01 Vocal 01 MessiahHandel – Messiah
Gillian Keith; Daniel Taylor; Tom Randle; Summer Thompson; Handel and Haydn Society; Harry Christophers

The Boston Handel and Haydn Society has had a long and distinguished history. It was founded in 1815 (these recordings mark its 200th anniversary), at a time when Handel represented the old and Haydn the new. Messiah has been important for many years: the Society performed excerpts in 1815, gave the first American performance of the complete work in 1818 and began its annual performances in 1854.

On this recording the soprano (Gillian Keith) and the alto (Daniel Taylor), both Canadians, are superb. I also liked the baritone, Summer Thompson, who is imposing in exactly the right way. I have reservations about the tenor, Tom Randle, who sings with great involvement but also with a great deal of vibrato. The very good orchestra of the Society is now led by “our own” Aisslinn Nosky, who in the past has given us so much pleasure as a member of Tafelmusik, I Furiosi and the Eybler Quartet. Harry Christophers conducts with real momentum and the choir is terrific (just sample them in All we like sheep).

High points: there are many, but I especially enjoyed the soprano’s precision in Rejoice greatly, the alto’s He was despised (beautifully decorated in the return of the opening section in a way that never obscures the vocal line) as well as the alto-soprano duet He shall feed his flock. Handel originally wrote the duet as a soprano aria and his revision was well judged: the entry of the soprano is magical. When I was asked to review these discs, my first thought was: another Messiah – who needs it? I couldn’t have been more wrong.


01 Vocal 02 Cecelia BartoliSt. Petersburg
Cecilia Bartoli; I Barocchisti; Diego Fasolis
Decca 478 6767

With celebrity comes responsibility, at least it should in the arts. That is why many celebrated soloists, once having established themselves with the standard repertoire, seek new or forgotten gems to create their legacy. After all, Maria Callas opened our ears anew to the music of Cherubini and Bellini.

Cecilia Bartoli, a mezzo, whose impact on the musical scene was in my opinion at times overestimated, has researched and recorded a fascinating disc of largely forgotten music. In stark contrast to 2014, Russians of the 1700s desperately tried to emulate and get closer to Western Europe. Peter the Great, he of St. Petersburg and the infamous “beard tax,” started a cultural trend that continued until the outbreak of the Bolshevik Revolution. A large part of this Europeanization of Russia was a musical development, encouraged and supervised by three Tsaritsas – Anna, Elizabeth and Catherine the Great. The course chosen by those powerful women was to import Italian opera wholesale, including Italian composers and Italian musical sensibilities. Famously, Porpora refused to be seduced by the “Third Rome” (as the Tsars referred to their capitol, suggesting that they had continued with the Byzantine tradition). This opened the way for lesser talents such as Francesco Domenico Araia and Vinzenco Manfredini. Alas, even Cimarosa contributed to this “Russian renaissance,” which came to an abrupt halt when Catherine the Great turned her attention to the stage plays of Voltaire and Diderot.

Found in the archives of the Mariinsky Theatre, the works recorded here are restored to life in a lavishly illustrated edition, played with great sensitivity by I Barocchisti. Kudos to Bartoli for this find, although the arias themselves at times tax her stubbornly small mezzo.


01 Vocal 03 Strauss ArabellaStrauss – Arabella
Renée Fleming; Thomas Hampson; Dresden State Opera; Christian Thielemann
Cmajor 717208

Fleming – Hampson – Thielemann. Salzburg Easter Festival certainly did well by getting this team for a new Arabella for the Strauss anniversary season. Director Florentine Klepper overcame the challenge for something new and different yet in immaculate taste by traversing the scene into the 20th century, the Art Deco period with a gorgeous, panoramic set fitting nicely onto the wide stage of the Grosses Festpielhaus. Being a woman, she had the right feeling and empathy for the female characters; so important in this opera.

Not that she had a difficult time. For the title role, Renée Fleming has been the reigning diva of Straussian heroines. Her uncanny ability to delve her entire self into the character has been legendary and her soprano voice has all the delicacy and nuance for this very demanding role. Arabella is in the midst of a difficult decision of choosing a husband from a trio of rich, bumbling suitors and hopes for the right man to miraculously appear, and he does.

