Poulenc – Mass in G Major; Sept Chansons; Motets
Elora Festival Singers; Noel Edison
Naxos 8.572978

This disc features a cappella choral works of Poulenc, both sacred and secular. Exquisite as they are, these works pose a considerable challenge to a choir, with soprano lines that soar high into the ether, daring chromaticism and shifting, often-ambiguous harmonies with no instrumental accompaniment to grasp on to.

Though serious in nature, the Mass in G Major, written in 1937 after the death of Poulenc’s father and the composer’s return to Catholicism, retains some of the playfulness inherent in the Cocteau-esque Sept Chansons from his more youthful years with Les Six. Each of the chansons references a body part: arms, face, breasts, eyes, hair and hands and textually and musically are as steeped in hedonism as in wit. The most dramatic contrast with these, perhaps, is provided in the Quatre motets pour un temps de pénitence (1938-39), a sombre meditation on Holy Week while the Quatre motets pour le temps de Noël (1952) convey all the mystery and joy of the season.

Noel Edison leads the Elora Festival Singers adeptly through these varied and difficult ranges of character and emotion with enviable accuracy of pitch and perfectly nuanced expression.


02_Brokeback_Mountain.jpgCharles Wuorinen – Brokeback Mountain
Daniel Okulitch; Tom Randle; Heather Buck; Hannah Esther Minutillo; Teatro Real de Madrid; Titus Engel
BelAir Classics BAC111

In 2005, when acclaimed Taiwanese director Ang Lee adapted a 1997 short story by Annie Proulx, the film set off a firestorm – not just because it showcased a homosexual relationship and exposed the ugly face of rural homophobia, which it did admirably. The riveting performances by Jake Gyllenhaal and especially the late Heath Ledger, as masculine, restrained “Marlboro men” cowboys were miles away from any stereotype. The manner of one character’s death invoked uncomfortably the tragic real-life story of Matthew Shepard.

More so than anything else, Brokeback Mountain is a story of a life unfulfilled out of fear of judgement. Proulx has frequently commented that she wishes she had never written the story, as disappointed fans continue to pester her for a happy ending rewrite or at least a sequel. All this only confirms the power of the story here set to music by Charles Wuorinen. And so Brokeback Mountain became an opera.

Wuorinen gets the foreboding nature of the story, as his music is austere, dry and powerful, just like the mountain ridge that is the backdrop to a human tragedy. He illustrates the tragic tale with music filled with longing and regret. What is missing perhaps, are the fleeting and rare, but still real moments of pure pleasure and love that stubbornly persist between the two men, despite all the efforts to eradicate them.

In the final scene of the opera, the mood lifts, though not enough to allow the gravity-defying ascension. The music remains oppressive to the very end, smothering any budding inner peace. A powerful production.


01_Vocal_01_Handel_Ariodante.jpgHandel – Ariodante
Ann Murray; Joan Rodgers; English National Opera Orchestra and Chorus; 
Ivor Bolton
ArtHaus Musik 100065

Ariodante is a late opera by Handel. It is also one of his finest. It broke new ground in a number of ways: there are important ballet scenes; there is a real chorus; and there are substantial parts for the tenor and for the bass. This DVD is a record of the English National Opera production of the work, first mounted in 1993, then revived in 1996. Like all ENO productions it is sung in English. I think there is some point in translating a libretto into the language of most people in the audience in the case of comic operas or works with spoken dialogue. I don’t think it helps with an opera seria by Handel.

The production is by David Alden, who has in recent years given us several controversial productions for the Canadian Opera Company. There are a number of directorial excesses such as the quite gratuitous dream sequences, while the ballets that conclude both the second and third act are abominable. Moreover, the artists whom we see and hear are singers, not film stars. Several of the women are heavily made up and would no doubt look splendid from the second balcony. They do not in close-up and yet close-ups are what we get much of the time.

The conductor, Ivor Bolton, is very good and there is some fine singing from Ann Murray and Joan Rodgers, from Lesley Garrett and Gwynne Howell. But if your main interest is in the music you are better off listening to one of the CD sets available such as the version conducted by Raymond Leppard on Philips (with Janet Baker and Norma Burrowes) or that conducted by Alan Curtis on Virgin (with Karina Gauvin and Marie-Nicole Lemieux).


