01 Luna Pearl WoolfThis month Tapestry presents the world premiere of American composer Luna Pearl Woolf’s latest opera, Jacqueline. Coinciding with this is the Pentatone release of Woolf’s Fire and Flood on the Oxingale label (PTC5186803 naxosdirect.com). This striking vocal disc features mostly recent works for a cappella choir (the Choir of Trinity Wall Street under the direction of Julian Wachner) with soloists in several instances and, in the most memorable selection, Après moi, le déluge, obbligato cello (Matt Haimovitz). After a virtuosic cello cadenza, this work develops into a bluesy and occasionally meditative telling of the story of Noah and the Flood which culminates in the gospel-tinged Lord, I’m goin’ down in Louisiana before gently subsiding. After a rousing arrangement of Leonard Cohen’s Everybody Knows for vocal trio and cello, comes a modern-sounding but fairly tonal Missa in Fines Orbis Terrae with the choir accompanied by Messiaen-like organ (Avi Stein). The vocal trio (sopranos Devon Guthrie and Nancy Anderson with mezzo Elise Quagliata) return for One to One to One, in this instance accompanied by the low strings (three cellos and three basses) of NOVUS NY. Having begun with the close harmonies, murmurs, shouts and extended vocal techniques of the a cappella To the Fire with full choir, the disc ends with the vocal trio once again joined by Haimovitz for a raucous setting of Cohen’s Who by Fire to close out an exceptional disc. A wonderful cross-section of Woolf’s vocal writing that bodes well for the new opera.

02 ConcurrenceLast April I wrote about a solo recording by Icelandic cellist Sæunn Thorsteinsdóttir called Vernacular which included Afterquake by Páll Ragnar Pálsson, a rock musician who has recently come to the world of art music. That solo piece was directly linked to his earlier Quake for cello and chamber orchestra, a concerto in all but name and his first collaboration with Thorsteinsdóttir. On a new disc from Sono Luminus, Concurrence (DSL-92237 sonoluminus.com) Thorsteinsdóttir is heard performing this forebear with the Iceland Symphony Orchestra under the direction of Daniel Bjarnason, the orchestra’s principal guest conductor. While I find Afterquake a stunning tour de force with its virtuosity and subtlety, I welcome this opportunity to hear the original Quake with its expanded palette of timbre, texture and colour. It is no surprise that it was a selected work at the International Rostrum of Composers in Budapest in 2018. The disc also includes Metacosmos, an atmospheric work by Anna Thorvaldsdóttir, Haukur Tómasson’s Piano Concerto No.2 and María Huld Markan Sigfúsdóttir’s Oceans. In the booklet essay by American critic Steve Smith we are urged to contemplate the human dimensions of the music and not just hear it as scenic paintings. I must confess though, from the opening strains of Metacosmos I found myself remembering the stark landscapes of Iceland and thinking that yes, “You can hear a country in its music.” Tómasson’s concerto is seemingly all about timbre, the dynamics range from delicate pianissimos to forceful fortes, but the music is never bombastic. As Smith says, “the soloist [Víkingur Ólafsson] is first among equals, a frolicsome force in continual conversation with lively choruses of counterparts, never overshadowed but also rarely isolated.” Sigfúsdóttir’s Oceans begins in near silence, gently evoking sunrise on a quiet sea. The seven-minute piece remains calm and serene throughout, setting the stage for Pálsson’s Quake, which concludes the disc. The recordings were made in the main Eldborg concert hall and the Norðurljós recital hall of Reykjavik’s five-star waterfront cultural centre Harpa, using Pyramix software, with the orchestra seated in a circle around the conductor. Production values are superb, with both CD and Blu-ray Pure Audio discs included in the package. Highly recommended.

03 AfterimageThe String Orchestra of Brooklyn (SOB)’s conductor Eli Spindel says of the group’s debut CD release afterimage (Furious Artisans FACD6823 furiousartisans.com) “The featured works […] take as their starting point a single moment from an older work and – through processes of repetition, distortion, and in the case of the Stabat Mater, extreme slow motion – create a completely new soundscape, like opening a small door into an unfamiliar world.” The disc begins with Christopher Cerrone’s High Windows, based on Paganini’s Caprice No.6 in G Minor. Scored for string quartet and string orchestra, the SOB is joined on this recording by the Argus Quartet. The 13-minute work examines a fragment of the Paganini as under a microscope and also draws on material from an earlier Cerrone piece for piano and electronics. The title refers to the windows of the church in which the premiere performance took place. Although this is the SOB’s first recording, they were founded in 2007 and the second work is Jacob Cooper’s Stabat Mater Dolorosa which was written for them in 2009. Taking Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater as its point of departure, the 27-minute work incorporates two singers as does the original. It takes patience to listen to the extremely slow unfolding of this careful examination of one of the most gorgeous works of early 18th-century vocal repertoire. If you are able to suspend your disbelief, it’s well worth the journey. The disc also includes the original works that inspired Cerrone and Cooper. Violinist Rachel Lee Priday performs Paganini’s solo caprice and soprano Mellissa Hughes and mezzo Kate Maroney shine in a more traditional interpretation of the first movement of Pergolesi’s masterpiece to complete the disc. My only quibble with this recording is the order of presentation. I’m sure much thought went into the decision to put the new works first and the old works last, but after several listenings I find I prefer to hear the Paganini first to set the stage for Cerrone’s tribute, then the Cooper, with Pergolesi last to really bring us home.

Listen to 'afterimage' Now in the Listening Room

04 Matt SargentI thought I had all the material I needed for this month’s column when, just a few days before deadline, we received a shipment from the label Cold Blue and I found one of the discs so similar in approach to Cooper’s Stabat Mater that I decided to add it to my pile. Although new to me, it seems that Jim Fox originally founded this label in 1983, producing 10- and later 12-inch vinyl discs of primarily California-based contemporary and avant-garde music. When both of its distributors closed their doors in 1985 the label ceased operations for a time, but Fox later re-established it and began producing CDs in 2000. The catalogue now includes some five dozen titles by a host of composers including Fox himself, John Luther Adams, Charlemagne Palestine, Larry Polansky, Kyle Gann and Daniel Lenz to name but a few (i.e. the ones I’ve heard of). The disc that captured my attention is Matt Sargent – Separation Songs (CB0055 coldbluemusic.com), a set of 54 variations on selections from William Billings’ New England Psalm Singer. Composed between 2013 and 2018, Sargent has scored these four-voice hymn tunes, originally published in 1770, for two string quartets. On this recording the Eclipse Quartet accompanies and interacts with itself through overdubbing. Sargent says: “Throughout the piece, hymns tunes appear and reappear in ever-expanding loops of music passed between the quartets. Each time they return, the tunes filter through a ‘separation process’ whereby selected notes migrate from one quartet to the other. This process leaves breaks in the music that either remain silent or are filled in by stretching the durations of nearby notes, generating new rhythms and harmonies.” To my ears, the effect is like listening to a Renaissance consort of viols through a layer of gauze, or filtered by the mists of time, much like when ghostly strains of Schubert’s Death and the Maiden appear in George Crumb’s Black Angels. If I said you would need patience for Cooper’s protracted Stabat Mater, that is more than doubly the case for this 73-minute, one-track composition, but again, it rewards every moment of attention. I look forward to exploring the Cold Blue back catalogue, and to future releases.

