01 Matangi OutcastJust as Terry Robbins’ column is named “Strings Attached,” this month mine could be called “Strings Galore.” First up is Matangi: Outcast – Schnittke | Silvestrov | Shostakovich (Matangi Music MTM04 matangi.nl), an album devoted to “musical troublemakers and outsiders, three Soviet-Russian composers who wrote music that went dangerously against the tastes of the regime under which they lived.” 

The Matangi string quartet has been at the forefront of contemporary music in the Netherlands since its founding at the turn of the current century. In their own annual (Un)heard Music Festival in The Hague they present works that are rarely if ever heard in Dutch concert venues, venturing beyond the realm of traditional concert music to include jazz, dance and pop while still embracing the classical canon. A recent guest at the festival was the reclusive Ukrainian composer Valentin Silvestrov (b.1937), a polystylist whose early works ranged from serialist to pointillist, resulting in him being branded avant-garde and refused entry to the Union of Soviet Composers. He has said of his early contrarian works “composing radical music was like working with a mountain of salt that you used up completely. Now I take a handful of salt, just for the taste.” Silvestrov’s delicate, indeed at times barely audible, 1974 extended one-movement String Quartet No.1 provides a gentle bridge between the more familiar works by Schnittke and Shostakovich on this disc, which opens with the former’s String Quartet No.3. Schnittke was also influenced by a plethora of styles, often rooted in Western culture, and likewise deemed unacceptable by the Soviet powers that be. He often incorporated what he called “forgeries” of other compositions and his quartet opens with quotes from Orlando di Lasso, Beethoven and Shostakovich which reappear throughout the quartet. Of particular note is the Agitato second movement that layers a ghostly hint of Lasso’s Stabat Mater into an angular waltz often interrupted by strident echoes of Shostakovich’s eighth string quartet. It is this latter work that concludes the disc. The Quartet in C Minor, Op.110 was sketched in three days in 1960 in Dresden where the composer was deeply affected by the ruins left by the Allies’ firebombing of the city during the late days of the Second World War. It is one of Shostakovich’s darkest works, opening with a Largo movement although, as mentioned, it also has strident moments in the Allegro molto second, and features a lilting waltz third movement, before returning to the glacial pace of the first in the final two Largo movements. The Matangi give outstanding performances of all three works on this particularly timely release.

Listen to 'Outcast' Now in the Listening Room

02 Olga KernRussian/American pianist Olga Kern is featured with the Dalí Quartet on Brahms & Shostakovich Piano Quintets (Delos DE 3587 delosmusic.com). In an impassioned statement accompanying the release Moscow-born Kern, whose grandfather was Ukrainian and great-grandmother an opera singer in Kharkiv, says “I defy war. It’s heartbreaking to witness the tragedy that is unfolding before our very eyes in Ukraine. It’s ugly and brutal beyond words and it also brings us together in the face of injustice. […] Please stop this madness! Please say NO to war!”

Unlike the later string quartet discussed above, Shostakovich’s Piano Quintet in G Minor, Op.57, is a sunny work. It was composed in 1940, before Hitler’s invasion of the Soviet Union, “a time of deceptive optimism among the Russian people [when] even the despair-prone Shostakovich was hopeful that he could maintain his [newfound] status as [a] favoured composer.” This work did indeed prove popular with the public and even won Shostakovich the inaugural Stalin Prize. In homage to Bach, the quintet opens with a Prelude introduced by the piano, followed by a second movement Fugue in which the strings intertwine until about the two-minute mark when the piano joins in. The contemplative spirit of the opening movements is interrupted by a truly joyous, ebullient Scherzo lasting a brief three minutes. A languorous Intermezzo follows before a playful and melodious Finale brings this beloved half-hour work to an end. 

It seems to have been Robert Schumann who first combined solo piano with string quartet, giving birth to the genre of piano quintet in 1842. Some 20 years later Brahms, by then a familiar member of the Schumann household, composed his own Piano Quintet in F Minor but in this instance opting for two cellos. The work was not well received and he went on to make a two-piano version that was equally unsuccessful before finally settling on the more usual arrangement of piano, two violins, viola and cello, which became the lush and lyrical work we now know as Op.34

Known for its championing of Latin American repertoire – the quartet members hail from Venezuela, Puerto Rico and the United States and the group received the Atlanta Symphony’s Aspire Award for accomplished African American and Latino musicians – the Dalí Quartet shows itself here to be just as thoroughly at home with European repertoire in these sparkling performances. Kern, among whose awards is a Gold Medal from the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition, shines throughout. 

