CD Reviews: Colin Eatock’s compelling atmospheres; a Finn’s accordionized Bach

Colin Eatock, Chamber Music (Centrediscs)

Composers like Toronto’s Colin Eatock remind us that Western culture had not exhausted the possibilities of traditional art music forms a century ago, but merely needed to take a scenic detour through sonic abstraction for awhile.

Eatock, best known in his home city for his freelance writing in The Globe and Mail, also enjoys a discreet other life as a composer — a craft celebrated in this collection of six intimate pieces written and recorded over the past 25 years, and issued by the Canadian Music Centre‘s Centrediscs label with the help of Toronto music philanthropist Roger D. Moore.

Although there is a variety of moods and voices on display here, Eatock’s clear affinity is with the gentle interplay of dissonance and consonance, of rubbing tones and overtones up against each other and enjoying the resulting rainbow effects.

Eatock works within the classic structures of suites, song cycles and the careful development of a musical theme. There is nothing unusual or shocking here. Much of the music is very simple, with clearly articulated melodies, dialogue, counterpoint and chord progressions — but this kind of simplicity is deceptive, as it’s the product of careful thought and deliberate structure.

These pieces are all relatively short, as is the case with so much new music, but one doesn’t feel short-changed.

Take the 12-minute, 1995 Suite for Piano, structured in the circular form of an introspective opening of gentle chords and clusters, an angry, rhythmically lively middle section and a quiet return to the opening. (Eatock slyly embroiders beginning and end with his monogram — C and E.)

There isn’t a note out of place in this neat little creation, nicely executed by pianist Timothy Minthorn.

A piano trio subtitled “The Lotus Eaters” from 2010 was, according to Eatock’s notes, inspired by Alfred Lord Tennyson’s poem. It, too, successfully travels back to its beginning in a clean, engaging arc nicely sketched by Minthorn, violinist Laurel Mascarenhas and cellist Karl Konrad Toews.

The Niagara Brass Ensemble makes neat work of Three Canzonas for Brass Quintet, written in 1991. Here again is tidy structure (fast-slow-fast) inspired by the work of master Giovanni Gabrielli, but set in a thoroughly modern aesthetic.

I’m not sure if all the song settings collected here are as successful.

Tears of Gold, completed in 2000, is a brittle setting of five poems of William Blake nicely sung by mezzo Anita Krause accompanied by tinkly harpsichord and meandering cello. Written in 1987 were Three Songs from Blakes’ “America,” which suffer from a lack of colour in their harmonic underpinning. Baritone Andrew Tees and pianist Kate Carver do their best, though.

Much more effective is an evocative 2010 setting of a Walt Whitman poem, Ashes of Soldiers, featuring soprano Melanie Conly, clarinettist Peter Stoll and pianist Peter Longworth, who put as much meaning into the spaces between Eatock’s notes as the notes themselves.

For all the details, including a couple of audio samples, click here.

Johann Sebastian Bach, Goldberg Variations (Ondine)

Once again, an unusual pairing of J.S. Bach and interpreter succeeds in highlighting how versatile the German master’s music can be,

To a purist it might seem like a bad joke to pair an accordionist, the musical world’s quaint party animal, with Bach’s 1741 Goldberg Variations, one of the pinnacles of Western keyboard music. But this new album, far from being a joke, is a revelation.

Young Finnish accordion master Janne Rättyä has not only mastered Bach’s challenging Aria and the 30 variations on its bass line, but raises this music to a higher plane with the natural expressive abilities of his instrument.

Bach’s original harpsichord can be pretty one-dimensional. The modern piano offers more possibilities to vary the sound, while maintaining an edge to the outline of each note. But the wind-blown reeds inside an accordion are each like an individual voice.

At the hands of someone as accomplished as Rättyä, the accordion becomes an expressive chorus with distinct timbres from soprano, alto, tenor and bass.

This doesn’t mean that fast passages or the clearly outlined counterpoint in the music are blurred; instead, they become saturated with colour.

I expected to smile at the novelty of the sound, then tire of it quickly. Instead, the accordion opened my ears to yet another way of hearing this suite of pieces that have been recorded by dozens of fine artists in many different ways.

By skipping the repeats, Rättyä’s version is less than half the length of a normal performance. To make up for this, he has added eight tracks of alternative ways to perform certain variations. It’s interesting, but not really necessary, unless you juggle the tracks in a playlist.

For more details on this album, click here.

John Terauds


One thought on “CD Reviews: Colin Eatock’s compelling atmospheres; a Finn’s accordionized Bach

  1. Just finished a first listen to Colin Eatock’s CD of songs, piano solo, and chamber music. Two tracks stand out for me: the Toccata from the Suite for Piano (tk 3) and the second of the 3 Songs from Blake’s America (tk 11). The lyrical slow movements are a bit sparse for my taste, but the toccata and the energetic Blake song are really quite gripping.

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