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Daily album review 3: Barbara Pritchard plumbs Barbara Pentland's expressive possibilities

By John Terauds on November 18, 2012

Dalhousie University piano professor Barbara Pritchard plays at Chalmers House Sunday afternoon.

Halifax-based Barbara Pritchard launches Toccata, an album of the piano music of Barbara Pentland at the Canadian Music Centre’s new Steingraeber grand piano at Chalmers House at 3 p.m. today.

Thanks to the depth, subtlety and assurance of Pritchard’s interpretations on the disc, Pentland’s pieces far exceed the dry-as-dust stereotypes we usually associate with serial-type music.

Barbara Pentland in her Vancouver studio in 1978 (Walter Curtin photo).

By the time Canadian composer Barbara Pentland (1912-2000) died, serialism and its offshoots, which dominated new music during the second half of the 20th century, was already being swept in the direction of the recycling bin. So it would be easy to dismiss so much of her output as yesterday’s aesthetic.

But that kind of attitude is like demolishing all Modern architecture because no one likes it anymore. Not all of us may find it attractive, but it is a part of who we were and what we’ve become.

Pritchard’s sparkling, vibrant playing opens up Pentland’s scores, revealing a wonderful lyrical streak, a playfulness that fills this music with life.

The various strands of serialist composing are all about ordered sequences of notes, rhythms and counterpoints — usually without any regard to tonality. The possibilities and permutations based on the 12 tones of the modern, even-tempered scale are infinite. It’s like 10 tonal composers doing 10 different things with the eight notes in C Major,

Listening to Pentland’s crystalline structures made me think of the old Bata headquarters on Eglinton Ave. E., a poured-concrete box that proudly rose up on fun polygonal columns. It’s gone now and, pretty soon, everyone will have forgotten it was ever there. Pritchard reminds us that Pentland may be gone, but her life-force-powered take on Modernism can live on, if we give it a chance.

Ironically, my favourite set of pieces from the seven works on the album is Ephemera, five clever miniatures completed in 1978 that lay out Pentland’s expressive palette with particular clarity.

You’ll find all the details on the album, as well as two audio samples here.

Here is a link to a few more details about this afternoon’s launch (doors open at 3 p.m. and Pritchard is set to play a half-hour later.)

John Terauds


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