‘Breathe’ Revisited

About three years ago, I wrote here about a new piece called Breathe, written by Canadian composer James Rolfe for the new music presenter Soundstreams, and performed for them in 2011 by the Norwegian Trio Medieval and the Toronto Consort. The period of preparation and performance for that concert was a very bright few days, evocative, inspiring, and challenging. You can read the previous post and hear a concert version of the piece here: http://wp.me/s2XU04-breathe

In the world of new music, the premiere of a new work often turns out to be the only performance the piece receives, or one of only a very few. This is particularly true if the piece is written for an unusual grouping of performers: works for string quartets, for example, stand a much better chance for repeat performance than pieces for a non-standard instrumentation. Breathe, scored for three female voices, recorders, vielle/violin, lute, chamber organ and percussion, is certainly in that latter category. It was a beautiful piece, but its orchestration was pretty specific to its commissioner’s plans and didn’t fit any standard instrumentation. So last year, it was excellent to hear that James had received support from the Canada Council for the Arts to make a recording of Breathe and two other works. Great news! A rare chance to revisit the music, and an opportunity to make it accessible to a lot more people!

And last weekend, after a few very focused days of rehearsal, a crew of us headed down to Toronto’s Revolution Recording studios to commit Breathe to digital format. Also on the recording slate was Europa, a chamber cantata for soprano, baritone, Baroque flute, two violins, bass viol, theorbo and chamber organ, and originally written for Toronto Masque Theatre. With each piece being pretty complex and demanding, and about twenty minutes long, and with only three hours of recording time allotted to each, it was an intense day – but judging by the looks on the faces below, I think you can tell we had some fun! Energy very well spent.

Thanks to James for the music, to David F., David J. and Dennis for their efficiency and great ears, to Revolution for the beautiful space and friendly assistants, and to my fellow musicians for their talent, focus and teamwork. It was a real pleasure.

The CD is projected for release in the spring of 2017 on the Centrediscs label.


The Europa crew, Revolution Recording, September 17/16. From left to right: James Rolfe, Aisslinn Nosky, Patricia Ahern, Felix Deak, Alexander Dobson, Suzie LeBlanc, David Jaeger, Paul Jenkins, David Fallis, Lucas Harris, Alison Melville and Dennis Patterson. Thanks to Dennis for the photo!

Sighting #8

Benjamin Britten (1913-1976) played the recorder!? I had no idea until my friend Frances sent me a link with this photo on it. Shame on me.

Benjamin Britten

And not only did he play recorder, having been persuaded to give it a shot by his friend and colleague Imogen Holst, but from 1958 to 1976 Benjamin Britten was the President of Britain’s Society of Recorder Players.

Britten wrote a few pieces for or involving the recorder: Scherzo (1954), for recorder quartet (SATB); Alpine Suite (1955), a diminutive trio for a friend who broke her leg skiing in Zermatt (SSA); and there are recorder parts in two operas: Noye’s Fludde [Noah’s Flood]  (1957); and A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1960).

Noye’s Fludde is based on one of the 15th-century Chester Mystery plays, and was designed to make use of many levels of musical skill – it’s a very community-oriented piece, a musical manifestation of ‘it takes a village…’  First presented in Britten’s home base of Aldeburgh (Suffolk) in 1958, it has had hundreds of performances around the world since then. Scored for a big cast – as many children extras as you can find for the animals of the ark! – it calls for adult solo singers, a children’s choir, and some younger soloists; a professional-level string quartet, recorder soloist, percussion, keyboard; and a student string orchestra, student recorder group, and so on – and a conductor, one with immense patience, unflagging enthusiasm, and no fear whatsoever. True, projects like this are a bit of a nightmare to organize, but they are completely worth the trouble. This kind of show provides the wonderful but fairly rare opportunity for younger musicians to work with professional singers and players over the whole production period; and it offers a dose of ‘get real’ for the pros, who may spend a lot of their working life in a more rarified concert atmosphere…Everyone’s horizons get broadened, and it’s brilliant.