03 MetamorphosenSpeaking of lush, a work Glenn Gould once called “the most moving piece of the 20th century” gives the title to the next disc: Metamorphosen – Strauss | Korngold | Schreker featuring Sinfonia of London under John Wilson (Chandos CHSA 5292 naxosdirect.com/search/chsa5292). Of course Gould also referred to Metamorphosen as “23 wayward strings in search of a cadence” or some such pithy phrase, but he does seem to have had great admiration for Richard Strauss’ 1945 study for 23 solo strings. Wilson leads his ensemble flawlessly through the meandering journey which lasts 28 minutes, negotiating the waves of sturm und drang – at times reminiscent of Schoenberg’s Transfigured Night – without ever losing the thread or floundering into troubled waters. It’s a truly transcendent voyage. 

Hans Schreker’s brief and lyrical Intermezzo, Op.8 from 1900 lightens the mood and sets the stage for Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s Symphonic Serenade for String Orchestra Op.39 (1947-48). If we thought that the 23 strings of the Strauss were sufficient, Korngold disagreed. He scored his serenade for 16 each of first and second violins, 12 violas, 12 cellos and 8 double basses. Somehow Wilson manages to keep these 64 string instruments from turning into an indecipherable wash of sound, even in the densest passages. The sprightly pizzicato second movement provides welcome contrast to the lyrical opening and the languorous third, but it is the hold-on-to-your hats rollercoaster finale that is the icing on the cake; a flourishing finish to a thoroughly satisfying disc.

04 Elinor FreyAfter immersing myself in the dense, lush – I keep wanting to say “at times lugubrious,” but that’s not right, they are simply thick, rich and gorgeous – textures of Brahms and Strauss, I found I needed a palette cleanser. A new Analekta release, Early Italian Cello Concertos featuring Elinor Frey and Rosa Barocca under Claude Lapalme (AN2 9163 analekta.com/en), proved just the thing. In her extensive and informative booklet notes Frey discusses the development of the violoncello, describing it as actually a family of instruments originating with the violone, a small type of bass violin current in the 17th century. “Only beginning in the 1720s did a sort of ideal compromise instrument, of a size halfway between the smallish Baroque violoncello and the larger violone, establish itself as our current standard cello. The term violoncello piccolo, often used today to denote the typical Baroque violoncello, is in part a modern invention – an anachronistic misnomer […which] only makes sense when used in comparison with our larger modern instrument.” She also discusses the differences between four- and five-string versions of the cello.

For this recording – which includes works by Sammartini (1700-1775), Vivaldi (1678-1741), Tartini (1692-1770) and Leonardo Leo (1694-1744) – Frey uses two different instruments, the smaller Baroque size in the Sammartini and Tartini, and the modern size for Vivaldi and Leo. These latter she says “have inspired quite a few modern-day cellists to perform on a five-string instrument, in part because of the fiendishly difficult passagework that ascends into the upper register. […] Over time I came to view these works as demanding and thrillingly virtuosic concertos that belonged to the larger four-string cello repertoire.” Thrilling virtuosity is especially true of Leo’s Concerto No.2 in D Major, which I first encountered in Anner Bylsma’s recording with Tafelmusik back in my days at CJRT-FM; it became a favourite and I programmed it frequently, both on Music Before 1800 with Peter Keigh and during regular morning broadcasts with Alex Baran. As seminal as that recording was in my developing an interest in Baroque music, I must say that Frey and Rosa Barocca, a Montreal ensemble of which I was not previously aware, surpass this forerunner in terms of crispness, energy and articulation. From start to finish this disc is enthralling; my only quibble is the choice to end the recital with a minor key Andante cantabile movement from a violin sonata by Tartini, one of two Frey transcriptions to grace the disc. I would have preferred it to end with a bang, not a whimper, lovely though it is. 

05 Salonen RavelPalette cleansed, I returned to our current century with Nicolas Altstaedt’s performance of Esa-Pekka Salonen’s Cello Concerto with the Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra under Dima Slobodeniouk (Alpha ALPHA627 naxosdirect.com/search/alpha627). This riveting 2017 work was co-commissioned by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, the New York Philharmonic, the Barbican Centre (London) and the Elbphilharmonie (Hamburg) for cellist Yo-Yo Ma to whom it is dedicated. Altstaedt, who was in London at the time of the British premiere, attended the rehearsal and performance by Yo-Yo Ma and was later invited to give the Finnish premiere under the composer’s direction at the Helsinki Festival. He says “Performing with the composer himself is always a special moment. Burning full of questions you have always wanted to ask, there is also a magic space of nonverbal communication that needs to take place. Not to mention I was a bit starstruck in this situation, Esa-Pekka made it extremely easy for me; the week of rehearsals and the performance were pure joy. Joking about his quotation of Tchaikovsky’s 4th Symphony’s Scherzo ‘I should [only] compose when I am sober,’ gave me a glimpse into a composer’s life as well as his description of the beginning of the piece: ‘I always wanted to compose something like the opening of Alban Berg’s Altenberg Lieder.’” 

