Archive for December, 2008

December 2008 CD Roundup:Five Reviews by Stanley Fefferman

Tuesday, December 16th, 2008

2006 HONEN’S LAUREATES– 3 CDs

Honens International Piano Competition, an event I have been following since 2003, is one of the world’s most prestigious competitions. They have just released the long awaited latest in a series of recordings by laureates of their 5th triennial Competition. These new recordings by 2006 Laureates Minsoo Sohn, Hinrich Alpers and Hong Xu are based on their respective winning programs and afford wonderful listening. Minsoo Sohn’s album is dedicated to Liszt transcriptions; Hinrick Alpers plays Schumann, and Hong Xu performs a program of Mozart Sonatas.

All these artists have impeccable technique. What makes Alpers stand out is the warmth and colour of his playing. He has recorded a piece once admired by Franz Liszt, Schumann’s “Piano Sonata in F sharp Minor, Op.11.” From his attack in the opening bars of the Schumann, one begins to understand that Alpers is a fiery player. His response to the shifting moods, once he moves through the “Adagio” of the first movement into the “Allegro Vivace, renders them almost convulsive, marked by thunder and obsessive colourations. He makes the Steinway ring in the “Aria”, and the difficult “Scherzo e Intermezzo” is bold in defining the powers of longing and the sense of doom that strive for dominance in Schumann’s music. I place Alpers’ poetic phrasing of “Kinderzenen, Op.15” as the equal of the later Horowitz recording.

Minsoo Sohn’s album is dedicated to transcriptions of Bach, Paganini, Beethoven and Mozart by Franz Liszt. The performances are riveting. Mr. Sohn is a virtuosic player: one can understand his devotion to Liszt. Seeing him live in performance in Ottawa this past summer, one recalls a Gouldian presence. His body moves fluidly as he is stirred by his passion for the music, and indeed, for the instrument which he seems at times to be embracing. His hands are poetic, caressing the keys lightly or striking them with great force, but always precisely, and always bringing out subtlety in the phrasing that individualizes the character and feeling of the music. The program on this recording consists mostly of compositions not longer than 5 minutes and offers a rich kaleidoscope of pleasures.

Hong Xu’s strength is clarity. His playing of each of the Mozart Sonatas (K. 282,310,332,576) and the “Adagio in B minor, K. 540 is well thought out and clear in outline. He is elegant and rational, with a sense of delicacy bounded by forcefulness that only sometimes seems a bit too enthusiastic for my taste. It was easy to listen to him play for over an hour, and I look forward to doing it again.

You can find information about these albums and albums by past lauraeates at the Honens website .

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SO YOU WANT TO WRITE A FUGUE? A Celebration of Glenn Gould. CMCCD 13208, © 2008 Centrediscs

What we have here are preludes and fugal meditations by eleven of the ‘who’s who’ of Canadian Composers on the musical signature (G-E-G-D) of the great ‘whoo-whoo’ of Canadian Music (Glenn Gould), played by two handsful of the most ‘can do’ pianists in the country.

The composers were challenged and seemed to have had fun reviving this antique form in the atmosphere of their own musical universes. The creativity on this disk is astonishing for the variety of treatments of a single subject. The musicians are of the highest possible level. If one had to say which ones stood out, it would be Christina Quilico, Gregory Oh, and Andrew Burashko.  Each of the composers gives something valuable, new, and worth listening to. Cha Ka Nin, Heather Schmidt, and Stewart Goodyear are outstandingly personal and listenable.

The liner notes (contributed by each composer) are equal to the music in wit, invention, and rich in ideas that bring the music closer.

Credit and kudos for the concept of this project go to CBC Radio 2 producer Neil Crory who put together a virtual 75th birthday of the late G-E-G-D, with the knowledge that composers throughout history have honoured Bach, the composer most associated with G-E-G-D, by composing works based on the letters of his name. Crory must also be given credit for basing “the title of this festive feast of fugal fecundity on one of G-E-G-D’s compositions “So You Want to Write A Fugue,” that aired on CBC TV in 1963. Centrediscs.ca
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National Youth Orchestra of Canada conducted by Jacques Lacombe: “Selections from the 2008 National Tour”. 2 Cds. www.nyoc.org.