Listen to 'Separation Songs' Now in the Listening Room

05 Shuffle DemonsWell, all that listening to atmospheric and mist-shrouded ambience left me needing an injection of backbeat and rhythm, so when I found the latest from the Shuffle Demons in my inbox I knew the remedy was in hand. I’ll admit I may not be the ideal candidate to take on this review as it’s somewhat beyond my usual purview, but having spent some of my formative years in funky Queen St. W., I have fond memories of watching this outstanding (and outrageous) band playing on the streets of the neighbourhood. It came as a bit of a surprise to me that the Demons were still active some 35 years later, but it was a pleasant one indeed. Their ninth album Crazy Time (Stubby Records SRCD 1703 shuffledemons.com) features the classic three saxes and driving rhythm of bass and drums the Demons are known for. It includes two new members, Matt Lagan on tenor sax and bassist Mike Downes alongside stalwarts Richard Underhill, Kelly Jefferson and Stich Wynston, but in honour of their 35th anniversary, original members Mike Murley and Jim Vivian appear on five of the ten tracks. As in the past, hot instrumentals are interspersed with topical vocal tracks reminiscent of the classic Spadina Bus – be sure to check out the YouTube videos of that defining song – including the title track with its commentary on Ontario’s current leadership among other things: “We live in a crazy town, in a crazy world, in a crazy time.” All tunes were penned and arranged by Underhill with the exception of Jefferson’s smooth instrumental Even Demons Get the Blues and the retro rap vocal Have a Good One which Underhill co-wrote some years ago with interim Demons Eric St-Laurent, Mike Milligan and Farras Smith. The signature swinging unison horn choruses and individual solo takes are as strong as ever, and the infectious beat goes on. It’s great to find this iconic Canadian jazz institution alive and well, with no signs of aging or decay; long may the Shuffle Demons reign!

Listen to 'Crazy Time' Now in the Listening Room

We invite submissions. CDs, DVDs and comments should be sent to: DISCoveries, WholeNote Media Inc., The Centre for Social Innovation, 503 – 720 Bathurst St. Toronto ON M5S 2R4.

01 Shostakovich 13 15The Fitzwilliam String Quartet was formed in October 1968 in Fitzwilliam College, Cambridge and celebrates its 50th anniversary with a quite remarkable 2CD set of Shostakovich Last Three String QuartetsNo.13 in B-flat Minor Op.138, No.14 in F-sharp Major Op.142 and No.15 in E-flat Minor Op.144 (Linn CKD 612

After graduating from Cambridge the quartet accepted a residency at the University of York in 1971, and in early 1972 violist Alan George (now the only original member still with the group) wrote to Shostakovich requesting the material and permission to play his 13th quartet, which still hadn’t been performed in the UK. Shostakovich not only supplied both but travelled to York for the November concert, the Fitzwilliams also playing three of his earlier quartets for him in his hotel room.

The visit started a relationship and correspondence which lasted until the composer’s death in August 1975 and also resulted in Shostakovich trusting the ensemble with the Western premieres of his 14th and 15th string quartets. The Fitzwilliam gained international recognition by becoming the first quartet to perform and record the complete cycle of Shostakovich string quartets.

Now, 43 years after those early recordings, the quartet revisits the momentous relationship, Alan George’s extensive, deeply personal and moving booklet essays underlining just what a life-altering experience it was. These are not easy quartets, George noting that they are strongly coloured by an aura of death and personal despair, and by musings on his own mortality by a composer for whom faith held no meaning, and who saw death as absolutely final – “existence passing into the infinity of oblivion.”

Not surprisingly, given the circumstances, the performances here are outstanding, with every phrase, every note, every dynamic and every gesture reflecting the depth of understanding the players have of these remarkable works.

02 Beethoven Miro QuartetThe Miró Quartet – violinists Daniel Ching and William Fedkenheuer, violist John Largess and cellist Joshua Gindele – was formed in 1995, and has become one of the most celebrated American string quartets.

They started recording the Beethoven quartets in 2004, releasing the first volume featuring the six Op.18 quartets (with then second violin Sandy Yamamoto) in 2005 on the Vanguard Classics label. Four subsequent CDs starting in 2012 covered the Opp.59, 74, 95, 130, 131 and 133 works, with the final recordings completed by February 2019.

The complete cycle is now available on eight CDs in a special box set of Beethoven Complete String Quartets (Pentatone PTC 5186 827 naxosdirect.com), marking both the ensemble’s 25th anniversary and the 250th anniversary of Beethoven’s birth in 2020. It’s quite superb. The quartets were recorded in numerical sequence over the years, so the listener can travel the same journey as the performers. And what a journey it is, with the astonishing late quartets in particular receiving superb performances. Slow movements are achingly beautiful, and the fast movements taken at breathtaking but perfectly balanced speed.

The insightful booklet notes by violist John Largess add another touch of class to a quite outstanding issue.

03 Schumann Dover QuartetThe Dover Quartet swept the board at the 2013 Banff International String Quartet Competition, winning every available prize, and if you needed any proof of their continuing rise to the very top of their field then their latest CD The Schumann Quartets (Azica ACD-71331 naxosdirect.com) should more than suffice.

Schumann wrote his three Op.41 string quartets – No.1 in A Minor, No.2 in F Major and No.3 in A Major – in a six-week period in 1842, never to return to the genre. They are quite lovely works, richly inventive and with more than a hint of Mendelssohn, to whom they were dedicated.

The Dover Quartet gives immensely satisfying performances of these brilliant works on a generous CD that runs to almost 80 minutes.

04 Barton PineThe latest CD from the always-interesting Rachel Barton Pine Dvořák Khachaturian Violin Concertos with the Royal Scottish National Orchestra under Teddy Abrams (Avie AV2411 naxosdirect.com) – is apparently not what it was meant to be, the originally planned “very different” album having to be changed at the last minute when the conductor became unavailable. These two concertos immediately struck the soloist as an attractive alternate project: she learned both works at 15 and had played each of them a few times during the previous concert season.

Tied as they are by each composer’s use of his own ethnic music they do make a good pair, but although there’s much fine playing here it feels somewhat subdued at times and never quite seems to really hit the heights the way you would expect, possibly due to the last-minute nature of the recording session but also possibly because Barton Pine seems to take a more lyrical approach to works that are strongly rhythmic as well as strongly melodic. The Khachaturian fares better in this respect, with a particularly fiery cadenza from the soloist.

04 Perspectives Dawn WohnPerspectives is a fascinating CD by violinist Dawn Wohn and pianist Esther Park that explores the differing cultures and perspectives of women composers, reaching back to the 19th century and into the 21st (Delos DE 3547 naxos.com)

The nine works are: Jhula-Jhule by Reena Esmail (b.1983); Episodes by Ellen Taaffe Zwilich (b.1939); the particularly lovely Legenda by the Czech composer Vítěslava Kaprálová, who died at only 25 in 1940; Star-Crossed (commissioned for the CD) by Jung Sun Kang (b.1983); the remarkable solo violin piece, ProviantiaSunset of Chihkan Tower,” by Chihchun Chi-sun Lee (b.1970); Deserted Garden and Elfentanz by Florence Price (1887-1953); the lovely Nocturne by Lili Boulanger (1893-1918); Portal by Vivian Fine (1913-2000); and Romance by Amy Beach (1867-1944).

Wohn plays with warmth, a crystal-clear tone and a fine sense of line and phrase in an immensely satisfying recital, with equally fine playing from her musical partner Park.