In his own notes, Salonen tells us “Some of the ideas for my Cello Concerto can be traced back at least three decades, but the actual material for the piece was mostly developed in the summer of 2015 when I decided to spend a few months researching for new kinds of textures without a concrete plan how to use them. I decided to use some phrases from my 2010 solo cello work ...knock, breathe, shine... in the second and third movements as I always felt that the music of the solo piece was almost orchestral in its scope and character, and would function well within an orchestral environment. […] I happen to like the concept of a virtuoso operating at the very limits of what is physically (and sometimes mentally) possible. I have learnt, however, that virtuosity doesn’t limit itself to the mechanics of playing an instrument. A true virtuoso can also capture the beauty and expression in the quietest moments, to fill near-stasis with life through a musician’s imagination and ability to communicate.” Altstaedt rises to all the challenges thrown at him throughout the 36-minute work, holding his own against incredibly dense orchestral textures, sensitively realizing the most quiet passages, which include seagull-like glissandi, and a flamboyant extended cadenza shared with bongo drums and woodblocks. The result is exhilarating.

The recording includes a striking performance of Ravel’s Sonata for Violin and Cello with Pekka Kuusisto. I spoke earlier about the denseness of the string writing in Brahms and Strauss. Ravel’s Duo (its original name) is so dense it would be easy to think you were hearing a string quartet. So dense in fact that Roland Manuel once joked about making a “reduced version for orchestra.” Altstaedt states “Working with [Kuusisto] on this piece felt like coming home, although differently — it felt like a place that I knew but never visited before. […] Pekka had fresh ideas each time we picked up the piece, connecting every gesture in the music to an experience from real life. He never repeated himself; rehearsing with him was not only infinitely inspiring but also very entertaining. ‘Let’s create the sound of a vacuum cleaner’ might sound criminal to some musicians, but Ravel’s own description of the theme of the last movement as ‘like a mechanical rabbit’ or ‘clowneske improvisation’ in the second movement, puts other ideas firmly in their place. Random accidents became virtues, (at least from our perspective) and led us to discover the character that we had actually sought.” Evidently Ravel expressed fears of “being assassinated by amateurs.” He need not have worried in this instance. Altstaedt and Kuusisto are consummate professionals, fearless of risk taking, who ask us to open our ears to a new approach to this familiar music, one which Ravel would have evidently approved.

06 LamentAnd this just in: As I was up against the deadline writing this column, I found in my inbox a very timely release from recorder virtuoso Michala Petri that I simply must share with you: Galina Grigorjeva – Lament (Our Recordings 9.70894 ourrecordings.com). I will let the press release speak for itself. 

“As we all know the world has changed since February the 24th. What is going on with Putin’s atrocities against the free people of an independent nation is beyond our imagination. War is the antithesis of art and music and anathema to everything we represent and hold sacred – and it is difficult to find a way to respond to such a disaster. Everyone involved suffers on both sides – and the consequences affect the whole world – especially the most vulnerable. Since that tragic day Michala Petri has featured a very special work on all her concerts, Lament for recorder solo by the Ukrainian-born composer Galina Grigorjeva – and for the duration of this atrocity, she will continue to do so!

“Born in Crimea, Ukraine, Grigorjeva (b.1962) is one of the most original composers on the contemporary soundscape, creating timeless, ethereal music whose roots lay deep within Slavonic and Western sacred music traditions. Lament, for solo tenor recorder (2000), is a remarkable work, wonderfully engaging with a definite Slavic quality evoking the sounds of the Ukrainian overtone flute, the kalyuka. Beginning with an octave-and-a-half cry of anguish, wisps of melody become increasingly passionate and frantic [...] before retreating in resignation and acceptance.”

I encourage you to seek out this stunning work, and to support artistic contributions to Ukraine’s struggle wherever you encounter them. All involved in the recording worked for free; no expenses were incurred producing this moving digital release and all proceeds from the sale of Lament will be donated to the Kyiv Contemporary Music Days Foundation. 

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

The iconic American composer George Crumb died peacefully, at home with his family on February 6. He was 92. Of the many world-renowned composers I had the privilege to meet during my two-decade tenure at New Music Concerts, Crumb was among the most affable, knowledgeable and accomplished. In 2003 he spent most of a week working with NMC musicians, accompanied by his wife Elizabeth, son Peter and daughter Ann, who was the soloist in our Canadian premiere performance of Unto the Hills. It was a magical week and one that remains a cherished memory. Crumb had a long relationship with NMC and on a previous visit in 1986 he supervised the first performance of An Idyll for the Misbegotten, performed by its dedicatee Robert Aitken and three percussionists. You can find NMC’s recording of that work among others on George Crumb (Naxos American Classics 8.559205 naxosdirect.com/search/8559205). In a tribute published by NMC, Aitken says “The music of George Crumb has the quality of an elixir, which keeps drawing you back through intricacies in time to a world you feel you know and look forward to enjoying but as many times as you have experienced it, the slightest change takes you to a different place, somewhere you have never been before and never thought of, but will never forget.” I said something similar in a July 2020 review of Metamorphoses Book I: “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.”

