Mozart – Requiem - Soloists; Accentus; Insula Orchestra; Laurence Equilbey

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.


Mozart – Don Giovanni - Soloists; Fondazione Orchestra Regionale delle Marche; Riccardo Frizza

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” ( 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.


Mercadante – I Briganti

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.


Schoenberg – Moses und Aron

01 Vocal 04 Moses und AronSchoenberg – Moses und Aron
Franz Grundheber; Andreas Conrad; SWRSO Baden-Baden und Freiburg; Sylvain Cambreling
Hanssler Classic 93.314

Arnold Schoenberg’s self-authored libretto for his dodecaphonic biblical spectacular Moses und Aron (the latter protagonist is intentionally respelled so that the title contains exactly 12 letters) calls for the on-stage appearance of rape, murder, butchery and camels. (Take that, Verdi!) Though he intended the work to include three acts, the composer completed only the first two from 1930 to 1932. In essence however the work is closer in spirit to an oratorio and is often effectively presented as such. Recordings of Moses have been slow but steady following the composer’s death in 1951, with about a dozen available in various formats. What has kept this opera in the shadows (it was not staged in this hemisphere until the Metropolitan Opera presented it in 1999) has less to do with the lurid scenario than the extensive and hugely demanding choral writing – the most recent staging in Wales saw the chorus rehearsing the work for some 18 months.

I consider the true stars of this new recording to be the members of the elite EuropaChorAkademie who have thoroughly mastered the score with spectacular results. In the lead roles the magisterial Franz Grundheber makes a lasting impression in the half-sung, half-spoken interpretation of the tongue-tied Moses and is effectively paired with the forceful Heldentenor of Andreas Conrad as his eloquent spokesman Aron. The French conductor and new music specialist Sylvain Cambreling leads the SWR radio orchestra (sadly scheduled to be dissolved in 2016) in a finely balanced and lucid account of the score miraculously cobbled together from no less than four different performances in as many venues during a 2012 European tour.


Dean Burry – Baby Kintyre, An Opera

01 Vocal 05 Burry Baby KintyreDean Burry – Baby Kintyre, An Opera
Soloists; Ensemble; John Hess; Dairine Ni Mheadhra
Centrediscs CMCCD 20314

Composer/librettist Dean Burry has taken a gruesome piece of Toronto history and created an episodic, edge-of-seat serial radio opera thriller originally performed in six consecutive 2009 broadcasts of CBC’s Saturday Afternoon at the Opera.

I remember the media frenzy surrounding the horrific event. In 2007, a home renovator discovered a mummified baby wrapped in a 1925 newspaper in the floorboards of an East Toronto home. Burry was so moved by the discovery, that he used the news details of the characters to create so appropriately emotional, strong and larger-than-life operatic characters.

Burry’s libretto weaves a spellbinding tale with splashes of slapstick-flavoured humour in this story set in both the 2007 renovator’s discovery, and the 1920s’ life in the house on Kintyre Ave. The vocal melodies are tonally contemporary yet accessible. Burry’s use of “Amazing Grace” and “By the Light of the Silvery Moon” add a popular music sentiment. The performances by all the singers are clear and colourful. Eileen Nash is especially outstanding in her performance and childlike vocal tuning of the ten-year-old Rita. The small orchestra, with super pianist John Hess, plays with abandon and colour. Snippets of newscasts, cell phones and other modern day tidbits complete the soundscape. The CBC Radio Metro Morning documentary Baby Kintyre – Part 1 & 2 is included after the opera, pushing the story back into the real world.

Dean Burry has written a clever, thought-provoking and solid opera that requires no visual set to keep the listener enthralled! Oh, the secrets that families hold.


Verdi & Wagner – The Odeonsplatz Concert - Rolando Villazón; Thomas Hampson; Bayerischen RSO; Yannick Nézet-Séguin

02 Vocal 01 Verdi WagnerVerdi & Wagner – The Odeonsplatz Concert
Rolando Villazón; Thomas Hampson; Bayerischen RSO; Yannick Nézet-Séguin
Cmajor 716708

Last July to celebrate the bicentennials of Verdi and Wagner, a huge outdoor concert took place in Munich, the Bavarian capital with obvious connections to Wagner and his royal patron, Ludwig II. The show was held in Munich’s epicentre, the vast quasi-Renaissance Odeonsplatz, under an arcaded loggia large enough to house a full symphony orchestra and chorus. The loggia, full of allegorical symbols of German glory and guarded by two fierce-looking stone lions, was lit in glorious colours to suit the mood of each item performed.

Curiously enough the two singing stars, tenor Rolando Villazón and baritone Thomas Hampson, apart from some Massenet, sang mostly unknown and second rate Verdi (I would seriously question the inclusion of an aria from Il Corsaro, Verdi’s worst opera that even the Maestro himself hated outright) and only one Wagner, the Ode to the Evening Star from Tannhäuser beautifully sung by Hampson and timed perfectly to coincide with the evening shadows descending over the square. In Verdi I felt the only major success for the soloists was the “Liberty” duet from Don Carlo. Even Massenet was better represented.

Fortunately the most resounding hits were the orchestra and chorus with some of Verdi’s and Wagner’s finest choruses and overtures, led with aplomb by Montrealer and now world-renowned conductor, Yannick Nézet-Séguin. His youthful exuberance was infectious and he brought out idiomatic and superbly pointed performances like the rousing Entry of the Guests amplified by the wonderful natural acoustics so that it must have been heard all over Munich. Electricity was in the air and everybody noticeably sat up and listened, except perhaps for those morose stone lions.