I’ve been involved in two Noye’s Fluddes, with the Toronto Symphony under Andrew Davis and at the Guelph Spring Festival under Simon Streatfield. Both projects were inspiring, heartwarming, and worth every moment of the lengthy rehearsals required to get everything working. There was also a very high Cute Quotient once the smaller members of the cast got their costumes on.

You’ll get an idea of what I mean by those last two remarks if you take a look at this excerpt from a Canadian production of Noye’s Fludde, filmed by the CBC. Stay to the end and you’ll hear the solo recorder accompanying the dove, as she flies out from the ark and returns with an olive branch. The recorder player is Avery MacLean.

The Eton Choirbook

A page from the Eton Choirbook

A page from the Eton Choirbook

I’m teaching a survey course in early music at Ryerson University’s Life Institute these days and in my preparations I revisited some music from the Eton Choirbook. It’s a wonderful, wonderful source. If you’re a player of early music and haven’t ever tapped into this music, you really ought to do yourself a favour and check it out.

The largest collection of English sacred music composed during the late fifteenth century, the Choirbook is something we’re very lucky to have. Not burned, bombed or destroyed – sort of miraculous, really, considering the ruination we humans often visit upon our world.  Compiled in the very early days of the sixteenth century (between about 1500 to 1505), it features choral music by the likes of Robert Fayrfax, John Mundy, Nesbitt, Cornyshe and many others. Glorious stuff.

Here’s a lovely example by Fayrfax (1464-1521):

And here’s William Cornysh’s Salve Regina from YouTube:

I’ve used repertoire from this source in numerous workshops and people have always loved it, so if you’re looking for teaching material or for something to play for yourself, go to your nearest music library and have a look!

Acis & Galatea

Ah, the beautiful days of August are upon us. Avian Flight School is in full throttle and the backyard is a busy place, with fledgling robins, cardinals, sparrows and starlings all testing their wings and their vocal chords. And as they sing and squawk outside, I look forward to a couple of weeks in which my own music making will be also be mostly home-based, made up of practicing, writing music and playing just for the sheer fun of it. Fun will also be included in the ‘wood-shedding’ and writing too if I listen more to the muses than the Id, an ability at which I thankfully seem to be developing more skill.

And as I look forward in the spirit of fun, it’s also worth taking a look back at my most recent gig. It’s important to give a big nod to the happiest gigs!

In late July the Toronto Masque Theatre presented two summer festival performances of Händel’s Acis & Galatea. Already booked elsewhere and unable to participate in their first show at the Elora Festival, I was a part of the orchestra for the second performance at the Stockey Centre in Parry Sound, Ontario – and what a totally enjoyable gig that was. First of all, who would ever say no to a visit to Parry Sound? It’s such a beautiful place, on Georgian Bay and with all those trees that haven’t forgotten how they posed for Group of Seven paintings. The concert venue, the Stockey Centre for the Arts, is a handsome and intimate hall of stone and wood, and an acoustic delight.

Stockey Centre for the Arts, Parry Sound, ON

Stockey Centre for the Arts, Parry Sound, ON

The Stockey is also right down on the water and features a boardwalk patio with a first-class view of spectacular sunsets, which one can enjoy along with an intermission cocktail.

Georgian Bay, at Parry Sound, ON

Georgian Bay, at Parry Sound, ON

And then, there’s the music. Though it could more properly be called a masque or a pastorale, Händel described Acis & Galatea as a ‘little opera,’ which it certainly is; it It’s not like his other four- or five-hour extravaganzas which really ought to require catered meals for the audience and intermissions long enough for a nap. Händel created several versions of the piece, the first in 1718 and the last (and nowadays most familiar) one in 1739. Mozart made an arrangement of it in 1788.