01 Crumb Volume 20In December Bridge Records released Volume 20 in their ongoing series devoted to Crumb’s complete works (BRIDGE 9551). Metamorphoses Books I & II features a remastering of Book I (2015-2017) and the first recording of Book II (2018-2020) performed by Marcantonio Barone, to whom the second book is dedicated. Subtitled Fantasy Pieces (after celebrated paintings) for amplified piano, each of the 20 depicts a different painting by such artists as Picasso, Chagall, Dali and Gauguin. In the excellent and extended booklet notes by Crumb scholar Steven Bruns we learn that “Rather than aiming for precise musical analogs, Crumb responds to the ethos, the characteristic tone of the painting, and often to the title as well. The music explores a dazzling expressive range, and Crumb positions the movements in each Book with the mastery of an expert gallery curator.” You can read my impressions of those in the first book here: thewholenote.com/index.php/booksrecords2/editorscorner/30201-editor-s-corner-july-2020. Book II opens with two paintings by Paul Klee and includes others by Andrew Wyeth, Simon Dinnerstein, Gustav Klimt, Georgia O’Keeffe and the abovementioned Gauguin, Picasso and Chagall. The set ends with a stunning and ethereal interpretation of van Gogh’s The Starry Night

As always with amplification in Crumb’s pieces, the purpose is not to produce loud effects, although there are a few jarring interpolations, but rather to make the most subtle effects audible. The pianist is required to venture inside the piano to pluck and strum and dampen strings, use fists and other implements, vocalize and employ a variety of small instruments to expand the solo piano into a real orchestra of timbres. Barone worked extensively with Crumb for two decades and his understanding of the sensibility, and his command of the techniques required, and often invented, by the composer makes this recording definitive. Bridge Records here provides an exhilarating tribute and important addition to the recorded legacy of this master composer. The Complete George Crumb Edition now numbers 21 CDs and one DVD and is currently available at a special price (US$190) from the Bridge Records website (bridgerecords.com)

02 Little Am I Born jpegThe oratorio Am I Born by David T. Little with libretto by Royce Vavrek (Bright Shiny Things BSTC-0152 brightshiny.ninja) is another spectacular work that finds its inspiration and context in a painting. The painting in question is Francis Guy’s 1820 Winter Scenes in Brooklyn, depicting a neighbourhood destroyed for the construction of the Brooklyn Bridge. Originally composed in 2011 for the Brooklyn Youth Chorus, Am I Born was the first collaboration between Little and Vavrek, who went on to great success with the operas Dog Days and JFK. This SATB version of the oratorio was commissioned by Trinity Church Wall Street where it premiered in 2019. Opening with big bass drums blazing and full fortissimo chorus reminiscent of Carmina Burana, the listener is captivated immediately. Throughout its half-hour duration the drama does not let up, although there are moments of respite along the way and beautiful soprano solos by Mellissa Hughes before the haunting denouement. The libretto draws on Ananias Davisson’s 1816 hymn Idumea with its lyric “And am I born to die? / To lay this body down! / And must my trembling spirit fly / Into a world unknown?” The solo soprano personifies Guy’s painting, which hangs in the Brooklyn Museum. She gradually draws consciousness and understanding from the crowds of spectators passing by each day, until, urged on by the chorus, she is “born” out of the frame and enters a confusing and lonely present-day reality. At that point, the philosophical speculation “am I born to die?” is modified to the much more pressing and immediate: “am I born?” Hughes and the Choir of Trinity Wall Street are accompanied in this powerful performance by the NOVUS NY orchestra, all under the direction of Julian Wachner. 

03 Sofia GubaidulinaLike George Crumb, Sofia Gubaidulina (b.1931) has shown no signs of slowing down creatively in her later years. To honour her 90th birthday Deutsche Grammophon has released a disc of world premiere recordings of two recent works and the earlier The Light of the End, written in 2003 for the Boston Symphony (deutschegrammophon.com/en/catalogue/products/gubaidulina-nelsons-repin-12472). Andris Nelsons conducts the Gewandhausorchester Leipzig for which Gubaidulina has served as composer-in-residence since 2019. The last-mentioned work is based on a fundamental conflict that characterizes the physics of music, namely, the irreconcilability between the natural overtone series, played here by the horns, and the tempered tuning of the rest of the orchestra. This conflict leads to a series of dramatic crescendos and climaxes and is illustrated to exemplary effect in a duet between solo horn and solo cello. 