CD 1 is opened by Kelly-Marie Murphy’s “Through the Unknown, Unremembered Gate” 81/2 minutes of brooding mystery that swells through angelic spaces into an energetic beyond. Then we have a most listenable version of Mahler’s bucolic Idyll, the Symphony No. 1 in D Major, filled with the most songlike melodies you would ever want to hear.

CD 2 has Prokofiev’s Scythian Suite, Op.20, a 1916 concert version of the music from his ballet Ala and Lolli, based on a prehistoric tribe of blood-drinkers, the Scythians. The NYOC does justice to Prokofiev’s brilliant orchestration. They evoke the vivid colors and instrumental effects of this work that survives as one of the most brilliant orchestral essays of its era.

Ein Heldenleben (A Hero’s Life) is a fifty-minute tone poem Richard Strauss completed in 1898. It may be a serious or a tongue-in-cheek view of his own life. A Hero’s Life exploits the resources of the modern orchestra, and it remains an outstanding landmark in that respect.

The CD ends with two short pieces of Early Music, John Dowland’s “Come Again,” and “La, La. La, Je ne l’ose dire.’

This is a richly varied offering, handsomely packaged, well-played and well recorded, by an ensemble that is led by some of the best musicians in Canada, an ensemble that produces more than one third of this country’s dedicated musical professionals. www.nyoc.org

Art of Time Ensemble’s “Vive La DiF’rance” reviewed by Stanley Fefferman

Sunday, December 14th, 2008

Saturday, December 13, 2008, Enwave Theatre, Toronto

The pianist, Andrew Burashko, sits at the dimly lit piano with his back to the audience and begins playing with delicate sweetness the melancholic opening bars of Cesar Franck’s “Prelude, Fugue, and Variation, Op. 18”.  The graceful melody floats up from his right hand balanced by the quietly voiced accompaniment from his left. A shadow on the stage separates itself from the darkness: Peggy Baker, though prone and motionless, gets our attention. She rises, circles herself, the stage, the piano, and takes up a perch on the edge of the piano bench. Andrew stops playing, turns to face the audience, gets up to leaves the stage, hesitates, comes back, and immerses himself in the wistful simplicity of the ‘Prelude.’ For the next seven minutes, as he executes a stark, ruminative Bachian fugue followed by a set of variations evanescent as the twinkle of starlight on rippling waters, Ms. Baker’s distraught spirit takes refuge in an array of contortions and embraces, until, as a finale, the pianist extends the hand of acceptance to her. Is she his affliction or his emanation? Does their question shape the performance or deform it? Anything is possible.

The dramatic possibilities of love and solitude continue to be explored, this time without the edge of distracting from the beauty of music excellently played, when Yegor Dyachkov joins his cello to Burashko’s piano for Debussy’s “Sonata for Cello and Piano.” Originally entitled “Pierrot fait fou avec la lune,” the ‘Prologue’s’ introductory fanfare on piano presents Pierrot singing and playing the guitar. Mr. Dyachkov’s cello follows with a slow lament, remarkable for the depth and intensity of feeling he shows throughout this performance. The piano throughout maintains an accompanying role that nonetheless reveals the sensitivity and rhythmic precision of Mr. Burashko’s art.

The ‘Sérénade’ shows the moonstruck Pierrot’s agitation and distraction. In the cello’s pizzicato, you can imagine Segovia’s guitar, and from the walking piano’s sometimes weird chords, you can imagine Picasso’s drooping blue and earthy Harlequin. Altogether, I found the dramatic interplay of this piano and cello duo somewhat magical. Mr. Burashko mentioned an interesting point about Debussy, who is thought to be the founder of musical impressionism. The point was that Debussy denied any connection between his work and the work of the Impressionist painters who were his friends. The fact is, as I listened to this music, I visualized Modigliani and Picasso, not Monet. Debussy’s music, though intensely rooted in work of French composers past, Rameau, for instance, also seems to prophecy the music of Ravel and Poulenc that came after him. Perhaps Debussy was not only of his time, but ahead of his time.