The right man, American baritone Thomas Hampson (Mandryka) is having some difficulty in becoming this gauche, shy provincial fellow, but his handsome physique, stamina and vocal power amply compensate. The two fall into each other’s arms and the opera would be over, but unfortunately that’s where all the trouble begins, caused by the younger sister and her lover, who provide a lot of sparkle to the story.

Highest praise goes for Thielemann who conducts with beautifully sustained broad tempi, relishing in the beauties of the score, keeping it as an undercurrent, but coming to the fore just at the right moments and towards a ravishing finale.


01 Vocal 04 Renee FlemingVienna at the Turn of the Century – A Recital with Renée Fleming
Renée Fleming; Maciej Pikulski
ArtHaus Musik 102 196

In an age of instant gratification and overnight (YouTube) success, enduring artists like Renée Fleming are a rare breed. The singer, currently in her mid-50s, epitomizes the slow-burn. At the age when many sopranos are considering retirement, Fleming is in peak form, defying any tarnishing of the upper register as well as the visual impact of middle age. I was not always a fan. In fact, some two decades ago I dismissed her as a lightweight. What I did not recognize then was that this was a singer on her way to greatness. The proof came a few seasons ago, at the Met, where she conquered the role of Marschallin in Der Rosenkavalier. Immediately inviting (and challenging) comparisons with Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, her erstwhile teacher, Fleming has firmly established herself as the pre-eminent soprano of our times.

This glittering concert at the acoustically perfect Golden Hall of the Musikverein hall Vienna is a virtual compendium of lieder over almost 50 years. From Mahler and Zemlinsky to Korngold and Strauss, Fleming’s recital tells in music the story of the Golden Age of the great city on the Danube. Polish pianist Maciej Pikulski offers sensitive, Gerald Moore-like piano support. This beautiful disc may prompt listeners to get dressed in their Sunday best before pressing the start button.


01 Vocal 05 Milhaud OrestieMilhaud – L’Orestie d’Eschyle
Soloists; University of Michigan Symphony Orchestra, Chorus and Percussion Ensemble; Kenneth Kiesler
Naxos 8.660349-51

Aeschylus’ Orestia trilogy was transformed by Paul Claudel and Darius Milhaud into two plays with music and one opera. For L’Agamemnon (1913), Milhaud created one notable imitative chorus with dramatic interpolations by Clytemnestra, who had just murdered her husband. From her entering high B onward, soprano Lori Phillips sings Clytemnestra splendidly. Modal harmony over long pedal notes, repetitive elements and insistent rhythm become an early manifestation of minimalism.

In Les Choéphores (1915-16) Orestes returns to avenge his father Agamemnon’s death. Milhaud’s choral magic continues in the funeral chorus underpinned by his characteristic orchestral parallel chords in different keys, and in the weeping Libation chorus “Go away my tears, drop by drop.” Dan Kempson’s baritone is lustrous in his compelling portrayal of Orestes. As the slave women’s leader Sophie Delphis is thrilling in her rhythmically spoken solo (spoken word poetry is not new!), amply propelled with no less than 15 percussionists in the “kitchen.”

Completing the trilogy is the three-act opera Les Euménides (1917-23) where Orestes is on trial. Presiding goddess Athena emerges as complex, awe-inspiring and three-voiced! Her hair-raising trios sung magnificently by Brenda Rae, Tamara Mumford and Jennifer Lane contain some of Milhaud’s most adventurous vocal writing. Throughout, the Michigan choirs and orchestra set a professional standard in this tremendous project initiated by Milhaud-taught composer William Bolcom. There’s much more to say, about the choruses and orchestra, about Milhaud’s Brazilian influences … a disc recommended for the intrigued.


