01 MonteverdiMonteverdi – Messa a quattro voci et salmi of 1650 Volume 1
The Sixteen; Harry Christophers
Coro COR16142

Seven years after Claudio Monteverdi’s death, the publisher Vincenti, with help from Monteverdi’s pupil Francesco Cavalli, put together a volume of the composer’s unpublished works, consisting of Mass and Psalm settings, to which they added a work of Cavalli’s own. In this first volume of two devoted to this 1650 publication, Harry Christophers focuses on the salmi (psalms), his Beatus vir and Cavalli’s Magnificat, saving the Messa a quattro voci for the second volume. The psalm settings are characteristic of the gorgeous, rich harmonies, with just a smattering of highly affective dissonance; innovations resulting from the transition from renaissance to baroque that Monteverdi pioneered through his long compositional career.

Harry Christophers and The Sixteen understand the repertoire well and perform the many affectations and embellishments with great beauty and exceptionally polished skill. For example, the polyphonic five-voice setting of Psalm 121, Laetatus sum (I was glad when they said unto me) is highly virtuosic and contrasts nicely with the six-voice, more declamatory Laetaniae della Beata Vergine (Litany of the Blessed Virgin) in which Mary’s many virtues are presented as somewhat of a list, but so meditative that one never feels even a hint of monotony in the repetition. With beauty such as this, Volume II is keenly anticipated.


Handel – Giulio Cesare
Scholl; Bartoli; von Otter; Jaroussky; Il Giardino Armonico; Giovanni Antonini
Decca 074 3856

Handel – Saul
Purves; Davies; Crowe; Bevan; Appleby; Hulett; Graham-Hall; Glyndebourne Chorus; Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment; Ivor Bolton
Opus Arte OA 1216 D

Handel – Hercules
DiDonato; Shimell; Bohlin; Spence; Ernman; Kirkbride; Les Arts Florissants; William Christie
BelAir Classics BAC213

02a Handel Giulio CesareUntil the 1960s the operas of Handel and his contemporaries, including Giulio Cesare, were generally viewed as unstageable. There was, however, a remarkable breakthrough with the production by the New York City Opera in 1966. It was a production that would not pass today’s standards of authenticity. Most seriously, the part of Caesar was transposed an octave down and given to a baritone. But the production, which I saw and remember well, certainly put the opera on the map. Other productions followed as did recordings. I, myself, am very fond of the recording conducted by René Jacobs with Jennifer Larmore and Barbara Schlick.

Operagoers of a certain age will remember the time when the main function of a director seems to have been to make sure that the members of the chorus did not get in the way of the soloists. The role of the director is now taken more seriously. In many ways that is a good thing as it has led to thoughtfully conceived work (I am thinking of the COC’s recent La Traviata and of Joel Ivany’s revised Carmen). On the other hand, the now important role of the director may lead to productions which are self-indulgent and self-promoting. I fear that has been the case with the Giulio Cesare under review. It was first staged at the Salzburg Whitsun Festival in 2012. It accents heavily the contemporary relevance: when the overture is played, there is a battle taking place on the stage (the booklet that comes with the DVD makes clear that this is meant to evoke the American invasion of Iraq). The treacherous Ptolemy, Cleopatra’s brother and consort, is likened to the late Colonel Gaddafi. On the other hand, there is also a contemporary reference of a very different kind: Cleopatra’s wig, when she visits Caesar in his camp, is clearly meant to invoke Elizabeth Taylor when she played the role. Elsewhere Cleopatra enters in combat uniform with a Tina Turner wig. Much of the singing is excellent. I particularly liked Anne Sofie von Otter as Pompey’s widow Cornelia and Philippe Jaroussky as his son Sesto. It is too bad that the directorial quirks overshadow the musical qualities of the performance.

02b Handel SaulBoth Saul and Hercules are oratorios and were not meant to be staged. But the reasons for that are largely historical and, in the case of sacred subjects, ideological. Many of them are suitable for theatrical realization as a number of recent productions have shown. This Saul, which has the superb Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, concentrates on madness. It was first performed at Glyndebourne in 2015. The production shows how madness is a destructive force, towards others but also towards the self. In the second part Saul goes to consult the Witch of Endor and asks her to conjure up the ghost of Samuel. Samuel is sung by Saul himself: this convincingly suggests that we are dealing here with an inner debate. Of the singers, I was especially impressed by the countertenor Iestyn Davies, who sings David. Christopher Purves (Saul and Samuel), Lucy Crowe (Merab), Sophie Bevan (Michal) and Paul Appleby (Jonathan) are also very good.

