I usually find when I travel to Canada that, particularly in the centre of the country, the Canadians are obsessed with not being American. When they find you have some kind of ethnic identity – Scots, in my case – they leap on it and drag out a Scottish uncle, an Irish grandfather or Welsh what-have-you in an over-emphatic attempt to bring out their own non-American distinctiveness. Some of the most recent releases from CBC Records similarly suggest that the music has been recorded because it is Canadian rather than because of any marked identity of its own. And then, just when (dangerous time) your aural feet go on the desk, along comes a work of real stature to warn against prejudice.
Perhaps the best-known contemporary Canadian composer is R. Murray Schafer (b. 1933), three of whose concertos appear on CBC Records SMCD5114. His Flute Concerto of 1984 is a wildly virtuosic affair, in a standard fast-slow-fast design. It begins with what the composer describes as "rushed frenzy which never abates until the end of the movement". The slow movement is a rather abstracted rumination, in which the flute uses microtones in imitation of oriental music; and the finale is another rapid-fire toccata, with a slower central section. The soloist here is Robert Aitken, who is called upon to produce all sorts of special effects, with the Vancouver SO conducted by Kazuyoshi Akiyama. Schafer's Harp Concerto is likewise performed by the musician for whom it was written, the American Judy Lomax, principal harp of the Toronto SO since 1960, and it is that orchestra, under the baton of Andrew Davis, which accompanies her here. As befits the more demure nature of the instrument, the music is more relaxed, and the first movement is a nocturne which ambles along unambitiously for most of its twelve-minute length, although a climax of some scale makes a stab at emerging towards the end. But the middle movement, a robustly Spanish march-scherzo, throws caution to the winds, rattling along with growing exhilaration: it's the most impressive writing on this CD. One of the problems with the composition of harp concerti is the scoring: how can you produce music of any dynamic power without drowning the soloist? In his finale Schafer gets round it with amplification, and the work ends with the harp triumphant over a savage orchestral tutti. The third concertante work of Schafer's here is his "double rhapsody" for violin and orchestra with the curious title of The Darkly Splendid Earth: The Lonely Traveller. Both form and title are explained by Schafer by the use of independent material for soloist and orchestra, "where the orchestra might reflect the earth and the soloist an individual passing across it". The soloist is once more the musician who caused the work to be composed, in this case Jacques Israelievitch; the Toronto SO is conducted by Günther Herbig. In spite of some unarguably impressive moments, I find it rather unfocussed, as if Schafer's musical thought needed the discipline imposed by concerto form to produce structural order. His language is the koiné of reluctant modernism: an expanded tonality that encompasses many of the techniques learned from more avant-garde composers; it's respectable without having an instantly identifiable individual quality. As a result this CD makes for interesting rather than compelling listening.
More Schafer can be found on CBC SMCD5101: his orchestral rhapsody Dream Rainbow Dream Thunder. It's the fruit of an improvisation at the keyboard, its musical material barely in focus, shapes drifting in and out of the orchestral textures, dramatic gestures emerging from the mist and disappearing just as quickly – undeniably effective. It comes as part of a programme by the Esprit Orchestra, a 40-strong group founded, in Toronto in 1983, by Alex Pauk (b. 1945), who conducts them here. The Orchestra has an impressive policy of commissioning new works, and it is some of these commissions that are on offer here. Pauk's own Echo Spirit Isle, inspired by Javanese gamelan, follows Schafer's rhapsody. It too is deliberately unfocussed, shifting rhythmic patterns in a chiaroscuro orchestral textures like remembered Reich – and it's too long for its material. It is the acquisition of focus that is the central element of Traces of Becoming by Tomas Dusatko (b. 1952), as stronger melodic fragments emerge, with growing harmonic support, out of the eddying orchestral nebula. Chan Ka Nin was born in Hong Kong in 1949 and moved to Vancouver at the age of 15. His background is imediately audible in Ecstasy, a fifteen-minute tone-poem intended to express various intensities of said emotion, although its bubbling diatonic enthusiasm also reveals the influence of the minimalism associated with composers further down the West Coast. It's a misnomer, too: Nin (Chan?) might have got away with Happiness, but ecstatic this piece ain't. Finally, the 51-year-old Brian Cherney's Into the Distant Stillness…, a lament for his dying father that indulges in anger rather than grief, with sharp gestures over a thinnish orchestral weft. None of these five pieces betray a strong musical personality, although the technical competence of their composers is not in doubt; it's just that you're just hard put to remember the music as soon as it is over. That's a danger that any organisation with as laudable an aim as the Esprit Orchestra's is going to run, and it shouldn't deny them praise and encouragement.
Another orchestra with similarly admirable aims is the Orchestre Métropolitain, based in Montréal and conducted on CBC SMCD5106 by Walter Boudreau. The work which opens this CD is Élan by Linda Bouchard (b. 1957). Claudio Ricignuoli's notes compare her piece to Varèse's music, and it is true that both composers realise a primitive, even elemental energy. Varèse, mind you, manages to impart a focus to his music, whereas Bouchard's six minutes strikes me more as the aural equivalent of watching a volcano erupt: unarguably impressive but – initially, at least – the logic that makes the process a single, indivisible phenomenon escapes me. If Varèse is the éminence grise of Bouchard's muse, the figure looking over Denis Gougeon's composing shoulders is Olivier Messiaen. But Gougeon (b. 1951) shakes off much of the influence in the course of his A l'aventure, a orchestral tapestry that delights in sudden shifts of focus, explosions of energy, over a background of unhurried exuberance. More Brian Cherney now, in the form of his Transfiguration, an extended symphonic poem representing the ascent of the soul to heaven, past the orchestral obstacles that Cherney's heaving textures hurl at it. As with Into the Distant Stillness…, there are passages that are vividly imagined, but the whole does seem to lumber on a bit: flaring brass chords, dull pulsations in the lower strings, fragmentary thematic interjections – they can all work marvellously effectively, but they get rather tedious after twenty-odd minutes of the mixture-as-before. Cherney's piece is followed by Berliner Momente by Walter Boudreau (b. 1947) himself. Like the Cherney, it is piece of orchestral gesturism, with the redeeming feature that much of the thematic material has been filched from Haydn and Wagner. Ricignuoli claims disingenuously that "Boudreau selected thirty-three key events from Berlin's thousand-year history (from 988 to 1988) and distilled them into a sixteen-minute composition!" The piece begins like a re-run of Siegfried's funeral march; unfortunately, Wagner soon gives way to Boudreau's attractive but forgettable textures, tinkling percussion, more flaring brass – you know the sort of thing. And back bursts Wagner, suddenly giving the music a bit of focus. If you live in a small room, inviting a giant in is a dangerous ploy, for he'll take up most of the space. The last work in this collection is Orion by Claude Vivier, whose murder in Paris in 1983 (he was born in 1948) sent shocks round the world of musical modernism: he had been seen as one of its future luminaries. Orion gives some indication of what was lost: for all that it is not even thirteen minutes long, it is imagined on a broad scale, its sense of the astronomical revealed not only in its title. The music grows slowly over a throbbing, stark orchestral background to an impressive chordal catharsis, and it ends, inexplicably with a call from the male voice that had suddenly appeared earlier in the work; at neither point does the music seem to require it.