The disc opens with Dialog: Ich und Du (Dialogue: I and You // Violin Concerto No.3). It was written for Vadim Repin in 2018, and he is the soloist here. This and the companion piece The Wrath of God are extrapolated from Gubaidulina’s oratorio On Love and Hatred (2016-2018), which constitutes her appeal to humankind to follow God’s commandments and to overcome hatred through the conciliatory power of love. The title of the violin concerto deliberately recalls religious philosopher Martin Buber’s Ich und Du (I and Thou) which describes the world as “dichotomous,” contrasting two things that are opposed or entirely different, here represented by a conversation, often interrupted, between the solo violin and the orchestra. The Wrath of God is a shimmering depiction of the Day of Judgement, or Dies Irae, for enormous orchestral forces. “God is wrathful, He’s angry with people and with our behaviour. We’ve brought this down on ourselves,” the composer explained in the preamble to the first performance in an empty Vienna Musikverein in November 2020, a result of the coronavirus pandemic. Gubaidulina has dedicated the piece “To the Great Beethoven” and we can hear hints of the Ninth Symphony peeking through in the dramatic finale.

04 Beethoven for ThreeSpeaking of Beethoven, following on their recording of his complete works for cello and piano, Yo-Yo Ma has once again teamed up with Emanuel Ax, this time with violinist Leonidas Kavakos, on Beethoven for Three – Symphonies Nos. 2 & 5 (Sony Classical yoyoma.lnk.to/SymphoniesNos2and5). The arrangements are by Ferdinand Ries, under Beethoven’s supervision (No.2), and the contemporary British composer Colin Matthews (No.5). 

It must be a daunting task to adapt the full resources of a symphony orchestra to just three players, even if we concede that the pianist’s two hands can render separate independent lines. Still we must realize that in Beethoven’s day arrangements were the norm, and in many instances the only opportunity to experience great works of orchestral repertoire. Recordings were still a hundred years in the future and orchestral concerts beyond the reach of most people. I am pleased to report in this instance both of the arrangements are convincing and satisfying. On the one hand I am amazed at how the trio is able to convey the musical scope and range of emotion of these familiar orchestral masterworks. On the other, I was intrigued to realize how reminiscent some of the movements were, especially the scherzo of the second symphony, of Beethoven’s early actual piano trios. I suppose that’s not really a coincidence.  

Satisfying as I found this recording, likely another result of COVID-imposed restrictions, I must confess it inspired me to revisit the cycle of nine symphonies in all their orchestral majesty, and for this I chose Simon Rattle’s live set from 2002 with the Vienna Philharmonic (EMI Classics). So thanks to Kavako, Ma and Ax for an inspirational and illuminating experience, and for an excuse to look up some old friends.

05 Queen of Hearts Claremont TrioFounded 20 years ago, the Claremont Trio (Emily Bruskin, violin; Julia Bruskin, cello; and Andrea Lam, piano) has been commissioning works for much of its existence that expand the repertoire and in some instances push the traditional boundaries of the contemporary piano trio. Queen of Hearts (Tria Records amazon.com/Queen-Hearts-Claremont-Trio/dp/B09RQDVRVV) brings six of these works together with compositions by Gabriela Lena Frank, Sean Shepherd, Judd Greenstein, Helen Grime, Nico Muhly and Kati Agócs. Frank’s Four Folk Songs draws on her Peruvian heritage on her mother’s side for a set that ranges from lyrical to playful and to frankly disturbing. Shepherd’s Trio was commissioned for the opening of Calderwood Hall in the Isabella Stewart Gardiner Museum, Boston. It was inspired by the architecture of Renzo Piano and the three movements consider different aspects of the construction. Most compelling is the finale, Slow Waltz of the Robots.  

Muhly’s Common Ground (2008) and Agócs’ Queen of Hearts (2017) mark the earliest and latest works on this compelling CD. Muhly’s title refers to the ground bass à la Purcell that appears in the final section of the work. Agócs also employs a repeating bass line, in this case alternating with a lyrical melody. She tells us that “A life fully lived may see challenges that can seem insurmountable. The work’s variation structure, by representing tenaciousness and ingenuity – continuously finding new ways to respond – ultimately reveals an inner strength and an emotional core that hold steadfast and unshaken no matter how they are tested. The title Queen of Hearts […] symbolizes resilience, magnetism, nobility, empathy, decorum, a flair for the dramatic, and a distinctly feminine power.” This piece makes a powerful end to a diverse disc with fine performances right across the board.

