01 Mozart DavideMozart – Davide Penitente
Académie équestre de Versailles; Bartabas; Mozartwoche Salzburg; Les Musiciens du Louvre; Marc Minkowski

Mozart's Davide Penitente dates from 1785. It is a reworking of the Mass in C Minor, K427, but with two newly composed arias for the soprano and the tenor who had sung in the premiere of The Abduction from the Seraglio. The practice of staging works which were never meant to be staged is now quite common but there is a difference here: the soloists, the instrumentalists and the choir (all very good) perform the work as an oratorio, while the acting is done by horses and their riders, who move rhythmically to Mozart's music as choreographed by Bartabas. There are 12 horses, fine-looking animals. They all have names and receive equal billing with the musicians. A nice touch that.The soloists are soprano Christiane Karg, mezzo Marianne Crebassa and tenor Stanislas de Barbeyrac. There is an error in the booklet which states that both the arias Lungi le cure ingrate and Tra l'oscure ombre funeste are performed by the mezzo. She sings the first aria but it is the soprano who performs the second.This version of Davide Penitente was first performed in the Felsenreitschule in Salzburg in January of this year. It was a great success. I imagine that if I had been present in Salzburg last January, I might well have been swept up in the excitement. Just seeing the DVD was a bizarre experience however, and if I want to hear the work again I am likely to go back to the CD in which it is performed by La Petite Bande, conducted by Sigiswald Kuijken (on Deutsche Harmonia Mundi).

02 Brahms RequiemBrahms – Ein Deutsches Requiem
Kühmeier; Finley; Netherlands Radio Choir; Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra; Mariss Jansons
RCO Live RCO 15003

Although Requiem, a funeral mass, is most commonly associated with Mozart, (who died before finishing his own setting), most versions of Requiem were rarely written in the shadow of a musician’s impending death. True, Verdi composed his relatively late in life at 60, but he lived for another 27 years. In fact, most composers were very young when they took on this heavy subject. Berlioz, Bruckner, Cherubini, Delius, Duruflé, Dvořák, Fauré, Michael Haydn and Reger all composed either Roman Catholic or Protestant Requiems.

Ein Deutsches Requiem stands out because of its superb choral writing, incomparable soprano aria Ihr habt nun Traurigkeit and the moving baritone solo parts in the third and sixth movements. Brahms, only 23 when he started crafting the work, resumed composition after his mother’s death. Encouraged by Clara Schumann, Brahms presented a three-movement work, but this was welcomed with scorn. Only in 1867, did a six-movement work receive a triumphant reception. The work’s profile only increased when a year later he added the aforementioned solo for soprano as part number five.

It is a meditative piece, serious in its sorrow, yet lacking the transcendence of Fauré’s Requiem. The soloists become the pallbearers of this solemn mass, guiding the choral procession from the blessing of the suffering survivors to benediction of the dead. Despite being culled from the Old Testament and the Gospels, the text has been criticized for not being overtly religious. This speaks to Brahms’ humanistic, rather than religious, viewpoint. Both Ginia Kühmeier and Gerald Findley stun with their vocal performances, the latter entering a period of his life when his baritone voice moves into being defined as a bass.

03 Nielsen Maskarade

Nielsen – Maskarade
Milling; Reuter; Riis; Beck; Dahl; Andersen; Danish NSO & Choir; Michael Schonwandt
dacapo SACD 6.220641-42


This remarkable recording of Denmark’s beloved “national opera” is a superlative tribute marking the 150th anniversary of the birth of composer Carl Nielsen (1865-1931). Nielsen’s second opera, Maskarade, received its Copenhagen premiere in 1906, at a time when the composer was employed as a second violinist in the Royal Danish Theatre. Quite unlike the dramatic symphonies of his maturity, this is music of lightness and charm, immediately accessible and immensely enjoyable. The opera’s contrived comedy of mistaken identities serves as mere scaffolding for a libretto that revels in a peculiarly Danish sense of the absurd. Niels Jørgen Riis plays Leander, forced into a marriage with Leonora (Dénise Beck) by his buffoonish father Jeronimus (Stephen Milling). He eventually comes to realize during the celebrations at the masked ball that the disguised woman he truly desires is Leonora herself. Johann Reuter plays Leander’s servant Henrik, who also has his eye on Leonora’s servant, Pernille (Ditte Højgaard Andersen).

