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Volume 19 Issue 6 - March 2014

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DISCOVERIES | RECORDINGS REVIEWEDEditor’s CornerTwin PassionsDAVID OLDSIf there’s one thing I like as much as sittingin my easy chair with my feet up listeningto music, it’s sitting in that chair reading agreat book. There was a time when my veryfavourite thing was doing both at once but Imust confess that as my 60th birthday rapidlyapproaches it’s getting harder and harderto multi-task in that way. So what is now aspecial treat is settling into the Lazy Boy andcurling up with a book that takes me on amusical adventure.Books: I first encountered the novels ofRichard Powers in 1991 when my successorat CKLN-FM, local choral director andGeorgian vocal specialist Alan Gasser, giftedme with The Gold Bug Variations, a spectaculartour-de-force interweaving themesof Bach’s counterpoint and Poe’s fiction withstrands of molecular biology. It is a multilayeredmasterpiece that juxtaposes twolove stories, one set in the present and onein 1950s academe where the search for theDNA genome was in full swing. The eminencegrise, always present but never mentionedby name, is a certain Canadian pianist whoseyouthful 1955 recording of Bach’s GoldbergVariations stood the music world on its ear.If you haven’t read it I urge you to do yourselfa favour and pick up a copy at your earliestconvenience.Since that time I have read and re-read allten of Powers’ outstanding novels which,beginning in 1985 with Three Farmers onTheir Way to a Dance, have appeared everytwo or three years to much critical acclaim(and to my delight). Some years ago in thiscolumn I raved about Powers’ The Time ofOur Singing (2003) in which, among otherthings, the development of the historicallyinformed performance practices of theperiod-instrument movement was juxtaposedwith just about every significant politicalhappening of the 20th century through theeyes of a very special family whose membersalways seemed to be present, at least on theperiphery, at these events. Again I would urgeyou to check it out.Powers’ subject matter is extreme in itsdiversity, from medical research and psychologicaldisorders, to nuclear physics, environmentalconcerns, advanced technology, forcedconfinement and terrorism. Music is presentin one way or another in most of his books,but for me it is those in which music is centralto the plot that are the most satisfying. It wastherefore a real pleasure to find that, after apublishing hiatus of nearly five years, his 11thbook – Orfeo (HarperCollins ISBN 978-1-44342-290-1) – returns to the double themeof musical composition and genetic engineering.The main character is a composer,Peter Els, who comesof age in the 1950sand 60s, a tumultuoustime when the postwargeneration tookWestern art music tothe very brink. I won’tgo into much detail ofthe plot, but will saythat we follow Els ona protracted journeyfrom his adolescentvision of composition as divine inspiration,through academic struggles with serialconstraints and avant-garde freedoms, tominimalist structures and neo-Romanticregression, with many stops and side tripsalong the way. Ultimately Els is at a loss as tohow to take music itself any further and heeventually returns to the scientific interestsof his youth. In the decades that have passedgenetic engineering has blossomed and theinternet has made it possible for anyone withaccess to a computer to build a sophisticatedhome laboratory. In the end the agingcomposer decides that writing genetic codeis the future of composition and sets aboutwriting a work for the ages using DNA itself.Through a comedy of errors this leads to hisbeing taken for a bio-terrorist and the chase(and fun) begins.Powers is a master at describing and givingcontext to the examples of great music hechooses to include, and his insights areenlightening. Time and again I found myselfrushing to my library to dig out a favouriterecording and it was refreshing to re-visitthe works in question and to hear them with“new ears” as it were. Els’ own epiphany wasa recording of Mozart’s “Jupiter” symphonyfrom his father’s collection. I chose to goback to the recording I had grown up with,an LP of Otto Klemperer conducting thePhilharmonia Orchestra (now available onCD from EMI Classics). (Realizing that usingfull-sized 20th century orchestral forces in18th-century repertoire is no longer politicallycorrect, I asked Bruce Surtees for arecommendation and he suggested Jos vanImmerseel conducting the Anima EternaOrchestra of Bruges on the Zig-Zag label.)As a burgeoning clarinetist Els is introducedto Zemlinsky’s Trio in D Minor, Op.3 by theyoung cellist who becomes his first love. Iwas glad to be reminded that I had Amici’sversion of this rarely recorded work in mycollection and happy to have an excuse torevisit it (Summit Records). For Mahler’sKindertotenlieder I found that I was notoverly satisfied with the recordings in mycollection and once again went to an expertfor advice. Daniel Foley says: “Among thewomen, Janet Baker’s 1967 recording withthe Hallé Orchestra under Barbirolli (EMI)is unquestionably the most moving interpretationof the dozens I know... My heroFischer-Dieskau’s recording with Karl