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.


Harrison Birtwistle – Gawain - Royal Opera House; Elgar Howarth

02 Vocal 05 Birstwistle GawainHarrison Birtwistle – Gawain
Royal Opera House; Elgar Howarth
NMC D200

I wish I liked this disc more. Everything is first rate: the source – medieval epic Sir Gawain and the Green Knight; Harrison Birtwistle – composer and master of orchestration; skilled librettist David Hersant; a stellar cast; the Royal Opera Orchestra under Elgar Howarth; excellent sound; and comprehensive notes. Throughout Act 1, underlying violence and sorcery at King Arthur’s court is manifest in the atonal, expressionist score’s volcanic low brass eruptions and pervasive percussion. After the jaded king demands new adventures of his knights, the Green Knight appears; Gawain accepts his challenge, which requires mutual beheading! All is plotted by sorceresses Morgan le Fay and Lady de Hautdesert. Act 1 seems belligerent without respite, and without the benefit of staging in this CD recording becomes tedious listening.

The quieter Act 2 seems a resolution to Act 1’s dissonance. Gawain reaches the Green Knight`s abode and is tested by Lady de Hautdesert`s seductive advances. Here, castanet sounds are amusing (as earlier were temple block clip-clops while Gawain prepared for riding). Surviving the beheading scene ordeal, Gawain returns exhausted to Arthur`s court proclaiming “I am not a hero.” To paraphrase Keats, I feel the palpable design of an anti-war allegory.

Soprano Marie Angel (Morgan Le Fay), and mezzo Anne Howells (Lady de Hautdesert) are particularly brilliant; bass-baritone John Tomlinson (Green Knight) and baritone François Le Roux (Gawain) too are standouts. Difficult vocal challenges are more than met by a rasping Fool (Omar Ebrahim), a praying countertenor Bishop (Kevin Smith), the royals and other knights.


Kenneth Fuchs – Falling Man - Roderick Williams; London Symphony Orchestra; JoAnn Falletta

02 Vocal 06 Falling ManKenneth Fuchs – Falling Man
Roderick Williams; London Symphony Orchestra; JoAnn Falletta
Naxos 8.559753

It was through an accident of timing, rather than by design, that I got to hear the haunting composition Falling Man, by Kenneth Fuchs, on September 11, 2014. Based on the 9/11 novel by Don DeLillo, the music immediately evokes comparisons with John Adams’ On the Transmigration of Souls, the brilliant tribute to the victims of the World Trade Centre terrorist attack. Where Adams wrote music that is elegiac and impossibly transcendent, Fuchs offers a much more personal reflection, tender and almost dazed in the aftermath of disaster. Though structurally dodecaphonic, the music does not strictly adhere to any blueprint, delivering lyrical and nearly romantic themes of a personal heartbreak in the face of a very public tragedy.

A champion of Fuchs’ music, JoAnn Falletta conducts the LSO brilliantly; but the real star of this recording is Roderick Williams, whose soft, velvety baritone belies the harsh descriptions of falling ash and human artifacts raining down on Wall Street that horrible morning. The companion pieces on the album, based on poems by John Updike and William Blake, including the incomparable Tyger, do not reveal such immediate connection with our recent past and deserve to be listened to on their own, within a different context.


Mahler – Lieder

01 Vocal 01a Alma  Gustav01 Vocal 01b Mahler LiederAlma & Gustav Mahler – Lieder
Karen Cargill; Simon Lepper
Linn LC 11615

Mahler – Lieder
Bernarda Fink; Anthony Spiri; Gustav Mahler Ensemble; Tonkünstler Orchester Niederösterreich; Andrés Orozco-Estrada
Harmonia Mundi MNC 902173

Scottish mezzo Karen Cargill, trained in Glasgow, Toronto (with Patricia Kern) and London, is in the early stages of a burgeoning career. This recording marks her debut recital on the Glasgow-based Linn record label. The disc offers a comparatively rare opportunity to hear the Fünf Lieder by Alma Mahler (1879-1964) published in 1910, along with two major song cycles by her husband Gustav. The young Alma Schindler, Mahler’s fetching 22-year-old composition student and sometime lover of Alexander Zemlinsky when the two first met, was persuaded to abandon her creative pursuits before agreeing to marry the first of her many husbands in 1902, though at the end of his life (1860-1911) a repentant and cuckolded Gustav arranged to have her songs published by Universal Edition. Zemlinsky’s influence looms large in these erotically chromatic and assuredly accomplished Lieder which are given highly sympathetic readings here. The set is followed by Gustav Mahler’s Fünf Rückert Lieder and the four-movement Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen, closing with a passionate rendition of the Urlicht movement from his Second Symphony. Cargill is blessed with an enormous and opulent voice which in full flight can reach operatic volumes, notably so in the triumphant conclusion of Um Mitternacht from the Rückert Lieder, though a certain breathiness becomes apparent when her powerful voice is drawn back. Veteran accompanist Simon Lepper provides immaculate support throughout. The otherwise enjoyable and well-recorded disc seems rather skimpy at a mere 53 minutes.