The conductor Michael Schønwandt is a magisterial proponent of the score, a work he committed to memory at the age of ten. The studio-quality SACD recording is greatly enhanced by the superb acoustics of the new Danish Royal Koncerthuset. The orchestra, chorus and the cast drawn from the Royal Danish Opera are uniformly excellent throughout. A full libretto is provided; the English translation is identical to that of the newly edited score provided by the Carl Nielsen Project of the Music Department of the Royal Danish Library, freely available as a PDF download at bit.ly/1X2vvUO courtesy of the Danish Centre for Music Publication.

04 Widor Vierne

Widor; Vierne – Messes pour choeurs et orgues
Les Petits Chanteurs du Mont-Royal; Les Chantres Musiciens; Gilbert Patenaude; Vincent Boucher; Jonathan Oldengarm
ATMA ACD2 2718


Charles-Marie Widor (1844-1937) and Louis Vierne (1870-1937) were, respectively, organists at St.-Sulpice Church and Notre Dame Cathedral. The recent Paris terrorist killings occurred not far from the churches where these works originated. During those dreadful days I felt particularly uplifted by this disc, for both the emotional resonances of the two great masses (along with six motets) and the youth and promise of the singers. There is freshness and confidence in the singìng of both boys’ and young mens’ choirs of Mount Royal led by Patenaude, that is complemented wonderfully by Boucher’s great organ and Oldengarm’s small organ near the choir. On disc we cannot fully sense the spatial separation of the great organ from the rest in Montreal’s St. Joseph’s Oratory, yet the dynamic and timbral contrasts in the magnificently resonant acoustical space are effective indeed!

Vierne’s Solemn Mass in C-Sharp Minor (the track list wrongly states F-Sharp Minor) opens with a Kyrie that felt a little stiff, but ended impressively. In the Sanctus, the affecting opening call in each of the choir’s four sections followed by the whole choir, the impassioned and even raw singing of the “Pleni sunt,” and captivating organ registration throughout were highlights. In Widor’s Mass for Two Choirs the excellent trebles of the Petits Chanteurs are heard to advantage in the Kyrie. In the Gloria there are interesting crossrhythms and other challenges, but the ensemble on the recording remains amazingly tight throughout.

05 Ho Legend of Da JiAlice Ping Yee Ho – The Lesson of Da Ji
Toronto Masque Theatre; Larry Beckwith
CMCCD 22115

In her music theatre work The Lesson of Da Ji, Hong Kong-born Toronto composer Alice Ping Yee Ho has struck a fine, if not always easy, cultural balance between features of classical Beijing (Peking) opera and the European masque tradition, as interpreted in 21st-century Canada.

It is no mean feat to present eight Canadian voices supported by the string tonalities of the Chinese zhongruan, erhu, pipa and zheng. It is even more complex when all that is seamlessly meshed with the sonority of the European baroque lute, harpsichord, viola da gamba, violin and recorders, plus a percussion battery. Ho does just that admirably, presenting along the way a bracing new hybrid soundscape to enjoy.

Her skillfully orchestrated score hangs directly on Canadian playwright Marjorie Chan’s libretto. It tells the chilling tale of the famous concubine Da Ji of the Shang Dynasty (c.1600 to 1046 BCE), honing in on her illicit love affair with a musician and the bloody revenge enacted by the jealous King Zhou. It’s the sort of court drama common to both Chinese and Eurocentric opera traditions.

