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Volume 22 Issue 1 - September 2016

  • Text
  • September
  • Toronto
  • Jazz
  • October
  • Festival
  • Symphony
  • Musical
  • Orchestra
  • Theatre
  • Quartet
  • Volume
Music lover's TIFF (our fifth annual guide to the Toronto International Film Festival); Aix Marks the Spot (how Brexit could impact on operatic co-production); The Unstoppable Howard Cable (an affectionate memoir of a late chapter in the life of of a great Canadian arranger; Kensington Jazz Story (the newest kid on the festival block flexes its muscles). These stories and much more as we say a lingering goodbye to summer and turn to the task, for the 22nd season, of covering the live and recorded music that make Southern Ontario tick.

concert in San Francisco

concert in San Francisco on June 26. Their 2012 self-released recordings of the late quartets have also been reissued as a 3CD set alongside this new issue; their recording of the middle quartets was released on AVIE Records in 2014. This is the only volume of the series that I have heard, and it really made me want to listen to the others, especially to see what the ensemble does with the late quartets. The playing here never lacks bite and intensity when it’s needed, but there’s an overall sensitivity and thoughtfulness which is very appealing; this is refined playing, but never superficial. It’s also very strong rhythmically, particularly in the tricky start to the Presto final movement of the Op.18 No.3 D Major quartet, which can so easily be quite ambiguous without a clearly defined pulse. I’ve had the occasional cello ensemble CD over the past year or so, but nothing that approaches the sheer size of the Chicago area Northwestern University Cello Ensemble under their director Hans Jørgen Jensen on their new CD Shadow, Echo, Memory (Sono Luminus SLE-70004). In May 2013 Jensen, Northwestern’s cello professor, brought together an ensemble of Northwestern students, Chicago-area high school cellists and Northwestern alumni (several of whom are now active in major U.S. symphony orchestras and music schools) to record the Adagietto from Mahler’s Fifth Symphony. This memorable event, with over 50 cellists participating, led to the continuation of the project and the decision to record this debut album, although the remaining tracks here feature ensembles comprising from eight to 23 cellos. The works range from Fauré’s Après un rêve (1878) and Rachmaninov’s Vocalise (1915) through Ligeti’s 1966 Lux Aeterna to four 21st-century works: Zachary Wadsworth’s Three Lacquer Prints (2012/14); Hans Thomalla’s Intermezzo (2011); Aaron Jay Kernis’ Ballad (2004); and the 2014 title track by the Canadian composer and Northwestern ensemble member Michael van der Sloot. Finally, the full ensemble is joined by six basses and a harp in the original 2013 recording of the Mahler Adagietto, providing a lovely ending to a CD full of sonic depth and richness. Two cellos may not have much chance of sounding like 50, but in the hands of Jacques Offenbach, himself a virtuoso cellist, they can still sound like a small ensemble. Paul Christopher and Milovan Paz are the cellists in Offenbach Cello Duets Op.54, #1-3, The Gift – Wrapping! (Human Metronome HMP 106-2016), the fifth and final CD in their complete recording of the six books of duets of increasing difficulty that comprise the Cours méthodique de duos pour deux violoncelles Opp.49-54. The Op.54 duets rank as Trés Difficiles (or “formidably difficult” in Christopher’s words) with extensive double and triple stops over the entire range of positions and challenges that include rapid scale work, large jumps in