The outstanding cellist Daniel Müller-Schott is back with #CelloUnlimited, an impressive recital of 20th-century works for solo cello (ORFEO C 984 191 naxosdirect.com).

A passionate reading of the monumental and challenging Sonata Op.8 from 1915 by Zoltán Kodály makes a fine opening to the disc.

Prokofiev’s Sonata in C-sharp Minor Op.134 from 1953, the year of his death, is really only based on a fragment of the first of four projected movements; using a contrasting theme apparently partly sourced from Mstislav Rostropovich it was made into a performing version by the composer and musicologist Vladimir Blok in 1972.

Hindemith’s Sonata Op.25 No.3 from 1922 and Henze’s 1949 Serenade both consist of short but effective movements – nine each less than one minute long in the latter.

Müller-Schott’s own Cadenza from 2018 is followed by the early and surprisingly tonal 1955 Sonata by George Crumb; and Pablo Casals’ brief Song of the Birds, with which he always used to end his concerts, provides a calm and peaceful ending to a solo CD full of depth and fire.

07 Bach Piccolo CelloIt’s not unusual to encounter performances of both the Bach Sonatas & Partitas for solo violin and the solo Cello Suites in transcription: viola players, for instance, have available arrangements of both, and the Cello Suites can be found transcribed for violin. Less common, though, are performances of the violin Sonatas & Partitas on cello, but this is what Mario Brunello provides on Johann Sebastian Bach Sonatas & Partitas for solo violoncello piccolo (ARCAN A469 naxosdirect.com).

Brunello says that he tried playing the works on a four-string (not the usual five-string) smaller violoncello piccolo with no particular intention, and found that with the smaller body and the same tuning as a violin (but an octave lower) in effect the instrument felt like a larger or tenor violin, allowing him to read the Sonatas & Partitas as a cellist without having to resort to near-impossible technical virtuosity.

He also points out that the natural tendency for a cellist to first apply the bow to the lowest string leads to what he calls a “looking-glass” reading and a “seen from the bass line” approach in his playing, the instrument’s resonant body encouraging lingering on the low notes. Brunello certainly does that, even in the dance movements, but although it occasionally threatens to compromise the pulse it never really feels like more than just taking a breath and not rushing.

The instrument he plays is a 2017 model by Filippo Fasser of Brescia, after Antonio and Girolamo Amati of Cremona, 1600-1610. The pitch employed is a’ = 415 Hz, so down a semi-tone from the printed violin score.

It all works really well, although obviously the trade-off is that the brightness of the violin is lost, especially with the octave drop. There’s an interesting effect in the Andante of the A minor Sonata No.2, where Brunello plays the first half of the movement pizzicato and then changes to arco for the repeat, reversing the pattern for the second half.

There’s a fine resonance to the recording, and Brunello’s playing is admirable.

08 Vivaldi Seasons CelloThere’s another cello arrangement of a well-known violin work on Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons, an arrangement for cello and string ensemble by cellist Luka Šulić, who is accompanied by the Archi dell’Accademia di Santa Cecilia (Sony Classical 19075986552 sonymusicmasterworks.com).

This also seems to work very well, giving the music a slightly darker tinge than usual, although with the lower register the solo line is difficult to distinguish in places. When it’s clearly audible it’s really impressive playing, with Šulić displaying terrific facility and agility and handling the intricate solo line with apparent ease.

Full-blooded and committed ensemble playing, especially in the Allegro and Presto movements, where tempos are never on the slower side, makes for a really enjoyable CD.

09 Sor GuitarWe still tend to think of Andrés Segovia as being the guitarist most responsible for establishing the classical guitar in the concert hall, so Fernando Sor The 19th-Century Guitar, a new CD from the Italian guitarist Gianluigi Giglio (SOMM SOMMCD 0604 somm-recordings.com) is an excellent reminder of similar efforts from 100 years earlier.

As Michael Quinn points out in the booklet notes, the Spanish composer and guitarist was a pioneering advocate for the guitar as an instrument that belonged in the concert hall, building on the successes of Mauro Giuliani and Ferdinando Carulli in the first decade of the 1800s and producing the seminal Méthode pour la Guitare in 1830 along with a stream of compositions that extended both the instrument’s vocabulary and technique.

The eight works featured here all date from the period 1822-1836, when Sor had returned to Paris after spending eight years in London. They include the Introduction and Variations on a Theme by Mozart Op.9, the Easy Fantasy in A Minor Op.58, the Elegiac Fantasy in E Major Op.59 and the Capriccio in E Major, Le calme, Op.50. The Introduction and Variations on “Malbrough s’en va-t-en guerre” Op.28 – a tune better known now as “For he’s a jolly good fellow” – opens the disc, followed by Les folies d’Espagne and a Minuet Op.15a. Two movements from Mes Ennuis – Six Bagatelles Op.43 and the E Major No.23 from 24 Progressive Lessons for Beginners Op.31 complete the recital.

Giglio plays with a full, warm and clean sound redolent of a modern classical instrument, but is in fact performing on a narrow-waisted but quite beautiful 1834 guitar by René Lacôte of Paris, illustrated in colour on the booklet front cover. 

01 Scarlatti ClementiDomenico Scarlatti; Muzio Clementi – Keyboard Sonatas
John McCabe
Divine Art dda 21231 (divineartrecords.com)

The erudite composer and pianist John McCabe left his mark on British music-making in the 20th century. His gifts as interpreter at the keyboard were very much equal to his abilities as composer. Discographic focus for the majority of his life centred upon neglected composers of old: Haydn, Clementi and Nielsen, among others. A recent reissue of two LPs that McCabe recorded in the early 1980s is a welcome one, pairing well-loved sonatas by Domenico Scarlatti with somewhat obscure works by the Italian-born English composer, pianist, pedagogue, conductor, music publisher, editor and piano manufacturer(!) Muzio Clementi.

McCabe brings a muscular, cerebral approach to these pieces. One immediately detects a scrupulous composer behind the studio microphones, carefully etching formal structures for the benefit of the listener with accuracy and intellectual rigour. It is evident that McCabe delights in this piano music yet never indulges, electing for efficient lines and tasteful embellishment, reflective of both style and substance.

Among the various highlights of Disc Two (Clementi) is the Sonata in G Minor, Op.50 No.3, subtitled “Didone Abbandonata” and composed in 1821. Expressive and probing, this music is liberated from the confines of continental neoclassicism, at once mournful and forlorn in prophetic anticipation of 19th-century music yet unwrit. From the last of his opuses for piano, Clementi marks the final movement of this sonata Allegro agitato e con disperazione. Such qualifiers were few and far between, even in 1821!

Adam Sherkin

02 OConor Hadyn 2jpgHaydn Piano Sonatas Vol.2
John O’Conor
Steinway & Sons 30110 (steinway.com)

Celebrated for his characterful, refined interpretations of Beethoven, Schubert and – rather notably – John Ireland, Irish pianist John O’Conor has recently ventured into the 52 sonata-strong catalogue of Franz Joseph Haydn. The second in a projected series of such recordings with Steinway & Sons, this most recent release generally features late sonatas, varied in their formal structures yet irresistible in their innovations. O’Conor brings his customary warmth and tasteful approach to these classical essays: quirky, unexpected works at a good distance from the tautly balanced sonatas of Mozart and Schubert.