01 Vocal 06 GaliciansGalicians 1: The Art Songs
Pavlo Hunka et al.
Ukrainian Art Song Project (ukrainianartsong.ca)

For the past decade the British-born bass-baritone Pavlo Hunka has made it his life’s work to share the art songs of his Ukrainian heritage with the entire world. In partnership with Roman Hurko, composer, opera director and producer, he has previously recorded three CDs of this repertoire and has recently unveiled a 6-CD collection of music from the Galician (Western) region of Ukraine with even more yet to come.

The first disc in this set also serves to introduce us to the team of celebrated Canadian vocal artists that has given life to this ambitious project. In addition to Hunka’s own powerful voice, they include sopranos Monica Whicher, Nathalie Paulin and mezzo-soprano Krisztina Szabó, tenors Benjamin Butterfield and Colin Ainsworth, and baritone Russell Braun, with additional support from pianists Carolyn Maule and Serouj Kradjian. This initial volume is devoted to the art songs of Denys Sichynsky (1865-1909) which date mainly from the twilight of romanticism. They are typically declamatory, earnest minor key laments with often quite elaborate keyboard parts, dispatched with panache by the expert pianist Albert Krywolt, who accompanies the lion’s share of the songs in this anthology.

The long life of Stanyslav Liudkevych (1879-1979) requires two CDs to tell his story. Though the majority of the 28 songs on offer date from the early 20th century, the composer was still active into the mid-1960s. His harmonic language is often daring and freely modulatory and the ingenious textures of his piano accompaniments suggest an orchestral conception. Eclecticism aside, it’s nonetheless clear that a major talent is on display here. The first CD is so totally dominated by male voices that the sole exception sung by Nathalie Paulin comes as quite a relief. Fortunately the second CD is more judiciously shared between the genders.

A tragic figure, Vasyl Barvinsky (1888-1963) was the director of the Lysenko Institute of Music and its successor institution the Lviv Conservatory and maintained a commanding profile both locally and internationally. In 1948 however, political intrigues brought him crashing to earth. He was arrested, his musical scores were publicly burned in the Conservatory courtyard and he was sentenced to spend the next decade toiling at a labour camp in the backwaters of Mordovia. He spent the remainder of his life attempting to reconstruct his musical legacy, which is stylistically indebted to Debussy yet always strikingly lyrical. Fortunately compositions he had considered lost forever are slowly coming to light from Western sources. The majority of the selection of 17 songs are shared between Hunka and the excellent soprano Szabó and include some beautifully rendered violin passages by Annalee Patipatanakoon.

Though described as a “modernist,” there is little to fear from the passionate and often deeply autobiographical music of Stefania Turkewich (1898-1977). Stylistically it does not go far beyond the extended tonality of the earliest works of Alban Berg. A pupil of Barvinsky, she went on to study with Schoenberg and Schreker in Berlin in the 1920s and subsequently worked in Lviv. Acclaimed as the first Ukrainian woman composer, she emigrated to England in 1948, where she sought recognition in vain within the intensely insular post-war British musical establishment. Hunko and company make just emends for her neglect in this extensive selection of 20 songs, including two winning and resolutely tonal English-language nursery rhymes.

A sixth compilation disc completes the set. The recordings are accompanied by a lavish booklet with texts and translations in four languages. Seamless and consistent audio editing throughout is credited to veteran producer Doug Doctor at the helm in Glenn Gould Studio. A most welcome and innovative aspect of the project includes making newly engraved editions of the scores of these neglected gems freely available through ukrainianartsong.ca. The album may also be ordered there as well as through iTunes.

01 Vocal 01 Mozart RequiemMozart – Requiem
Soloists; Accentus; Insula Orchestra; Laurence Equilbey
naïve V 5370

There are many recordings of Mozart’s Requiem. My own favourite is the live recording made in 2001 by Les Violons du Roy and La Chapelle de Québec, conducted by Bernard Labadie, with Karina Gauvin, Marie-Nicole Lemieux, John Tessier and Nathan Berg as soloists, and with a brilliant cameo part by the trombonist Alain Trudel (on Dorian; at present only available as an MP3).

