Page14 Music Reviews - CD March 2008

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Portraits,
a TSOLive CD, $14.95, in excess of 60 min.

Cvr - TSO's Portraits - CD

By Alidė Kohlhaas

To listen to our own Toronto Symphony Orchestra (TSO) on my CD player is always a delight. Sadly, there are not too many recent CDs by this orchestra because the TSO is not signed to any major label. The Europeans and Japanese, who are in control of the music industry, seem to think that Canadian orchestras and those from many smaller US cities do not merit attention. Well, they do. And so it is with delight that I am reviewing here the first of the TSOLive CD label releases, Portraits.

TSOLive is the in-house label of the TSO. As so many other orchestras in North America and a few in Europe, the TSO has decided to go it alone and get its music to the public through its own recordings. The title of this first release, Portraits, is an excellent start by featuring two composers, whose compositions here compliment each other because the subject is—indeed—portraits. Edward Elgar's Enigma Variations offer up portraits of some of the composer's closest friends, while Modest Mussorgsky's Portraits at an Exhibition are musical portraits of art works by his late friend, the architect Victor Hartmann.

Of course, the two composers come from very different backgrounds, musically and nationally. One was an Englishman's Englishman of middle class origins, who grew up in small-town England in a musical family. The other is a Russian of aristocratic origins, whose musical education began with his mother, and continued to be fostered while attending The Cadet School of the Guards in St. Petersburg, and while serving in the Preobrazhensky Regiment, the foremost regiment of the Imperial Guard. The Englishman's career was carefully nurtured by a loving wife, while the Russian soon fell into circles where work took second place to heavy drinking and philosophizing.

Although Elgar was seen by some as a somewhat reserved and morose individual, he actually had a knack for playing pranks on his friends and by displaying humor in his compositions. The Enigma Variations are a perfect example as some of the portraits he created there are spiked with his personal insight into the subjects that aptly offer up his wit in musical terms. Some of these 15 variations have become famous works all on their own, so clearly are they identified with Elgar. Each is a little jewel on its own.

Mussorgsky's dipsomania and his native Russian melancholia colored his compositions. Pictures at an Exhibition has a deliberate nature by capturing the images the composer encountered in the exhibit of his dead friend's work. In it the sketch of the Tuileries in Paris has cheerful moments in which we sense children playing, but most are also full of sadness, at times appear ominous. Yet, each of the 11 images and the intervening promenades draws the listener into the music. The final work, The Great Gate of Kiev, brings alive the image of Hartmann's grand design for a gate that was never built. His friend gave it immortality with six minutes of wonderful music.

The TSO, under the capable direction of Peter Oundjian, was recorded live at a concert given at Roy Thomson Hall in the Fall of 2007. The orchestra shines and one can hear that in Oundjian it has a great leader. The TSO knows how to play well, and has no difficulty giving full measure to these very different composers played side-by-side. Five Stars!

Soprano Isabel Bayrakdarian's Cleopatra CD has moved to Archives


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