Haydn’s experiments in the genre offer a wide spectrum of musical personality. They brush boisterously with folk idioms of the 18th century, skewing phrasing and lyrical gesture in a ribald quest of mirth and merriment. Their slightly rough-and-tumble profile is not always captured by O’Conor. He appears to prize refined voicing and sculpted colour over a bit of pianistic fun. (Once in a while however, he does let himself loose amongst this music’s rustic urgings.) Despite the craft and polish, one detects a faint lack of familiarity with these works; figures and flourishes sound half-hearted, almost glossed over.

It is in the slow movements on this record where O’Conor sounds most at home. He brings a sincerity to Haydn’s melodic lines born of an intimate, semplice mode of expression. O’Conor’s ear for colouristic subtlety delivers harmonic poise and vocal nuance, begetting interpretations that would surely have made the old Austrian composer smile.

Adam Sherkin

Listen to 'Haydn Piano Sonatas Vol. 2' Now in the Listening Room

03a Beethoven Concertos KodamaBeethoven – The Piano Concertos
Ronald Brautigam; Die Kolner Akademie; Michael Alexander Willens
BIS BIS-2274 SACD (bis.se)

03b Beethoven Concertos BrautigamBeethoven – Piano Concertos 0-5
Mari Kodama; Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin; Kent Nagano
Berlin Classics 0301304BC (naxosdirect.com)

The arrival of 2020 commences a year of celebration for classical music presenters and aficionados across the globe, who will celebrate the 250th anniversary of Beethoven’s birth with innumerable concerts featuring the master’s greatest works. In advance of this significant anniversary, two recordings of Beethoven’s complete piano concertos were released late last year: one features the husband and wife duo of pianist Mari Kodama and conductor Kent Nagano; while the other presents fortepianist Ronald Brautigam, who is no stranger to Toronto, having performed with Tafelmusik at Trinity-St. Paul’s Centre in 2010.

Although these collections contain nearly identical musical contents (in addition to the standard five concertos, the Kodama/Nagano release includes the Rondo in B-flat, Eroica Variations, Triple Concerto, and the reconstructed Piano Concerto “0”), the end results are strikingly similar yet could also not be more different. Both recordings are of the highest musical quality, starting with the sound of the orchestras. Each ensemble is sleek and streamlined, with an overall transparency of sound that is now expected from both modern and period orchestras alike; no longer is the Beethoven standard one of deep, heavy, vibrato-filled tone, but it is rather characterized by its agility and precision, as players and conductors attempt to apply historical principles to their modern instruments and ensembles.

Both discs feature thoughtful and precise interpretations that are themselves similar in many ways. Beethoven intended to be quite clear about his expected tempi and dynamics and years of scholarly investigation and research have resulted in scores that are more faithful to the composer’s wishes and intentions than at any other time in post-Beethoven history. We should, therefore, expect overall consistency between slightly differing interpretations, as we discover with these two discs.

What is far more worthwhile to uncover are the differences between these two Beethovenian essays, the most apparent of which is the choice of keyboard instrument. Kodama, as one might expect, plays a grand piano and has the backing of a full symphony orchestra, the Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin, to provide balance. This is a standard modern approach in which “loud” is loud and “soft” is soft, and we hear this on disc as we would in a concert hall.

Brautigam, however, plays a fortepiano, which began a period of steady evolution in Beethoven’s time, culminating in the late 19th century with the modern grand. It is perhaps easiest to think of the fortepiano as a harpsichord-piano hybrid, for it bridged the gap between these two instruments. The sound is closer to that of a modern piano due to the strings being struck rather than plucked, but its lack of size and power results in a timbre that is far more subdued and subtle than any modern piano. Brautigam’s fortepiano is, therefore, a perfect match for the Köln Academy Orchestra, a period instrument ensemble, whose own instruments are significantly less strident than their modern counterparts.

If Nagano and Kodama’s concertos are built for the concert hall, Brautigam’s are conceived for the chamber hall or theatre. While this decrease in overall volume is not perceptible over a mastered audio disc, it is noticeable that the “loud” is not as loud and the “soft” not as soft, simply due to the fortepiano’s reduced size and inherent limitations; it increases one’s desire to focus as it cuts out the dynamic extremities of the modern piano and shifts one’s attention to subtle changes in volume and articulation.

Choosing or recommending one of these recordings over the other is an impossible task. When viewed through the widest lens, both are superb studies featuring exquisite playing and impeccable musicianship, and the differences become almost secondary. Perhaps the best approach is to acquire both and absorb the slight stylistic differences produced by the instrumental choices, especially if one is familiar primarily with either modern or historical performances. In the end, these discs demonstrate one irrefutable truth: after 250 years, Beethoven’s music is still vibrant and thrilling, even to those who have heard these works many times before.

Matthew Whitfield

05 HohenriederPiano Works by Clara and Robert Schumann
Margarita Hohenrieter
Solo Musica SM312 (naxosdirect.com)

I am quite a fan of pianist Margarita Höhenrieder, particularly playing the Schumanns. However, my immediate and continued focus of attention on first hearing this disc was not on the repertoire, not on the pianist, but on the piano. Attending to its authenticity, Höhenrieder tells the story of how this recording came to be. “After just a few notes on the exceptionally fine Pleyel grand piano in Kellinghausen, north of Hamburg, in a collection of Eric Feller’s, I found myself plunged into a different century. The pianoforte was built in Paris in about 1855 and professionally restored using historical materials and methods. It is absolutely uniform with the instrument that Chopin possessed and of typically French elegance – in sound as well as in appearance. It reflects the soul of the Romantic era. Apart from that, it offers an authentic testimony to the sound of the instruments that Fryderyk Chopin and Robert and Clara Schumann played.”

The technique then required to play this piano differs from today’s. The sound from this old instrument is finely articulate and does not produce the same overtones and resonance, nor the volume. Such instruments were expected to be heard in a room or salon having only a fraction of the volume of today’s concert halls. Moreover, a suitable room for a perfect recording is certainly essential. In this case a private salon in Zug, Switzerland from January 16 to 18, 2019 was just that.

Our pianist was right; what we hear here takes to us back to a different century. I hope that Solo Musica plans to record Chopin with Höhenrieder playing the same instrument. That would be something to hear.

Bruce Surtees

06 Chopin RussoChopin – Late Masterpieces
Sandro Russo
Steinway & Sons 30125 (naxosdirect.com)

Italian pianist Sandro Russo revives the elegance and grandeur of the 19th-century piano tradition in this recording of late Chopin works. Having previously recorded several major piano works from the Romantic repertoire (as well as those of lesser-known composers), on this album Russo highlights every aspect of Chopin’s inner world. A selection of pieces that includes both intimate forms such as the mazurka and berceuse and the monumental Third Piano Sonata, this album feels like a personal memento. Noble forces are at work here, generating the sound aesthetics of beauty and adroit virtuosity, a combination that is well suited to Chopin’s music and is the essence of Russo’s artistic expression.

Three mazurkas on this album are a perfect example of Chopin’s mastery of expressing the grand gestures in small-scale works. Mazurka in C Minor Op.56 in particular is a microcosm of understated emotions of melancholy and surrender, yet it contains innovative musical language that at times seems different than anything Chopin had written previously. As a contrast, the Sonata in B Minor Op.58 is as big as it can get. This complex piece is a macrocosm of amplified emotions, an unrestricted cascade of brilliant phrases that command attention and challenge the performer both musically and technically. Sandro Russo is immaculate in both, bringing a fresh approach while keeping with the tradition of the grandiose Romantic era.