A&G is a bit truncated, a two-act Reader’s Digest rendering of the myth in which a shepherd named Acis falls in love with a water nymph named Galatea. The story, based on the version in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, is fairly uncomplicated but worth a short précis. Happily for Acis, his love for Galatea is requited, but the Cyclops Polyphemus loves her too and he fares far worse. Besides the fact that she’s already smitten with Acis, Galatea has a big problem with Polyphemus’s predilection for snacking on human babies and quaffing blood as though it were Beaujolais Nouveau. There’s a fourth character, another shepherd named Damon who occasionally drops in to give advice, like an 18th-century male Dear Abby. But his advice is of no use to Polyphemus who, saddened, furious, and with a big anger management problem, crushes Acis to death with a gigantic boulder. Before he’s reborn as a stream, Acis sings a final aria from underneath the massive rock. Depending on how a director chooses to play it, this ending is utterly tragic, completely ridiculous, or both.

My colleagues in the orchestra were all excellent musicians and lovely people, all of whom I wish I could see much more frequently. We were a very small band, much like what Händel had at his disposal for his earliest performances: two violins, one cello, a harpsichord and an archlute, two oboes and a recorder. As for the singers, not only the four soloists were outstanding, but also the other four singers who sang the choruses, sometimes with the others joining in and sometimes not. It’s not easy for singers trained as soloists to sing well as an ensemble, especially an ensemble that doesn’t regularly work together, but these folks made richly beautiful music. The opening chorus of the opera, ‘O the pleasure of the plains,’ is truly one of the happiest choruses ever, and that evening it was just glorious.

As you may have guessed by now it was a concert production rather than a staged one, but some deft blocking and clever use of audience entrances and aisles, as well as the space onstage, made for some great theatrical effects. A few audience members took it all in stride when Polyphemus selected to ‘harass’ them during his forays into the hall. From the looks on their faces and their standing ovation at the conclusion, the audience had a great time, and so did we. Who could ask for more?

For a brief overview of the piece, here’s a YouTube clip of snippets from the Boston Early Music Festival’s 2010 production:


Now from a recorder player’s standpoint, Acis & Galatea is a particularly fun gig because it includes two arias with energetic, charming obbligato parts for a sopranino recorder. Two alto recorders are also featured as part of the ‘burbling brook’ effect in the final aria of the show, but the sopranino parts are really what most of us love to get a chance at.

Very early on in the piece Galatea sings Hush ye pretty warbling choir, an aria featuring one of Händel’s brilliant bird-imitative obbligatos. Here’s a version from 2011, featuring Evelyn Tubb as Galatea, and a recorder player who sadly doesn’t get a mention. I’m not sure if this is a rehearsal or a casual concert performance; the aria is preceded by its recitative. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0sFdkH77bsI

The second sopranino obbligato accompanies Polyphemus as he sings the praises of Galatea in O ruddier than the cherry. The musical lines are deliberately a bit lumpy but still sweet, suitable for an ungainly, bad-tempered character who’s nevertheless been made a little less boorish by love. (Or lust.) Here’s an audio version featuring Huub Claessens, including the preceding recitative: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JZwQ31TswVI

And here, to compare how very different productions can be, are two more versions of the same, this time with the video.

First, from 2011, featuring Matthew Rose and some canine taxidermy:


And now for a Spanish production, with the best-dressed Polyphemus I’ve ever seen. He’s very well behaved too, considering that A&G are carrying on in their pyjamas while he’s singing. No wardrobe credit, unfortunately.


You can find out about the Toronto Masque Theatre and their upcoming shows here: http://www.torontomasquetheatre.com.

And here’s a bonus track: another Händel ‘birdie’ aria, this time from Rinaldo and featuring soprano Laura Whalen, the Aradia Ensemble directed by Kevin Mallon, and recorder players Kathryn Montoya, Colin Savage (altos) and yours truly (sopranino). The whole opera is available on Naxos (8.660165-67).

Chauvon and his Tibiades

In my post about the loss of Washington McClain a few weeks ago, I mentioned the Tibiades of François Chauvon. Shortly before Wash’s death, I began preparing a short post about that music, which I’m now offering.