I spoke earlier about musical works inspired by paintings. I have experienced two artistic epiphanies in my life, one visual and one audial. The first was on a family trip to Washington in my teenage years when I turned a corner in the National Gallery and came face to face with Salvador Dali’s The Sacrament of the Last Supper. I gasped and said to myself “Oh, that’s what they mean by a masterpiece!” The second was in 1984 when I attended the CBC Young Composers’ Competition and had the most visceral musical experience of my first 30 years. Paul Dolden’s The Melting Voice Through Mazes Running, which won the only prize in the electroacoustic category that year, was unlike anything I’d ever heard before. Although it sent some audience members rushing to the exits with hands pressed over their ears, it held me riveted to my seat and ultimately inspired me to commission a new Dolden work (Caught in an Octagon of Unaccustomed Light) for my radio program Transfigured Night at CKLN-FM. Now, some three and a half decades later, Dolden has published his entire catalogue of works and writings and I’m very pleased that Nick Storring has agreed to review The Golden Dolden Box Set in these pages. Storring is a composer in his own right, a generation younger than Dolden, who uses some similar techniques in his own work. I believe his insights are extremely apt and articulately expressed and I welcome him aboard the WholeNote team. 

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

Elsewhere in these pages you will find reviews of new recordings of music by Bach: the English Suites performed by Vladimir Ashkenazy, Autour de Bach, woodwind arrangements of a number of his works as recorded by Pentaèdre, and two sets of Goldberg Variations, one with Sarah Hagen on piano and one with Cameron Carpenter in his own transcription for grand organ. The Goldbergs are arguably the most recorded, most transcribed and most adapted for other purposes of Bach’s works, and certainly the most often reviewed in The WholeNote. With the two reviews mentioned above I count 25 in as many years and here comes number 26. 

01 Gold.Berg.WerkWhen Karlheinz Essl (b. Austria 1960) was approached by the Orpheus Trio in 2002 to arrange an existing string-trio version of the Goldberg Variations with the addition of live electronics, his initial reactions were “astonishment and bewilderment: how could that be possible with this music? Was there any artistic necessity of doing so? The idea of manipulating the sound of the live instruments electronically, of ‘spicing it up,’ seemed almost sacrilegious.” The trio was persistent however and this eventually led to the first of four (so far) realizations of Gold.Berg.Werk: for string trio; for harpsichord; for saxophone quartet; and, most recently, for piano. It is a recording of this last variety, featuring Xenia Pestova Bennett (Ergodos ER33 essl.at/records/goldbergwerk-2021.html), that arrived on my desk last month. In Gold.Berg.Werk – a pun on Goldberg Work and Gold Bergwerk (to mine, as in mining for gold) – Bach’s Goldberg Variations are “confronted with electronic sounds that are played between groups of variations, bridging the gap between the sound world of the Baroque era and the sonic reality of the third millennium.” The electronics are based on the harmonic progression of the fundamental Aria, from which the composer stripped all figurations and ornaments. Through manipulation of the overtone spectrum and the use of granular synthesis – compressing, stretching, and stopping forward motion ad libitum carried out in real time with the help of compositional algorithms – Essl has created five electronic interludes, which in live performance are spatially projected in surround sound throughout the auditorium. Even in the binaural mix for CD the sound is immersive and compelling. Pestova Bennett’s outstanding performance of the selected movements, 20 variations chosen by Essl and arranged in groups of five, bookended by the signature Aria, is beautifully integrated into the overall fabric of this “new” work. Regarding Essl’s question as to whether there was any artistic necessity to enhance such an iconic piece in the first place, I suppose we each have to decide for ourselves. For me, Gold.Berg.Werk has brought a new perspective that, after initial resistance to the idea, I have embraced and found enchanting. 

Listen to 'Gold.Berg.Werk' Now in the Listening Room

02 PreludesAnd speaking of Bach, you would be excused for thinking that after last month’s column I might have had enough cello for a while, but not so gentle reader. Julia MacLaine’s Preludes would have fit nicely in that cello-centric column but it has only now been released by Analekta (AN 2 8914 analekta.com/en). MacLaine says that she found the inspiration for this project in a Juilliard recital by Bonnie Hampton some years ago in which the Preludes from Bach’s Solo Cello Suites were interspersed with contemporary works. With funding from the Canada Council, MacLaine commissioned six Canadian composers to write works “in response” to the Bach preludes. The result is an intriguing CD with six very different responses, from Airat Ichmouratov whose quite traditional Praeludium for Cello Solo in G Major, Op.69 quotes freely from Bach before venturing onto less familiar paths, through a gamut of approaches before culminating in Post Bach by Prince Edward Island fiddler and composer Roy Johnstone. This last work features rollicking dance sections juxtaposed with what MacLaine describes as a “grumbly […] glimpse of the underworld, the murky place that gave rise to the motives that permeate Bach – and Johnstone.” Along the way we are treated to Gabriel Dharmoo’s sarasaraahat, a piece inspired by the Prelude from the Suite in D Minor that uses the Indian Carnatic music of the composer’s cultural heritage to put the sound produced by the cello under a microscope, exploring the “very limit between pitch and white noise.” Carmen Braden’s Play Time asks the cellist to “play the score as if you just heard the Bach Cello Suite No.3 for the first time and now sit down and improvise, playful as a child.” In her signature way, Nicole Lizée employs technology to expand the palette of the cello, in the words of MacLaine “a marvellous, fantastical electronic world [with the cello] singing expressively above it, weaving in and out of it, and chasing after it.” Cris Derksen states “LAND BACH is my response to Bach’s fifth prelude as an Indigenous composer and cellist.” Her treatment includes a section of “looped rolled chords” which MacLaine says is characteristic of Derksen’s music. 