02c Handel HerculesHercules is a triumph, both because of the subtle conducting by William Christie and because of the imaginative staging by the late Luc Bondy. It is based on a staging at the Aix-en-Provence Festival and the Opéra National de Paris shortly afterwards. Les Arts Florissants is the excellent orchestra. A distinguishing aspect of the staging is the way Bondy presents the members of the chorus fully involved in the human drama. That drama centres on jealousy: Hercules returns from the sack of Oechalia with Iole, the beautiful princess of that land, as his captive. Iole is hostile to Hercules because he destroyed her city and killed her father. At the beginning of the oratorio she sings an aria in which she expresses the wish that she was a simple village girl. But there is an ambivalence here which the production neatly captures: a ring and a necklace appear. These are clearly gifts from Hercules. Iole accepts them and wears the ring for the rest of the duration of the oratorio. Joyce DiDonato is brilliant as Dejanira, Hercules’ threatened wife, and her singing is complemented by the lyrical voice of Ingela Bohlin as Iole and the dark mezzo of Malena Ernman as the counsellor Lichas. 


03 Hasse ArtaserseJohann Adolf Hasse – Artaserse
Fagioli; Prina; Schiavo; Giustiniani; Giovannini; Bove; Orchestra Internazionale d’Italia; Corrado Rovaris
Dynamic 37715

Review

In the DVD of Leonardo Vinci’s Artaserse (Erato 2564632323), countertenor Franco Fagioli’s extraordinary vocal pyrotechnics as Arbace stole the show from his better-known colleague, Philippe Jaroussky, in the title role. J.A. Hasse’s setting of the same libretto by Pietro Metastasio premiered exactly one week after the debut of Vinci’s version, in February 1730. Metastasio’s highly effective libretto was subsequently used by many other composers, including Gluck, Cimarosa and Paisiello.

Arbace’s father, Artabano, has assassinated Persia’s king Serse (Xerxes). Arbace is accused of the murder, creating painful rifts within each pair of lovers: Arbace and Serses’ daughter Mandane, and Semira, Arbace’s sister, and Artaserse, Serse’s son. Artabano plots to murder Artaserse, the new king, but his villainy is exposed, the lovers are reunited and all ends happily.

In this 2-DVD set from the 2012 Valle d’Itria festival, Fagioli again thrills as Arbace, with breathtaking coloratura runs. Also excelling in vocal expressiveness and agility are mezzo-soprano Sonia Prina (Artabano) and rich-voiced contralto Rosa Bove (Semira). Hasse’s emotion-laden ABA arias are augmented by a virtuoso aria from Vivaldi’s Motezuma, added to give Prina as Artabano an extra showpiece.

There’s no resemblance to ancient Persia; the male characters wear gaudily bemedalled modern military uniforms. One annoyance: endlessly repeated cutaway views of Corrado Rovaris conducting from the harpsichord.

Hasse’s Artaserse will please lovers of Baroque opera, superb singing and, especially, the growing contingent of fans of the amazing Franco Fagioli.


04 Beethoven MissaBeethoven – Missa Solemnis
Arnold Schoenberg Choir; Concentus Musicus Wien; Nikolaus Harnoncourt
Sony Classical 88985313592

The passing of Austrian conductor Nikolaus Harnoncourt earlier this year has left a tremendous void in the music world. An aristocrat, not only by birth (he was a direct descendant of the Hapsburgs), but in his mind and soul, he was not only an original musical mind, a scholar and a great conductor, but a teacher and inspiration to the young. He had the uncanny ability to treat any piece of music like he had never heard it before, breathe new life into it and make his players and audiences feel enthusiastic and rejuvenated. Rehearsing Beethoven, which I saw him do, he became a giant and literally roared like a lion at some of the great outbursts, but he also had a wonderful sense of humour that made his young orchestra chuckle with laughter.

