In UK we know all too little about Canadian music. It is not easy to pursue a trail towards a world view of contemporary and 20 C. music, but a diligent seeker and web surfer is regularly brought up with serendipitous discoveries. I have enthused in Seen&Heard about Murray-Schafer's cycle of string quartets and now I have happened upon Portrait CDs of Schafer's teacher John Weinzweig and another fine composer/teacher, Jean Coulthard.
Some years – decades – ago a short festival of Canadian music was given in London at the Purcell Room. I attended it to profit and pleasure, but found myself amongst the few; the festival was poorly attended and resulted in scarcely a ripple in the British media!
These two Canadian Music Centre Portrait CDs are amongst the first releases in a most enterprising and commendable series, different in one important particular from the Composer Portrait CDs with which we are familiar in Europe. That is the addition of hour-long documentary CDs which explore each composer's life and personality. These documentaries are constructed with great skill by their producer Eltan Cornfield to give an insight into the individual life experiences which have formed each composer; fascinating listening which provides ideal contexts for the music itself.
John Weinzweig (b.1913) was a key figure in putting Canada on the contemporary music map, in his own prolific and eclectic compositions, original and crafted with the enviable skill accrued in long experience in all fields of musical genres, a vital pedagogue, and a key figure in grappling with administrative disinterest. Although devoted to the orchestra, he latterly abandoned it for chamber music because of the blight of the 'première' craze – commissioned works usually getting just a single performance before interest moves onto the next première. He embraces serialism with a light touch and his music is notable for its air, the spaces around the gestures.
You have a treat in store learning about the pioneering life in music of Jean Coulthard (1908-2000), an important, prolific Canadian composer and teacher, whose career epitomises the difficulties for women composers everywhere (hear her describe the experience of being patronised by Vaughan-Williams when studying at the RCM!). It was her impressionist Sketches from the Western Woods recorded by John Ogdon, and composed for him in 1970, which first caught my attention. It proves to be a welcome addition to the Ogdon discography; his playing of them displays the greatest refinement. Coulthard's interesting neo-romantic piano concerto (1967) deserves wider dissemination. Apparently it received only its première performance and this recording (well played, though not by Ogdon) will give pleasure to anyone interested in that genre. Her innovative Twelve Essays on a Cantabile Theme for string octet (1972) are up to date and truly original.
If you, too, hadn't known of the redoubtable Jean Coulthard this is because of the prejudice still experienced against women composers, and too the UK's regrettable insularity, which the internet and online purchasing are helping to break down.
Copyright © 2002, Peter Grahame Woolf