The music of Olivier Messiaen takes us to his “Quartet For The End of Time,” a piece worthy of its frequent performances in this centennial year of the composer’s birth. James Campbell and Steven Sitarski respectively join clarinet and violin to piano and cello for a very respectable and in some sense unique account of this cosmic piece of music. Although clarinet and cello get the main virtuoso parts that indeed earn a big ‘WOW’ for their contribution, what most impressed me was the tightly laminated unison of the ensemble playing, led through a range of shifts both subtle and wide ranging, by the piano. Perhaps that’s how it happened at the première when Messiaen sat with frozen fingers on a damaged keyboard in the Nazi prison camp where he wrote this work in 1941.

Franck, Debussy, Messiaen: the fourth Francophone composer saluted this evening is the Belgian-born Jacques Brel. Jonathan Goldsmith (piano), Rob Piltch (guitar), George Koller (bass), and Hugh Marsh (violin) put their shining heads together behind vocalist Martin Tielli in three of Brel’s songs including “ If You Go Away,” “Next,” and one about the monstrous parental family Brel left behind in Belgium when he went to Paris.
The ensemble’s arrangements are marvelous. Tielli’s performance persona is totally out there as he contorts to find expression for the music in his voice, phrasing and postures. He sang “If You Go Away” in a scratchy, breathy falsetto accompanied by grotesquely introverted gestures that emphasized the neurotic side of the character. During the next two songs my mind went to Don Martin’s cartoons for Mad Magazine, if anyone still knows what that was about. I suppose it suggests another way to be a weird Pierrot. Vive La DiF’rance.

SHOKO INOUE Recital at Gallery 345 reviewed by Stanley Fefferman

Wednesday, December 10th, 2008

Tuesday, December 9, 2008, Gallery 345, Toronto.

Les Amis Concerts presented prize-winning pianist Shoko Inoue in a gallery setting that let the audience feel part of an intimate salon for the technically daunting program she’d chosen.  We see her (above) interpreting the fragile beauty of a passage that opens the first “Ballade (G Minor)” that the young Chopin originated in Paris. Ms. Inoue has a dramatic talent. She appears free to imagine in herself the composer’s emotion as it morphs from uncertainty to melancholy and quickens to a fiery outpouring.  She presents the lovely melody of second theme quietly and returns to the main theme with an ear for the intricate counterpoint of the accompaniment. There is an intelligent playfulness that she allows into the ebb and flow of more dramatic emotions until a turbulent darkness settles over the ending.

By the time she’d finished the first repeat of the solemn introductory theme of Beethoven’s “Pathetique” Sonata, it was clear that we were in the presence of something special. She played boldly, without holding back the vigour and quickness of her tempo, and the fun she seemed to be having made me smile. Her playing of the famous cantabile of the “Adagio” was moderately paced and not saccharine. Each of the three repeats of this theme, and each of the two modulating episodes brought out something new in the music. I especially appreciated the emphatic humour she brought to the second episode. She managed a terrific sense of release as the Rondo closes and moves into the brief minor coda. The individuality apparent in Ms. Inoue’s playing of this piece brings Glenn Gould to mind.

It was like “Roll Over Beethoven” when Ms. Inoue moved to the finale of her program, Scriabin’s “Sonata, Op. 68” known as “Black Mass” a highly chromatic, atonal, dissonant work, admired by Stravinsky and championed by Horowitz. It is built around a mysterious opening theme that is repeated with variations at intervals amid a structure of accelerating tension, complexity and unsettling force. Ms. Inoue’s total dedication to her playing made it by far the best interpretation I’ve heard. Her playing is organic. She follows the bipolar shifts of the score with feral concentration, abandoning herself to the madness inherent in the cosmic and sometimes cataclysmic visions that arise before the opening theme returns to bring a quiet ending.