As I have said before, it must be extremely hard for a performer these days to find a way to present Bach’s iconic works – that have been recorded countless times – in a new light. I find MacLaine’s performances of both the Bach originals and the new companions insightful and convincing. While I have mixed feelings about “cherry picking” just the preludes from the Bach Suites, in this context where the composers are specifically reacting to the movements in question I find the project as a whole very well-considered and satisfying. I’ll give MacLaine the last words: “My hope is […] that you will hear Bach differently, as though past and present composers were having a conversation across the years, across the ocean.” 

03 Standing Wave 20CNicole Lizée is also among the seven composers commissioned by Vancouver’s venerable Standing Wave ensemble for its project 20C Remix (Redshift Records standingwave.ca) in which a number of iconic 20th century works are reimagined for the new millennium. With three decades under its belt, Standing Wave is touted as Western Canada’s foremost contemporary chamber ensemble. 20C Remix – a digital release with a limited edition vinyl run – opens with Stone’s Throw, Jocelyn Morlock’s ebullient take on Ann Southam’s Glass Houses No.9, adapted for full ensemble: flute, clarinet, violin, cello, piano and percussion. It’s a roller coaster ride for all concerned and I particularly enjoyed finding hints of Stravinsky in the mix. Jennifer Butler enhances Messiaen’s Le merle noir for piano and flute with the other members of the ensemble in a fairly straightforward and effective homage to the French master. Walking in Claude’s Footsteps is Jordan Nobles’ gentle take on Debussy’s Des pas sur la neige and Jared Miller finds Guilty Pleasures in his interpretation of John Adams’ China Gates. Unlike most of the works here which enlarge the original forces, Chris Mayo and Bekah Simms take orchestral textures and adapt them for the sextet. Mayo’s Oh Come Now! There is a Beautiful Place! is an arrangement “on a relatively miniature scale” of Reinhold Glière’s mammoth Symphony No.3. Although the liner notes tell us that the title is taken from a poem by Kenneth Patchen, there is no explanation of how this relates to the symphony and I’m left scratching my head. Simms’ Tenebrose explores the “night music” from the third movement of Bartók’s Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta with “approaches that I feel the composer would have been likely drawn to had he lived into the 21st century,” including microtonal glissandi and the use of non-tempered pitches while incorporating familiar motifs from the original. Lizée is represented with two tracks, her own inimitable treatments of songs by pop icons Dead or Alive (You Spin Me Round) and Justin Timberlake (Cry Me a River). While certainly a different sensibility from the other offerings here, they somehow manage to fit in seamlessly. I particularly enjoyed the bass clarinet and vibraphone lines in Epiphora, her take on Timberlake’s classic, which bring this very satisfying disc to a close.

Listen to '20C Remix' Now in the Listening Room

04 Xander Simmons Inner Landscapes ArtworkThe next release features two relative newcomers on the contemporary music scene, composer Xander Simmons and Montreal’s Collectif Novart. Simmons’ second release Inner Landscapes (xandersimmons.com) features five works for varying ensembles, opening with the contemplative Three Points for piano trio which gradually builds to a dramatic peak before receding. Pink Mountain is a four-movement work – Dawn, Daylight, Drift and Dusk – which is one of two works here that take direct inspiration from the painted landscapes of Peter Doig, the other being Grande Riviere, a work that adds ambient electronic textures to acoustic instrumentation. Solstice is in two parts, and utilizes the largest ensemble here, a nonet. Winter opens with a dark duet between contrabass and bassoon, slowly brightening as if the pale sun were shining through. Summer opens with busy flute over a bassoon ostinato and continues in a minimalist melisma of insect sounds with birds soaring above in the cloudless sky (my imagery). The composer describes the closing Vortices as a “collage of string performances mixed with synthesizers and field recordings.” As with the other pieces here, the language is consonant and tonal, but here the extra-musical materials add an edge to the layers of sound. Overall this is a strong release from a young composer, showing a breadth of interest and understanding that bodes well for future endeavours. The collectif is in fine form, with convincing performances and solid ensemble work.

