They disbanded in 1980 and Végh died in 1997 in Salzburg where he had taught at the Mozarteum for the last two and a half decades of his life.

03 Crumb Haunted NY PhilGeorge Crumb makes an appearance in Avoid the Day as part of Kirk’s quest for the Bartók score, and the music that is mentioned is Songs, Drones and Refrains of Death and, one of my favourites, the orchestral masterpiece A Haunted Landscape. I came to know the latter from a New World Records vinyl release featuring Arthur Weisberg and the New York Philharmonic – who commissioned it and gave the premiere performance. There is also a fine CD recording available from Bridge Records featuring the Warsaw Philharmonic under the direction of Thomas Conlin. It is an ethereal, mysterious and at times bombastic work in which a low B-flat drone by two scordatura double basses, sustained throughout the work, adds to the eerie ambiance. The composer tells us A Haunted Landscape “is not programmatic in any sense. The title reflects my feeling that certain places on the planet Earth are imbued with an aura of mystery…” He goes on to say “contemplation of a landscape can induce complex psychological states, and perhaps music is an ideal medium for delineating the subtle nuances […] that hover between the subliminal and the conscious.” 

04 Crumb Songs Drones and Refrains of DeathSongs, Drones and Refrains of Death is the fourth in a cycle of eight chamber settings of poetry by Federico García Lorca which Crumb composed between 1963 and 1970. Although I do know the four books of Madrigals that make up half of the series, and the 1986 postscript, Federico’s Little Songs for Children, I was not previously familiar with this work and I would like to thank Bridge Records for graciously providing me with a recording to facilitate this article (bridgerecords.com /products/9028). Songs, Drones and Refrains of Death is scored for baritone (in this case Sanford Sylvan), electric guitar, electric contrabass, electric piano/harpsichord and two percussion, performed by members of Speculum Musicae. As with many of Crumb’s works the dynamic range extends from barely audible to ferocious explosions of sound, and the vocal lines are often angst ridden, reflecting the nature of the texts. As William K. Bland tells us in his program note, “Throughout the entire range of Crumb’s compositions symbology has been a central aspect of his communicative language. [Here] several musical and philosophical symbologies are present. These range from the overt musical ‘illustrations’ of the text […] to the cycle-spanning metaphysical implications of the Death Drone. […] Like many of Mahler’s works, Songs, Drones and Refrains of Death has its beginning in the contemplation of Death, and its ending in the affirmation of the promise of a peace-filled transfiguration.” Incidentally, I had the pleasure of meeting and spending time with George Crumb and his family during the preparations for a New Music Concerts performance which included the Canadian premiere of Federico’s Little Songs for Children with soprano Teri Dunn, Robert Aitken (flute) and Erica Goodman (harp) at Glenn Gould Studio in 2003.

05 Bartok DuosThat already seems like a lot of listening to come out of the reading of a single book, one not ostensibly about music, but I will add a couple of footnotes before I move on from this nearly month-long journey. The first involves Bartók’s 44 Duos for Two Violins, written in 1931 just after completion of the Cantata Profana and four years after String Quartet No.3. When Kirk travels to Hungary in Avoid the Day his translator is “Bob,” originally from Teaneck, New Jersey via the Bronx, but who has lived in Budapest for 30 years. Kirk tells us that Bob’s “main thing is klezmer. Not the honky-wonky clarinet-heavy wedding band American klezmer. His specific niche: Carpathian klezmer. He spent years tracking down the sacred-original stuff in Transylvania.” After learning what he can at Béla Bartók Memorial House in Budapest, Kirk is dragged off into the wilds of Transylvania by Bob to experience some of the authentic music that Bartók spent several years collecting on wax cylinders a century ago, research that would profoundly affect his own music and ultimately the art music of the 20th century. Although he assimilated the influences of these hundreds-of-years-old folk songs seamlessly into his own concert works, many of the peasant melodies and rhythms can be found in a more unadulterated form in Bartók’s pedagogical works, especially the Mikrokosmos collection for piano(s) and the violin duos. It was a real pleasure to discover on my shelf a recording that I had forgotten about of these duos. In 2008 violinists Yehonatan Berick and Jonathan Crow recorded the Bartók along with Luciano Berio’s Duetti per due violini for the XXI label (yehonatanberick.com/recordings). I knew the Bartók on vinyl from the Hungaroton Bartók Béla Complete Edition but was unfamiliar with the Berio until this release came my way a decade ago. While Bartók organized his duets in order of difficulty as a primer for violin students, culminating in the challenging Pizzicato, Allegretto, reminiscent of the fourth movement of the String Quartet No.4 and Transylvanian Dance (Ardeliana), Berio’s set (1979-1983) is arranged chronologically by date of composition. Each brief piece is named for a friend or colleague and the set begins appropriately with Béla (Bartók). Other names I recognize are Vinko (Globokar), Pierre (Boulez), Mauricio (Kagel), all of whom I had the pleasure of meeting during my years at New Music Concerts, Henri (Pousseur), Bruno (Maderna) and Igor (Stravinsky). As with the Bartók, the pieces are at various levels of difficulty, but rather than being performed progressively Berio envisioned a stage performance by at least a dozen pairs of violinists of varying degrees of skill. The rousing final piece, Edoardo (Sanguineti), is conceived for violin choir where all of the performers join in on the two lines of the duet. Currently concertmaster of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra, at the time of this recording Crow was teaching at the Schulich School of Music at McGill University where he had previously obtained a Bachelor of Music in Honours Performance studying with Berick. In this performance of Edoardo the two are joined by a host of violinists who (I assume) are their colleagues and students from McGill. 

The final note is about an anachronism that stuck out in Avoid the Day, when Kirk was musing while on the eco-cruise ship about the last minutes of the Titanic. Legend has it that the resident string quartet was playing Nearer My God to Thee as the ship sank, but he wonders if they wouldn’t have played something “more important, like Berg’s Lyric Suite.” I realize that this is just wishful speculation and he does not suggest that they actually could have played that piece, but it struck me as a strange choice since Alban Berg would not write his suite until more than a dozen years after that maritime disaster. Nevertheless, it sent me back to the library to dig out my Lasalle Quartet recording of the string quartets of the Second Viennese School to find another old friend in the Lyric Suite. Once again I have the Deutsche Grammophon set on vinyl, but for convenience sake I chose the CD reissue. 