After giving us everything she had in mind, as an encore, Ms. Inoue gave us her heart: She played the 20 minute first movement of Schubert’s “Sonata in B-flat Major, D.960.” By way of introduction, Ms. Inoue read a poem that expresses the loneliness of facing imminent death, as Schubert was when he composed this work, and of finding joy, as Schubert did, in the courageous expression of that loneliness. A few bars into it, a woman began to cry. When it was over, the audience asked for yet another encore. Understandably, Ms. Inoue declined. But better yet, the next solo piano recital in Toronto by Ms Inoue is at Glenn Gould Studio on January 19, 2009 and will feature the music of Schubert, Bach, Webern and Chopin.

AMICI CHAMBER ENSEMBLE HONOUR MESSIAEN AND ARMENIA reviewed by Stanley Fefferman

Monday, December 8th, 2008

Sunday, December 7, 2008, Glenn Gould Studio, Toronto

This year, Amici continues to welcome a new member, pianist and composer Serouj Kradjian. Mr. Kradjian wrote a new work for this concert, an imaginatively rich composition, entitled “Elegy for Restive Souls (2008)” that is certainly worthy of the musicians who performed this world première 20 years to the day after the earthquake that killed 25,000 people in his native Armenia.

The work begins with guest violinist Ben Bowman plucking a tic-toc ostinato rhythm while Joaquin Valdepeñas allows an elegiac melody based on a sacred Armenian theme to float up from his clarinet.  A quiet crash of chords brings the opening time of the work to an end. Then,  David Hetherington’s cello picks up an Armenian folk-based theme that is discussed contrapuntally by the instruments in various combinations and levels of energy, some soft, some dying, some jagged, some whirlwinding.  The piano offers nostalgic interludes, manic jazzy passages, and towards the end, a couple of cadenzas that lead the way to some fascinating orchestral effects before the work makes a soft landing.

The Amici and guest also performed “Suite for violin, clarinet and piano (1992) by the prominent Armenian composer Alexander Arutiunian. The four movements are firmly based on an Armenian folk-motifs, beginning with a hair-raisingly slow clarinet phrase that climbs over the steady sad rumble of the piano, past the plaintive song of the violin till at the right altitude, all three instruments weave in the space like larks. One cannot help being astonished by the control Mr. Valdepeñas shows here and in his solos during the Messiaen piece, where you can hear the silence out of which his notes rise first with a faintness close to non-existence that become denser in gradations as fine as a sumi-e brushstroke.

Messiaen’s “Quartet for the End of Time” is wonderful to listen to. It is also rewarding to study because it tells some very colourful stories about this remarkable composer. For instance, the work was composed as a way of surviving the cruelty, horrors and “endless boredom” of Nazi imprisonment in Stalag VIII –A, where it was premiered before an audience of 400 prisoners on a freezing January night in 1941.

Constructed in VIII movements, Messiaen notes that parts II and VII contain harmonies to which he ascribes the colour scheme “blue and orange.” In his preface to the score Messiaen writes that having nothing to eat triggered his natural ability to dream in colours and to see colours corresponding to the sounds of music he heard in his head.

The opening section features the voices of the clarinet and violin describing “predawn and the awakening of the birds, a thrush improvises….” These tones imitate actual sounds of birds Messiaen heard in the camp, that he learned to notate for his compositions. Later, he became familiar with upward of 500 birdsongs that he worked into his compositions, because “birds are the opposite of time…with its sadness and tediums; they are our desire for light, for stars, for rainbows, and for jubilant outpourings of song!”

Messiaen described this “Quartet” as one of his “first rhythmically important works.” The rhythmic ostinato in the piano part of Crystal Liturgy is based on 3 of a possible 120 Hindu rhythms Messiaen explored to escape from the constraints of metrical rhythms.  The sixth movement employs his by now trademark “nonretrogradable rhythms”, musical palindromes that read identically from both left and right. The point of Messiaen’s rhythmic inventions is that by relying on duration rather than meter, they contribute to the sense of interminableness or ‘eternity’, the aspect of experience that is beyond or at ‘the end of time.’