The composer once noted that “colours and tonality are two attractive resources to me: they form certain mental images that connect to audiences in a very basic way.” The Lesson of Da Ji follows that dictum, and her approach works to convey character, place, mood and imagery, even via the audio CD medium. My guess is that a video presentation – or better yet, a live production where the multiple visual and choreographic elements are at work – would make for an even more involving evening of theatre.

Commissioned by the Toronto Masque Theatre in 2012 The Lesson of Da Ji immediately won critical acclaim as well as the 2013 Dora Mavor Moore Award for Outstanding Original Opera. The release of the recording of this hour-long opera in two acts within just a couple of years of its premiere reflects the work’s enthusiastic initial reception. It may well also mark the beginning of its acceptance by a wider public in Canada, as well as in the composer’s country of birth.

01 Rimsky Korsakov Tsar BrideRimsky-Korsakov – The Tsar’s Bride
Peretyatko; Rachvelishvili;Kränzle; Cernoch; Kotscherga; Tomowa-Sintow; Staatkapelle Berlin; Daniel Barenboim
BelAir Classics BAC105

This production was a highlight of the 2013 season in Berlin. One of the reasons was Russian director-genius, Dimitry Tcherniakov (creator of the COC’s unorthodox and spectacular Don Giovanni last February) who has since become a very desirable commodity all over the world. Tcherniakov’s modern concept targets the world of media bosses inventing computer-generated heroes and rounding up beautiful women (remember The Bachelor?) to be chosen against their will to be their wives. His concept chimes in nicely with the gruesome original story and is also very engaging, colourful and spectacular to look at.

Rimsky-Korsakov’s opera The Tsar’s Bride is largely unknown in the West and it is the true story of Ivan the Terrible’s chosen bride who was poisoned soon after their marriage. The opera is strongly dramatic with beautiful melodic invention and is profoundly moving, especially in the hands of Daniel Barenboim, who is packing in sold-out performances one after the other in Berlin and in Milan – at La Scala where Verdi was discovered and where he is referred to these days simply as “The Maestro.”

The celebrated cast is headed by Russia’s latest export, the gorgeous high soprano Olga Peretyatko, still a bit of an unknown quantity to most, but already a star. I’ve watched her in Rossini literally charming the Pesaro audience with her conquering hair-raisingly difficult vocal acrobatics and her spectacular stage presence. It’s almost impossible to outdo her, yet mezzo Anita Rachvelishvili’s deeply felt, heartbreaking performance as the wronged woman gets even more applause at the end. Of the men, German bass-baritone J.M. Kränzle, who is also a great character actor, makes a big impression as a larger-than-life and complex Boyar Grigory. Opera at its best.

02 ParryParry – I Was Glad; Coronation Te Deum
Choir of Westminster Abbey; Onyx Brass; Daniel Cook; James O’Donnell
Hyperion CMA68089

Sir Hubert Parry’s most famous Church of England standards such as Jerusalem, Dear Lord and Father of mankind (on his hymn tune Repton), the ode Blest pair of sirens, his “Mag and Nunc” (Magnificat and Nunc dimittis) and coronation pieces I was glad and Te Deum are featured alongside lesser-known early works in this excellent recording by the gentlemen and boys of Westminster Abbey. Though some contemporaries saw Parry as overly conventional, one must admit that his music can be rousing and has graced many a royal occasion, not just in his own time but in ours as well.

While I was glad and Te Deum served for coronations throughout the 20th century, Blest pair of sirens Parry’s setting of Milton’s ode At a Solemn Music, was performed by the Westminster Abbey Choir for the wedding of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge (William and Kate). By employing the Onyx Brass, this recording pays tribute to the many times brass was introduced in arrangements of Parry’s work, notably those by Grayston Ives. The choir performs as if born to this music and an excellent solo quartet for the Magnificat emerges from its ranks, including a treble solo of great clarity by the young Alexander Kyle. Organist Daniel Cook veritably shines, having been given the over 11-minute Fantasia and Fugue in G Major.

