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La Scena Musicale - Vol. 21, No. 1 September 2015

CD Reviews

by Éric Champagne, Charles-David Tremblay, et René-François Auclair / September 1, 2015

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John Adams: Absolute Jest, Grand Pianola Music
St. Lawrence String Quartet, Marc-André Hamelin and Orli Shaham, piano, Synergy Vocals, San Francisco Symphony, dir.: Michael Tilson Thomas and John Adams
SFSMedia SFS 0063 21938-0063-2 (57 min 34 s)

The San Francisco Symphony Orchestra produces excellent albums under their own label, and this recording is among their best. Michael Tilson Thomas champions American music, and performs it with exceptional energy. San Francisco Orchestra pays tribute to one of their long-term collaborators: John Adams. Two fundamentally different pieces, separated by more than 30 years in the composer’s catalogue, coexist beautifully and are interpreted exceptionally well. Absolute Jest,a concerto for string quartet and orchestra written for the St. Lawrence Quartet, brilliantly blends elements reminiscent of Beethoven in an intelligent and flamboyant sound journey. Conducted by the composer, Grand Pianola Music is much closer to Adams’ early repetitive style. However, it has a unique and original tone that is as charming as it is surprising, with references spanning from pop music to Steve Reich. Nevertheless, the sweetness of the first movement and the spectacular finale confirm John Adams’ ability to create surprising but coherent musical cocktails that will easily be enjoyed by the listener! E.C.

Louis Babin: Saint-Exupéry: de coeur, de sable et d’étoiles
Moravian Philharmonic Orchestra, dir.: Petr Vronsky
Productions Louis Babin odl-lb-002 (33 min 27 s)

This symphonic poem by Louis Babin, inspired by the life and works of Saint-Exupéry, is a great discovery! Deeply rooted in the orchestral film music aesthetic, Babin’s score is filled with inventiveness and colours that will immediately charm the listener. It is useful to use the link in the liner notes to consult the online documents to fully explore this sensible and human score, and to understand its underlying creative process. This project is paired with a good cause as for each CD sold, a sum will be paid to the Antoine de Saint-Exupéry Foundation for the education of troubled youth. In addition to this symphonic triptych, the CD contains two other works: a short piece titled Couleurs, that displays the composers skillful writing, and the Suite du promeneur, perhaps Babin’s most performed work, that reflects its author’s vision of the world. We have only one regret about this great album: it is too short! E.C.

Michael Matthews: Quatuors à cordes
The Clearwater String Quartet
Ravello RR7910 (60 min 12 s)

Canadian composer Michael Matthews creates a music that is rooted in tonality, but nevertheless very modern in its conception. We may detect Shostakovitch or Schnittke’s influence in his writing for strings, but we are always surprised by a corrosive passage or an unexpectedly lyric turnaround. The composer manipulates sound to deliver an introspective and contemplative discourse. In the Miniatures, commissioned by the Molinari Quartet, the small-scale form is celebrated and some movements are more or less inspired by Webern’s dramatic concision. In Quatuor no. 3, we feel a freedom of the musical language, evoking some Scandinavian composers, all while preserving a personal warmth and sonority. The CD ends with Quatuor no. 2,which begins with two rhythmical movements before concluding with a dreamy and mesmerizing meditation. The clear and flowing playing of Clearwater Quartet, from Winnipeg, is perfect for the subtleties of this sensitive music. E.C.

Samy Moussa: Cyclus,
col legno WWE 1CD 40409

Bringing together chamber and orchestral music, Cyclus is the latest album of Canadian composer Samy Moussa, who has become a rising star of contemporary music. The album undeniably confirms the composer’s importance on the international stage. Skillfully written, the pieces for orchestra feature a refined and detailed orchestration: the influence of French composers such as Pascal Dusapin, Moussa’s teacher, is manifest. Whether it is performing the 4 Études or the Kammerkonzert, the Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra plays with nuance and subtlety, allowing the exploration of rich textures and colours. The accuracy of the interpretation of the chamber works makes the musical experience even more personal. One can only be impressed by the maturity and the quality of the composer’s writing in pieces such as À l’assaut des jardins and the Streichquartet. The power of Moussa’s creativity turns Cyclus into a coherent whole, where content and form go hand in hand with amazing clarity. His music becomes organic and its physical dimensions are magnified by his innovative compositional approach. Thanks to Cyclus, the composer joins the ranks of great composers such as Olivier Messiaen. C.D.T

Dvořák. Trios pour piano. Triple Forte
Atma Classique. 2015. ACD2 2691. 69 min 44 s

Antonin Dvořák only composed four trios for piano and strings. His romantic idiom, unsurprisingly, is closely related to Brahms: Intensity of emotion, expressive power, lyricism and obvious folkloric rhythm. Here, Dvořák freely expresses the violence of human emotions, as well his love for his homeland, Bohemia. These are serious pieces, full of a grandiose spirit. For instance, the Trio in F minor op. 65, is imposing and heavy but contains in itself the entirety of Dvořák’s art.
The “Dumky” trio op. 90, a brilliant six-movement work, is however more popular. Thanks to the spirited rhythms of this Ukrainian dance, the tone is lighter. The Canadian artists have joined forces to offer a high-class performance. This playful fusion, where no one steals the show, leaves us with a respectful impression of Dvořák’s music. It lacks, however, some of wilderness required to evoke these Slavic lands.

Modern Times by Charlie Chaplin.
NDR Radiophilharmonie. Timothy Brock.
CPO 777286-2. 79 min 49 s.

Chaplin composed much film music. Considerable effort was deployed for his last silent film, Modern Times (1936). For this occasion, a large orchestra of over 70 musicians was put together. With the help of several people, including conductor Alfred Newman, Chaplin managed a major feat, producing an exceptional score which would help make many scenes memorable.
In fact, Chaplin couldn’t even read sheet music! Modern Times is mostly the work of David Raksin (1912-2004), a young composer and pupil of Schönberg, who had been recommended to Chaplin’s studios by Gershwin. He wrote down and arranged most of the tunes hummed or whistled to him by the legendary filmmaker. Among these improvised tunes, Smile became the most famous and was covered by many artists. Music fills every shot of this 87 minute-long feature film. A varied orchestration highlights the action, including a wide array of percussion instruments. The music is a whirlwind of amusing notes, especially during the famous assembly line scene where his character struggles to keep up with the frantic pace, which ends up driving him over the edge.
This is where we realize these artists’ amazing achievement, for that day and age; copyists, arrangers, and musicians were asked to do the impossible. Many tempo changes were required, not to mention the meticulous synchronization of music and moving image. Timothy Brock has brought all this music back to life, after drawing from many documents, several of which are still in handwritten form. He enlisted a prominent orchestra to deliver a memorable opus that will live on through many modern times. A solid achievement. RFA

Translation: Michèle Duguay, Kiersten van Vliet & Eric Legault

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