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01_Vocal_02_Mozart_Zauber.jpgMozart – Die Zauberflöte
Schmitt; Landshamer; Oliemans; Lejderman; Dutch National Opera; Netherlands Chamber Orchestra;
Marc Albrecht
Opus Arte OA 1122 D

Die Zauberflöte is not an easy opera to pull off, as it needs a director who is able to present the farcical elements such as the serpent that threatens Tamino at the beginning of the opera and the antics of Papageno, but is also in tune with the sense of ritual needed for the scenes with Sarastro and his initiates. This production, directed by Simon McBurney, is on the whole quite successful. I did not like everything: I could have done without the crowds of actors running on the stage, waving pieces of paper and pretending to be birds. I thought the initiates in their suits and with their neckties looked too much like the personnel of an insurance company. I don’t understand why the Queen of the Night was in a wheelchair or why the Three Spirits (very well sung by three boy sopranos) were made to look like wizened old men or why the Speaker was so grim and unsympathetic.

But there are marvellous moments. Pamina (the wonderful Christina Landshamer) and Papageno (Thomas Oliemans, a fine actor and a fine singer) set up a great relationship in their first scene together which then leads to a beautiful performance of the duet: Bei Männer welche Liebe fühlen. In several scenes Tamino plays his (magic) flute. Clearly unless the tenor is also a flutist he will mime these scenes while the flute is played by an orchestral musician. McBurney has taken the conventional presentation a stage further by either having the flutist join Tamino on stage or moving Tamino down into the orchestra pit. This is an inventive production set on a bare stage without any emphasis on theatrical illusion. Michael Levine’s set designs complement the production very well. The whole opera is well sung and there is no weak link in the cast.

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01_Vocal_03_Etienne_Dupuis.jpgLove Blows as the Wind Blows
Etienne Dupuis; Quatuor Claudel-Canimex
ATMA ACD2 2701

Etienne Dupuis developed for himself a reputation of being a clown – first with his classmates at the Schulich School of Music at McGill University and then with the attendees of his concerts. In this recording, Dupuis is all (most) business, as the mood called for in the songs of British composers is sombre. Loss of faith, end of life ruminations and such are only occasionally relieved by the wonders of nature (“O, the month of May, the merry month of May”). His voice is full and robust, and yet Dupuis uses vibrato, not very often associated with the baritone, to an interesting result in Barber’s Dover Beach. The accompaniment of Quatuor Claudel-Canimex, whose members are the mainstays of the Orchestra of Lanaudière – Canada’s best-loved classical music festival – harmonizes beautifully with his voice. The mood continues with the Adagio for string quartet by Barber – a piece no doubt demonstrating the Quatour Claudel-Canimex’s abilities, but in my opinion, unnecessarily omnipresent.

Speaking of omnipresent, the imp in Dupuis raises its head, with the hammed-up rendition of Danny Boy – though I cannot deny the beauty of the last note! The true gem of the album hides at the very end: Réjean Coallier’s setting of poems by Sylvain Garneau. Garneau died at the age of 23, leaving behind a small body of lyrical works. Coallier, a Montreal-based pianist, composer and teacher, offers a loving treatment of the poetry, with beautiful melodies lining the words with silky gentleness. Again, Dupuis sounds great – which he does whenever he overcomes his inner clown.


01_Vocal_04_Marshall_Songs.jpgNicholas Marshall – Songs and Chamber Music
James Gilchrist; Various Artists; Manchester Chamber Ensemble
Metier msv 28552 divineartrecords.com

This CD showcases songs and instrumental music by British composer Nicholas Marshall, born in the 1940s and still busily at work today. Marshall’s musical influences and talents are many and varied, and while certainly having his own inventive voice he follows in the musical footsteps of Warlock, Delius, Vaughan Williams and Sir Lennox Berkeley, with whom he also studied. The disc opens with The Birds, a song cycle of poetry by Hardy, Belloc, Yeats and others set beautifully for tenor voice, recorder and piano.  A brief but evocative Plaint for cello and piano precedes The Falling of the Leaves, another cycle set for tenor voice, alto recorder, cello and harpsichord on six poems by Yeats. The balance between all three voices is delicately well struck, in the writing as well as in performance; tenor James Gilchrist sings exquisitely, and Harvey Davies sounds equally at home on both harpsichord and piano.

Other songs on the program feature the poetry of James Reeves (Music in the Wood) and G.K. Chesterton (Three Short Songs), very deftly matched in character and spirit by Marshall’s writing. Two pieces for recorder and string quartet round out the program: Marshall’s Recorder Concerto, of which the slow movement is particularly beautiful, and The Nightingale, a short and sweet fantasia on a Welsh folk song. These are played with attentive affection and deserve more attention from other recorder players out there!