Böhmand the Berlin Philharmonic was recordedin 1963 and remastered in 2011 (DeutscheGrammophon).”For Messiaen’s Quatuor pour la fin dutemps I have many, more than a dozen,recordings to choose from, but once again Ichose our local Amici ensemble. The complicationwas which of their recordings toselect. Ultimately I decided to go with theiroriginal 1995 performance with violinistShmuel Ashkenasi (Summit Records) ratherthan the 1999 recording with Scott St. John(Naxos). It was a tough choice that did notcome down to the violinists, but rather cellistDavid Hetherington’s performance of thefifth movement, marked infiniment lent,extatique, which is fully 15 percent slower(i.e. more infinitely lent) on the earlier disc.Both his performances however are totallyconvincing as are those of clarinetist JoaquinValdepeñas and pianist Patricia Parr.For the Shostakovich Symphony No.5 Iturned to a reissue of the set of completesymphonies recorded by West German Radioduring the 1990s featuring Rudolf Barshaiat the helm of the WDR Sinfonieorchester(Brilliant Classics). When it came to theextended descriptions of the John Cage“Happenings” Musicircus and HPSCHD I wasleft thinking, despite having an old Nonesuchvinyl record of the latter piece, that you probablyhad to have been there to really get it. Idid turn back to my LP collection howeverfor Harry Partch’s classic Barstow (ColumbiaMusic of Our Time). As far as I can tell this isnot available on CD, but you should check itout on YouTube.I have quite an extensive collection ofSteve Reich recordings on vinyl and CD,but I missed Proverb – an extended riff onLudwig Wittgenstein’s sentence “How small athought it takes to fill a whole life!” for threesopranos, two tenors, two vibraphones andtwo electric organs – when it came out in1996. The disc seems to be out of print at themoment but is available as a digital downloadfrom Nonesuch, and again, is availablefor streaming on YouTube (accompanied bythe following comment from Roger Brunyate:“Do read (preferably while simultaneouslylistening) Richard Powers’ sublime descriptionof this piece on pages 245–254 of his newnovel Orfeo.”There are many other pieces mentioned inmore or less detail during the book, includingBerg’s Violin Concerto, Strauss’ Four LastSongs, Shostakovich’s String Quartet No.3and, although not by name, Copland’sAppalachian Spring. One of the mostmoving moments is the description of PeterLieberson’s Neruda Songs, written for hiswife Lorraine Hunt Lieberson and premieredjust a few months before her death, makingthe lyric “My love, if I die and you don’t”even more poignant. I found that track onYouTube, but the whole cycle of five songs isfeatured on a Nonesuch recording with theBoston Symphony Orchestra under JamesLevine’s direction. It was the soprano’s finalrecording.Perhaps the most intriguing descriptionin Orfeo is of Els’ own opera based on theAnabaptist uprising of 1534 in Münster. We52 | March 1 – April 7, 2014

are presented with a very detailed précis ofthis imaginary opus and its premiere whichcoincided with the strikingly similar eventsthat took place in Waco, Texas in 1993. Asalways, Powers’ blending of fact and fictionkeeps us on the edge of our seats. Orfeo thenovel, and by extension its complex musicalworlds – real and imagined – provided oneof the most satisfying literary adventures I’vehad in a long time. I highly recommend it.Another bookI enjoyed overthe recent holidaysalso led me tomy music library.The Apartment(Twelve ISBN978-1-4555-7478-0)by the Americanauthor Greg Baxterwho now makes hishome in Germany,takes place over the period of one day in anunnamed European city. It is a book in whichnothing of note happens except in the formof memories of the time the narrator spentin Iraq and of the life he abandoned in theUnited States. Nevertheless it is a compellingread. The musical interest here is arecital by Japanese violin students where thefeatured work is the Ciaccona (Chaconne)from Bach’s Partita for Violin No.2. After therecital the narrator strikes up a conversationwith Schmetterling, the German violinteacher, who launches into a lecture abouthow the Ciaccona encompasses “a profundityand intensity heretofore unknown in music.[…and which] resulted in the ascension of theviolin as the most venerated of all Westerninstruments.” There are five or six pagesdevoted to Schmetterling’s appreciation ofthe work and his claim that “On one stave, fora small instrument, the man writes a wholeworld of the deepest thoughts and mostpowerful feelings.” However, he goes on tosay “a spiritual sympathy with the piece … [is]… virtually non-existent in violinists underthe age of thirty… perhaps forty.” As takenas I was by the elegance and emotion of hisspeech, this last sounded like a challenge andoff I headed to my CD shelves. What I cameback with was a favourite of mine, a 2CD setof the Bach Sonatas and Partitas which JamesEhnes recorded in 1999 at the tender age of 23(Analekta FL 2 3147-8). I am quite preparedto accept that his understanding and depthof knowledge of the Ciaccona, and the repertoirein general forthat matter, will onlyincrease with time,but I must say thatif this early testamentis any indication,we can all lookforward to a truly aweinspiringinterpretationfrom