Fauré – Requiem; Cantique de Jean Racine - Gerald Finley; Tom Pickard; Choir of King’s College Cambridge; Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment; Stephen Cleobury

02 Vocal 02 Faure RequiemFauré – Requiem; Cantique de Jean Racine
Gerald Finley; Tom Pickard; Choir of King’s College Cambridge; Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment; Stephen Cleobury
Choir of King’s College Cambridge KGS0005

While one wonders what yet another recording of Fauré’s Requiem will bring to light, the Choir of King’s College Cambridge is the first to record Marc Rigaudière’s new reconstruction of the earliest complete liturgical performance of the Requiem, essentially recreating the work’s premiere, including the organ stops from L’église de la Madeleine in Paris. Also, the incorporation of instruments and techniques typical of those of a French orchestra of the late 19th century are used to great effect by the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment. As a result, the performance does convey quite a different character than others; somehow even more gentle and contemplative in nature through the use of slower tempi and extremely controlled, even subdued choral passages, with the exception of the Dies Irae.

Chorus alumnus Gerald Finley’s gorgeous bass-baritone solos are wonderfully dramatic. In fact, the original version uses fewer dynamic markings. After a full performance of the original work, the choir presents a contrasting version of the Offertoire, edited by John Rutter, quite unique in and of itself and extended in Fauré’s 1900 version with the chorale O Domine. Also included on the CD is a lovely performance of Cantique de Jean Racine in its original version for choir and organ and Messe Basse, originally composed for women’s voices, sweetly rendered by the choir’s trebles. 


Strauss – Elektra - Herlitzius; Meier; Pieczonka; Petrenko; Randle; Orchestre de Paris; Esa-Pekka Salonen

02 Vocal 03 Strauss ElektraStrauss – Elektra
Herlitzius; Meier; Pieczonka; Petrenko; Randle; Orchestre de Paris; Esa-Pekka Salonen
Festival Aix-en-Provence; BelAir Classiques BAC110

Richard Strauss’ overheated take on the ancient Sophocles tragedy about one of history’s most infamous dysfunctional families, pushed into fin-de-siècle extremes and Freudian overtones, may have shocked pre-WWI audiences, but even so it provided the composer with a sizable enough income to buy himself a villa in the Bavarian Alps. This latest revival of Elektra became the focal point of the Aix-en-Provence festival in the summer of 2013 in the hands of possibly the greatest director of our generation, Patrice Chéreau, made all the more poignant because he passed away a few months thereafter. His brilliant intellect, inspiration and intuitive feel for music and theatre is manifest from the overall concept to the minutest detail.

Compared with past productions that turned Elektra into a bone-chilling nocturnal bloodthirsty horror show, Chéreau avoided all sensationalism and concentrated on the psychology and interplay of characters, especially the three women principals. As Elektra, German soprano Evelyn Herlitzius is a primal, elemental force, almost like an animal who simply howls through an hour and three quarters at fever pitch, but also capable of tender moments in the “Recognition” scene (with Mikhail Petrenko as Orestes)  where Strauss for the first time reaches a major key, a sublime climax of the score. By contrast Chrysothemis, her sister, probably the only normal person among the women, is beautifully sung and acted with maternal instinct and compassion by Torontonian Adrianne Pieczonka who is rapidly achieving world fame. The most problematic – for Chéreau – was the handling of the murderous mother Clytemnestra, traditionally made into a half-insane complex-ridden grotesque witch, but here a woman of dignity, more to be pitied than hated and portrayed superbly by Waltraud Meier.

Finally I must emphasize the enormous contribution of Esa-Pekka Salonen whose firm control of dynamics brings out the subtle inner voices that often disappear in the monolithic sound of a giant Straussian orchestra.


André Tchaikowsky – The Merchant of Venice - Ainslie; Bridges; Eröd; Gunz; Hofmann; Lewek; Stout; Workman; Wiener Symphoniker; Erik Nielsen

02 Vocal 04 Merchant of VeniceAndré Tchaikowsky – The Merchant of Venice
Ainslie; Bridges; Eröd; Gunz; Hofmann; Lewek; Stout; Workman; Wiener Symphoniker; Erik Nielsen
Unitel Classica 2072708

Re-discovery of a forgotten opera usually happens to obscure Baroque or Bel Canto masterpieces, which for unfathomable reasons have been gathering dust in some musty old library. More often than not, they enter standard repertoire for a brief period of revival, only to be forgotten again. Let’s hope that fate will not befall The Merchant of Venice – an opera 30 years out of its time. Nearly produced by the English National Opera in 1984 two years after the composer’s death, this opera finally received its due at the 2013 Bregenz Festival. The Festival’s artistic director, David Pountney, is a champion of forgotten composers and André Tchaikowsky, born Robert Andrzej Krauthammer in Poland, is definitely well deserving of such re-discovery.

Survivor of the Warsaw ghetto (which he escaped with an assumed “Christian” name of Andrzej Czajkowski on his fake papers) and the communist rule, Tchaikowsky was an acclaimed pianist. He placed amongst the finalists of the 1955 Chopin Piano Competition and 1956 Queen Elisabeth of Belgium Competition. Despite those early accolades, he decided to dedicate himself to composition. His output, if not huge, is thoroughly engrossing; alas Merchant is the only opera. And what an opera – there is no doubting its dramatic bona-fides: Tchaikowsky makes his own mark by imbuing Antonio with gay yearnings, absent in Shakespeare, and scoring the role for a countertenor. The Bregenz production casts Christopher Ainslie in that role, against the remarkable Adrian Eröd as Shylock.

As a final irony, the composer got to centre stage before his work did – he willed his skull to the Royal Shakespeare Company to be used in Hamlet as a prop. That acclaimed 2008 production, filmed by the BBC, featured David Tennant as the brooding prince and André Tchaikowsky’s skull as Yorick.


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