There is fuller confirmation of the scope of Vivier's imagination on a generous four-CD survey of his music from Radio Canada, in their series "Anthology of Canadian Music" (ACM36 CD1-4). There are fifteen works in the collection, ranging in style from the rather predictable electronicisms of the early Prolifération (1968-69) to the orchestral complexities of Siddharta (1976) and the gamelan-inspired felicities of Pulau Dewata (1977). The recordings open with a fifty-minute radio documentary on Vivier, featuring his own voice and reminiscences by his friends. It's in French, and almost all of them have heavy Québequois accents to boot, but if the thought troubles you, you can take comfort in the full English translation provided in the booklet. After the documentary, the first CD closes with Chants of 1973, for seven female voices and percussion ensemble. It is a deliberately ritualistic work, an evocation of death, sparked by an insight during a rehearsal of Stockhausen's Momente. The women's voices keen and ululate, spoken texts occasionally trip across the texture – but this is not human emotion: it is feeling abstracted and stylised, as in a Greek tragedy, and in its slightly cold way it can be rather beautiful.
The second CD rounds off music on a smaller scale with the work that may be Vivier's most impressive orchestral work, Siddharta. Prolifération, for ondes martenot, piano and percussion, outstays its welcome fairly swiftly. Pianoforte is a study in textures for the instrument of its title: it sounds a bit like Debussy-meets-Ligeti, and its fascination with sheer sound means that it never develops any momentum. Hymnen an die Nacht (a Novalis setting) and two Pièces, for flute and piano and cello and piano, are not particularly distinguished and might not win Vivier new friends. Siddharta would. It's a large orchestral fresco of yearning mysticism, encompassing many worlds in its half-hour journey; its obvious modernism is married to a lyricism that makes its sound-world very attractive. Walter Boudreaux, who conducts it here, describes it as "direct, perfectly sculpted music that begins with a simple melody and broadens marvellously into a fantastic galaxy of ideas and emotions". Texturally, it sounds at times like a concerto for orchestra: the music dwells on a particular colour for a while, then the focus shifts and another "flavour" predominates before it too breaks off and something else replaces it. Harmonically, it is pretty static, in a work this length a structural failing perhaps inherited from the audible influence of Messiaen, although at one point the mixture of dancing winds over long-limbed brass suggest the age-old formula of a decorated chorale. But even if it's a stop-and-start piece, it's constantly interesting – and if Vivier was writing music like this when he 28, what might he have achieved with the wisdom of years?
Lettura di Dante, which opens the penultimate disc in the Vivier anthology, is scored for soprano, oboe, clarinet, bassoon, trumpet, viola and percussion. I have to admit that I lost interest before its 25 minutes were up – Vivier's penchant for breaking off his musical argument and replacing it with a different element survives in the rich instrumental world of Siddharta; here I found it frustrating, and kept wishing that he would sustain a mood for more than a couple of minutes. Pulau Dewata, by contrast, is not a second too long. It is a fruit of Vivier's long stay in Bali in 1976. The notes claim, in apparent self-contradiction, that the work is dedicated to the people of Bali and to the McGill Percussion Ensemble, who perform it here. It's the simplest music of all the pieces here. Indeed, Vivier is quoted is saying: "what I wanted to write was a piece imbued with the spirit of Bali: its dances, its rhythms and, above all, an explosion of life, simple and candid"; it is "a loving homage to this marvellous people from whom I learned so much". Next, a piece with the strange title of Zipangu. I wondered at first whether Zipangu might be a relative of Huapango, the Mexican dance that Moncayo made so memorable in his exuberant orchestral treatment – not so: "Zipangu", Vivier says, "was the name given to Japan during the time of Marco Polo". Not that there's any attempt at orientalism either: Zipangu, written in 1980, is a quarter-hour fantasy for two groups of strings that explores aspects of melody and harmonics. In the manner now familiar Vivier mixes his textures with kaleidoscopic frequency, little wisps of lyricism snapped off before they can take up, gruff chordal passages attenuated by a lingering feeling for melody. There are some striking passages here, but my impression is that the piece as a whole never entirely fulfils its promise. I can't say that of Lonely Child, a beautiful setting of some rather weird words by Vivier himself (Vivier seems to have taken a leaf from Berlioz's book, but where the spirit of the times, and no small sense of irony, can excuse Berlioz the nonsense he put into the mouths of his demons, Vivier has no such pretext). Lonely Child consists of a solo soprano voice floating over an orchestral weft, the sole purpose of which, according to another passage quoted from Vivier, was to provide colour: doing without chords, harmony or counterpoint, he claims, "the whole orchestral mass is, in this way, transformed into timbre". It's a false claim, since, towards the end in particular, the voice is supported by some movingly simple orchestral chords; moreover, pulling together the orchestral timbre of this complexity must have required an advanced feeling for counterpoint, if hardly in the orthodox manner.
The final disc in the Vivier box begins with Shiraz, a piano piece inspired by the city of that name in Iran but that sounds like a cross between Messaien and Sorabji. Yet perhaps that's not so strange – Sorabji always insisted that he was a Parsi. Louis-Philippe Pelletier, who studied with Vivier under Gilles Tremblay, gives a glittering performance – but then he is a mainstay of many of these performances. Paramirabo, for flute, violin, cello and piano, was named after the (mispelt) capital of Surinam, but suggests places further away yet, since it occasionally feels as if we're eavesdropping on a council meeting of the Clangers; it has its moments of beauty nonetheless. Penultimately, the Cinq Chansons pour Percussion, a moving, pensive work with the traces of Bali still hanging audibly in the air. The effectiveness comes from the sheer simplicity of Vivier's material: calmly repeated phrases, struck notes that hang in the air, gently insistent chords – there is an air of unarticulated mysticism about the music, which makes it the most eloquent piece for solo percussionist that I know. Et finalement, Vivier's Prologue pour un Marco Polo, for SATBarB soloists, reciter and orchestra, composed in 1981. I knew immediately why the planners of this collection had kept the piece till last, for it is deeply impressive, eclipsing even the best of the rest. The influence of Messiaen here is as strong as anywhere else
Three years before Vivier's death Kopernikus, his "opéra-rituel de mort" was first performed in Montréal, and now it resurfaces on MVCD1047. I have to confess that I felt myself excluded from the ceremonies. It may be that this is one of those stage-works that really need the action to let the message of the music come alive. Vivier's description of the work will give you a clue as to what to expect: "The central character is Agni; around her gravitate mythical beings taken from history, represented by the six other singers: Lewis Carroll, Merlin, a witch, the Queen of the Night, a blind prophet, an aged monk, Tristan and Isolde, Mozart, the Master of the Waters, Korpernikus and his mother. These characters are perhaps only dreamed of by Agni and she undergoes her initiation and finally dematerializes. There is no actual story, but rather a series of scenes which carry Agni along towards total purification and the attainment of a state of pure spirit. In fact she is initiated by the characters of her own dreams!" It would take a considerable organising power to draw this rag-bag of ideas together into a coherent musical whole, and I don't think Vivier manages it, particularly since much of the text is in Vivier's neo-Berliozian gibberish (what do you make of: "na ya ri cho ma yè na ra ri cho ma yè"? There are pages of this stuff). All this is not to deny that Vivier's score is occasionally very beautiful, with the stylised cold beauty of Greek statuary. Its snippets of lyrical wistfulness are accompanied by declamation, keening, Sprechgesang sometimes comically distorted (though I'm not sure how funny it's supposed to be) and a range of other vocal techniques from the modernist's armoury. A hour and a quarter of it at home strained my patience; it might just work in the theatre, though I suspect it's still way over length for the deliberate thinness of its material.
