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First Play: Duo Concertante, Incarnation

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Robert Rowat

Banish any prejudices you may have about contemporary classical music being inaccessible or overly complex, and hit play on Incarnation, the amazing new album from Duo Concertante featuring five new Canadian works. It's seriously good.

"Our ultimate goal with Incarnation is to give a convincing and true performance of these courageous and immensely creative composers' new work," says violinist Nancy Dahl in the album's press release. Due out May 23 on Marquis Classics, it presents the world premiere recording of five new pieces written especially for Duo Concertante by Denis Gougeon, Alice Ping Yee Ho, Jocelyn Morlock, Chan Ka Nin and Andrew Staniland.

"As soon as the new compositions began to arrive, we were tasked with the time-consuming, technically challenging, highly experimental, but extremely interesting process of bringing this new music to life," adds pianist Timothy Steeves, the other half of the husband-and-wife ensemble based in St. John's, N.L.

The effort paid off. Dahn and Steeves overcome all technical challenges to focus on getting to the heart of each piece, which they do without fail. The music traverses an impressive range of textures and emotional states. Morlock's Petrichor depicts an awakening of the senses and its attendant awe; Gougeon's two-part Chants du coeur, written in memory of his parents, uses ostinato (part 1) and syncopation (part 2) to great effect. In Coeur à coeur, Ho's writing suggests a poignant pas de deux; Chan calls for an electric violin in the album's title track (an homage to Franz Schubert) and Dahn summons some truly captivating sounds from it; and Staniland's The River is Within Us starts with a protracted dialogue between the violin and piano that resolves in the most exquisite way imaginable.

Duo Concertante's recent albums include Beethoven and Bach sets, so Incarnation is an opportunity for them to commit another important facet of their artistry to disc: Over the years, they've commissioned 25 new works for violin and piano, with premieres of new pieces by Alice Ho and Randolph Peters planned for this summer.

The Canadian Music Centre in Toronto will host an Incarnation album launch on May 23 at 7 p.m. The album will be featured as the Disc of the Week on CBC Radio 2's In Concert on Sunday, May 21.

More to explore:

21 Canadian symphony concerts you can't miss in 2017-18

Listen to CBC Music's 24/7 Canadian composers stream

A beginner's guide to Timo Andres: 6 pieces you should know