pitch, arpeggios, octaves and extremely high tessitura. Christopher and Paz surmount them all with ease and are clearly having a great time in doing so. Don’t be fooled by the apparent pedagogical nature of the Method’s title; Offenbach is best known for his operettas, and his gift for melody is evident throughout these delightful duets. In Christopher’s opinion they transcend their original purpose and are the high water mark for the cello duets genre, and given the evidence here it’s difficult to disagree with him. The young Venezuelan-American cellist Carmine Miranda is the soloist on a terrific CD of the Schumann and Dvořák Concerti for Cello & Orchestra with the Moravian Philharmonic Orchestra under Petr Vronský (Navona Records NV6034). Composed in October 1850, the Schumann Cello Concerto in A Minor Op.129 has been given a rough ride by many critics over the years, with criticisms ranging from a lack of virtuosity in the solo part to its being evidence of the composer’s mental decay – within a week of completing the proofreading for the published version in February 1854, Schumann attempted suicide by throwing himself into the Rhine. The review copy of this CD came with Miranda’s fascinating and extremely detailed article Decoding the Schumann Cello Concerto, reprinted in full from the Spring 2016 edition of The Musical Times, in which he argues convincingly that the work has long been misunderstood, and that Schumann’s decisions in the concerto, far from being a product of any mental deterioration, are in fact calculated, and clear proof of his knowledge of, and use of, cryptography – or cyphers – in his music. The concerto is apparently dominated by references to the initial letters of the full names of Schumann’s wife Clara and the composer himself, and these references determine the structure of the melodies and the choice of keys. Given this level of insight it should come as no surprise that the performance here is outstanding – sensitive, passionate and rhapsodic – and makes the strongest possible case for elevating the concerto to the same class as the Elgar and the Dvořák. Miranda brings the same rich, full-toned playing and the same depth of historical research to the Dvořák Concerto in B Minor Op.104, resulting in another glorious performance of this wonderful piece. And finally, to a single cello. Transitions is the first solo CD from the Canadian-born New York cellist Michael Nicolas, a performer with an impressive reputation on the contemporary scene (Sono Luminus DSL-92202). Nicolas describes the CD as an attempt to show that humans and computers can co-exist musically and explores the relationship from as many angles as possible. The works here were written by composers from three continents and span over 50 years and include duos for cello and electronics, cello solos with electronic backing tracks, pieces with multi-layered cello tracks and a piece for solo cello. The composers include the Argentinian-American Mario Davidovsky (b.1964), the Americans Steve Reich, David Fulmer and Annie Gosfield, Iceland’s Anna Thorvaldsdottir (b.1977) and the Peruvian Jaime E. Oliver La Rosa (b.1979). Davidovsky’s Synchronisms No.3 for Cello and Electronic Sounds was written in 1964; Thorvaldsdottir’s solo cello title track dates from 2014. Nicolas hopes that the listener “will be exposed to many new sounds and ways to organize them, and be able to connect them to more traditional ideas of musical expression.” Certainly this CD will go a long way towards helping them do just that. His playing and extended techniques are outstanding, and the works are beautifully recorded. 58 | September 1, 2016 - October 7, 2016 thewholenote.com