Ivana Popovic

07 AlkanAlkan – Symphony for Solo Piano; Concerto for Solo Piano
Paul Wee
BIS BIS-2465 SACD (naxosdirect.com)

Charles-Valentin Alkan (1813-88) was a true maverick amongst the great French musicians of the mid-19th century. A child prodigy from a family of exceptionally talented Jewish musicians (the Morhanges), Valentin, using his father’s given name of Alkan as his surname, performed brilliantly in fashionable Parisian salons beginning in 1826, a practice that soon attracted an invasion of foreign pianists including Liszt and Chopin. In 1838, having unwittingly fathered an illegitimate son, he withdrew from the concert circuit for some time, raising his child and devoting himself to composition. He briefly returned to the stage before becoming a total recluse for some 20 years, involving himself with creating a now lost French translation of the Bible from Hebrew sources and publishing numerous compositions.

Alkan’s legacy was largely neglected until a revival of interest in the 1960s brought forth a flood of recordings. Among the five Alkan discs issued in 2019 we have this release by the admirable pianist and barrister Paul Wee, who delivers insightful and riveting accounts of the gargantuan Symphony and Concerto for Solo Piano that form the bulk of Alkan’s Douze études dans tous les tons mineurs Op.39. This is music of extraordinary energy whose obsessive rhythmic profile sweeps all before it with a Beethovenian grandeur. Alkan’s daunting technical demands are never merely gaudy examples of pianistic prestidigitation; they are rather an integral architectural component of his unique and strangely compelling voice.

Daniel Foley

09 Ravel Jeux de MiroirsRavel – Jeux de miroirs
Javier Perianes; Orchestre de Paris; Josep Pons
Harmonia mundi HMM902326 (harmoniamundi.com)

As the clever title indicates this most enjoyable, adventurous undertaking by harmonia mundi sets the piano works of Ravel side by side with their orchestral versions as if they were mirrored. Coincidentally one set of Ravel’s piano works is entitled Miroirs from which we hear the fourth piece Alborada del grazioso, inspired by Spain, one of his main influences.

Ravel was a tremendous orchestrator and he orchestrated many of his own works plus the works of others. Here we can see why and the pianist chosen is Javier Perianes, a young Spanish pianist who has already conquered many of the world’s concert stages and worked with some of the greatest conductors. An artist with unbounded imagination and a special affinity towards French impressionisme, he has beautiful touch and unlimited technical skill.

The main work is Le Tombeau de Couperin, Ravel’s highly personal tribute to 18th-century French Baroque composers, Couperin, Rameau and Lully. The set of six pieces first appears in the piano version and my favourites are Forlane with an infectious, incessant and very catchy melody that’s almost hypnotic, Rigaudon an explosive, high-spirited French courtly dance and the final Toccata where the pianist literally plays up a storm. Later on come the orchestral versions of these and we will be surprised how much additional richness a brilliant orchestration can produce.

The disc opens with the orchestral version of Alborada del grazioso followed by the original solo piano Tombeau. Cleverly set in between the mirrored versions of these pieces is an absolutely astounding reading of the very popular, forward-looking and jazzy Concerto in G characterized by “subtle playing of Javier Perianes and the refined sonorities of the Orchestre de Paris, conducted by Josep Pons.”

I’ve listened to this disc over and over again and hopefully so will you.

Janos Gardonyi

11 Jenny Lind IcebergThe Etudes Project Volume One – ICEBERG
Jenny Lin
Sono Luminus DSL-92236 (sonoluminus.com)

Another marvel of a record hits our ears from the enviable, masterful pianist – a paragon of the 21st-century keyboard – Jenny Lin. Lin has long been fascinated with the “intricate history of piano études,” examining the current state of the genre and charting its near 300-year lineage. She has themed this journey and its transpiring narratives, The Etudes Project.

Aligning with composers of ICEBERG New Music, Lin gave its ten members absolute freedom of style and pianistic approach when crafting new etudes for her. The exceptional results were not only premiered by Lin this past October in New York but also published by NewMusicShelf in complete score, released on the same day.

In addition to her Herculean playing, the fearless pianist brings curatorial prowess to bear in pairing each new etude with an existing work from the canon. Seminal music by Ligeti, Chin, Glass, Crawford Seeger, Debussy, Scriabin and – of course – Chopin is featured. Accordingly, the record frames ten diptychs, (old meeting new), as it delivers a novel focus and perspective. The staggering array of textures and colouristic effects – not to mention the technical demands – here demonstrate Lin’s utter virtuosity at the piano, founded upon tireless application of intellect, study, two ultra-keen ears and a generous musical heart worthy of any audience’s patronage and awe.

Have a listen to this disc and then have another; purchase a copy of the score. The Etudes Project will repay you manifestly.

Adam Sherkin

12 Janelle Fung AubadeAubade – Music by Auguste Descarries
Janelle Fung
Centrediscs CMCCD 27519 (cmccanada.org)

The rarely performed and underrepresented Quebec composer, Auguste Descarries (1896-1958) is the focal point of a new solo disc by ambitious young pianist Janelle Fung. The composer’s piano sonata was only just given its premiere in 2017, 64 years after its composition! Fung has retrieved six of Descarries’ keyboard works from the proverbial dustbin of musical history, offering forthright and impressive attention to every last note on this recording.

Descarries was an industrious pianist/composer, penning the Rhapsodie Canadienne for piano and orchestra in 1936. His style seems indebted to the Russian and French schools, further enhanced by an apparent meeting with Sergei Rachmaninoff and close relationship with Nicolai Medtner, (carried out during the 1920s). In the end, Descarries lived his latter days in Montreal, the city of his birth.

Opening with the poetic, fantastical Serenitas, this album lures us into a seemingly familiar yet recondite soundworld. Romantic gesture and pastoral vignette meld in such offbeat North American pieces from a bygone age. Fung manoeuvres every turn and lyrical leap with virtuosic aplomb. Her eager, communicative style reveals a pianistic maturity. Such assuredness is most remarkable and one can only muse about Fung’s next projects and newfound devotions to unduly neglected keyboard works by Canadian composers.

The sound quality itself is bright and vivid, the record expertly produced. The team behind the project runs an impressive list, complementing the fine liner notes and poignant artist statement from Fung.

Adam Sherkin

13 Poul Ruders 15jpgPoul Ruders Edition Vol.15 – Piano Concerto No.3; Cembal d’Amore, Second Book; Kafkapriccio
Various Artists
Bridge Records 9531 (bridgerecords.com)

Illustrious Danish composer Poul Ruders seems to have been blessed with abiding compositional fluency. He pens work after work in a consistent outpouring of top-notch pieces, adding to a lifelong musical catalogue that is both communicative and compelling. A most recent album featuring his music for keyboard is no exception.

With a rather eclectic mix of concerto, harpsichord/piano duo and operatic paraphrase, this record begins with Ruders’ newest piano concerto – the third – written in 2014. Pianist Anne-Marie McDermott tackles this demanding, mesmerizing single movement with her habitual panache. The dizzying acrobatics sound only a sheer delight under her steadfast command. Subtitled “Paganini Variations,” Ruders here takes a timeworn tune – long pillaged and mined by others – turning music afresh. Variation after variation offer up surprises, highlighting the mark of a true craftsman still at the height of his powers.