To put closure to all this, I also revisited my vinyl collection to find Gavin Bryars’ chilling The Sinking of the Titanic with the Cockpit Ensemble on Brian Eno’s Obscure label. That haunting performance can now be heard on YouTube (youtube.com/watch?v=2oVMRADOq5s). 

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

It’s been a couple of months since I last mentioned New Music Concerts, my day job until retiring last year, and I thought perhaps I had gotten it out of my system. I guess it’s not surprising that it is hard to put two decades of history behind me. While general manager at NMC I had the opportunity to work with the JACK Quartet on two occasions. The first was early in my tenure, and very early in their career, back in 2003 when I organized a masterclass with Helmut Lachenmann for the members of the quartet who were then studying at the Eastman School in Rochester. The quartet returned to Toronto in January 2016 for a concert co-presented by NMC and Music Toronto. In the pre-concert talk with Robert Aitken, they spoke about just how influential that afternoon spent with the German avant-garde composer a dozen years ago (and later attending NMC rehearsals for the Lachenmann portrait concert) was to their development as an ensemble, solidifying their commitment to contemporary music and their understanding of the importance of working directly with composers.

That program at the Jane Mallett Theatre included works by Xenakis, John Zorn, Rodericus (a 14th-century work adapted by violinist Christopher Otto) and John Luther Adams (b.1953). It is the latter which gives occasion to today’s reminiscence. On that concert they performed the American composer’s first string quartet The Wind in High Places, about which Adams says, “I imagined the quartet as a single sixteen-string Aeolian harp, with the music’s rising and falling lines and gusting arpeggios coming entirely from natural harmonics and open strings. Over the course of almost 20 minutes, the fingers of the musicians never touch the fingerboards of the instruments. If I could’ve found a way to make this music without them touching the instruments at all, I would have.”

01 John Luther AdamsJACK’s latest CD Lines Made by Walking (Cold Blue Music CB0058 coldbluemusic.com/new-releases-2) features two subsequent quartets by John Luther Adams. His string quartet, untouched (2016), is a further exploration of the delicate and ethereal sound world of harmonic overtones, with the fingers of the musicians still not touching their fingerboards. 

Compared with the two quartets described above, Lines Made by Walking (2019) is a veritable torrent of sound. But in reality, when taken on its own, it is a dreamy, contemplative work which proceeds at a gentle walking pace. Adams says “I’ve always been a walker. For much of my life I walked the mountains and tundra of Alaska. More recently it’s been the Mexican desert, mountain ridges of Chile, and the hills and canyons of Montana. Making my way across these landscapes at three miles an hour, I began to imagine music coming directly out of the contours of the land. I began work on my fifth string quartet […] by composing three expansive harmonic fields made up of tempo canons with five, six, and seven independent layers. (This is a technique I’ve used for years, in which a single melodic line is superimposed on itself at different speeds.) Once I’d composed these fields, I traced pathways across them. As I did this, each instrument of the quartet acquired a unique profile, transforming the strict imitative counterpoint of the tempo canons into intricately varied textures.” The work is in three movements and their titles – Up the Mountain; Along the Ridges; Down the Mountain – are aptly depicted by the music’s endlessly rising, and later falling, canons.

Although there have been personnel changes in the quartet since its first collaboration with Adams – only two original members remain – their understanding of and devotion to his music remains intact and undaunted. I can only imagine the patience it takes to master this gradually unfolding music in which seemingly nothing happens, but in which a marvellous stasis is achieved.

02 Dan BarrettAs Terry Robbins says a little further on in these pages, “It’s been a simply terrific month for cello discs.” There are three that I scooped up for myself, beginning with De l’espace trouver la fin et le milieu: Dan Barrett plays Dominique Lemaître – solos and duos for/with cello (New Focus Recordings fcr276 newfocusrecordings.com/catalogue). French composer Dominique Lemaître, born the same year as John Luther Adams (1953), studied humanities and musicology at the University of Rouen and later electroacoustics and composition at the Paris Conservatoire. Infused with the music of Bach, Debussy, Varèse, Ligeti and Scelsi, but also with extra-European influences, Lemaître ‘s works blend superimposed metres, polytextures, looped repetitions and an underlying modality. American cellist Dan Barrett, creator and director of the music ensemble International Street Cannibals (ISC), has been hailed as “a brilliant and driven cellist, composer, and conductor” (Huffington Post), whose instrumental playing is described as “fire and ice” (The New York Times).

The disc begins with the cello duo Orange and Yellow II, performed with Stanislav Orlovsky. It pays homage to Morton Feldman and is a transcription of a piece originally written for two violas in 2009. The title makes reference to the eponymous painting created by Mark Rothko, to whom Feldman himself paid homage in Rothko Chapel, composed for the meditation room of the building of the same name. Although purely acoustic in nature, the layering and looping of the two instruments, and the reverberant space in which it was recorded, give the impression of electronic enhancement. Thot, referring to the Egyptian god Thoth, is an earlier work dating from 1994. It is a duet with clarinetist Michiyo Suzuki that begins from silence with a gradually building clarinet tone reminiscent of the Abîme des oiseaux movement in Messiaen’s famous Quatuor pour le fin du temps. The contemplative mood continues throughout the six-minute work, intermittently interrupted by bird-like chirps. The next piece, Mnaïdra for solo cello, opens abruptly and almost abrasively, although it, too, gradually subsides into warmer tones. Mnajdra is a Bronze Age temple situated to the south of the island of Malta, the isle of bees or the isle of honey, as it was called in ancient times. 

Pianist Jed Distler joins the cellist in Stances, hommage à Henri Dutilleux, the famous French composer from whom Lemaître received both encouragement and compliments. It was written in 2015 and is dedicated to Barrett. The disc ends with another solo cello composition, Plus haut (Higher), which, although still in a quiet way, is the most virtuosic piece of the collection. Barrett shows himself astute across the spectrum from the softest nuance to the soaring heights.