The Requiem was unfinished when Mozart died and was subsequently completed by his student, Franz Xaver Süssmayr, with some input by Jakob Freystädtler and Joseph Eybler. It is likely that they based their work on sketches by Mozart himself but, since these sketches no longer exist, we cannot be certain about that. Most performances adopt the Süssmayr completion: it may not be all Mozart but it is the closest we can get to Mozart’s conception of the work. The Labadie performance, however, uses a revision and completion by Robert D. Levin.

The version on the present recording is more traditional. It features a new period ensemble, the Insula Orchestra, and a very fine choir, Accentus, which has been in existence for 20 years. The soloists are Sandrine Piau, soprano, Sara Mingardo, contralto, Werner Güra, tenor, and Christopher Purves, bass-baritone. They are also very good. The booklet that comes with the CD has a useful chart outlining what Mozart completed and what was completed by others. I could, however, do without passages like: “And so he laid down his pen after the first eight bars of the ‘Lacrymosa’ ... For he was not God, but a man, and could bear no more.”

Although my allegiance is still to the Labadie performance, I liked the new one and recommend it.


01 Vocal 02 Don GiovanniMozart – Don Giovanni
Soloists; Fondazione Orchestra Regionale delle Marche; Riccardo Frizza
Cmajor 717408

After some 230 years the fascination for Mozart’s greatest opera has never ceased. In fact there seems to be a renaissance these days with new productions all over the world: New York, London, Milan, even Toronto. But we need not go to those glittering, super-expensive centres (at La Scala tickets went for 2,300 euros!) as here we have a DVD from a small town in central Italy, Macerata, which most of you I daresay never heard of, produced on a limited budget; an elegant, rapt and joyful reading that puts those grandiose, star-studded productions to shame.

This success that “will enter the annals of opera” (ForumOpera.com) can be attributed to many things, not least to the work of Italy’s gran maestro of staging and set design Pier Luigi Pizzi’s brilliant and inspired direction. His vision is that of vast amusement yet sympathetic understanding of the foibles of men (and women), a dramma giocoso as Mozart envisioned it. A big, unmade bed is ever present and much of the action takes place in and around it, reminding us constantly what all this fuss is all about. Yet, his taste is impeccable without any vulgarity. The cast is virtually flawless: all young singers, mainly Italian, energetic and attractive with voices that could rival any of the big stars; The women especially, among whom Carmela Remigio (Donna Elvira) is probably the most memorable.

But what delivers the biggest punch is Don Juan himself, Ildebrando d’Arcangelo, whose career I’ve followed in the last ten years from humble bit roles to his major break in Vienna as a very unlikely Henry VIII in Donizetti’s Anna Bolena. Here he is a phenomenon, a life force, the essence of the show no one will likely forget. Another young Italian, conductor Riccardo Frizza’s upbeat tempi, a bit on the fast side, keep everything moving forward with the supreme glory of Mozart always shining through.


01 Vocal 03 MercadanteMercadante – I Briganti
Soloists; Camerata Bach Choir, Poznan; Virtuosi Brunensis; Antonino Fogliani
Naxos 8.660343-44

Saverio Mercadante was a prominent early 19th-century Italian composer. He wrote 57 operas. Few people living now will have seen any, although there are now recordings of several, mainly on the Opera Rara label. The present CD was recorded live at the XXIV Rossini in Wildbad Festival in July 2012. The libretto is based on Schiller’s play Die Räuber, as is Verdi’s later opera I Masnadieri. The cast on this recording is cosmopolitan: the tenor is Russian, the soprano Bulgarian, the baritone Italian, the chorus Polish and the orchestra Czech. The soloists are very good and they perform with virtuosity and with gusto.

This world premiere recording uses a new edition based on research by Michael Wittmann, who also contributes an informative note. He argues that Mercadante’s operas represent a movement away from the elaborate decorations of bel canto opera in favour of a greater emphasis on the dramatic aspect. It was left to Verdi, Wittmann suggests, to take this a stage further and to place “veracity of expression above its beauty.” I find the argument convincing but I also think that we should appreciate the opera on its own terms, not just as a missing link between Bellini and Verdi.


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