Cembal d’Amore, Second Book (a duo for piano and harpsichord) from 2007 is perhaps more novel in its conception, at once celebrating the disparity and similarity between two keyboard instruments. Quattro Mani masters the blend and kinship of the diverse sound pallets throughout the eight movements. With the help of Ruders’ quicksilver, pugnacious score, this performance reaches an impressive benchmark, refined and exacting in its artistry. The work was commissioned by New York’s Speculum Musicae; it is feasible that not since Elliott Carter’s Double Concerto for piano and harpsichord (1961), has this unique instrumental combination been employed so successfully.

Adam Sherkin

15 Hostman HarbourAnna Höstman – Harbour
Cheryl Duvall
Redshift Records TK473 (redshiftrecords.org)

Composer Anna Höstman and Toronto-based pianist Cheryl Duvall collaborate effectively on Harbour. Born in Bella Coola, British Columbia, now teaching at the University of Victoria, Höstman has earned significant residencies and performances. Her sense of the Pacific coastal environment is congenial, at least to my Vancouver-raised sensibilities. Also, I applaud her composing of the short, slow piano-left-hand piece, late winter (2019), for a musician whose right hand was temporarily disabled, having this condition myself and having done musical work with people with disabilities. In this composition, two recurring but long-separated high tones sound over a texture of arpeggiated chords. The note A becomes important, while one high E now recurs. Gradual change, peaceful though somewhat uneasy moods, and expertise with piano writing and sonority seem characteristic for this composer.

There is much variety among other works: allemande (2013) begins sparely, reminding us of the voice. Subtle textural changes begin with two- or three-note sonorities, followed by register shifts and larger clusters. Harbour (2015) is full and more turbulent yet clearly layered – Duvall’s refined but powerful pianism brings sonorous appeal throughout this longer work. If we lose our way isn’t it enough to become attentive to sounds, allowing the piece to grow on us? darkness … pines (2010) begins with complex chords; later a few triads glint through. Yellow Bird (2019) moves fitfully, topped with high chirping; Adagio (2019) pulsates slowly. A disc to be experienced – gradually.

Roger Knox

16 Hope LeeAcross the veiled distances – Music by Hope Lee
Yumiko Meguri; Stefan Hussong
Centrediscs CMCCD 27219 (cmccanada.org)

Canadian composer Hope Lee’s unique music with its self-described ancient Chinese influences is heard in four piano compositions and one piano/accordion duet from four decades (1979-2017).

Brilliant Japanese pianist Yumiko Meguri performs Lee’s technically challenging, dramatic works perfectly. The four-section Across the veiled distances (1996) is part of a larger multimedia project inspired by a Marguerite Yourcenar short story based on Chinese legend. Played as one movement, the loud chordal opening leads to mystical musical conversations between the hands, with ringing string resonances, trills and contrasting driving and reflective repeated notes. The more atonal new-music-sounding Dindle (1979) opens with very soft percussive banging, followed by contrasting dynamic chords, pitches and single lines separated by silent spaces. These same ideas resurface in Lee’s later piano work in o som do desassossego (2015).

In Entends le passé qui march (1992), recorded sound files add unique sound and exact time dimensions to the intense live piano part. In 2017’s Imaginary Garden V. (renewed at every glance) – part of a seven-section chamber piece for unusual instruments – superstar German free bass accordionist Stefan Hussong joins Meguri. Effective use of each instrument’s inherent qualities can be heard in such soundscapes as a piano percussive marching riff against long-held accordion tones, accordion held-note swells and vibratos against piano high note lines, accordion air button-created whispers and simultaneous two-instrument high pitches.

Across the veiled distances provides a great, in-depth cross-section of Lee’s piano works.

Tiina Kiik

Listen to 'Across the veiled distances - Music by Hope Lee' Now in the Listening Room

01 Vivaldi Musica sacraVivaldi – Musica sacra per alto
Delphine Galou; Accademia Bizantina; Ottavio Dantone
Naïve Vivaldi Edition Vol.59

Unlike Bach and Handel, Vivaldi’s instrumental works continue to be better known and more frequently performed than his vocal and choral music, though this imbalance is slowly being rectified. History is partly to blame for this, as even the renowned Gloria was only reintroduced in 1939; but Vivaldi is now considered a versatile and highly innovative composer of vocal music, a reflection of his ambition to become a universal composer who excelled in every aspect of his art.

One significant contributor to the propagation of Vivaldi’s vocal music is the Vivaldi Edition, an ambitious project to record 450 of the Italian composer’s works, many of them unknown. Musica sacra per alto is volume 59 in their collection and features four sacred pieces for alto with orchestral accompaniment, ranging in size from small-scale mass segments lasting only a few minutes (such as the two introdutioni, which resemble solo motets in a form unique to Vivaldi) to the five-movement Salve Regina.

Contralto Delphine Galou and the Accademia Bizantina give convincing performances of each work on this disc, whether a languid aria or compelling allegro, uncovering the distinctly Vivaldian characteristics on the page and translating them into spectacular sounds. Although the material may be unfamiliar to many listeners, the style is unmistakable and this disc provides a fine example of why Vivaldi’s reputation as a composer of vocal music is continuing to grow, due in large part to the work of organizations such as the Vivaldi Edition.

02 Mozart EntfuhrungMozart – Die Entfuhrung aus dem Serail
Soloists; Chorus and Orchestra of Teatro alla Scala; Zubin Mehta
Cmajor 752008 (naxos.com)

This production is a replica of a 1965 Salzburg performance designed by famous Italian director Giorgio Strehler which was so successful that the audience refused to leave the theatre. Since then it has been revived periodically and now again to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the director’s death. A young firebrand, Zubin Mehta, conducted then and now, at age 80, is conducting it again.

It certainly lives up to expectations: an impressive, monumental and symmetrical set bathed in sunlight suggests an atmosphere of dreaminess. The singers are lit alternately from the front and the back creating silhouettes as if we are watching a shadow play such as was fashionable in the Vienna of 1782 when this singspiel, Mozart’s first breakthrough success, was premiered. There is strong artistic control over all elements, e.g. costumes, colours, carefully choreographed movements and gesticulations, all coming together beautifully; the mark of a great director’s work.

The crowning achievement however is the singers and they all are of the highest quality. First and foremost, Dutch soprano Lenneke Ruiten, as Konstanze, is simply unbelievable in the three concert arias that follow one another and culminate in the magisterial, defiant and very difficult Martern aller Arten, sung with sustained, powerful high notes and without any trace of vibrato. This is a focal point of the opera, photographed from every possible angle, conductor’s included; it’s worth buying the video for this one aria alone. 

Swiss tenor Mauro Peter as Belmonte, her lover, is a revelation. He is referred to as a ”real discovery, a classic Mozartian tenor with warmth and style.” And there is Osmin, the basso profundo malevolent palace guard portrayed hilariously by Tobias Kehrer. An eye candy of a production.

03 Rossini RIcciardoRossini – Ricciardo e Zoraide
Soloists; Coro del Ventido Basso; Orchestra Sinfonica Nazionale Della Rai; Giacomo Sagripanti
Cmajor 752608 (naxosdirect.com)

The Barber of Seville, La Cenerentola, La Gazza Ladra – familiar Rossini titles, but La Gazzetta? Ermione? Bianca e Faliero? All these, along with Ricciardo e Zoraide, were among the 14 operas emerging from Rossini’s conveyor belt during his busiest four years, 1816-1819. Most were soon forgotten amid this superabundance; Ricciardo e Zoraide, here making its DVD debut, was unperformed for almost 150 years until its revival at the 1990 Rossini Opera Festival in Pesaro, Rossini’s birthplace. 