If you are impressed by Vivier's music once you've heard these CDs, or simply want to know more about the man and his work, you'll be glad to know that there is a society devoted to advancing the cause. The President (Présidente, if you insist) of "Les Amis de Claude Vivier" is Thérèse Desjardins, and you'll find her at 5192 rue Chabot, Montréal, Quebec H2H 1Y8. And I meantime am much intrigued by the list of composers anthologised in the series of which the Vivier box is #36; I shall attempt to do some exploring, and with luck will report back.
Michael Conway Baker, born in 1937 in Florida of Canadian stock and now resident in Vancouver, seems to be a sort of Canadian Ron Goodwin, without Goodwin's ability to write grand, sweeping tunes. His style is deliberately accessible, and his music is certainly pleasant and attractive, but at times the price Baker pays for ease of admittance is a tendency towards anonymity. The four concertante pieces in CBC's collection (his Concerto for Flute and Strings, Counterplay for viola and strings, Four Songs for Ann, written for Ann Mortifee to her own words, and sung by her here, and the Concerto for Piano and Chamber Orchestra) show more character than the other two pieces on SMCD5107, a fanfare that opened Expo 86 and a suite from Baker's music for the TV series Planet for the Taking. The Flute Concerto of 1974 is a pert and buoyant work, with sections of April lyricism – and a soloist in the youthful Marina Piccinni good enough to suggest that she'll soon be making a substantial career for herself. Like the two other concertos, it reveals Baker's ease with counterpoint, particularly in the independent string-writing towards the end of its single movement. Baker's contrapuntal interests are explicitly suggested in the title of Counterplay (soloist Steven Dann), a solidly constructed and sturdy-textured piece composed in 1971; for much of its eight minutes the music is constantly launching into fugati that never really take off into something bigger. Still, it has a forthright character of its own, which is more than can be said of the syrupy Four Songs for Ann, a 1985 CBC commission. Baker, a Vancouver resident, wants them "to convey a love of nature". Having first been to Vancouver only a year ago, I can still feel the impact of its dramatic setting, cupped in the mountains against the coast, bristling all about with impenetrable forests. It's a breathtaking part of the world, and deserves music rather more powerful than Baker offers here. He finds more teeth in the Piano Concerto, written in 1974-5 in England, where he was studying with Sir Lennox Berkeley. Though the harmonic idiom is as straightforward as the later works on this disc, the style is tighter, more dramatic, more urgent, the orchestration angrier, the piano writing expansive and virtuosic.The soloist is Robert Silverman, for whom the work was written, and the accompaniment is provided by the CBC Vancouver Orchestra under Kazuyoshi Akiyama. (And while I'm at it, a word of homage to the people of Vancouver, too, who are marvellous – and they're so enthusiastically polite and respectful that it almost made me nervous.)
Whereas Michael Baker is content to write accessible music in conservative forms, Marjan Mozetich does essentially the same thing but in the outwardly more modern clothes of minimalism. Mozetich was born in 1948 in Italy, very close to the border of what in the meantime was Yugoslavia, and his family emigrated to Hamilton, in Ontario, four years later. MVCD1038 presents four works from the late 1970s and early '80s: El Dorado for harp and strings, Dance of the Blind for accordion, violin, viola and cello, Procession for violin, viola, cello, bass, clarinet, bassoon and horn, and Fantasia…sul un linguaggio perduto first composed (in 1981) for flute, violin, viola and piano and arranged for strings in 1987. It's all lovely stuff, tuneful, romantic and undemanding, burbling away enthusiastically. The Amadeus Ensemble is joined in El Dorado by the harpist Erica Goodman, who gave that work its première in 1981. Fate, with a impish grin, has dictated that Mozetich will sit on the shelves next to Mozart, a position he doesn't deserve.
Imant Raminsh's choral music takes a little more to listen to, though again the style is open and approachable (SMCD5116). Raminsh was born in Latvia in 1943, and grew up in Canada, studying in Toronto with the Latvian-Canadian composer Talivaldis Kenins. Raminsh has also worked as a naturalist, and his awareness of the natural world is reflected in the wide-eyed quality of his music. This CD opens with his Songs of the Lights, for women's chorus and orchestra, unembarrassedly lovely music that, again, is just a little short of personality. The texts are from Navajo and Algonquin sources, underlining Raminsh's identification with the backwoods of his adopted continent. The choral song And I Think it Over is scored for a cappella chorus to a Copper Eskimo text, the source also for The Great Sea, for chorus and strings. The other items here set more explicitly religious words than the pantheistic nature-poetry of Raminsh's North American material: Come, My Light for SATB chorus, to an English translation of words by the seventeenth-century St. Dimitri of Rostov, and an Ave Maria, Ave, Verum Corpus and Magnificat, the last three all sung in Latin. In the Magnificat – wh – has a bounce in its closing pages that owes a little to Bernstein's Chichester Psalms – the chorus is joined by orchestra and a mezzo-soprano soloist, who also has an important role in the Ave Maria.The composer to whom Raminsh comes closest, at least in his choral music, is Samuel Barber: he has a similarly honest attraction to sheer beauty of sound, and even if he doesn't have Barber's way with glorious melodies, there are many moments of distinction in this collection. The mezzo soprano soloist in the Ave Maria and Magnificat is Sandra Graham; the Vancouver Chamber Choir and CBC Vancouver Orchestra are conducted by Jon Washburn.
An openness to melody and comfort with tonality are two qualities to be heard in the first of three Canadian concertante pieces for clarinet and orchestra (SMCD5094), Virelai by Patrick Cardy (b. 1953). After an unassumingly simple opening rhapsody, the music embarks on a more spirited central section where the language reminded me strongly of Alan Hovhaness; the music again dies away before another section of Hovhaness-like "improvised counterpoint" brings the work to its close, a night-music reminiscence of its opening. Next we have the Improvisation on a Blue Theme by John Thrower, two years older than Cardy. If the title suggests a jazzy piece, it's an inaccurate picture, some early brushed cymbals apart: the work takes the form of an extended rhapsody, mixing nocturnal mysticism and easy-going good humour in equal measure. Lastly, a concerto proper, the Concerto for Clarinet and String Orchestra by Ian MacDougall, the oldest of the three composers here (he was born in 1938). It's a fair traditional piece, in a traditional form (slow introduction-fast-slow-fast), attractive and approachable, with a moving slow section towards the end of the first movement – but as a whole, like the other two works, it's not terribly memorable. All of the soloists (John Rapson in the Cardy, Joaquín Valdepeñas in the Thrower and Stanley McCartney in the McDougall) play outstandingly; the orchestra is the CBC Vancouver, under Mario Bernardi, whom you seem to be able to find at the head of virtually every orchestra in Canada.
On the strength of the four pieces recorded on MVCD1046, Srul Irving Glick is a sort of Canadian Ernest Bloch, writing explicitly Jewish music in a wider, western idiom. This CD contains, for example, two Suites Hébraïques, #1 scored for clarinet and piano, #5 for a chamber group of flute, clarinet, violin and cello. As in the Sonata for Oboe and Piano, but not the Divertimento for Strings, both of which are also recorded here, the higher-pitched instruments weave arabesques around Jewish cantilenas (is that a mixed metaphor, or simply a phrase in the spirit of the peace process?). The music is always good-humoured and agreeable – indeed, the Divertimento on occasion has some very lovely moments – but none of it seems to have been written in the white heat of creative passion.