01_Vocal_05_Jensen_From_Sea_to_Sea.jpgAaron Jensen: From Sea to Sea – Vocal works featuring Canadian Poetry
Various Artists
Centrediscs CMCCD 20815

In an interview with The WholeNote’s David Perlman, composer/singer/impresario Aaron Jensen stated that “vocal music is flourishing in Toronto, and we plan on leading the singing revolution.” And he went on to do just that as artistic director of the Harbourfront SING! Festival. That and more so, representing all of Canada with the 2013 debut of his song cycle From Sea to Sea. It was eight years in the making, with Jensen first choosing poetry from each province and territory. Then came the arduous task of obtaining rights from each poet (or poet’s estate), and then the craft of honouring each poem with its own unique musical treatment. The result is a delightful and most interesting variety of styles within the one work, perfectly matching Jensen’s description of the “abundance of wit, craft, and poignancy” of the texts. In addition to expressing through the genres of folk, classical and jazz, he invokes overtones of Inuit throat singing (Uvavnuk Dreams), pointillist notation mirroring the Braille alphabet (Poems in Braille), bodhrán rhythms (Rain in the Country), as well as many more highly effective musical sketches and characterizations. Most of the vocal groups who performed the work at SING! appear on the recording and deliver exquisite performances: The Elmer Isleler Singers, The SING! Singers, Countermeasure, Cawthra Park Chamber Choir, KAJAK Collective and the Canadian Men’s Chorus.

Bach – Cantatas Vol.1 (182; 81; 129)
J.S. Bach-Stiftung; Rudolf Lutz
Bach-Stiftung A909

The J.S. Bach-Stiftung, a Swiss enterprise, is committed to performing all of J.S. Bach’s vocal music. Many of these performances (we are not told how many) will also find their way to CDs. This is the first installment; recorded in 2007 and 2008 and published in 2011 but only now released in North America (the project has now reached volume 12). It contains recordings of three cantatas: the early Himmelskönig, sei willkommen (BWV182), written for Weimar in 1714, and two cantatas which belong to Bach’s first Leipzig cycle: Jesus schläft, was soll ich hoffen? (BWV81) and Gelobet sei der Herr, mein Gott (BWV129).

The conductor, Rudolf Lutz, uses a small chamber orchestra and a small chamber choir. The size is in between the strictly one-to-a-part approach of Joshua Rifkin and the slightly larger ensembles employed by conductors like John Eliot Gardiner or Philippe Herreweghe. The singing is strong (I especially liked Claude Eichenberger, one of the alto soloists) but the real glory of the performances is in the instrumental work. There is a wonderful duet between violin (Renate Steinmann) and recorder (Armelle Plantier) at the opening of the first cantata and an equally fine oboe d’amore obbligato part (Esther Fluor) in the alto aria of the final work.

Of the three cantatas on this disc only the second is at all well known (it is described in great detail in John Eliot Gardiner’s recent biography). I was glad to make the acquaintance of the other two.


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02_Mozart_Piau.jpgMozart – Desperate Heroines
Sandrine Piau; Mozarteum Orchestra, Salzburg; Ivor Bolton
Naïve V5366

Sandrine Piau has not recorded the music of Mozart since her Mozart Opera Arias in 2001. The latest album on the progressive label Naïve (known for its recordings of the complete works of Vivaldi) is dedicated to Mozart heroines, but not necessarily the best-known ones. The disc is certainly filled with arias that rarely receive recording treatment. This speaks to Piau’s in-depth knowledge of the composer’s output and her security in the belief that as a soprano in demand all over the world, she has arrived and does not have to cater to more common tastes.

The former harpist is particularly celebrated for her vocal performances of the Baroque repertoire – the music she discovered after an encounter with William Christie, the period performance guru. It was Christie who encouraged her to forgo the harp and start singing. Piau’s voice seems uniquely suited to Baroque music, with its singular clarity and purity of line. This is a voice with a lean, almost austere tone. There is no velvet here, no softness and padding – just a simple strand of gold. That is why some, including this writer, may find her interpretations of Mozart’s music somewhat lacking. Then again, after her transformative recordings of Vivaldi and Handel, it was time to balance the score. As the artist herself says: “Mozart allows me to regain my focus; he preserves that miraculous balance that can so easily be disturbed in the whirlwind of life.”


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