Listen to 'De l’espace trouver la fin et le milieu' Now in the Listening Room

03 Ofra HarnoyRenowned Canadian cellist Ofra Harnoy and husband/collaborator Mike Herriott have just released On the Rock, celebrating the music of Newfoundland (Analekta AN28909 analekta.com/en/albums). With 43 previous recordings, five JUNO awards and the Order of Canada to her name, Harnoy needs no introduction to the discerning readers of this magazine. The same can be said of multi-instrumentalist Herriott whose accomplishments in both the classical and jazz worlds run the gamut from lead trumpeter, jazz improviser, orchestral soloist, bassist, arranger and composer. In the summer of 2018 Harnoy and Herriott took a vacation in St. John’s, where Herriott had spent his formative years. Evidently she fell in love with the place and people of Newfoundland, one of the few locations in the world her career had not previously taken her, and they decided to buy a house and settle there. After their first collaboration for Analekta, Back to Bach, was released in 2019 they embarked on a journey to explore the island and research its music. The result is this charming disc, a mixture of traditional and popular songs in instrumental and vocal renditions, all arranged by Herriott, with the participation of singers Alan Doyle, Amanda Cash, Kelly-Ann Evans, Heather Bambrick and Fergus O’Byrne. O’Byrne also adds guitar and banjo to the instrumental contingent of guests Maureen Ennis (guitar), Bob Hallett (accordion, mandolin and Irish flute) and Kendel Carson (fiddle). All of the other instruments, and there are many, are played by Herriott except the solo and ensemble cellos of Harnoy.  

The album begins with a haunting rendition of the traditional She’s Like the Swallow performed by Harnoy and Herriott, who are then joined by Amanda Cash in Wayne Chaulk’s story/ballad Saltwater Joys. In a nod to Harnoy’s classical background, and perhaps to their previous disc, Herriott’s arrangement of Ron Hynes’ St. John’s Waltz begins with a solo cello line cleverly modelled on the Prelude from Bach’s Suite for Solo Cello No.1 in G Major which later develops into an ensemble of cellos accompanying Great Big Sea founder Doyle on vocals. There’s an instrumental interlude where Ennis joins Harnoy to perform Cara’s Waltz which she penned with Doyle. Although much of the album is mellow and balladic, especially in the tunes that feature Herriott’s flugelhorn stylings, things really get cooking in Harbour Buffett Double, a quartet with cello, fiddle, accordion and bass (with Herriott doubling on spoons) and the following Mussels in the Corner. This mainstay of local dance music sees Hallett playing all three of his instruments along with Harnoy and Herriott, all to the accompaniment of a rowdy pub crowd. 

One interesting artistic choice is the mournful arrangement for 11 cellos of Stan Rogers’ rousing a cappella anthem Barrett’s Privateers, bringing an entirely new slant to the broken sailor’s lament. A further contribution to the sombre mood of the disc is Evans’ beautiful interpretation of Hynes’ Sonny’s Dream, another iconic tune by the unofficial poet laureate of Newfoundland. In his introductory notes Herriott suggests that this is just the beginning of their exploration of the music of his home province. As beautiful as this maiden voyage is, I hope that the next installment will include some of the roughhousing found in Newfoundland and Labrador’s traditional jigs and reels. 

04 Goat Rodeo 2The final selection is not a cello disc per se, but having spent a large part of last month’s column on Yo-Yo Ma’s Bach Project I think I should mention at least in passing that his collective with Chris Thile (mandolin), Stuart Duncan (violin) and Edgar Meyer (bass) has released a second CD, Not Our First Goat Rodeo (Sony Music GR002 sonymusic.com/masterworks). The players are all top rank in their fields – bluegrass, country, jazz and of course, classical – and work wonderfully together. As with the 2011 album The Goat Rodeo Sessions – “Goat rodeo” is an aviation term for a situation in which 100 things need to go right to avoid disaster – we are presented with a wonderfully diverse album of original material which, while firmly rooted in American folk traditions, incorporates a wealth of influences. Once again the super stringband is joined by the lovely voice of Aoife O’Donovan for one tune, The Trappings, which you can check out here: youtube.com/watch?v=6yR-nFBnd9E. 

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

As The WholeNote celebrates the stellar achievement of 25 years of publication, I note that the DISCoveries section has entered its own 20th year. There have been a number of changes since our first modest column back in July 2001 with just 13 discs reviewed by eight writers. In the interim we’re had contributions from 125 reviewers and, with the current issue, have covered more than 8,800 CDs and DVDs. In recent years we’ve seen an enormous growth in the number of independent releases, physical and digital, primarily by jazz and contemporary artists, as evidenced in our burgeoning Jazz & Improvised and Modern & Contemporary sections. But all sectors remain very active and we receive two or three times the number of discs we actually have room to cover. A large part of my job entails collating and prioritizing the enormous number of releases that arrive each month. It’s a daunting but satisfying task, especially when it comes to matching selected titles with appropriate writers, some of whom have particular interests and specialities and some who constantly amaze me with the breadth of their knowledge and eclecticism. 

Looking back at the first edition of DISCoveries it was interesting to note that Bruce Surtees’ first review was of an EMI reissue of Schoenberg’s Gurrelieder with the Danish Radio Symphony Orchestra under the direction of János Ferencsik. In his Rimsky-Korsakov review further on in these pages Bruce relates an anecdote about advice given to a fledgling record producer: “Look for the composition that has the most recordings and make one more.” I chuckled when I realized that Bruce has reviewed 12 different recordings of Gurrelieder for The WholeNote, evidence that the old adage still applies. But Gurrelieder is far from the most reviewed title in our archives. Other greatest hits include The Goldberg Variations tied with Das Lied von der Erde and Winterreise at 18 versions each, Bach’s Six Suites for Solo Cello (15), Mahler’s Symphony No.2 (12), the complete Der Ring des Nibelungen and Pictures at an Exhibition (11), and Le Sacre du Printemps and Symphony Pathétique with ten…

I took a bit of a cheap way out last issue writing, “What to say about yet another recording of the Bach Cello Suites?” in regards to Alisa Weilerstein’s release. I’m about to do it again with Yo-Yo Ma The Bach Project (Cmajor 754408 naxosdirect.com), but in this instance I feel excused by the fact that Ma does the talking for me. The two-DVD set includes one with an outdoor concert performance of all six Bach suites and a separate disc of Ma speaking about Bach, the suites, and their importance in his own life. It’s quite an extraordinary extrapolation of his thoughts about Bach as scientist and psychologist/philosopher. He is very articulate and thoughtful, and his ideas are both intriguing and enlightening. 