Keyed In ALEX BARAN I can never resist an opportunity to experience the Bach Goldberg Variations. This 2016 recording, Bach: Goldberg Variations – The New Recording (Accentus Music ACC30372) by Zhu Xiao Mei, is a treasure that every Goldberg fan should own. Zhu made her first recording of the Variations 20 years ago and has performed them hundreds of times in public. This is her second recording of the work. The disc is unique. The liner contains no critique, no history or musicological analysis. Instead there is an interview with Zhu, responding to superb and probing questions whose answers are arrestingly profound. After all, born in the year of the Chinese revolution and serving five years in a work camp of Mao’s Cultural Revolution, Zhu has something to say. While she has an obvious grasp of the structure and pattern of the work, she speaks passionately about her unconventional approach to the variations and where they take the listener. Zhu makes two emphatic points about this journey. First, that the Variations ascend gradually from the opening Aria to their pinnacle in the 25th Variation. Here the languorous meditation in a minor key lasts two, even three times the duration of any of the other variations. Whatever Bach means to say, he says it at this point. Second, that the work is cyclical, beginning and ending with the Aria. On hearing it a second and final time we sense that we have understood something. The cycle is life and death. She quotes Laozi: “The Return is the Movement of Tao.” Prokofiev’s first two piano concertos date from his early twenties while he was a student at the St. Petersburg Conservatory. Written just a year apart, they are strikingly dissimilar. On Prokofiev – Piano Concertos 1 & 2 Janáček Philharmonic Orchestra; Niels Muus (Sorel Classics SC CD 006) pianist Anna Shelest is profoundly convincing in her approach to these works. She understands the conventional forms used in the Concerto No.1 and delivers Prokofiev’s memorable themes beautifully, especially the bold opening idea that returns at the close of the work. Concerto No.1 is very brief and is more of a single continuous work. The performance is satisfying and energetic, with the soloist and orchestra flawlessly together throughout. The real surprise, however, comes with the Piano Concerto No.2 which is far more demanding in every respect. Shelest never shrinks from the challenges the composer sets out. The opening movement’s massive cadenza is almost a work within a work, taking up most of the movement’s time. It’s brilliantly played with skillfully metered intensity. The Scherzo’s wild, relentless unison playing is a brief but definite show stopper. Shelest’s performance, especially in the Finale, reminds us how modern Prokofiev’s language must have sounded to audiences a century ago, and how fresh it remains today. Based in New York, Shelest continues to perform and add to her diverse discography making herself an artist whose career is very much worth following. Elizabeth and Marcel Bergmann have performed as duo pianists for more than 20 years. Marcel’s additional role as composer and arranger has given the pair an unusually large performance repertoire. All the material on American Stories for Two Pianos – Bergmann Duo (Ars Produktion ARS 38 188) is a tribute to American composers, both classical and jazz. The arrangements faithfully bring the essence of the works to the combined voices of two pianos. The Bergmanns possess all the skills we expect from a seasoned pair of duo pianists. They’re perfectly together at the deepest musical level. It’s difficult to refer to any highlights on this disc because each track is superb. The arrangements are brilliant. Chick Corea’s La Fiesta and Spain open the CD with high energy and a Latin pulse that flows naturally into Bernstein’s Selections from West Side Story. America will positively launch you from your seat. One Hand, One Heart is movingly simple. Each selection is a gem. The Bergmanns include two works by Pat Metheny, Eighteen and Hermitage. Here the challenge is to bring the electroacoustic and percussion components convincingly to the keyboards as well as to pianistically portray Metheny’s music from a solo album. Following the Latin American thread leads Marcel Bergmann to arrangements of Astor Piazzolla’s Oblivion and Libertango, the latter being one of Piazzolla’s best known works. The final track is an irresistibly syncopated romp titled Infancia by Egberto Gismonti. These performances are exciting and electrifying. There’s a good deal of serious stuff in the body of works for piano four hands. There’s also a more light-hearted tradition that is written with children in mind. It’s here that we find the popular works by Ravel, Saint- Saëns and Fauré that appear on French Fantasy – Saint-Saëns, Fauré, Ravel (Sheridan Music Studio 16129 9). Pianists Steven Greene and Susan Merdinger clearly enjoy playing this material. While set against a background of childlike simplicity, there are plenty of moments where the composers speak profoundly. Carnival of the Animals is replete with colourful imagery. Merdinger and Greene have a great deal of fun with this, romping through Saint-Saëns’ pages with energy and style. Their performance of Aquarium is noteworthy for its mystical fluidity while the Finale delivers the entertaining pulse of a high-stepping chorus line. Tortoises, Kangaroos and The Elephant also offer a generous dose of good keyboard humour – a reminder of why this set is so enduringly popular. Fauré’s Dolly Suite is a more introspective and tender work and the pianists explore this change of character effectively in Berceuse and Tendresse. Pas Espagnol and Kitty-Valse balance the suite with optimism and sparkle. The disc concludes with Ravel’s Mother Goose Suite. Ravel’s harmonic language sets the suite apart from the other two works. It gives Merdinger and Greene the opportunity to approach the music with more attention to its subtleties. They are more seriously engaged in this music but never at the expense of its youthful focus. Susan Merdinger presents a broad and wellrounded solo program on Soirée – Schubert, Brahms, Debussy, Liszt (Sheridan Music Studio 13434 7). Beginning with the Schubert Sonata in B Major D.575 K.147, she quickly confirms the composer’s predilection for song. She phrases the two principal ideas of the opening movement beautifully as if they had lyrics ready to be sung. The second movement offers a beautiful opening that first appears in vertical hymn-like form but subsequently melts into a series of fluid variations that Merdinger plays with great affection. The final two movements are very dancelike, each offering a brief middle section where Merdinger finds liedlike material that she emphasizes before reverting to the rhythmic drive that concludes them both. Having both Brahms Rhapsodies on the same disc makes for interesting comparisons. Here too, Merdinger finds the two principal ideas in each work and carefully follows their course through Brahms’ dense harmonies. The Rhapsody in B Minor Op.79 No.1’s middle section is significantly shorter than the G Minor Op.79 No.2’s and offers less time to linger with the material. But Merdinger counters thewholenote.com September 1, 2016 - October 7, 2016 | 59

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