Then, for a quick bit of revisionism, try the CD by the Elmer Iseler Singers of music by Glick, Holman, Somers and Coulthard (SMCD5115); the accompaniment is provided by the CBC Vancouver Orchestra. It opens with Glick's Sing Unto the Lord a New Song, a cycle of four songs on texts drawn from the Psalms, in both English and Hebrew; there is also an important part for harp. The style is a compound of several different styles, not least the cantoral tradition in which Glick grew up; you can also hear Bernstein (who similarly acknowledged his Jewishness in his music) and, more distantly, Vaughan Williams. The music is lyrical, simple, direct – not great music, perhaps, but all the more affecting for its honesty. It is followed by Night Music by Derek Holman, a Cornishman born in 1931 and resident in Toronto since 1965. Night Music, composed in 1985, sets three seventeenth-century texts (Johnson, Beaumont and Fletcher, and Milton), and although Holman's voice isn't particularly individual (there's more VW here, and a fair helping of Britten) it is obvious that he knows how to write for voices and, like the Glick, the music is straightforward and appealing. There follows Trois Chansons de la Nouvelle-France by Harry Somers (b. 1925), the outer two, rhythmically witty, enclosing a deeply felt lament for days past, "L'Hirondelle, messagère des amours". Again, there is a prominent harp part, played here, as in the Glick, by Miranda Brown. Lastly, Quebec May by Jean Coulthard, at 85 the doyenne of Canadian composers, Vancouver-based but a student of Vaughan Williams in the late 1920s. Quebec May is a tranquil piece of choral pastoralism describing the coming of spring (it's late in those parts), with an easy and lyrical appeal that gives way to two blithe choral dances.
Coulthard crops up again, sandwiched between two classics: her Music for Saint Cecilia, for organ and strings, separates Jongen's Symphonie Concertante from Poulenc's Concerto for Organ, Strings and Timpani (SMCD5113). And she keeps her head up in this company: her short (ten-minute) ceremonial is as sincere as it is sober, dignified and deep. Like so many other of the composers in this collection, Coulthard's compositional voice may not distinctly individual, but she knows she has things to say which don't require shouting. Equally happily, the performances of the two concerti on either side of her are very good indeed, the Jongen even better than the Poulenc, which lacks a little punch. The admirable soloist, Patrick Webb, plays the Carthy Organ in the Jack Singer Center in Calgary, and the Calgary PO is conducted by Mario Bernardi.
More Harry Somers can be found in a collection called "Gloria: Sacred Choral Works", with the Elmer Iseler Singers under the direction of their eponymous chief (MVCD1058). This is a recording of real distinction. The singing is of the highest quality, and much of the music is equally fine. The CD begins with four modern classics from the French repertoire: Duruflé's simple, moving Quatre motets sur des thèmes grégoriens (1960); Milhaud's settings of Psalms 114 and 115 (from his Trois Psaumes de David, Op. 339, written in 1954); Poulenc's Mass in E Major from 1937 and Messiaen's touching O sacrum convivium of the same year. The Somers work is his brief God the Master of this Scene (1962) which, like the Prayer of St. Francis (1970) by Barrie Cabena (b. 1933) is short, strong and effective. The Missa Brevis (1976) and Pater Noster (1973) of Ruth Watson Henderson (b. 1932) show equally strong craftsmanship but not a lot of individuality – they are perhaps more rewarding to sing than simply to listen to: solid, traditional counterpoint that allows each voice to hear its place in the whole. The real surprise came with the final item in Elmer Iseler's programme, the Talmud Suite (1984), six settings of traditional Hebrew texts, by Sid Robinovich (b. 1942), for I didn't expect anything this good. It's wonderfully moving music, particularly the deeply felt "Funeral Oration" that forms the second movement. Robinovich, whose choral writing is utterly idiomatic, doesn't try to make his music sounds explicitly Jewish; though modern, the style is unashamedly tonal, with room for chromaticisms aplenty and some beautifully chosen chordal closes – like some eternal verity recalled through the trials of the past century. I have been back to this music again and again – indeed, at one point I went straight to the "Funeral Oration" and pressed the repeat button to let the music roll past me uninterrupted by the double bar-line; each time it became more affecting. From now on I shall be looking out for Robinovich's name with keen interest. The booklet contains the full texts. As good a choral disc to come my way for years – enthusiastically recommended.
A very clever piece of programme planning links works by Benjamin Britten and Healey Willan, the one in Canada as a bright young spark, the other the elder statesman of Canadian music in the decades up to his death in 1968, at the age of 87.(SMCD5123). Britten's Canadian Carnival was composed after his stay in Quebec in 1939, where he composed the Violin Concerto; while he was there he picked up a selection of Québecois fiddle tunes which the next year he wove together in this witty and inconsequential rhapsody. And it was after his return from North America, of course, that he composed Peter Grimes, the masterpiece that made his name, and Uri Mayer and the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra produce a very creditable version of the Four Sea Interludes Britten drew from the score. Mayer's may not be the most sheerly exciting reading these pieces have had, but he does have an alert ear for orchestral detail, highlighting instrumental felicities that sometimes go unnoticed. Healey Willan was 33 in 1913, the year in which he moved from his native England to Canada (and the year in which Britten was born), and his easy conservatism here makes an illuminating foil for the brilliance of Britten's orchestral technique. Willan's Second Symphony was written in 1936-38, put aside, picked up again in 1941 and finished in 1945. It opens with a brooding introduction that suggests the work is going to launch into a passacaglia, and it does harbinger the contrapuntal ability Willan displays throughout the piece. The style of the dark-brown first movement might vaguely suggest a Russian composer until an overtly Elgarian passage, just before a powerful but slightly unimaginative fugue, announces Willan's English origins, returning towards the end in a rich, nobilemente-style effusion to confirm them. The Adagio which follows is the heart of the Symphony, a unhurried tribute (one can imagine) to the vastnesses of Canada's forests and mountains; it swells to two muscular climaxes, each of which peaks in a seven-note Elgarian descending figure that recurs in the finale. The Scherzo is a rollocking piece of fun, the lumbering bass lines that try to keep up with the nimbler winds giving the impression of someone frolicking with gumboots on; it too has the inevitable echoes of Elgar. Like the first movement, the last begins with an extensive slow introduction before a powerful Allegro energico leads to the majestic closing section, as Elgarian as anything that has gone before – and strongly reminiscent here of Elgar's own Second Symphony. It's undoubtedly impressive, but throughout the work, even as you admire Willan's craftsmanship and his unarguable sincerity, you long for a touch of individuality, something that would make his heroic sounds last in the memory. Mayer does it proud, but he can't disguise the fact that Willan's creative personality is not a wildly original one.