Few details are known about the life of François Chauvon. A Parisian musician who studied with François Couperin, he published a selection of instrumental music and cantatas between 1712 and his death in 1740. He appears to have published another set of ‘pièces pour la flute’ in 1713, four years before the suites known as Tibiades saw the light of day, but so far I haven’t had any luck finding these. If those earlier suites haven’t been destroyed by war, natural disaster or a big plumbing problem wherever they were stored, I hope they’re found one day. If any of you have any pertinent info, I hope you’ll share it!

A page from the second suite

A page from the second suite

The collection of music called Tibiades is a set of suites for treble instrument and basso continuo, in the tradition of Hotteterre, the Philidors, Dornel and several others. Chauvon’s publication was dedicated to Couperin, harpsichordist and ‘organiste du Roy’ and the composer of much harpsichord and ensemble music from which Chauvon must have taken no little inspiration. On the title page of the Tibiades Chauvon describes them as a ‘new type of piece for the flute/recorder, and the oboe, with some sonatas for the violin’  (‘nouveau genre de pièces pour la flûte, et le hautbois, avec quelques sonates pour le violon’). In choosing to call his suites by the name Tibiades he’s clearly harkening back to antiquity – the tibia was a bone flute – and to the mythology of ancient Greece and Rome, with which all educated eighteenth-century Europeans were very well acquainted.

In the body of the Tibiades there are no specific indications of which suites might be meant for which instrument(s), but a simple examination of the key signatures and ranges of the treble part gives a good basis on which to make your decisions. The Tibiades are all playable on the traverso, oboe and violin, though some keys suit one instrument more than the others. The range of many of these suites also makes them playable on the alto recorder without having to resort to the usual transposition described by Hotteterre (up a minor third). Here’s a movement from the fourth suite:

Gigue, le Chapard (Suite IV)

However, there’s no need to limit your orchestration just because you see only one treble and one bass part. Varying the instrumentation from movement to movement is fun, as is doubling up, and entirely appropriate from a historical point of view. One very clear example of employing a variety of instrumental colours comes from François Couperin, in his description of the first performances of his Concerts royaux at the French court in 1714-15. In the preface to the published edition of the Concerts royaux, Couperin tells the reader that these pieces were played by himself, the violinist Duval, one of the woodwind-playing Philidors, the bassoonist Dubois and the violist da gamba Alarius. Since most of the pieces in question have only one treble line with a figured bass part – an occasional second treble part is occasionally included – this group of the King’s musicians might very well have traded off or doubled their parts as they played, for variety’s and expediency’s sake. Here’s an example of multiplying voices on the treble line, in Chauvon’s tenth Tibiade:

Gigue, Suite 10

Couperin also says one can play the music as solo pieces for harpsichord, which works very well with certain of Chauvon’s tunes too. Here is Charlotte Nediger’s rendition of a movement from the first Tibiade.

Arpégement, le Pièche (Suite 1)

And here, since I can’t find a picture of Chauvon, is one of his teacher:

François Couperin the Dapper

François Couperin the Dapper

The Tibiades are charming and elegant little suites, well worth exploring. You can find a facsimile edition for purchase at Anne Fuzeau’s on-line shop:


And the CD from which these sound clips are taken can be found at:


Jacques Paisible

Late 17th-century London was a thriving, cosmopolitan, artistically busy place where much music for the recorder was composed and played. Perhaps the most celebrated exponent of this activity was Jacques Paisible. Born in or near Paris to a family with members in the employ of Louis XIV, he had moved to London by 1675 when he was mentioned as a player of oboe and recorder for a production of the masque Calisto at Whitehall. Also known as James Peasable or Pesible, he played ‘bass violin’ in James II’s Roman Catholic Chapel, served as court composer for Princess/Queen Anne and after her death, played bass in the Drury Lane and Haymarket Theatre bands, played recorder in public concerts and theatre intermission entertainments, and was one of the first recorder teachers of the Royal Academy of Music at its founding in 1695.