01 The Bach ProjectThe website bach.yo-yoma.com tells us that “In August 2018, Yo-Yo Ma began a two-year journey to perform Johann Sebastian Bach’s six suites for solo cello in 36 locations around the world, music that is among the first he ever learned when he began playing the cello at age four. The project is motivated not only by his six-decade relationship with the music, but also by Bach’s ability to speak to our shared humanity at a time when our civic conversation is so often focused on division. For Yo-Yo, Bach’s 300-hundred-year-old music is one extraordinary example of how culture connects us and can help us to imagine and build a better future, but he believes there are many, many more. And for Yo-Yo, culture includes not just the arts, but everything that helps us to understand our environment, each other, and ourselves, from music and literature to science and food. The Bach Project explores and celebrates all the ways that culture makes us stronger as individuals, as communities, as a society, and as a planet. Alongside each concert, Yo-Yo and his team partner with artists and culture makers, cultural and community organizations, and leaders from across sectors to design conversations, collaborations, and performances. These public events and creative experiences are different in every location; they aspire to local relevance and global significance; they demonstrate culture’s power to create positive change; they inspire new relationships, connect partners across locations, and ask us all to keep culture at the centre of our efforts to build a shared future.” 

This DVD set is Ma’s fourth release of the suites. The first dates back to 1983 on vinyl for Columbia Records and subsequently released on CD. I don’t think it has ever been out of print. The second was his reimagining of them in collaboration with artists from a variety of fields for the TV series Inspired by Bach produced by Toronto’s Rhombus Media in 1997, later released on DVD by Sony Classical. It is a lasting legacy of this series that the city acquired The Toronto Music Garden, on the waterfront, designed by Julie Moir Messervy when plans to build it in Boston fell through. The third iteration was a studio recording in 2018 released on CD by Sony as Six Evolutions – Bach: Cello Suites

This CD release was a direct precursor to The Bach Project represented here by live concert footage of one of the 36 recitals that took place between 2018 and 2020 over six continents featuring Ma’s current interpretation of the suites. It was recorded on June 30, 2019 in the open air at the Odeon of Herodes Atticus, a stone Roman theatre structure completed in 161 CE on the southwest slope of the Acropolis of Athens, Greece. The set is stunning with the stage backlit by a wash of purple light on the Acropolis and the surrounding terraces filled to their 5,000 seat capacity in the evening darkness. The audience is silent, in rapt attention until breaking into thunderous applause at the end of each suite. 

The DVD is edited so that we hear the entire cycle without breaks (although there are cues for each movement for selective viewing). In a way this is a shame because during the applause after each suite we see Ma bend down to pick up a microphone to address the audience, but never get to hear what he says. This is especially unfortunate after the second suite, because during the last movement the audio is interrupted by a strange metallic noise that is unexplained in the booklet. With the help of the distributor’s publicist – thanks Paula Mlyn – I was able to find out that, as sometimes happens on a hot summer night, it was not a mechanical sound but actually a cicada that had landed on the microphone. Knowing that put me in mind of Josquin’s El grillo è buon cantore, one of my favourite Renaissance madrigals. Now I know that a cricket and a cicada are not the same thing, but I think this cicada, inspired by the music, was aspiring to be a “good singer” as the song says. We can see Ma smiling in recognition at the sound as he continues undaunted and undistracted through the final two minutes of the gigue, but I would dearly like to know what he shared with the audience after that! Obviously the show went on with no retake and we are presented with an outstanding non-stop performance of nearly two and a half hours of music, played flawlessly from memory.
It was during my years as a music programmer at CJRT-FM that I became familiar with Josquin’s madrigal, and also at that time that I got to meet Yo-Yo Ma. The occasion was the filming of Atom Egoyan’s Sarabande, the dramatic film of the Suite No.4 from the Inspired by Bach series. I heard there was a call for extras for the scenes that were being shot at The Royal Conservatory and I was happy to find myself chosen. In the holding room in the morning the charming cellist appeared and introduced himself to each extra, mostly RCM students, and asked something about each of us. There were shoots both morning and afternoon, and over the lunch hour he welcomed many of the cello students to play his cherished instrument, which I believe was the 1712 Davidoff Stradivarius. What a kind and generous soul. At the end of the day he turned up in holding again and not only spoke to everyone, but actually remembered what he had learned about us earlier in the day. He is truly a remarkable and gracious man, and I’ll let him have the last word. “The shared understanding that culture generates in these divisive times can bind us together as one world, and guide us to political and economic decisions that benefit the entire species. We are all cultural beings – let’s explore how culture connects us and can help to shape a better future.”