I turned to Willan's Piano Concerto with interest, only to have the focus of my interest suddenly shifted. The soloist, with (you guessed it) Mario Bernardi and the Toronto Symphony (SMCD5108) is the Arthur Ozolins, and the coupling is the Rachmaninoff Piano Concerto #2. I expected to have to sit dutifully through the Rachmaninoff (no real hardship: it's wonderful music) to see what I thought of the Willan. Instead, I found myself marvelling at Ozolins' playing, and the next day 'phoned Kingdom Records, the UK distributor for both CBC and Marquis Classics, to ask if I could have the other discs in Ozolins' Rachmaninoff cycle to see if they were as good as his #2, in the hope that I could report the good news in print. Geoffrey Gunther-Smythe, in charge of PR at Kingdom, gave an amused chuckle: "Funnily enough, that's the reaction we've had from the trade – we send out one of these CDs and they're on the 'phone straight away, asking for more". I am hardly surprised, for Ozolin's turns in glittering performances. First things first, though: let's not lose sight of Healey Willan
So an unforeseen word on Arthur Ozolins in Rachmaninoff. He is a natural virtuoso, and it is plain that Rachmaninoff's glittering piano textures hold no terrors for him. He is also capable of the gentlest lyricism, mixing thoroughly twentieth-century technique with an engaging and older-fashioned delight in lingering over those moments where Rachmaninoff stops to revel in the poignancy of his melodic material. There is also a crystalline clarity in his fingerwork – you can hear every note he plays, often in textures of horrifying difficulty. Throughout the cycle, indeed, he acquits himself virtually as well as anyone I know on disc (mind you, I can't claim to know the market from A to Z). Bernardi obtains accompaniments from his Toronto players that, if not of the very highest rank, are certainly more than acceptable. And the couplings are very intelligent: instead of trying to squeeze all the Rachmaninoff works onto as few CDs as possible. The First Concerto joins Dohnányi's witty Variations on a Nursery Song and that old warhorse, the Litolff Scherzo (SMCD5052). (A word of correction of Kenneth Winter's notes with this issue, by the way: Winters claims that the Scherzo comes from the Third Concerto-Symphonique, Op. 45 – not so, the "parent work" for the only piece of Litolff's we ever hear these days was the Fourth Concerto-Symphonique, Op. 102; moreover, the cue numbers on the back of the leaflet are inaccurate.) The Third Concerto joins the early and invigorating Burleske of Richard Strauss (one of my favourite Strauss works, in fact), and both are given marvellously whole-hearted performances (though the Toronto SO timpanist could have used harder sticks for his very important part in the Strauss; SMCD5128). And the Fourth Concerto, perhaps the Cinderella of Rachmaninoff's concertos, joins what is (partially) his best-known concertante work, the Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, with an exceptionally well-chosen third work filling up the disc: Respighi's masterly orchestration of five of Rachmaninoff's Études-tableaux, to which Bernardi brings unexpected depth of feeling (SMCD5129). If you're looking for a Rachmaninoff cycle want to taste and try before you buy, you should try either the disc with the Third Concerto and that with the Fourth. You'll be back for more.
A last sight of Willan before we move on: there are four of his carols, two original, two arrangements, on a CD from the Vancouver Chamber Choir, Catherine Robbins (mezzo-soprano) and Sylvia Mowatt (harp), in a variegated Christmas recital conducted by Jon Washburn (Marquis Classics ERAD107), the other composers, covering a period almost 500 years, are Praetorius, Walther, Giovanni Gabrieli, Bach, the Jacobean John Attey, James Lyon (1872-1949), one R. Vaughan Williams, and the Americans David Carney, Karl Korte and Daniel Pinkham (all three from a collection published in 1970), and an arrangement of the Coventry Carol by Norman Luboff. The general tone of singing is soft and intimate, with that slightly plush character found in North American choral singing; it suits most of the music, although Gabriel's two antiphonal motets could have done with a lot more punch – Washburn's singers take it rather too cosily. This is a re-release of an 1982 recording, which may explain the short measure (Marquis, disingenuously, give timings only for the individual items). It's rather late to start recommending Christmas recordings now, I suppose, but the gentle charm of this disc will give pleasure through the year.
With the death of Healey Willan the laurels of Grand Old Man of Canadian Music went to Godfrey Ridout, who held them until his death in 1984, at the age of 66. It is obvious from the first few minutes of a new Centrediscs CD that he deserved his status (CMC-CD3890). The opening bars of his orchestral suite No Mean City – Scenes from Childhood, first performed in the year of Ridout's death, reveals that we are in the hands of a composer who knows exactly what he wants: an Ivesian clash of two marching bands, representing the attempts by Catholics to disrupt an Orange Day parade. The second movement quotes "Girls and boys come out to play" in an ebullient, suitably open-air scherzo. And the last of its three movements – "The Eleventh of November and Finale" – contains music of real stature, its Elgarian solemnity commemorating the victims of the First World War. Music for a Young Prince was composed when the prince in question, one Charles, was ten, and its knockabout humour underlines Ridout's perception that ten-year-old princes are boys first and princes a far second. The opening movement, "Dreams", is as langourous as its title suggests, and the second, "From the Caboose", is a wildly exciting train ride. The third grows out of a cowboy tune before the concluding "Pageantry" summons up more Elgarian nobility.
Ridout's Cantiones Mysticae date from 1953 and were premièred by Stokowski; they set three Donne sonnets for soprano and orchestra. This is music I am very glad to have got to know. Ridout's debt to Elgar (not a bad thing in itself) is even clearer here, and the music has some passages of striking grandeur, as, too, has the Suite #1 from the only ballet Ridout was to write (in 1966), The Prima Ballerina. It is also studded with sections that display Ridout's command of orchestral energy, much of it inspired by the riotous scoring of the "Danse générale" from Ravel's Daphnis et Chloë; and the "Ballerina's Dance", the second excerpt here, has a rather Villa-Lôbos-like part for solo soprano, sung here by Joanne Koromyjec, the soloist also in the Cantiones Mysticae. The remaining work on this disc is the Ballade for viola and strings, a beautifully elegiac piece with a tripping,good-humoured central section. The soloist here is again Steven Dann; the orchestra is the Toronto Symphony under – guess who – Mario Bernardi. This is among the best of this entire Canadian batch: the music, while not wildly original, is strikingly well made, always enjoyable and sometimes much more – it's well worth investigating.
Ridout and Coulthard can be found together on a CD entitled "Tableau" (SMCD5081), together with music by Malcolm Forsyth (b. 1936), Harry Freedman (b. 1922) and Phil Nimmons (b. 1923). The theme for most of this programme is the Canadian folksong heritage, opening with Malcolm Forsyth's Three Métis Songs, settings for mezzo-soprano and orchestra originally produced for Maureen Forrester, composed for voice and piano in 1975 and orchestrated the next year; the following settings, Ridout's Folk Songs of Eastern Canada, written in 1967 for Lois Marshall, are similar in character – neither composer does much more than supply an appropriate orchestral texture to accompany the mood of the folk original. Coulthardt's "Introduction" and "Three Folksongs" from her suite Canada Mosaic, by contrast, are rather more original. The work from which these extracts come was commissioned for an abortive tour of China planned for 1974 by the Vancouver Symphony; the Chinese authorities wanted something based on folksongs and that steered well clear of the avant-garde. Coulthard came up with a charming seven-movement suite based on folksong: if it isn't music that requires knotted brows, it still rewards intelligent listening, for it uses the orchestra with considerable imagination. Harry Freedman's Tableau for strings (1952) is more impressive yet: inspired by a painting of an Arctic landscape, it is held together by a long and ductile melody that threads its insinuating way through the texture, building twice to a powerful climax. The mood perfectly reflects the ice and snow of the painting, for the music is cold, austere, hard; at the same time, it's not at all difficult to listen to. The closing piece here is Phil Nimmons' "Cariboo Country Tone Poem" Plateaus, which dates from 1985. It's open-air music in continuous development that veers between not-quite-easy-listening and something more demanding, with some inventive touches in the scoring; it also reveals something of Nimmons' jazz background. The mezzo-soprano in the Forsyth and the Ridout is the rather fruity Judith Forst, and the CBC Vancouver Orchestra is conducted by our old pal Mario B.