A much-admired virtuoso player on the London scene, Paisible’s numerous recorder sonatas and suites remained unpublished during his lifetime. Though he spent most of his working life in England, his music is decidedly French in its style and conceit; that said, several of his fast movements demand far greater fleetness of fingers than your average French suite. Then again, some of his other sonatas aren’t very technically demanding, so there’s also something for players who want less of a challenge. I enjoy Paisible for his changeability and occasional eccentricity, and if like me you appreciate off-the-beaten-track music which makes demands on your interpretive and expressive skills, with a few bat-shit crazy movements in awkward keys thrown in every once in a while, you’ll make a new friend in Jacques/James.

One of Paisible’s non-musical claims to fame was his marriage to Moll Davis, a celebrated actress and a mistress to Charles II before she settled down with Jacques/James. I couldn’t find a picture of Mr. Paisible, so here’s a painting of his  charming wife by Peter Lely. She was apparently a strong and independent-minded woman, not an easy thing to be in seventeenth-century London. Or now, for that matter.


Several of Paisible’s suites and sonatas were edited by Marianne Metzger for Dolce’s series The Delightful Companion (two volumes, DOL 250 and 251).

David Lasocki has also recently released e-editions of previously unpublished duets, sonatas and suites by Paisible, which are available at


There are several recordings out there featuring at least a little of Paisible’s recorder music. His Sonata VI is on the program of The Business of Angels, a CD of English recorder music from the turn of the 18th century which I recorded in 2010. This sonata comes from a MS in the collection of the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris (Solos de Mr Pesible) and is thought to have been composed around 1695. Here’s the fourth movement, a Presto.

Paisible Sonata VI mv4

Business of Angels cover

A little gem of a piece

In concerts of 17th-century German Christmas music with the Toronto Consort last month, I had the chance to revisit a great little instrumental piece by Johann Hermann Schein. It was a four-part Intrada with the original scoring for ‘Zinck, Viglin, Flödt, Basso.’ To translate, that would be cornetto, violin, flute and bass, though the last word refers to the bass part rather than to any specific bass instrument. A curious and wonderful grouping. Speaking of curious, here’s an image of the composer:


Born in 1586, Schein moved to Dresden with his family at the age of seven after the death of his father. He received his musical training in Dresden, Pforta and Leipzig, and worked in Weimar before landing the job of cantor at Leipzig’s Thomasschule in 1615. Schein worked there until his death in 1630, performing the same job to which J.S. Bach would be appointed one hundred and eight years later. Schein’s compositions are almost all vocal works, both sacred and secular; his one collection of instrumental music is the Banchetto Musicale (1617), where this little Intrada can be found (item 21).

It’s a really great little piece. Out on the web there are several performances of it on more homogeneous-sounding string or wind consort, but it’s at its best with the wonderful mix of colours specifically requested by the composer. In December my colleagues were cornetto player Kiri Tollaksen, violinist Christopher Verrette, and Dominic Teresi played the bass line on the dulcian.* Just under three minutes of genuine delight.

You can find the score and parts here:


* a forerunner to the bassoon

Ignazio Sieber’s Recorder Sonatas

While excavating a section of my sheet music filing cabinet the other day, I came across the sonatas of Ignazio Sieber (c.1680-c.1757). His six sonatas for alto recorder and basso continuo were published, probably in 1722, together with an equal number by Johann Ernest Galliard. Since Galliard’s name appears first on the frontispiece, I dutifully filed them under ‘G.’ No wonder I lost track of them for a while.

Sieber certainly isn’t a household name but his sonatas for alto recorder and basso continuo are worth a look. We have very little biographical information on him, but see from the the publication’s title page that he was living in Rome (‘demeurant à Rome’) around the time his sonatas appeared in print. Not surprisingly, his writing for the recorder reflects the typical early 18th-century Italian taste for not extending higher than an E’’ and for hovering lower than that most of the time. Sieber hangs around in the high register more than Bononcini, Bigaglia, or Bellinzani for example, but he still doesn’t ask a player to spend a long time up where the air is thin. Italian recorders from the time have a beefy low register and a weedier high register than their German counterparts, for example, which would likely have affected how musicians composed for the instrument.