He himself had problems with Missa Solemnis and came late to conducting this disputed masterpiece: “a religious work that combines war and redemption, horror and hope – a bizarre enough combination in the extremes to which Beethoven takes it” (Robert Levine). There haven’t been many recordings and very few successful ones. Most recently (2012) Harnoncourt conducted it at the Concertgebouw with modern instruments and a superb quartet of soloists (including our wonderful Gerald Finley), but here he is rejoined with Concertus Musicus Wien, a period instrument group he founded, for what he intended to be his last recording. Never happy with earlier accomplishments, this version is full of question marks, looking for new answers, new sonorities and it’s just another example of what he was all his life, constantly searching and never wanting to give up. So the quest continues….


05 Brahms Bruckner MotetsBrahms; Bruckner – Motets
Tenebrae; Nigel Short
Signum Classics SIGCD430 (signumrecords.com)

Anton Bruckner and Johannes Brahms were very different in their Weltanschauung. Bruckner was a devout Roman Catholic; Brahms could be described as an agnostic. Their musical language too is very different but they clearly have one thing in common. They were both committed to the revival of religious music and both of them looked back to earlier traditions from Gregorian chant to J.S. Bach by way of Renaissance and early Baroque composers like Isaac and Schütz.

Tenebrae is an English chamber choir founded in 2001 by Nigel Short and the late Barbara Pollock. Short is now the choir’s conductor: he was previously a member of the King’s Singers. The sound worlds of Brahms and Bruckner contrast in interesting ways and the two composers complement each other very well. The two halves are fairly evenly divided: there are eight motets by Bruckner here, mainly unaccompanied. The works by Brahms are more varied and many are given with organ accompaniment. They include the movement How lovely are thy dwellings from his German Requiem. I was initially surprised to find that it was sung in English but when I read that this was the translation in which the work was sung in London in 1873, I could see how the translation emphasizes the centrality of Brahms to 19th–century English musical life. The performances are bookended by two Aequale for three trombones by Bruckner, beautifully played.

The choir’s discography suggests that much of its attention is given to contemporary music. But they have also recorded music by Berlioz and Fauré. This beautiful record confirms that they are equally at home with 19th-century repertoire.


06 Braunfels LiederWalter Braunfels – Lieder/Songs
Marlis Petersen; Konrad Jarnot; Eric Schneider
Capriccio C5251

Walter Braunfels was a highly esteemed composer of operas between the two world wars and was later renowned for his religious choral music. Yet owing to his ancestry (his grandfather had been born Jewish) Braunfels ultimately had the misfortune of having his professional career terminated and his music marked as “degenerate“ by the Nazis. Adding insult to injury, his late Romantic style fell into disfavour after World War II, a time when modernism was gaining a much stronger foothold.

Hence, this disc of his complete lieder featuring baritone Konrad Jarnot and mezzo-soprano Marlis Petersen with pianist Eric Schneider on the Capriccio label is a worthy means of righting past injustices. Braunfels had little interest in solo vocal music during his later years, so the works on this recording are all from the early part of his career, spanning a 30-year period from 1902 onwards.

Staring off with the set of Sechs Gesänge Op.1, Jarnot offers a compelling and sensitive performance of these dark and brooding miniatures. Indeed, the term “miniature” seems to apply to most of the songs on this CD; only one reaches the four-minute mark while several are under a minute in length. Despite their brevity, these works are a wonderful study in contrasts. Petersen’s lyrical performance of the two versions of the Federspiel suites, each song a musical depiction of a bird, from the common nightingale to the more exotic wagtail – is all lightness and charm. Not surprisingly, certain songs exhibit influences of other composers, most noticeably Richard Strauss in the lushly romantic Herbstgefühl – and is that a bit of Brahms in Abbitte from the Lieder Op.4?

Throughout the disc, Schneider handles the elegant piano writing with much finesse.

While this CD may not feature the best of Braunfels’ music nor be the most ideal introduction, it does provide a degree of exposure to a composer whose music most decidedly warrants greater recognition.


07 Chatman Choir PracticeStephen Chatman; Tara Wohlberg – Choir Practice
University of British Columbia Opera Ensemble; Nancy Hermiston; UBCSO; Jonathan Girard
Centrediscs CMCCD 22616 (musiccentre.ca)

Anyone involved in community choirs will appreciate this lighthearted parody of the personalities we both encounter and display during rehearsals; from establishing a pecking order amongst ourselves to our complicated relationships with music directors, for better or worse. Stephen Chatman, well familiar with the milieu, and his writing partner Tara Wohlberg exaggerate the dynamic hysterically in this one-act opera, premiered and recorded at the University of British Columbia.

