Here are some things I’ve been listening to a lot. I recommend each of them highly.
Beethoven Live, Orchestre de la Francophonie, Jean-Philippe Tremblay, conductor (Analekta)
This is the first complete cycle of Beethoven symphonies ever released by a Canadian orchestra. That it’s the work of a youth orchestra, recorded over four nights last July under a passionate but not particularly illustrious 31-year-old, is at once an hint of the project’s limitations and its highest recommendation.
The Orchestre de la francophonie canadienne is a pre-professional summer ensemble, launched in 2001 and active every summer since. Musicians from across the country audition; the best, most in their early 20s, rehearse, tour briefly, record and disband. Many go on to junior slots at established orchestras. The boss, Jean-Philippe Tremblay, is barely older than his charges. Last year they set themselves an insane challenge, recording all of Beethoven’s symphonies in concert marathons in Quebec City’s superb Palais Montcalm concert hall. This is the document of those evenings, complete with the sound of audience applause.
It is seriously not perfect work. There are ragged entries, a small number of wrong notes, and you can hear the band and its conductor straining to match the music’s expressive demands. (They never do really settle into the rhythm of the Fifth Symphony‘s opening movement.)
But I’ll take it. I suppose I own more than a half-dozen Beethoven symphony sets by now, and I’ve enjoyed this one more than, say, the far more polished and critically lauded set by the Minnesota Orchestra under Osmo Vanska, grimly refined to within an inch of its life. Tremblay and his charges really do execute this music at a high level, and to the extent it’s flawed, it’s a human Beethoven, straining sometimes but with its life and vigour on full display. This is a perfectly good Beethoven set for anyone, a worthwhile addition for those who’s heard more renowned versions, and more exciting than most. Bargain price too.
Beethoven Piano Concertos No. 4 and 5, Till Fellner, piano; Orchestre symphonique de Montréal, Kent Nagano, conductor (ECM)
Whereas this is obviously Cadillac stuff. Quite apart from its intrinsic musical worth, this is interesting because it tells us more about the way Kent Nagano is leading the Montreal orchestra back to prominence after the difficult years before he arrived. For one, his heavy emphasis on the classical Germans and on Beethoven, especially, continues. The OSM had never recorded Beethoven until Nagano led them in the Fifth Symphony a few years ago; for all those years under Charles Dutoit they were mostly a French and Russian shop. They’ve already recorded the Third Symphony for near-future release. Meanwhile here are the two big concertos, originally conceived as part of a full concerto cycle but now, apparently, doomed to be the only ones released. Times are tough in music recording all over.
Which leads us to the other element of extra-musical interest: the almost guerilla manner in which Nagano is putting Montreal back on the recording map. Dutoit had an exclusive long-term contract with Decca. Those days are over. Now the orchestra records itself on its own dime and Nagano kind of gets it onto the market through any venue he can: here Sony, there Analekta, now this sleek package under ECM, the German boutique label that’s better known for jazz. Mostly the band winds up here because Till Fellner, the elegant young Austrian pianist, has been releasing solo stuff on ECM.
Anyway it’s gorgeous. Highly refined, nowhere overblown, emotionally restrained but never frosty (Nagano can certainly do frosty, as anyone who’s sat through his less inspired concerts can attest. Here he’s not frosty.) Fellner is an almost surgically precise pianist but at the crucial moments — the touching climax of the Fifth Concerto‘s slow movement, for instance — he delivers the emotional goods. This is Beethoven for people who don’t like bombastic Beethoven.
Eternal Fire: Bach Choruses, The Monteverdi Choir; English Baroque Soloists, John Eliot Gardiner, conductor (SDG)
This is a blast from end to end, and if there’s anyone left who hasn’t made up their mind about Bach, this is the kind of recording that could tilt them over into the fan category. It’s a compilation of highlights from a world tour the British conductor-scholar Gardiner and his hand-picked orchestra and choir undertook in the millennium year of 2000, performing all of Bach’s surviving cantatas (elaborate orchestra-and-choir works for Sunday mass) on the Sundays for which they were written in the Lutheran calendar. Gardiner is still releasing the individual recordings. Apparently there’ll be more than 50 of them, the year being 52 weeks and all (more information on this extraordinary endeavour here).
But a cantata has a lot of connective tissue, rather low-key recitative by a vocal soloist and a few instruments that fills in plot but doesn’t really turn a lot of musical cranks. So this single CD leaves all of that out and brings us only the best car chases and explosions. It’s like the highlight reel on a sports channel on Sunday night, and it shows, as Gardiner has sought to do for decades, what a resourceful orchestrator Bach was when he had a full orchestra and choir firing on all cylinders. Moods range from tender to glowering. Textures change all the time. If, like me, you sometimes let yourself believe Bach can sound like much of a muchness, this will kick you out of that rut and half a block down the street. This is a Bach of heart and brawn, not just brain.
Treelines, Christine Jensen Jazz Orchestra featuring Ingrid Jensen (Justin Time)
Christine hired me to write the liner notes for this one, so there’s your conflict of interest declared. But I’ll tell you this for free: this is the most beautiful recording of large-ensemble jazz I’ve heard from any Canadian source in many years. Jensen is a Montreal alto saxophonist, composer and bandleader. Her sister Ingrid is an international star of the jazz trumpet. Treelines is a suite of impressionistic big-band pieces, obviously influenced by the American bandleader Maria Schneider (Ingrid plays in that band too), but often more muscular and always fresh in the directions it takes.
Christine’s husband, the excellent tenor saxophonist Joel Miller, is on hand too, as are many of Montreal’s finest (pianist Steve Amirault, saxophonists Donny Kennedy and Chet Doxas). All do yeoman work and more. The whole set glows with the warmth of personal relationships. But at each dramatic climax it’s Ingrid Jensen who gets solo honours. The performance she turns in here is nothing short of heroic. Each time I listen to Treelines I’m left feeling fortunate that my life took the turns it did so I could wind up counting so many of these good and dedicated people as friends.
If you want to know, I’m not listening to much jazz these days, because studying classical music takes up so much of my spare time and because — might as well say it — so little contemporary jazz rewards serious attention. But I think Christine Jensen has put together one of the most important music ensembles in Canada, regardless of genre (Polaris jury take note), and I do hope we all get a chance to hear it in concert soon.