And the ubiquitous Mario, this time with the Calgary Philharmonic, is again the conductor in a sensible programme that packages two modern classics among piano concertos with Malcolm Forsyth's Piano Concerto (SMCD5124). The two warhorses are Prokofieff's #1 and Bartók's #3, and the soloist is the young Canadian virtuoso Jane CoOp. She and Bernardi produce entirely acceptable versions of the Prokofieff and the Bartók, though there is more savagery to be found in the first and more mystery in the second than they manage to bring out. The real interest here is the Forsyth, and a damn fine work it turns out to be. Forsyth was born in South Africa in 1936, studying at the University of Cape Town with Mátyás Seiber, Erik Chisholm and Ronald Stevenson (a heady and powerful mixture!), and left in 1968 to take up a position as trombonist in the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra; he also began to teach at the University of Alberta. His Piano Concerto was sketched six years later and orchestrated in 1978. It shows clearly that he had not forgotten his native Africa, for the influence of African drumming gives a strong rhythmic impulse to the work. It takes the form of a theme and sixteen variations, which fall approximately into three separate movements. The style is modern but not modernist, not much more advanced than the two works it accompanies, and eminently approachable for anyone who likes a bit of fibre in his or her musical diet. There's not much evidence of a strong musical personality here (that is, I'm not sure that, knowing this work, I could instantly identify another piece of Forsyth), but what you get is fine craftsmanship, a sturdy sense of structure, good feeling for colour, an ease with both the lyrical and the propulsive, and idiomatic piano writing, often of considerable difficulty, though Jane Coop tackles it with ease. Well worth exploring.
There's a Forsyth miniature on an unlikely CD called "Dances for Two Harps", featuring the Principal Harps of the Calgary and Edmonton Symphony Orchestras, Julia Shaw and Nora Bumanis (MVCD1062). It's his The Kora Dances, adapted from his African Ode for orchestra. It's preceded by dances by Gluck, O'Carolan, Dvořák, Bach (the Sixth French Suite), Satie's two Gymnopédies, Ravel (the "Pavane de la Belle au bois dormant" from his Mother Goose Suite), a rather ordinary polka and the non-descript Three Dances from Jacques Press and John B. Escosa respectively (Canadians? They are unidentified in the notes, other than the comment that Escosa toured throughout North America and was president of the American Harp Society), a tango from Carlos Salzedo, a catchy folk-inspired dance uninformatively entitled Op. 18 by adoptive Canadian José Poneiro and two folky arrangements by him and, penultimately, the affectionately humorous Waltzes and Promenades by the London-based harpist John Marson. The Forsyth rounds it all off. Two harps makes an agreeably plush sound, and it would be pleasing to report prodigal virtuosity to boot. But there's a lack of rhythmic crispness to the playing which reduces the interest to that in salon music. Still, it's all harmless and I imagine that there is a market for this kind of programme, even if peopled principally by mums and aunties.
More Ridout now, this time in miniature, on a CD entitled "Opportunity Knocks". The title is that of a Canadian radio programme of the late '40s and mid-'50s: the format was simple: four performers, both pop (as was) and classical, judged by studio applause and postal votes. In 1950 the producer added a composers' category, for a composition that was less than five minutes in length, easy to play (it got only a run-through before a live broadcast) and light in mood. Many of Canada's budding composers got their first exposure to an audience of any scale through "Opportunity Knocks", and CBS have now brought fifteen of the resultant titbits together (SMCD5112); the Nova Scotia Symphony is conducted by Howard Cable. They are amusing little trifles, often skilfully put together: marches, round dances, hoe downs, caprices, that sort of thing, amusing and forgettable, the twentieth-century Gebrauchs-equivalent of much of the divertimenti churned out in the eighteenth. Not all of the names will mean much to a non-Canadian audience (Johnny Burt, Harry Freedman, John Weinzweig, Samuel Dolin, Hector Gratton, Maurice Durieux, Burt Niosi, Reginald Godden, Raymond Jessel, Harry Somers, Murray Adaskin and Saul Honigman), although as a collection it may have some sentimental value for Canadians. But I can't see many UK collectors rushing out to buy it.
Now here, for a change, is something special, in terms of both the music and its playing. First, an extended elegy for a fallen hero, the Memorial for Martin Luther King by Oskar Morawetz, another senior figure in Canada's musical life (he was born in Czechoslovakia in 1917, emigrating to Canada in 1940). The work, which was written for Rostropovich in 1970 (it wasn't premièred until 1975, by Zara Nelsova) is in eight sections, faster, more powerful music occasionally stirring up the otherwise unrelieved gloom of this substantial score. It's not an explicit vehicle for solo virtuosity: the cello is primus inter pares, leading the shocked discussion on death in general and King's in particular (one of the sections is headed "Fateful shot and death"). Think of something like Schelomo without the explicit Jewishness and with a darker, bass-heavier, brass-and-timps-dominated orchestral texture, and you have something like the Memorial to Martin Luther King in your aural imagination. It's deeply impressive. Shauna Rolston continues with three of the classic shorter pieces for cello and orchestra: Bruch's Kol Nidrei (which she does with an unsettling feeling for the unspoken sense of tragedy that informs the music and its concluding melodic catharsis), Fauré's understated Élégie and Dvořák's poignant Silent Woods. And she ends with unjustifiably neglected Concerto by Sir Arthur Bliss, another work written for Rostropovich and premièred by him in 1970 at Aldeburgh. It's a big-boned, expaosivs pince,thalf-an-hour long, two vigorous outer movements enclosing a gorgeously lyrical Larghetto, and it's difficult to believe that Bliss first called it a Concertino. Shauna Rolston is a most encouraging find: she's an altogether excellent soloist, with a big but unforceful tone; her response to the music is direct and natural, and she really knows how to make the solo lines sing. The recording places the cello quite far forward, emphasising how well Rolston can project. She would be a considerable catch for a record company looking for an exciting young soloist and, to judge from the cover of her CD, she is attractive enough to suggest the Ofra Harnoy treatment to the marketing men – though one hopes they spare her that. The Edmonton SO give reliable support under the baton of Uri Mayer, their chief conductor since 1981 (SMCD5105). Strongly recommended, on all counts. I shall be looking out for more recordings from Shauna Rolston – and we shall certainly be hearing more from her.
Another Morawetz concerto shares a CD with a foreign interloper: his Harp Concerto of 1976 sidles up to Ginastera's on 2-5086. The Ginastera, begun in 1956 but not completed until 1965, is a marvellous work, from the pounding rhythms of its opening Allegro giusto, through the open-air night-music of the central movement, to the hard-driven Argentinian dance-music of the finale. The Morawetz, first performed in 1956, is a substantial addition to a hardly over-crowded repertoire. It attempts to avoid the obvious flourishes and arpeggios and expand harp technique a little, though not by doing particularly "harpish" things: the soloist is called upon to drum upon the side-board, strike tuning forks, thump the low strings à la Salzedo. But although only two minutes longer than the Ginastera Concerto, it doesn't have the same sense of forward movement and begins to trail after a while. And despite some impressive moments, there isn't the gravitas of the Memorial to Martin Luther King, either. The excellent Canadian soloist in both concertos is Gianetta Baril, who copes with ease with the ferociously difficult demands of both scores; and once again the Edmonton SO and Uri Meyer are admirable accompanists.