02 Her Own WingsAmerican Gabriela Lena Frank (b.1972) is currently composer-in-residence with the Philadelphia Orchestra who will premiere a major orchestral work of hers in 2021. Featured on the Washington Post’s list of the “Top 35 women composers in classical music,” Frank was also 2017 composer-in-residence at the Willamette Valley Chamber Music Festival. Her Own Wings (brightshiny.ninja/her-own-wings) grew out of this collaboration, and includes the world premiere recording of Milagros (2010), plus Frank’s acclaimed string quartet, Leyendas: An Andean Walkabout

Identity has always been at the centre of her music. Born in California to a mother of mixed Peruvian/Chinese ancestry and a father of Lithuanian/Jewish descent, Frank explores her multicultural heritage through her compositions. Comprised of eight short movements for string quartet, Milagros was inspired by Frank’s mother’s Peruvian homeland. She writes: “It has been a remarkable, often difficult, yet always joyous experience for me to visit, again and again, this small Andean nation that is home to not only foggy desert coasts but also Amazonian wetlands. Usually a religious and marvellous occurrence, milagro here refers to the sights and sounds of Peru’s daily life, both past and present, which I’ve stumbled upon in my travels. While probably ordinary to others, to me, as a gringa-latina, they are quietly miraculous.” Composed in 2001, Leyendas draws inspiration from the idea of mestizaje as envisioned by the Peruvian writer José María Arguedas, where cultures can coexist without the subjugation of one by the other. As such, this piece mixes elements from the Western classical and Andean folk music traditions.

Recorded in the unique acoustic of a winery barrel room, the performers are Willamette Festival founders Sasha Callahan (violin) and Leo Eguchi (cello) who are joined by violinists Greg Ewer (Milagros) and Megumi Stohs Lewis (Leyendas), and violist Bradley Ottesen. The warmth and clarity of the recording combined with these stunning and nuanced performances makes this a disc to treasure.  

03 Koan Quartet largerThe Koan Quartet has just released its debut recording, J.M. Beyer – String Quartet IV (koanquartet.bandcamp.com). Johanna Magdalena Beyer was a German-American composer born in Leipzig in 1888. The quartet’s website tells us that she was an important experimental composer of the 1930s who worked closely with Henry Cowell, Percy Grainger and Ruth Crawford, and wrote the first known work scored for electronic instruments by a female composer (Music of the Spheres, 1938). Beyer died of ALS in 1944 and her work would have been completely forgotten were it not for Frog Peak, a composers’ collective, who made her scores available through research and volunteer score copying. There is no record of String Quartet IV having been performed within Beyer’s lifetime. It is composed in a very intimate, almost post-Romantic style which differs from some of the other works in her collection. 

Koan Quartet, a subset of the Los Angeles experimental performance group Southland Ensemble, brings years of experience presenting thoughtful and meticulously researched performances of rarely heard works to their interpretation. This is an important addition to our understanding of a significant and nearly forgotten voice. The music is playful at times, with hints of children’s melodies, but also dark and contemplative, especially in the second movement. The performance is well balanced and the recorded sound pristine. 

It’s just about a year since I retired from New Music Concerts after two decades as general manager, but I can’t seem to get away from the (great) memories. At the invitation of artistic director Robert Aitken, the 2000/2001 season began with the Caput Ensemble of Iceland, a country that had previously captured my imagination and sparked dreams of travel. Although it would be more than a decade before I would experience the magic isle in person, this was my first exposure to the wonderful people and culture of the fabled land. It created an impression that stuck with me and was confirmed in 2012 during a two-week visit to Iceland with Bob Aitken, his wife Marion and my wife Sharon. As a result of his career as a flute soloist and chamber musician it was Bob’s 16th trip there. He seemed to know everyone in the country and we were made to feel almost like family. 

01 AtonementIt was truly a trip of a lifetime for me, and one I realize I have mentioned again and again in this column. My excuse this time is a new Caput recording, Atonement, featuring music by Pàll Ragnar Pàlsson (Sono Luminus DSL-92241 sonoluminus.com/store/atonement). Pàlsson, who began as a rock musician, changed his focus in his late 20s. After undergraduate work at the Iceland Academy of Arts he went on to a master’s degree at the Estonian Academy of Music and Theatre where he studied with Helena Tulve (one of many international composers I had the pleasure of meeting during my tenure at NMC). It was there that Pàlsson met his future wife, soprano Tui Hirv, whose voice is featured extensively on this disc. 

The title track is a setting of a poem by fellow Icelander Ásdís Sif Gunnarsdóttir for soprano, flute, piano, violin, viola and cello. The quiet, eerie instrumentation and the poem’s final stanza – “Coming to terms with a new world, finally the moment you were waiting for” – aptly sets the stage for what is to come. The second piece Lucidity is an abstract work that adds clarinet and percussion to the mix (without soprano or viola). Hirv returns for Stalker’s Monologue, from Andrei Tarkovsky’s classic film Stalker, set for the whole ensemble (all of the above plus harp). A multilinguist and musicologist in addition to her exquisite vocal skills, Hirv provided the English translation of Tarkovsky’s Russian text that appears in the booklet. Midsummer’s Night, another poem by Gunnarsdóttir, is set for just flute, clarinet, harp and percussion with recitation by the author. Incidentally, I find myself writing this column on Midsummer’s Eve, June 23. Both of Gunnarsdóttir’s poems are in English. The disc culminates in Wheel Crosses Under Moss with a text assembled from various Swedish hymns from Vormsi Island in West Estonia. Featuring the “Pierrot” core of the ensemble in support of the guest soprano, it draws this striking portrait of the first Icelander to win the International Rostrum of Composers to a quietly dramatic close. 

It has been 20 years since I first heard, and met, the members of Caput. There has been a complete change in personnel during that time with the exception of founding clarinetist Guðni Franzson who now serves as the group’s conductor. Two things that haven’t changed are Caput’s commitment to contemporary Icelandic composers and its skill in bringing their music to life. 

02 Smarason StaraIt seems that I’m not the only one. Sono Luminus CEO Collin J. Rae is also enamoured of Iceland’s music and that small Virginia-based label has become a major promoter of Nordic culture under his stewardship. Hot on the heels of Atonement comes STARA, a portrait of another, younger Icelandic composer Halldór Smárason (DSL-92242 sonoluminus.com/store/stara) featuring the Siggi String Quartet and Friends. Smárason, was born in Ísafjörður, Westfjords in the northwestern part of Iceland in 1989. He completed an Advanced Level Piano Examination in 2009, a B.A. degree in composition from the Iceland University of the Arts in 2012 and an M.M. degree from the Manhattan School of Music in 2014. Smárason has received the Artists’ Salaries four times, a state-funded support for selected Icelandic artists. 