Under the direction of faculty members Nancy Hermiston and Jonathan Girard, the opera ensemble and instrumentalists clearly enjoy quite a lark with the performance, producing dissonant chaos, artless arpeggios and pursuing their own agendas with opinions on repertoire, with a liberal sprinkling of famous musical snippets from favourite pieces that serve as insider jokes for the audience as they recognize quotes from Mozart, Wagner and Philip Glass. Sexual innuendo and double entendre abound as well, in ridiculous manifestations with appearances from characters such as the clown, the diva, the belly dancer and the stutterer. Of course, eventually, out of the cacophony and bad behaviour, conductor “Willy Stroker” patiently coaxes out a harmonious and unified performance with the help of one of his more “visionary” choristers. Simple, unabashed fun and slapstick entertainment.


08 Floyd Wuthering HeightsCarlisle Floyd – Wuthering Heights, An Opera in Three Acts
Jarman; Markgraf; Mentzer; Rideout; Buck; Shelton; Florentine Opera Company; Milwakee Symphony Orchestra; Joseph Mechavich
Reference Recordings FR-721SACD (referencerecordings.com)

In 1955, soprano Phyllis Curtin was the first Susannah in what would become Carlisle Floyd’s most performed opera. Floyd then composed an aria for Curtin’s New York recital, setting words of Cathy Earnshaw from Emily Brontë’s classic novel. The fervent aria, I’ve dreamt in my life, inspired the Santa Fe Opera to commission this full-length work, the aria appearing in the second of the opera’s three acts. In 1958, Curtin created the role of Cathy in Santa Fe and New York, yet this two-CD set is the opera’s first commercial release, recorded in concert in January 2015, with Floyd, in his 89th year, acting as artistic advisor.

Wuthering Heights surely merits many more productions than it’s received in the past, with listener-friendly melodies leading to rhapsodic or powerful cinematic-style climaxes, supporting intensely dramatic characters and confrontations. Floyd’s self-written libretto omits the novel’s many chapters about Heathcliff’s childhood and later life, the opera ending with Heathcliff’s lament over Cathy’s death.

Among the cast, only the bronze baritone of Kelly Markgraf as Heathcliff stands out, though to be fair, the poorly balanced “hybrid surround-sound” reduces the clarity and presence of all the voices, the orchestra often submerging the distant-sounding singers. The accompanying libretto is therefore essential for following the action. Nevertheless, this premiere recording should help realize Floyd’s hope, expressed in his booklet notes, that it “will result in new audiences here and abroad.”


09 Wadsworth Far WestZachary Wadsworth – The Far West
Lawrence Wiliford; Luminous Voices; Timothy Shantz
Bridge Records 9466 (bridgerecords.com)

Review

The Far West opens with music evocative of Macmillan and Brickenden’s Celtic Mass for the Sea; in fact, not since that album have I heard a choral work that captures its subject with such well-curated and gut-punching text. This Choral Canada winner is an homage to victims of AIDS, and it’s both achingly beautiful and horrifyingly vivid in its imagery as it paints portraits of Tim Dlugos, its posthumous librettist, and stricken friends.

Dlugos’ divinity training interweaves references from Bergman to AZT, so textual allusions to liturgical music and the Divine Office still match the different musical styles, such as the funereally resolved first movement, October, the expansive choral chords of Note to Michael, and the baroque-ish Heaven, latterly with lyrics from the Renaissance by George Herbert. Several times, the work evokes English staples, such as Parry’s I Was Glad or Fenton’s Veni Sancte Spiritus, and made me want to run back to my days of church choir with Tom Fitches.

Themes of reconciliation, despair and resignation are conveyed alongside word play with homophones and synecdoche. The first two tracks, settings of poetry by Paul Laurence Dunbar and Christina Rossetti, are complementary introductions to the cantata. If this review is more about the texts than the music, it’s because the poetry absolutely slays the listener but, while the words are the stars in this piece, Zachary Wadsworth has composed a votive in The Far West, and Lawrence Wiliford and Luminous Voices shimmer throughout.

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