Ehnes in theyears to come.Music: Books aside, sometimes it’s enoughjust to focus on the music…On the eve of Elliott Carter’s 102ndbirthday back in December 2010 Toronto’sNew Music Concerts presented an eveningof his recent works under the banner“Elliott Carter at 102.” Were it not for lastminute health and weather complications itwould have been Mr. Carter’s seventh visitto Toronto at the invitation of New MusicConcerts. As it was, the concert went on asplanned – including the world premiere ofthe Concertino for bass clarinet and chamberorchestra and the Canadian premiere of theFlute Concerto – and the audience was treatedto a taped telephone message from the iconiccomposer expressing his delight. Carterrecovered his health and went on to composemost of a dozen more works in the followingyear and a half before the final illness thatled to his death just a month before his 104thbirthday. New Music Concerts continued itspractice of celebrating the long and creativelife of this gentle man with Toronto premieresof Trije glasbeniki in 2011 and the DoubleTrio in 2012.The New Yorkpremieres of thesetwo works took placeat the 92nd StreetY on December 8,2011 as part of ElliottCarter’s 103rdBirthday Concert.That festive occasionincluded worldpremieres of fournew works rangingfrom Mnemosynefor solo violin (Rolf Schulte) to A Sunbeam’sArchitecture, a cycle of six songs on texts byE.E. Cummings for tenor (Nicholas Phan)and large chamber ensemble. The concert,organized by and under the artistic directionof cellist and long-time Carter associateFred Sherry, has now been released onthe British NMC label (NMC DVD193). Otherthan the solo harp piece Bariolage from 1992,the 12 works featured all date from Carter’s11th decade. What a treat it is to see Carterfêted in such a creative way and to see thecomposer’s pleasure in the performances.Still uncompromising in its rhythmic andharmonic complexity, the music is perhapsa bit more approachable than earlier worksbecause of its vigour and gestural exuberance– an amazing testament to Carter’s longevityand joie de vivre.The concert concludes with a seeminglyspontaneous performance of HappyBirthday and bows from the beaming centenarian.The film continues with moving tributesfrom leading British composers GeorgeBenjamin, Sir Harrison Birtwistle, AlexanderGoehr, Oliver Knussen and Colin Matthews.The booklet contains an extensive biographyand program notes. This is a wonderful celebrationof the artist as an old man for thosefamiliar with the work of Elliott Carter. Itwould serve as a wonderful point of entry tothose who are not.As someone who has spent much of myadult life (folk) singing and accompanyingmyself on the guitar it strikes me as a bitstrange that such a thing is quite rare inthe world of Art Song. Of course not manylieder singers accompany themselves on thepiano either and I am willing to accept thatin the world of classical music it is a life’swork to master even one medium. So it waswith pleasure that I received a new disc fromRenaissance man Doug MacNaughton onwhich he accompanies his own distinctivebaritone voice with panache on a beautifulsoundingclassical guitar constructed byEdward Klein. Guitarias ( features original works written forMacNaughton byCanadian composersJohn Beckwith, LeslieUyeda and WilliamBeauvais (who itseems has also servedas guitar teacher andmentor to the singer).The most immediately appealing workon the album, Shadows, is a collection ofsongs by British composer John Rutter, bestknown for his lush choral settings. The appealhowever turns out to be from familiarity; hissettings of 16th-century poetry sound charminglyanachronistic in their mimicking oflute songs of that era. That being said theyare lovely and provide a contrast to the morecontemporary sounds of the precedingtracks. Which is not to imply that the otherworks are not lyrical. Beckwith’s settings ofSamuel Beckett’s poetic texts are surprisingto this auditor who is more familiar with thebleak prose writings of the Nobel laureatewhose motto might well have been the finalsentences from The Unnamable: “I can’t goon. I”ll go on.” Uyeda’s Flower Arranger isa gently angular setting of a poignant poemfrom Joy Kogawa’s collection A Garden ofAnchors. The most idiomatic writing for theguitar, not surprisingly, comes from Beauvaisin his cycle of songs on texts by NativeAmerican poet Linda Hogan. There are occasionalextended techniques involved in theguitar writing which MacNaughton handleswith apparent ease and without becomingdistracted from his lyrical delivery of thevocal lines. I bet he could even walk and chewgum at the same time! My only quibble is theamount of reverb on the recording whichseems a bit excessive. All in all though, animpressive solo release from a multi-talentedartist. We welcome your feedback and invitesubmissions. CDs and comments should besent to: The WholeNote, Centre for SocialInnovation, 503 – 720 Bathurst St. TorontoON M5S 2R4. We also encourage you to visitour website where you canfind added features including direct links toperformers, composers and record labels, andadditional, expanded and archival reviews.David Olds, DISCoveries March 1 – April 7, 2014 | 53

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