Founded in 2012, the members of Siggi String Quartet have worked with Björk, Jóhann Jóhannsson, Ensemble Modern, Atli Heimir Sveinsson, Caput, Slátur, Bedroom Community and Errata Collective as well as being key players of the Reykjavík Chamber and Iceland Symphony Orchestras.

The disc includes three string quartets, two mixed chamber works and Skúlptúr 1 for solo guitar and electronics performed by Gulli Björnsson. The quartet Stara, the earliest work on the disc, dates from 2012 during Smárason’s American studies, where it won the Manhattan Prize. draw + play, the second quartet, heard first on the disc, was commissioned by the Siggi quartet. It is inspired by the accordion and the title is extracted from an old Icelandic word for the instrument. I find it intriguing how the composer uses the string instruments to replicate the sounds of distinctive extended contemporary accordion techniques. BLAKTA, the third quartet, is the most recent piece on the album. It was commissioned to celebrate Iceland’s 100 years as a sovereign state and depicts a flag fluttering in various weather conditions, characterized by distinctive vibratos of different speed and density. Very atmospheric. 

For the mixed ensemble works stop breathing and the intriguingly titled _a_at_na the quartet enlists the help of “Friends” Emilía Rós Sigfúsdóttir (bass flute), Geirþrúður Ása Guðjónsdóttir (violin), Helga Björg Arnardóttir (clarinet) and Tinna Thorsteinsdóttir (piano), as required. The latter piece is based on the composer’s personal struggle with anxiety, and the title is a puzzle requiring the Icelandic word for anxiety to solve. Even the stage setup is affected by this very personal subject, with the piano isolated in the middle of the audience and the rest of the performers spread around the periphery. Evidently this can be heard in the fully immersive audio version of the album on the Pure Audio Blu-ray™ disc that accompanies the standard CD, although it is not available on the digital files from which I am working. Regardless of that, the angst certainly comes through convincingly, completing a very personal portrait of an important new voice. 

It was in April 2003 that I had another “brush with greatness” thanks to New Music Concerts when George Crumb and his family came to Toronto to work with our musicians. Crumb had been an important part of the NMC family from the very early days to the extent that four of his pieces were included on an extended European tour in 1976. The first Crumb portrait concert had taken place at Walter Hall in 1974, with another at Premiere Dance Theatre in 1986 that included the premiere of An Idyll for the Misbegotten, dedicated to Robert Aitken, and then another at Glenn Gould Studio in 2003 as mentioned above. On that occasion Teri Dunn was featured in Federico’s Little Songs for Children and daughter Ann Crumb sang the recently completed cycle Unto the Hills. Crumb was 74 at the time and he showed no signs of slowing down creatively. 

03 Crumb 19It seems that is still true and the latest Bridge Records release George Crumb Vol.19 is testament to this (bridgerecords.com/products/9535). On it Marcantonio Barone performs Metamorphoses (Book I) (2015-2017) subtitled “Ten Fantasy-Pieces (after celebrated paintings)” for amplified piano. Amplification has often been an important aspect to Crumb’s instrumentation – the flute in An Idyll for the Misbegotten, the string quartet in Black Angels, and in almost his entire extensive piano repertoire. In most cases this is not to make the music loud, but rather to make the quietest subtleties of harmonics and extended techniques audible. The pianist is required not only to play upon the keyboard, but to venture inside the piano to pluck and strum and dampen strings, use fists, brushes, yarn sticks and other materials to caress and strike various wire, wood and metal surfaces, vocalize and employ a variety of small, mostly percussion, instruments to expand the solo piano into a real orchestra of timbre. 

Highlights of the set for me include Goldfish (Paul Klee, 1925) with its echoes of Debussy’s Poissons d’or and sustain-pedal, open-string resonance, Crows over the Wheatfield (Vincent van Gogh, 1890) with eerie cawing from the pianist, The Fiddler (Marc Chagall, 1912/13) with zither-like string strumming and dancing melodies, Contes barbares (Paul Gauguin, 1902) featuring Tahitian incantations and percussive outbursts, and The Persistence of Memory (Salvador Dalí, 1931) with nods to some of Crumb’s favourite pieces, Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto, Beethoven’s Op.110 and the iconic hymn Amazing Grace. There are many references to Crumb’s earlier compositions and in many ways these new works sound familiar. One sometimes wonders “Why does Grandpa keep telling the same stories?” but listen carefully; you’ll find vast new worlds buried within them.

Although Book I is dedicated to Margaret Leng Tan, Crumb was evidently so taken with Barone’s performance that he is the dedicatee of Book II, completed earlier this year, the composer’s 91st. So, still not slowing down! I look forward to hearing the sequel and to future Bridge releases documenting the ongoing legacy of this great American composer.

Listen to 'George Crumb Vol.19: Metamorphoses (Book I)' Now in the Listening Room

IN BRIEF

04 JQ Metamorphosis coverAnother Metamorphosis crossed my desk this month featuring 2004 Banff International String Quartet Competition laureates the Jupiter Quartet (Marquis Classics MAR499 marquisclassics.com/499_met.aspx). The disc, which will be released on August 7, honours the 250th anniversary of Beethoven’s birth with his String Quartet Op.131 in C-sharp Minor, a work that violist Liz Freivogel describes as one that “quartet musicians picture [as] their ideal chamber music experience […] There are few other works that require such a prolonged and intense communion with one another.” She goes on to say that Jupiter “naïvely” tried to learn the work in their first year together with limited success, but now, almost two decades later, feel they understand “a few more of the elements that make it so powerful.” This performance is a fully mature one that convincingly captures the depth and breadth of Beethoven’s masterpiece. Jupiter has paired it with one of the seminal quartets of the second half of the 20th century, Ligeti’s Quartet No.1 “Métamorphoses nocturnes.” Completed in 1954, the work is reminiscent of the quartets of Bartók and looks backward as much as forward while remaining rooted in the abrasive textures of the recent avant-garde, before metamorphosing to a “melancholy and lonely close.” Once again the quartet excels, confirming not only its command of the literature in all its intricacies, but also its creativity when it comes to programming. 