Agorante and Ircano are warring kings in medieval Nubia. Agorante lusts after his captive, Zoraide, Ircano’s daughter, who yearns for Ricciardo, her Christian-crusader lover. Disguised, Ricciardo attempts her rescue, but is captured. Zomira, Agorante’s jealous wife, plots the lovers’ downfall.

This 2018 Pesaro production boasts a fabulous international cast, headed by lustrous South African soprano Pretty Yende (Zoraide), phenomenal Peruvian high-C wizard, tenor Juan Diego Flórez (Ricciardo), sturdy Italian bass Nicola Ulivieri (Ircano) and two powerful, beefy voiced Russians, tenor Sergey Romanovsky (Agorante) and mezzo Victoria Yarovaya (Zomira). There’s a major Toronto presence, too: Opera Atelier’s co-directors, Marshall Pynkoski and Jeannette Lajeunesse Zingg are, respectively, the stage director and choreographer, their familiar predilections for mannered stage movements and bare-chested men further undermining the far-fetched scenario’s minimal dramatic verisimilitude.

I won’t call this opera a neglected masterpiece. However, conductor Giacomo Sagripanti and the truly spectacular singing provide plenty of Rossinian thrills over its nearly three-hour duration, making this a must-have for all opera-on-DVD enthusiasts.

04 Offenbach Un MariOffenbach – Un mari à la porte
Soloists; Orchestra del Maggio Musicale Florentino; Valerio Galli
Dynamic 37844 (naxos.com)

“Sheer silliness” were the words that kept coming to me as I watched and listened to this unfamiliar, 48-minute, one-act Offenbach operetta. Following the graceful, charming waltz-overture, Florestan (tenor Matteo Mezzaro) literally drops into Suzanne’s bedroom, falling through the chimney after scampering over rooftops to escape from a jealous husband. He hides when Suzanne (mezzo Francesca Benitez) and her friend Rosita (soprano Marina Ogii) enter, fresh from Suzanne’s wedding party. Rosita extols the delights of dancing the waltz in the operetta’s hit number, the effervescent Valse Tyrolienne.

Henri, the groom (baritone Patrizio La Placa), arrives at the bedroom door, only to find himself locked out – to avoid being discovered by Henri, Florestan, now out of hiding, has locked the door and thrown the key out the third-floor window. Stuck outside the bedroom, Henri adds his voice in an exuberant quartet, a sparkling example of Offenbach’s high-spirited “patter” music. Finally, after Henri manages to find the key in the garden, it all ends happily, with the newlyweds reunited and Florestan and Rosita potentially altar-bound themselves.

The exaggerated silliness of the plot is reflected in the exaggerated, silly costumes, makeup, props and gestures by the animated cast in this 2019 Florence production, while conductor Valerio Galli keeps it all bubbling along. My only cavil: adding another one-acter would have made this fun-filled but very short DVD even more desirable.

05 Weber FreischutzWeber – Der Freischütz
Soloists; MDR Leipzig Radio Choir; Frankfurt Radio Symphony; Marek Janowski
Pentatone PTC 5186 788

Since it was first performed in 1821, Der Freischütz has remained popular in Europe – especially in composer Carl Maria von Weber’s native Germany. The music is inspired, the plot suspenseful and the atmosphere evocatively romantic. Yet it is rarely performed in North America, though in Toronto both Opera Atelier and Opera in Concert have done worthy productions. 

Undoubtedly the long passages of dialogue present problems, especially on a recording. Often the dialogue gets trimmed down, removed altogether, sung using Berlioz’s added recitatives, or turned over to a narrator. 

On this recording, the dialogue has been totally reconceived by stage director Katharina Wagner and dramaturge Daniel Weber, and split up between two narrators. But, confusingly, both are pivotal characters in the opera, a Devil called Samiel, and a Hermit. So it is disconcerting to hear them (in the original German – a libretto with translations is included) give away key plot points, scold other characters, and do their best to disrupt things. 

In the opera, Samiel doesn’t sing, so it works seamlessly to cast this role as female. But Corinna Kirchhoff’s voice is too grating and unnuanced here to cause terror, especially in the nightmarish Wolf’s Glen scene. In the opera the Hermit is a selfless, wise holy man who shows up only at the end to save the day. But in this narration, he comes off as vindictive and pompous. 

In any case, Lise Davidsen, magnificent in the first act of Die Walküre with the Toronto Symphony last year, is powerfully radiant here. Andreas Schager, who made a thrilling Siegfried in the Canadian Opera Company’s recent Götterdämmerung, is here just as ardent and versatile. The rest of the cast, the choir and orchestra are standouts, especially with the buoyant phrasing and clear textures shaped so expressively by conductor Marek Janowski.

06 Wagner TristanWagner – Tristan und Isolde
Soloists; Orchestra and Choir of Teatro Opera of Rome; Daniele Gatti
Cmajor 752208 (naxos.com)

Arthurian legend provides raw material for Wagner’s greatest opera, but his treatment for the story was inspired by Schopenhauer’s philosophy, specifically his contention that bliss can only be found through the negation of will and desire. Schopenhauer is certainly a presence in the opera, which ends in blissful annihilation, but desire is its governing force. Essentially, Tristan und Isolde is a five-hour love song.

The plot is refreshingly simple. Tristan is sent to Ireland to bring the Irish princess Isolde as a bride for his uncle King Marke of Cornwall. But Tristan falls passionately in love with the bride-to-be and she reciprocates. They conclude that death is the only way out and take what they believe is poison. But Isolde’s maid Brangäne substitutes a love draught and their passion is reconfirmed. Their affair continues until they are caught by one of Marke’s knights. Tristan is wounded and taken back to Brittany where he dies just as Isolde arrives. Sinking into his body, she is united with him in death.

The cast directed by Pierre Audi (and musicians by Daniele Gatti) masterfully navigate Wagner’s sinuous melodic lines and suspended harmonies. A sense of heady sensuality and physical longing saturates this production. Andreas Schager and Rachel Nicholls are brilliant in the title roles.

07 Gomes Lo SchiavoAntônio Carlos Gomes – Lo Schiavo
Soloists; Orchestra e Coro del Teatro Lirico di Cagliari; John Neschling
Dynamic 37845 (naxos.com)

Brazilian-born Antônio Carlos Gomes (1836-1896) lived many years in Milan, composing operas for La Scala, before returning to Brazil as a national icon. He intended Lo Schiavo (1889) as a protest against slavery, still legal in Brazil when he began working on it, setting a libretto prepared for him by Rodolfo Paravicini. A success in Brazil, it was largely ignored in Europe, although Caruso recorded Américo’s Act 2 aria, Quando nascesti tu. This 2019 production from Sardinia’s Teatro Lirico di Cagliari was, in fact, its Italian premiere.

The opera is set in 1567, near Rio de Janeiro, during a revolt by indigenous Tamoyos, many having been enslaved by the conquering Portuguese. Américo (tenor Massimiliano Pisapia), the abolitionist son of slaveholder Count Rodrigo (bass Dongho Kim), loves the slave girl Ilàra (soprano Svetla Vassileva). To separate the lovers, Rodrigo orders Américo to the battlefront and forces Ilàra to marry Américo’s friend, the enslaved Tamoyo leader Iberè (baritone Andrea Borghini), before selling them to the Contessa di Boissy (soprano Elisa Balbo). Despising slavery, she sets them free. They rejoin the Tamoyos who soon capture Américo. Iberè, rejected by Ilàra and loyal to Américo, helps the lovers escape. Facing the rebels’ condemnation for his action, Iberè commits suicide.