An artist of exceptional sensitivity and great emotional depth, Bernarda Fink is an Argentinian singer of Slovenian extraction best known for her Baroque-era performances. With this disc she reveals a sympathy for the music of Mahler comparable to the great Mahler singers of the past such as Christa Ludwig and Janet Baker. The programming of this excellent Harmonia Mundi release (aptly subtitled “A Life in Songs”) is innovative, including two very rarely heard early songs, Im Lenz and Winterlied; Arnold Schoenberg’s 1920 arrangement for chamber ensemble of the complete Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen; the mournful Kindertotenlieder cycle with full orchestra; and selections from his Rückert Lieder in various orchestral and piano versions for a generous duration of 78 minutes. Pianist Anthony Spiri and Fink collaborate wonderfully well together and the young Colombian conductor Andrés Orosco-Estrada (recently appointed to lead the Houston Symphony) proves equally sensitive to the subtle nuances of her deeply felt interpretations. This is truly a recording to treasure.


Strauss – Capriccio

01 Vocal 02 Strauss CapriccioStrauss – Capriccio
Fleming; Skovhus; Schade; Eiche; Kirchschlager; Rydl; Wiener Staatsoper; Marco Arturo Marelli
Cmajor 715908

Fresh from the rapture of watching this video performance of Strauss’ last utterance in opera and recovering from the delirium of the standing ovation, can I silence the skeptics who believe that opera is dead and totally irrelevant in our age? “They should eat their words” (to quote Bruce Surtees) after seeing this production from the Wiener Staatsoper. This venerable opera house actually just recently produced at least two phenomenal successes including this one and a stupendous Anna Bolena.

Richard Strauss, a genius who managed to revamp his earlier, very successful sturm und drang hyper-romantic style towards an almost Mozartian restraint and elegant classicism without losing his tremendous gifts of melody, advanced harmonies and overall structural control of his material, is now 150 years old (I use the present tense to emphasize just how alive he is to me through his music). To celebrate this landmark Vienna chose this, his most difficult and problematic opera, not Salome nor Der Rosenkavalier, but Capriccio, taking an enormous chance.

The heroine, Renée Fleming as the Countess, pretty well owns this crown jewel of a role and there is no match for her presently. She had a difficult start as she is not getting any younger, but she soars, grows in stature and achieves heights in the last scene where even the Gods would fear to tread. Canadian tenor Michael Schade and German baritone Markus Eiche, the frustrated would-be lovers, are no disappointment either, but Angelika Kirschlager (mezzo) with her perfect German diction, wonderful stage presence, charming voice and sense of humour certainly gives Fleming a run for her money. Kurt Rydl, in the comic role of the busybody schauspieldirektor, certainly lives up to his reputation as one of the great character basso-buffos of today. Swedish baritone Bo Shovkus is a bit outlandish in the role of the Count, but adds a lot of interest to the character and his voice is excellent. In his Wiener Staatsoper premiere, Christoph Eschenbach is in masterly control and gets able support from his virtuoso musicians. Special credit is due to the young violinists in the opening very difficult string sextet and to the wonderful horns in the famous “Moonlight Intermezzo.”

Director Marco Arturo Marelli’s concept is surprisingly grandiose for this intimate, chamber-like opera, but the resplendent sets of a Rococo palace in vibrant, opulent colours of blue and silver, translucent furnishings and abundance of mirrors never cease to delight the eye. All the foregoing notwithstanding it is the underlying abundance of talent, good taste, charm and Viennese gemütlichkeit which carry the day and the birthday boy, Maestro Strauss, the big winner.


L’Heure Rose - Hélène Guilmette; Martin Dubé

01 Vocal 03 Helene GuilmetteL’Heure Rose
Hélène Guilmette; Martin Dubé
Analekta AN 2 9141

This is a revelation for those wishing to learn more about the female contemporaries of Fauré, Duparc, Debussy and Poulenc. Ten women composers of the 19th and 20th centuries are represented on this recording: some we’ve been introduced to before (Viardot, Chaminade, L. & N. Boulanger, Beach) and others quite unfamiliar (Holmès, Canal, Karveno, Landry).

While perusing sheet music on Rue de Rome in Paris in 2007, soprano Hélène Guilmette, found some excellent works by Mel (Mélanie) Bonis, one of those who used a pseudonym to get by in the male-dominated world of music publishing. Her story is one of talent long-hidden; a marriage arranged by her parents to a man 25 years her senior left little space to pursue her art. Only later, when reunited with a long-lost love, a singer, did she receive the encouragement she needed.

Guilmette’s raison d’être for this collection is “making these works better known and honouring their memory.” Fin-de-siècle Paris is brought to life in these impressionistic songs by Guilmette’s shimmering voice and long-time coach, collaborator and accompanist Martin Dubé’s pianistic finesse. A few interesting later works are included as well, such as cabaret actress/singer/composer Wally Karveno’s La robe de lune (1954) and Quebec-born Jeanne Landry’s Émergence (1996).


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