Walter Buczynski was born in Toronto, of Polish origins, in 1933, and began his career as a solo pianist. He has a reputation also as a teacher and composer, and his catalogue includes pieces both for his own instrument and for a wide variety of ensembles, not least a series of works called Zeroing In (one of which bears the subtitle "Innards and Outards"). The August Collection (subtitled, rather more conventionally, "24 Préludes for Piano") dates from 1987 (MVCD1059). The title is explained in Buczynski's finding the August temperature "too hot to write anything longer than short, one-idea pieces" to fulfil a commission from the Czech-born Canadian pianist Antonín Kubálek. This series of miniatures is the result. The language is tonal, informed by the gestures of modernism and, not infrequently, jazz, and in the langorous harmonic stasis that characterises many of them, you can almost hear Buczynski wipe the summer sweat from his brow. They don't demand nearly as much of the listener as they do of the pianist, although they sound as thoroughly pianistic as you'd expect. The music accompanying Buczynski's August Collection rather overshadows it: Bohuslav Martinů's three books of Études and Polkas, sixteen pieces that display the engaging urgency of Martinů's piano writing. Kubálek does them wonderfully, and this disc is worth acquiring for the Martinů alone.
The standard of inspiration varies dramatically on a disc entitled "Musical Heritage of French Canada", which attempts to chart the growth of orchestral writing in "le Canada français" (SMCD5090). All this music is in manuscript and can't have been at all widely known before this disc appeared. It opens with a guilelessly jolly Overture written in 1863 by the French-born Antoine Dessane (1826 – 73), which sounds very much like something that's fallen off the front of a French operetta. L'Aurore, a symphonic poem by Alexis Constant (1858-1918) shows a considerable advance in orchestral technique, and bristles with impressive thematic ideas (it suggests apprentice Berwald) – but it sprawls all over the shop in innocent structural incoherence, and it's difficult to believe that it was composed as late as 1912. There follow the Trois Préludes for orchestra by Rodolphe Mathieu (1890-1962), short, understated pieces of a very French sensibility that also reveal the influence of Scriabin (they date from 1912-15). The brief and langorous Pavane by Georges-Émile Tanguay (1893-1964), brings to mind Ravel: there are dead infantas skulking in the background here (d'Indy, one of Tanguay's teachers, wouldn't have approved). The sub-Sibelian symphonic poem Légende by Hector Gratton (1900 – 70) opens with a dawn sequence and grows into two faster sections; for all its attractive sounds, it only just hangs together. Rosario Bourdon (1885-1961) was a virtuoso cellist and later conductor, and it is his own instrument which takes to the limelight in his brief Poème Élégiaque, spinning a long but undistinguished melodic line over a slow march in the orchestra. The perky, three-movement Sérénade of Gabriel Cusson (1903 – 72) is huge fun, not least because of the indirect debt it owes to Scots and Irish folk-music, especially in the fiddling-elbow finale. FInally, the best music on the CD, the Acadian folk cantata L'Escalouette by the ethnomusicologist Roger Matton (b. 1929), catchy, bouncy, unpretentious music with a real swing in the finale. The four soloists (SATB) are only just up to the mark, and one imagines that a broadcast of a better performance could make the work many friends on this side of the Atlantic. The Orchestre Métropolitain is conducted by Gilles Auger and Louis Lavigueur.
There's a little Canadian repertoire on a CD straightforwardly entitled "Miniatures", a delightfully old-fashioned collection of, well, miniatures, arranged for piano trio (MVCD1043): two enthusiastic dances by M. Gratton again, the Première and Quatrième Danses Canadiennes – though #4 sounds distinctly Irish; there's also the Bellinger Polka by the wonderfully named Calixa Lavallé (1842-91; composer of "O Canada"), and two slightly cloying pieces by his pupil Alexis Constant, Méditation and La Charmeuse. The rest is a generous assemblage of bits and bobs by the little-known Frenchman Gabriel Marie (1852-1928) and Belgian Joseph Ghys (1801-48) and by more familiar names: Bruch, Tchaikovsky, Sinding, Saint-Saëns, Elgar, Bridge, Kreisler, Brahms, Dvořák, Offenbach and Liszt. It's an obviously old-fashioned idea, but it works extremely well here, not least because of the big-hearted playing of the performers: Moshe Hammer (violin), Tsuyoshi Tsutsumi (cello) and the late William Tritt (piano). It may be "granny music", but these three play as if it were much more than that. People who write about music a lot run the danger of developing a condition know as "critic's ear" which manifests itself in jaundiced intolerance – so I was delighted (and surprised) to find how much I enjoyed this CD.
William Tritt, who died in 1992 at the age of 41, is joined in a recital of French and Canadian work for violin and piano by Peter Oundjian, first violin of the Tokyo String Quartet (MVCD1060). After impressively full-bodied readings of the Violin Sonatas by Debussy and Ravel and the early Thème et Variations of Messiaen, Oundjian and Tritt offer the Sonatine by the Quebec composer Maurice Dela (1919-78). Dating from 1944, it sounds just as French as the works that precede is, only earlier. It's an unassuming piece, wistful, lyrical, almost sentimental without quite going too far. The piano writing in the finale reveals Dela's model most directly: César Franck. And the recital comes to an end with the brief Danse villageoise of Dela's teacher at the Montréal Conservatoire, Claude Champagne (1891-1946), an unambitious and justly popular evocation of rustic fiddling. Oundjian and Tritt turn to it with the same bounce and zest that informs the rest of their playing.
I don't like turning in reviews where the thumbs-down is so thorough that it leaves little room to find some redeeming quality somewhere. But, try though I might, I couldn't warm to any part of Scott Macmillan's Celtic Mass of the Sea (Marquis Classics ERAD149). The premise is that the text, by Jennyfer Brickenden, marries texts in honour of the sea from three collections of Celtic verse, and that the music invokes Celtic elements in musical concord with the poems. Would that it were so: the threat of the twee in such sources ("a pint of plain is your only man") is embraced with schoolgirl abandon; and Macmillan's music, which is without harmonic or melodic identity, is entirely unmemorable – the Celtic elements, when he remembers them, are draped across the score like rashers of bacon on a overfed chicken. There's a subtext, moreover, exposed in the notes: "It is Scott and Jennyfer's belief [first-name terms already?] that only through empowerment of the human spirit will we find the collective will to make the sacrifices that will restore balance and harmony to our global home". There you have it: this is a secret gesture in the global struggle for greenness, with as little awareness for what you can do with the standard techniques of music (not that Macmillan uses any other) as most splashes of greenery in politics have of basic economics. Throw in performances with a sense of pitch like I have a sense of weightlessness (those who have seen me in profile will know what that means), and the damnation is complete. Perhaps I misjudge it, since I have never been very good at recognising the merits of cross-over music; but in my view it might more desirably be classified as pass-over music, and swiftly at that.
I was ready for the same sort of problems of stylistic incongruity in the Concerto for Contemporary Violin by the American-born Paul Hoffert, now resident in Canada (Marquis Classics ERAD145). The composer's note on the piece gave advance warning: it "was written for orchestra, solo violin and jazz rhythm section. The violin soloist is required to use jazz, rock and other contemporary stylings, and occasionally the violin is processed electronically through echo loops". That's enough to raise the eyebrows in advance, and certainly there are some abrupt changes of style in the course of its eighteen minutes. But the piece is saved by the abiding lyricism of the violin line, which soars and swoops in the best Romantic style. At times, indeed, it achieves the simple and unalloyed beauty that makes Samuel Barber's Violin Concerto so memorable – which makes me regret the stylistic gubbins that Hoffert has thought necessary to bring on board. Since I haven't come across Hoffert's name before, I don't know whether or not he has written a "straight" violin concerto; on the basis of this intermittently outstanding piece it will be worth looking out for. The coupling is a lively rendering of the Suite from Stravinsky's Soldier's Tale, the soloist in both being Steven Staryk, whose name I used to see on recordings all over the place – I wonder what has happened to him? As with the Vancouver carol recital, the short duration of the CD may be explained in its origins in a direct-to-disc recording in 1978 (and once again Marquis don't give overall timings); the sound has come up bright and sparkling. The booklet includes some fatuous (and dated) comments by Marshall McLuhan on direct-to-disc technology; I can't think what possessed Marquis to reprint them.