Certainly more interesting and demanding than the Galliard sonatas that precede them, Sieber’s sonatas are in C major (two), a minor, and g minor (three!), all key choices which echo Händel’s opus 1 recorder sonatas (also thought to have been written in Italy). The music is well written for the instrument, lies comfortably, it’s reasonably challenging, and he has a witty way with passagework. The slow movements include some examples of notated ornamentation but there’s much additional scope for a player to experiment with phrasing, articulation, pacing, and further elaboration. The continuo parts similarly offer a lot of opportunity for creative experimentation.

As with many lesser-known Baroque sonatas, the writing isn’t dazzling or brilliant throughout but then, let’s admit it, neither is Vivaldi’s. Plus, Sieber’s music provides considerable opportunity to add your own thoughtful two-cents-worth well beyond a few ornaments. You can team up with him to create something extra, an interpretation which you might call even more ‘your own’ than your versions of Telemann or Vivaldi. I’ve heard similarly unfamiliar pieces dismissed as not worth working on, but I wonder if such judgement is passed either because the recorder part has too few fast sixteenth note passages, and/or because the player lacks imagination. As we all know the components of a good piece and a good performance are many and varied; and if you do really want more fast arpeggios, you can almost always add some…

Plus, if you’re looking to create a program of music from a certain city or region, in a certain style or by a particular group of composers, having repertoire like this is a real boon.

A link to the facsimile at IMSLP (don’t be fooled by the initial title – Sieber’s sonatas are here!):


This morning’s lesson…

A student arrived for a lesson this morning with the last movement of Hans Ulrich Staeps’s Virtuose Suite (1961) on her agenda. Recorder players will know this composer’s name – at least, I hope they will – but very few other musicians will have heard of him. On the teaching faculty at the Vienna Conservatory for much of his life, Staeps wrote a lot of good music for the recorder, usually in a neo-baroque style with a liberal dash of neo-impressionism – sounding like a good Austrian who holidayed just enough in Paris. He wrote solos, duets, trios and works for larger ensembles of recorders, as well as a fair bit of chamber music incorporating keyboard, guitar and other instruments. I first encountered his music during my earliest experiences of consort playing at age ten or eleven, and more recently included a couple of his works on a recording of mid-twentieth-century repertoire, Fruit of a Different Vine. His Reihe kleiner Duette (A Series of Little Duets) is a particular delight, a bit like Kandinsky for the ears.

Many of Staeps’s pieces are dedicated to his students, and in the case of the Virtuose Suite each of its four solo movements are dedicated to a different person. This morning my student was valiantly tackling the final and most challenging movement, Presto Possible, a blistering two-page exercise in double tonguing. It does contain a few less frenetic moments but the main point is to dazzle and amaze without self-combusting, following in the ‘grand finale’ tradition. This particular movement was dedicated to Linde Höffer von Winterfeld (1919-1993), she of the elegant, nobility-tinged name who went on to write method books, studies and articles on recorder literature, and to edit a lot of music. She was another devoted pedagogue, though perhaps she went just a tad too far when she provided us all with 199 Thumb Exercises. Call me lazy or undisciplined, but wouldn’t forty have been enough?

When I was twelve I met Hans Ulrich Staeps at a music education conference in Toronto. Upon our introduction he said something nice to me and patted my head, a gesture I could have done without because it made me feel half my age, but I really loved his little Triludi trios so I more or less forgave him. He was also the first Fancy Recorder Person (FRP) I ever met. I was at the conference to play in some sort of student performance for my recorder teacher Isabel Smaller, a devoted educator who spent her working life driving around the city to teach at one or two different schools every day of the week. I have vivid memories of random plastic recorders, instrument cases and sheet music strewn across the back seat of her white Volkswagen beetle. More on Isabel later.

That last movement of the Virtuose Suite was on my program for a Canada Council audition at one of the critical moments of my nascent career, and I think it was that movement that convinced the jury on my behalf; but that’s another story too.

The Virtuose Suite is available from your favourite music publisher.

Here’s a movement from Staep’s Sonata in E-flat for alto recorder and piano, played by yours truly with Alayne Hall, piano.

Sonata in E-flat: mvmt. 4, Sehr schnell