03 Wainwright Prima DonnaRufus Wainwright – Prima Donna
Janis Kelly; Kathryn Guthrie; Antonio Figueroa; Richard Morrison; BBC Symphony; Jayce Ogren
Deutsche Grammophon 479 5340


Rufus Wainwright is certainly a polarizing figure. Celebrated by some, panned by others, for his fawning song-by-song recreation of Judy Garland’s concerts. He has been a ubiquitous presence at the Toronto Luminato Festival and is now a recorded opera composer. Wait, what? Yes, his 2009 opera Prima Donna, seen in Toronto at Luminato, recently received the full Deutsche Grammophon treatment with a stellar cast. Wainwright says he was inspired by a late-in-life interview with Maria Callas, apparently conducted in French, hence the language of the opera. Instigated apparently as a promise of commission from Peter Gelb and the Metropolitan Opera, it did not end up at the Met – Gelb insisted on a new opera in English, not French. Instead, the Manchester Festival and the now defunct New York City Opera staged it to little fanfare. So, how is it? Surprisingly listenable. Wainwright does not break any new ground here, but it is a competent piece of Puccini-esque nostalgia. The interesting part is that Wainwright writes the best melodies not for his Prima Donna, but for her imagined lover, the journalist André Letourneur. Late in the work, in the fifth scene of the second act, the beautiful voice of Antonio Figueroa brings to life some fine operatic writing. In an intriguing twist of the libretto, the scene is a recreation of the past glory of the Prima Donna and her partner, foreshadowing the sad ending. Nostalgic musically and thematically, Prima Donna is a surprisingly enjoyable effort from the bad boy of torch song.

01_Rossini_Aureliano.jpgRossini – Aureliano in Palmira
Michael Spyres; Jessica Pratt; Lena Belkina; Raffaella Lupinacci; Dimitri Pkhaladze; Orchestra Sinfonica G. Rossini; Teatro Comunale di Bologna; Will Crutchfield
ArtHaus Musik 109073

Twenty-one-year-old Rossini’s early attempt at opera seria was a flop in Milan, at La Scala, and subsequently disappeared from the stage until recently when American musicologist/scholar Will Crutchfield dug it up from obscurity and reconstructed the score to be performed in Pesaro (Rossini’s birthplace) where it became a well-deserved success. The story dates back to the fourth century A.D. when the Roman emperor Aurelianus led a campaign against Palmyra (in today’s Syria) with its warrior queen, the beautiful Zenobia, with whom he predictably falls in love. There are complications with the queen’s Persian lover, so it becomes a love triangle and the opera is rather long (three and a half hours), but the music is ravishingly beautiful as we hear it now, so one wonders what kind of performance it must have been back in 1813 (Verdi’s year of birth) for the picky Milanese to have rejected it. It didn’t bother the enterprising Rossini much, though. He simply took some of the best music and recycled it into his Barber of Seville.

Here in Pesaro where singing is sacrosanct (and would put most big name opera houses to shame), the opera is performed with the best forces available today. The wonderful Michael Spyres, heroic Rossini tenor, ideal in the title role, is suitably imperial, yet sympathetic and compassionate with a voice of tremendous power. The stupendous Australian soprano, Jessica Pratt has no equal today in coping with the immensely difficult range and glass-shattering high notes of Queen Zenobia. She is certainly the darling of the mainly Italian, connoisseur crowd. The third principal, Arsace the Persian prince, is the youngest, Ukrainian-born mezzo Lena Belkina, who is making big waves in Europe today with her mellifluous deep notes and spectacular range. Italian soprano Raffaella Lupinacci is charming, stylish and thoroughly competent in the lesser role of Publia.

Colourfully staged by Italian director Mario Martone in rich tones of burnt amber and translucent moving screens, and very ably conducted by Crutchfield, whose love of Rossini is manifest at every gesture, this production is highly recommended.

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