Listen to 'Inner Landscapes' Now in the Listening Room

05 Petar KlanacI first heard the music of Petar Klanac (then known as Pierre-Kresimir Klanac) at Glenn Gould Studio back in November 1997 as part of New Music Concerts’ contribution to the Made In Canada Festival, and then in 2000 on the Ensemble contemporain de Montréal CD Nouvelles Territoires 1. In the intervening years he had fallen off my radar until a few weeks ago when he reached out to me about his new CD. 

Klanac has a surprisingly small presence on the Internet. The little biographical information I’ve been able to glean tells me that his principal instruments are violin and electric guitar and that he studied composition with Gilles Tremblay at the Montreal Conservatoire from 1992 to 1995 and later with Gérard Grisey and Marco Stroppa at the Paris Conservatoire and Denys Bouliane at the Rencontres de musique nouvelle du Domaine Forget in Charlevoix (Québec). He was a child chorister in the Maîtrise des Petits Chanteurs du Mont-Royal (Saint-Joseph’s Oratory, Montreal) for nine years and this seems to have strongly informed his compositional aesthetic. That first piece I heard was titled Le ressuscité de Béthanie (on the subject of the resurrection of Lazarus), a theme to which he returned two decades later in a work for Ensemble Nahandove. Many of the works in his oeuvre focus on religious themes, such as Agnus Dei for men’s choir, Pater Noster for tenor and string quartet and Sancta Parens for two saxophones and cello. When commissioned by the Société de musique contemporain du Québec to compose a new work for its 55th anniversary concert last December he presented the 18-minute chamber ensemble work Yerushalayim

Klanac has made his home in France for some time and his latest project, Pozgarria da (petarklanac.bandcamp.com), was commissioned by Ensemble 0, a group whose members are based in different cities in France, Catalonia and Belgium, as part of 30th anniversary celebrations for the Institut Culturel Basque. Pozgarria da (How wonderful it is) is a setting of four poems by the Basque Franciscan Father Bitoriano Gandiaga for voice (Fanny Chatelain singing in the original language) and an unusual ensemble consisting of flutes, rebec and nyckelharpa, four organs, gamelan selunding and percussion. There is a sparse instrumental prelude and two interludes, all titled Maite dut bizitza (I love life), separating the first three poems, whose sparse and subdued settings are vaguely reminiscent of medieval music. The final movement, also Maite dut bizitza, is the most expansive by far at almost 17 minutes, and is also the most exuberant; a flamboyant minimalist – think cinematic Philip Glass – paean to “The joy of life / To my surroundings / that are alive. / I wish the joy of being alive / To everyone who lives / the grace of life.” Amen! A very welcome anthem and reminder in these unjoyful times.

Listen to 'Pozgarria da' Now in the Listening Room

06 Davis HallAnd now for something completely different, although I find joy here too. “What if Dark Orchard (Jim Casson’s experimental music project) and ‘The Blues’ got together in New Orleans and watched Twin Peaks with Daniel Lanois?” That’s the premise behind Davis Hall & The Green Lanterns (greenlanterns.ca). Originally conceived in the early days of COVID-19 as a remote collaboration with bass player Russ Boswell, Casson laid down drum tracks in his home studio that he shared with Boswell who added funky bass licks and a song outline. They invited Bernie LaBarge to add some guitar lines and Brent Barkman on organ; and Marshville Station, the second track on the current album, was born. Although the project was shelved for a while, the ongoing pandemic has provided the perfect opportunity to revisit the idea. 

I’ve been a sucker for blues tuba since I saw Taj Mahal at the Mariposa Festival 40-some years ago backed by a quartet of tubas headed by the late, great Howard Johnson (1941-2021). Well, that’s how this adventure begins, with the funky, N’awlins-flavoured Temperanceville co-written by Casson, tuba player N. Jay Burr and guitarist Wayne DeAdder, with Mike Branton sitting in on slide guitar. The personnel of the Green Lanterns changes from track to track, with Casson on drums, keyboards, autoharp and even theremin the only constant, but the result is always bluesy and frequently scorching. Burr, DeAdder, Boswell and Brandon make numerous contributions and guests include Steve Marriner and Al Lerman on harmonica, Stephen Miller on dobro, and an archival appearance by 60s DJ Bob Bowland from CHOW radio in Welland, Ontario. Casson explains the name of the group, and of the songs, as a tribute to the Niagara Peninsula, the stomping grounds of his formative years. “Davis Hall” was the name of the community centre in his hometown where he attended nursery school, “The Green Lantern” was the soda shop in town when he was a kid and the names of all the songs correspond to place names on the peninsula. Who knew that the fruit belt could be so darn funky? This one is guaranteed to lift your spirits (and your heels)! 

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 

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