Another work that is neither quite one thing nor another is Andrew Patton's tape score Speaking in Tongues, which made the world's headlines as the score for a Paul Taylor ballet in 1989; a year later it was produced by the ballet of the Paris Opéra under Nureyev (ERAD139). Composed entirely in the studio with whatever elements Patton could muster – a priest's voice on the radio, a snippet from a pop group, the voice of a faith-healer, digitally sampled instruments (pan pipes, guitar, piano), a catchy arpeggio sequence that suggests an incipient pop song, vibraphone, distorted guitar and hammer dulcimer,… – Speaking in Tongues threatens to be a real ragbag of sonic images, constantly shifting in aural perspective, here one minute, gone the next; and in the event it does turn out to be more of a kaleidoscope than a fully integrated musical experience. The funny thing is that it works. The music, when it is music and not one of Patton's magpie collages, is simple in the extreme, aimlessly repeated snippets of melody over uncomplicated chordal patterns, which lend an extraordinary feeling of innocence, even sincerity, to the piece as a whole. (Patton's verbal commentaries on the work's eleven sections have a similarly wide-eyed quality.) It's haunting, moving in its simplicity; and you can see why it lent itself to dance so readily. It won't reward concentrated listening, but it does have an undeniable appeal.
Finally, Canadian artists in non-Canadian music. First on the roster, two outstanding Canadian singers, in generously filled recital programmes. The contralto Maureen Forrester is perhaps the most widely acclaimed Canadian musician after Glenn Gould, and a new collection of Handel arias, various accompanied because pulled together from a variety of sources, can only help sustain her reputation (PSCD2002). These extracts are drawn from both English and Italian operas and oratorios – Serse, Rodelinda, Ottone, Giulio Cesare, Jephtha, Theodora, Samson and Hercules – and include some Handelian "golden oldies", not least "Ombrai mai fu". Forrester's rich voice may not have the utterly individual timbre of a Ferrier or a Baker, but she sings gloriously nonetheless – a disc to be treasured. Next, the oldest recording of the lot, a collection of Handel, Haydn and Mozart arias taped by EMI in the late 1950s by the Canadian soprano Lois Marshall (PSCD2001). It is curious to hear how, even in thirty years, singing styles have changed, for there is something rather dated in Marshall's approach. But that can't disguise the honesty and open charm of her voice, which has the kind of qualities you treasure in your best friend; indeed, the way she sings often suggests it would be rewarding to know her personally – a claim you can make of only a handful of singers. Sometimes, too, it has a curiously childlike, Hansel and Gretel-ish quality. Her Mozart singing, by contrast, is noble and dignified, with the restraint that hides reserves of considerable power. CBC might have made more of the identity of the accompanying conductors: tucked away at the bottom of the list of contents, in eight-point print, is the information that five of these tracks were conducted by a bloke called Beecham. Not all the playing is up to the standard that name might invoke: I can't imagine Beecham letting the string-playing that accompanies "Crudele?" (from Don Giovanni) anywhere near a microphone.
Robert Silverman is perhaps the doyen of Canadian pianists, and is now the director of the School of Music at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver. His recording of four piano works by César Franck (MVCD1061) offers three triptychs – the Prélude, Chorale and Fugue of 1884, Prélude, Aria and Finale of 1886-87 and Prélude, Fugue and Variation of 1860-62 (originally for organ) – and a selection of eleven little-known miniatures. I hadn't come across any of these smaller pieces before, and must admit that my musical education was even less complete than I had feared: these are delightful pieces, simple and affecting, and drawen from the most part from a collection of folk Silverman plays them all superbly, though he deserved a better piano. His pianism, calm and fleshy-fingered, reminds me of that of the great Ronald Stevenson. The similarity shows itself in a natural legato, a regard for the individuality of each voice in the counterpoint, a feeling for tonal colour (not least through subtle pedalling), a placing of the notes where the music, rather than the letter of the score, dictates – it's a kind of playing that these days is almost frowned on as "old fashioned", and it's certainly very different from the lightning virtuosity of Arthur Ozolins. I shall be looking out for more discs from Silverman; in the meantime you should treat yourself to this one.
A much younger talent than Silverman's is the Canadian guitarist Rachel Gauk (and Silverman himself will probably agree that she looks much better on a CD cover than he does); she offers an intelligently chosen recital on a Marquis Classics disc (ERAD137) of twentieth-century music by familiar and less well-known composers for the guitar – Jorge Morel, Fernando Bustamente, Antonio Lauro, Manuel de Falla, Ruiz Pipo, Leo Brower and Eduardo Sainz de la Maza. It's all immediately accessible, melodic and attractive, often based on catchy dance-tunes. Gauk has a faultless technique and despatches the music with crystal precision – there's hardly a sound from her fingers anywhere. If I have a criticism, it's that she takes the music far too literally: this kind of stuff comes alive when you find the teasing tone in so much of it, when you make the music flirt with the listener. That kind of coquettish humour is largely missing here, although Rachel Gauk's seriousness of purpose serves her well in the dreamy obliquity of three of the Estudios Sencillos by the Cuban Leo Brower and in his El Decamerón Negro, a suite of three ballads, told in the tone of a man whose mind is elsewhere. Though there is still room for more inflection of the line, the music does come across movingly. To be honest, I hadn't listened to any of Brouwer's music for ages, and I had forgotten how beautiful it can be. For this eloquent reminder, Miss Gauk has my gratitude. Anyway, perhaps you like your music straight – it is the prevailing trend these days, after all. The recorded tone, by the way, is clear and full-bodied.
Rachel Gauk joins forces with the flautist Susan Hoeppner, whom we met in the Glick Sonata (and she is equally photogenic, as the marketing boys have noticed), in a Marquis Classics recital called "Towards the Sea" (ERAD147), an uneven mixture of tuneful and rather forgettable miniatures. The composers are Castlenuovo-Tedesco, Francis Kleynjans, Stravinsky, Eugène Bozza, Rodrigo, a Japanese triumvirate of Michio Miyagi (whose Hoshun – Ode to Spring – is easily the best piece here), Katsutoshi Nagasawa and Tōru Takemitsu, and an arrangement by Miguel Llobet and Charles Duncan of four Catalonian songs (that is, Llobet arranged them first for solo guitar, and Charles Duncan has re-arranged them for flute and guitar). It's all rather winsome stuff, pleasant background music for a society reception, full of deft little tunes, played as cleanly as we have now come to expect from these two musicians (though Hoeppner is perhaps just a little breathy here and there) – who again take it straight, missing some of the beguiling charm by ignoring the humour.
If you are interested in following up any of these composers, or any other Canadian musician you may be interested in, you will want to know that there is a Canadian Music Centre that can supply information, help you find scores and recordings, and answer any other queries you may have. Though there are offices across Canada, the national headquarters are in Toronto (pronounced, of course, in one syllable): 20 St. Joseph Street, Toronto, Ontario M4Y 1J9 (Tel: 010 1 416 961-6601/Fax: 416 961 7198). I now have several things I want to ask them about, not least the music of Sid Robinovitch – of all the things that I have come across in this Canadian musical odyssey, that is the piece that has impressed me most. If I can stick a few Robinovich scores under the noses of musician friends, I shall be doing some good on this earth.
Copyright © 1993/1996, Martin Anderson