05 Weilerstein BachWhat to say about yet another recording of the Bach Cello Suites? Literally, my shelf runneth over, so it is actually a blessing to be working from digital files during the COVID crisis. But I do welcome this latest addition to the PentaTone catalogue, Bach Weilerstein (pentatonemusic.com/bach-cello-suites-alisa-weilerstein) featuring 2011 MacArthur Fellow Alisa Weilerstein

As Jason Stell declares in the program notes, “The Six Suites for Unaccompanied Cello by J. S. Bach loom larger than any other works in the genre. They are the veritable Alpha and Omega of a cellist’s art.” It is no wonder then that every cellist aspires to “conquer” this summit, but it must also be daunting to try to find a new path where so many have gone before. I’ll let Weilerstein explain her decision to undertake this journey:

“With their delicacy and nakedness, their strength and restraint, the cello suites present a unique and humbling challenge. After many years telling family, friends, and myself that I would attempt a recording only when I was much older, I decided that what had seemed like prudence was, in fact, a misunderstanding of the suites’ nature. The intrinsic impossibility of this music is the very source of its freedom.

“I have been living with these suites since further back than memory can reach, and I have grown with them throughout my life with the cello. Great music is a reflection of life as it is lived, and this recording is a reflection of myself, in 2019, at 37 years old, steeped in and still discovering Bach’s unparalleled accomplishment.”

I’m very happy to have been invited to share this monumental undertaking with one of the finest artists of her generation. You should too!

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 Flights of AngelsWhile I don’t personally put much store in celestial beings, in these dire times I concede that we need all the help, comfort and support we can get anywhere we can find it. It seems that the extraordinary cellist Margaret Maria firmly believes in angels, and they are an ongoing source of inspiration in her work. Her latest, Flights of Angels (enchanten.bandcamp.com), once again creates an orchestral texture by combining many layers of sounds generated by her solo cello. From the artist’s website (enchanten.com) we learn this is meant to be: “Healing music being released into a broken world. Music created from otherworldly energies and the spirit world that can only be felt when you open your spirit to the invisible that exists just beyond what we can see. This music represents my spiritual journey in finding my music and moments of subconscious/dream states where I felt compelled to move in a certain direction, as if guided by a light towards an idea or emotion…” 

Beginning with Snow Angel, “overjoyed by the dancing snowflakes as they descend upon her wings,” we embark upon a journey that takes us through many states of being and consciousness: An Impossible Gift (to feel everything, to be a channel for both the dark and the light); An Angel for Maria (a special angel or spirit... one of the most beautiful Angels); Another World Opens (limitless, timeless, expansive); Tears of an Angel (listening to the sadness in the world); Passing Through (reality passes in and out of consciousness and finally, through); Breathtaking Light (a liminal light... made of half earth and half heaven); What If (...what if / In your dream / You went to heaven / And there plucked a strange and beautiful flower...); Floating Hope (the strongest emotion that keeps propelling me forward is hope...); And They Kept Kissing (heaven on earth to my tortured soul); Be Love (...a place where I can float in a space of love) and finally Princes of Heaven (I have been sent four Archangels in my life...).

Having disclosed my scepticism of celestial creatures I must consider it a coincidence that as I write this on April 21 while listening to Snow Angel I am enchanted to find myself watching a veritable blizzard outside my window. It has now passed and it’s a beautiful, albeit blustery, sunny day. Hopefully, like the late season snow, the COVID-19 virus too shall pass quickly. In the interim I take heart from Margaret Maria’s music. It does have healing powers, if the calm and gentle invigoration I’ve been feeling while listening is any indication.

Listen to 'Flights of Angels' Now in the Listening Room

As with almost everyone I am sure, self-isolation (with my dear wife Sharon) has curtailed much of my activity, foremost that of making music with other people. As regular readers will know, I am an avid amateur cellist, and in the months before this lockdown my string quartet had been working on several movements from Richard Krug’s arrangement of Schubert’s Winterreise. We were almost ready to bring in a singer to work with us when the pandemic reared its ugly head and all bets were off for the moment. I first encountered the string quartet version several years ago when I received a recording with baritone Johan Reuter and the Copenhagen String Quartet, of which Krug is the cellist (you can find my April 2018 review at thewholenote.com). Last fall, in my first outing following knee replacement surgery, I had the pleasure of experiencing a live performance by Daniel Lichti and the Penderecki String Quartet, during which I found myself thinking, hey, I could play (at least some of) that! I contacted Krug and purchased the score and parts to his arrangement and shortly after began to rehearse with my friends. 

02Winterreise for QuartetI look forward to getting back to rehearsal as soon as this crisis is over, but in the interim another interesting transcription has come my way. Winterreise for string quartet (Solo Musica SM 335 naxosdirect.com) is a purely instrumental version of the classic song cycle arranged by Andreas Höricht, violist of the featured Voyager Quartet. Höricht has taken half of the original songs and linked them with intermezzi of his own design to make a 50-minute suite (the entire cycle spans about 75 minutes). I have mixed feelings about the result. While it works quite well in its own right, and of course Schubert’s tunes are among the finest, I still miss the singer and the emotional content provided by the words. And I miss some of the songs, most particularly two of the ones my group has been focused on, Die Wetterfahne and Erstarrung, this latter presenting the most difficult challenge to the cellist in Krug’s arrangement and the one on which I have spent the most time and effort. That being said, Höricht’s interludes provide useful bridges between the selected songs and bring a contemporary sensibility without being particularly jarring. He has chosen seven songs from the first 19 of the cycle, but presents the final five in sequence ending, of course, with the Der Leiermann (The Hurdy-Gurdy man) in a suitably haunting performance. 