Because 2008 is the 100th anniversary of the composer’s birth, I have had the good fortune to attend three performances of this work by superb ensembles: The Gryphon Trio, with James Campbell on clarinet, The St. Lawrence String Quartet, with Todd Palmer on clarinet, and this one by the Amici Ensemble, with Ben Bowman on violin. What is special about this performance is the hold it took of my imagination. The music that is of time–where music begins—the ordered melodies, the familiar chords, the repetitive ostinato rhythms, are beautiful expressions of imagination feeling its limits: stone, steel, ice, negative emotions like anger or hysteria. The music that brings us to “the end of time” unfolds itself as an ecstatic flow of energy that rises, shines, and dissolves in a flow of imagination that feels no limits at all.

Miami String Quartet @ Music Toronto reviewed by Stanley Fefferman

Friday, December 5th, 2008

Thursday, December 4, 2008, Jane Mallett Theatre, Toronto.

The Miami String Quartet is developing its reputation for presenting new and contemporary works. Despite the temptation to specialize in new music, cellist Keith Robinson has confessed he could not give up the pleasure of playing Haydn. Last night at their Music Toronto debut, the Miami offered an exciting new work by Joan Tower that they have been premiering since September. And though they didn’t play Haydn, they did begin the concert with the second of the Mozart string quartets influenced by and dedicated to Haydn, the “String Quartet in D Minor, K.421.”

This austerely beautiful work shows the fruits of Mozart’s “long and laborious study” of Haydn’s Op. 33: the fully developed four-part interaction, the use of counterpoint for thematic intensification, the increased use of chromaticism and strong dissonance, the increased complexity. These developments in Haydn’s own writing came to Mozart’s attention when he was going through a ‘Sturm und Drang” period as financial troubles and disappointments were encumbering him. This particular quartet, the only mature work he wrote in a minor key, is songful, sorrowful and throbbing with the drama of bittersweet harmonies.

The first few bars of the Miami’s account were a bit more gritty, not to say muddy, than I would have liked, but gradually they seemed to clarify the extended range of dynamics and subtle interplay of instruments. The cello was particularly affecting in expanding the elegant main melody of the nocturnal ‘Andante’. Their display of elegant gravity continued during the stately ‘Minuet’ where guest violinist Benny Kim’s Strad dances over a contrasting pizzicato accompaniment. And as the emotional pitch rises in the ‘Finale’, some Haydnesque humour comes through in the lilting melody of one variation. Violist Yu Jin’s work comes to prominence just before the closing return to the wistful tonic.  The audience seemed a bit more uplifted by this performance than I was.

The energy the Miami put into Joan Tower’s “String Quartet No. 4,” was irresistible. Demonic glissandos especially on the cello, minimalist locomotive surges, accelerandos rising to panic levels, clearly discernable canonic, fugal and counterpoint passages, and weird moments of spacey solitude, all work together to give a sense of the hospital drama that inspired Tower’s work.  This exciting 18 minute work is the composer’s “tribute to the people who stepped in to save my brother after he suffered a pretty major stroke.”

Following intermission, the Miami gave us one of the most technically demanding works in the entire repertoire, Debussy’s “Quartet in G Minor, Op. 10.” This work is transitional for Debussy as the quartets of Op. 33 were for Haydn, and the six “Haydn” quartets were for Mozart. Debussy was working his way out of the dominant Viennese models still practiced in France by Cesar Franck and his disciples. In “Op. l0,” the 30 year old composer was finding the parallel chord progressions and atmospheric, kaleidoscopic, subtle musicality that became characteristic of his work after “Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune”, composed in the following year, 1894.

While I enjoyed this wonderful music, particularly the clarity this ensemble brought to the recurring motto theme that is the backbone of the entire work, I couldn’t help wondering about something: That is, whether the muscular hi-def energy the Miami had brought to the Tower quartet wasn’t carrying over into the Debussy, where a lighter-handed, ‘French’ elegance and a certain transparency might be more enjoyable.  That said, a well executed performance of Debussy’s dizzying array of textures and effects, the endless changes never fails to impress.