I say “of course” but in another transmogrification of Winterreise this was not the case. In January of this year Philippe Sly and the Chimera Project brought a live performance of their stunning Klezmer/Roma arrangement for baritone, violin, clarinet, trombone and accordion to Koerner Hall. In their rendition – fully staged and performed entirely from memory – the evening begins with a surprisingly peppy instrumental version of the opening song Gute Nacht before proceeding through the other 23 songs in order. After Der Leiermann with the singer accompanied by the quartet, instead of being the end of the performance, Sly, alone on the stage, then gave a chilling rendition of Gute Nacht accompanying himself on the hurdy-gurdy. It was unsettling and has stayed with me ever since. You can find Pamela Margles’ June 2019 review of the Chimera Project Analekta recording at thewholenote.com. 

03 Zephyr QuartetOther than the music of Peter Sculthorpe, I’m not well versed in Australian culture or repertoire, but from the opening strains of Hilary Kleinig’s Great White Bird on the Zephyr Quartet’s new CD Epilogue (navonarecords.com) I knew I was listening to music from Down Under, with its drones, overtones and distinctive rhythms. Touted as Australia’s “leading genre-defying explorers of dynamic cross-artform, multi-focused collaborations,” Zephyr was founded in 1999 and has since garnered numerous awards and accolades. The members all compose, arrange and improvise and their latest release brings together works written by them between 2013 and 2019. Cellist Kleinig contributes three tuneful works, Cockatoos and Exquisite Peace in addition to the opening number. Violinist Belinda Gehlert is represented by the three-movement tribute to notorious women Femme Fatale and the concluding title track. Violinist Emily Tulloch and violist Jason Thomas each contribute a pair. Tulloch’s Blindfold Gift starts as a gentle pizzicato meditation which turns into a minimalist lilting jig of sorts. Much like the disc itself, Thomas’ Time’s Timeless Art, the longest selection, is one extended harmonious arch in which time indeed seems to stand still. A balm for these troubled times.  

04 Piano QuintetsTreasures from the New World (Somm Recordings SOMMCD 0609
naxosdirect.com) features piano quintets by Amy Beach (1867-1944) and Henrique Oswald (1852-1931) performed by Clélia Iruzun and the Coull Quartet. Beach’s Piano Quintet dates from 1908 and had more than 40 performances during her lifetime. She premiered it with the Kneisel Quartet, with whom she had previously performed the quintets of Schumann and Brahms. While exhibiting both a distinctive and mature voice, the work acknowledges the early influence of those two masters. 

Although Beach has been receiving well-deserved attention recently and recordings of her music are proliferating – there are currently 19 titles listed on Grigorian.com – Henrique Oswald is a new name to me. He was born in Brazil of Swiss and Italian parents and after early studies in São Paulo he travelled to Italy to study and remained in Florence for some 30 years. He returned to Brazil in 1902 where he accepted the post of director of the Instituto Nacional de Música in Rio de Janeiro. His influences were primarily the French Romantics and he was dubbed “the Brazilian Fauré” by his friend Arthur Rubinstein. Composed in 1895, toward the end of his sojourn in Florence, the Piano Quintet reflects not only his fondness of French idioms, its outer movements look back to the music of Robert Schumann, making a wonderful pairing with Beach’s quintet. 

The charming disc also includes a short work for piano and ensemble by Brazilian Marlos Nobre (b.1939) who says “I can say I am a contemporary composer still capable of writing a beautiful melody,” and Beach’s celebrated Romance for Violin and Piano with Iruzun and Roger Coull. The performances throughout are idiomatic and compelling. 

05 Aspects of PulitzerThe final disc that caught my attention this month also features music from the New World, in this case mid-to-late century works by distinguished American composers. Aspects of America: Pulitzer Edition (PentaTone PTC 5186 763
pentatonemusic.com) features Pulitzer Prize-winning works by Walter Piston, Morton Gould and Howard Hanson performed by the Oregon Symphony under Carlos Kalmar. It was Hanson (1896-1981) that drew me to this disc, as he was the one to convince Canadian icon John Weinzweig to pursue a master’s degree at the Eastman School of Music in Rochester NY, where he studied under Bernard Rogers in the years before WW2. Although not a result of the formal teaching he received there, this period proved seminal in Weinzweig’s development by virtue of his exposure to 12-tone composition through the works of Alban Berg which he found in the school library. While he didn’t become a strict serialist, Weinzweig did incorporate dodecaphonic principles into his own compositions, seemingly the first Canadian to so, and later passed them on to his own students at the University of Toronto. 

Hanson, himself, was considered a neo-Romantic composer by his peers. He personally rejected the serial approach although he did incorporate some dissonance and bi-tonality in his work. He won the Pulitzer in 1944 for his Symphony No.4, Op.34 “Requiem.” This is one of seven symphonies and Hanson claimed it as his favourite. It’s in four movements, named for parts of the Catholic Mass for the Dead: Kyrie, Resquiescat, Dies irae and Lux aeterna. Although the earliest work here, it is placed last on the program, with its “eternal light” providing an uplifting and ethereal closing to the disc. There is no mention in the notes as to whether the symphony references the global war that was raging at the time of composition. 

Chronologically next, Piston’s Symphony No.7, is the first selection on the disc. Piston (1894-1976) studied in France with Nadia Boulanger and Paul Dukas after attending Harvard, where he later taught from 1926 until retiring in 1960. His illustrious students included the likes of Elliott Carter and Leonard Bernstein. His textbook, Harmony, was published in 1941 and is still in use today. The Pulitzer he won in 1961 for the Seventh Symphony was actually his second, the first being awarded for his Third Symphony in 1948. The Seventh starts ponderously but soon develops into a driving Con moto before receding quietly. This is followed by a meditative Andante pastorale movement; the symphony finishes with a boisterous Allegro festevole

The most recent work is Stringmusic by Morton Gould (1913-1996) which won the Pulitzer in 1995. It was written for Mstislav Rostropovich and “showcases all the possible sounds and colours of a string orchestra,” although anyone familiar with Penderecki’s Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima might disagree. It’s a lyrical five-movement work – Prelude, Tango, Dirge, Ballad and Strum (perpetual motion) – which serves as a fitting monument to the life of a man whose eclectic career spanned vaudeville and Tin Pan Alley to Broadway and concert halls around the world. This excellent disc is part of an ongoing tribute to American music from PentaTone and the Oregon Symphony. 

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

Back to top