This production’s exotic sets, costumes and choreography, reflecting the libretto’s historic time and place, admirably reinforce Gomes’ bold, assertive, robustly scored late-Romantic music, with stirring choruses calling for freedom and the end of slavery.

08 Bruckner RequiemAnton Bruckner – Requiem
RIAS Kammerchor; Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin; Lukasz Borowicz
Accentus Music ACC30474

Pious and naïve, church-organist Anton Bruckner may never have shed his lumbering manner and rustic accent but his massively soaring music attests to his ability to communicate the redemptive force of the divine. The composer, however, found his true musical vocation when he saw Wagner conducting a performance of Tannhäuser in Linz. In what became a kind of Wagnerian moment, Bruckner realized (like Wagner) that in order to move forward he must assimilate and then break every theoretical rule in the proverbial book.

Bruckner’s legacy, enshrined not only in his symphonic works, rises to prominence in his choral music, the most vaunted being the Te Deum. Bruckner was, after all, a devout Catholic and his faith pervades all of his music, considered to be Gothic cathedrals in sound. Requiem (the disc) is a magnificent example of Bruckner’s majesty as a composer of spiritual material not least because of these performances. No less than four of the eleven works on this disc are premiere recordings. 

Perhaps the most moving work is the Libera in F Major. But the Requiem in D Minor is the crowning glory. It evokes the mass tradition of Mozart and Haydn, the lyricism of Schubert and the austerity of Bach. Moreover, the Requiem presents the grand melodic roar of the organ, moaning trombones and soaring voices of the RIAS Kammerchor and Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin which combine to provide the most intensely moving Bruckner music ever recorded.

09 Stanford TravellingCharles Villiers Stanford – The Travelling Companion
Horton; Mellaerts; Valentine; New Sussex Opera Orchestra and Chorus; Toby Purser
Somm Recordings SOMMCD 274-2 (naxosdirect.com)

In 1835 Hans Christian Andersen published The Travelling Companion, a touching yet violent story full of wizards, princesses and mysterious strangers; in 1916, the Irish composer Charles Villiers Stanford set this text to music, creating what would be his last opera. Although reprised occasionally since its premiere, this recording of The Travelling Companion is the first of its kind, captured live at Saffron Hall in December 2018.

It is immediately noticeable that this is a live recording, as the sound quality lacks some clarity, with slightly blurred timbres and occasionally opaque orchestrations, as well as the feeling that everything is being performed at a distance. Despite the issues of transferring this live performance to disc, the musical execution itself is of notably high quality, with soloists, chorus and orchestra combining to present a cheerful and charming interpretation.

Cheerful and charming are also the best words to describe Stanford’s score, which maintains the levity and brevity characteristic of early-20th-century English music, never falling into verismo’s dramatic angst or Wagnerian mysticism. Major keys run consistently throughout the work, as do little woodwind marches, fanfares, and lighthearted figurations. This can only be taken as a deliberate decision on the part of Stanford, for his symphonic and choral works are some of the most stunning of his era and leave no doubt that this was a man who was highly capable of writing whatever music he wished to hear.

English opera has relatively few major composers to its credit: Purcell, Handel and Britten are three that have maintained a presence in modern opera houses, but there are also works which are only occasionally revived and recorded that are well worth listening to. Such is the case with Stanford’s The Travelling Companion and this disc by New Sussex Opera.

10 Thomas HamletAmbroise Thomas – Hamlet
Soloists; Les elements Orchestre des Champs-Elysees; Louis Langrée
Naxos 2.110640 (naxos.com)

Once immensely popular, Ambroise Thomas’ Hamlet had mostly disappeared from opera stages until the Canadian Opera Company’s historic performance with Joan Sutherland in 1985 (though Stuart Hamilton, ever astute, had chosen it to inaugurate Opera in Concert in 1974). It is now heard much more frequently. This terrific production from the Opéra Comique in 2018 offers definitive proof that it belongs in the standard repertoire.

Instead of using built sets, stage director Cyril Teste projects live and pre-recorded video on to curtains, backdrops, and movable walls. There are some astonishing feats of technological wizardry, especially when the singers interact directly with the live video. While video can no doubt feel clichéd these days, here it seems fresh, innovative and integral to the considerable psychological depth of this production. It’s amazing to watch the ghost of Hamlet’s father, Jérôme Varnier, make his way down from the back of the stage through what looks like steeply raked rows of empty seats in that theatre. 

Video director François Roussillon puts us in the middle of the action. But the focus is always on singers. Extreme close-ups show the commitment of this remarkable cast, especially in the brilliantly staged interactions between singers, like Ophélie and Hamlet in their exquisite duet Doute de la lumière. Hamlet’s confrontation with his mother is so gripping that it seizes the emotional centre of the opera.

Sabine Devielhe, a natural heir to the fabulous, now-retired Natalie Dessay, is a delight as Ophélie, with her formidable agility and charm. Stéphane Degout is a compelling presence, expressive and brooding in the title role. Mezzo Sylvie Brunet-Grupposo’s Gertrude is powerfully searing, while bass-baritone Laurent Alvaro humanizes Claudius with finely shaded details. The Orchestre des Champs-Élysées, playing on period instruments, and the choir Les éléments, all under conductor Louis Langrée, who has long been devoted to this great opera, are elegant and responsive.

11 David OcchipintiDavid Occhipinti – these out of infinite
Various Artists
Centrediscs CMCCD 27619

Eclectic musical genius, composer and guitarist, David Occhipinti has released a new project that is the culmination of his life (and musical) experiences – a journey that has afforded him an “overview” of our little blue planet, and led to a perception of the “one-ness” of humanity, and also of our diverse and fascinating artistic expressions. This enlightened POV enables Occhipinti to freely imbibe of a musical smorgasbord (classical, jazz, new music, haute cabaret and art songs) without particular concerns about boundaries or potential cultural collisions. All of the music here (which is formatted into “Suites”) has been composed by Occhipinti, and informed by his artistry and particular inclusive view.

First up is Three Emilys for Solo Voice, which features the gorgeous, super-human vocal instrument of Mingjia Chen in a largely a cappella exploration, propelled by text from the pens of Emily Carr, Emily Dickinson and Emily Brontë. Carla Huhtanen is the soprano in Cubist Cummings, the third movement of which, the mystery of stillness, is chilling in its compartmentalization and use of vox nudus with harp (Erica Goodman) and marimba (Beverley Johnston), to create a stark landscape reeking of alienation.

Of unsurpassed beauty is Three Songs from James Joyce – which was developed from a set of poems found in a copy of Chamber Music discovered by Occhipinti in a London book store, and is perhaps the most evocative suite on the recording. Sung by Robin Dann, the spellbinding group of support musicians, including Occhipinti on guitar, bassist Andrew Downing, cellist David Hetherington and bassoonist Nadina Mackie Jackson among other Toronto greats, invigorate these complex, dark, Celtic-inspired pieces into being. The closing collection, Three Songs for Children’s Chorus, was originally composed for and is sung here by the Cookie Choir. It perfectly parenthesizes this remarkable recording, rife with hope and the consciousness-altering music of David Occhipinti.

12 Dusapin PenthesileaPascal Dusapin – Penthesilea
Petrinsky; Montalvo; Nigl; Mechelen; Orchestre Symphonique et choeurs di al Monnaie; Franck Ollu
Cypres Records CYP4654

The French composer Pascal Dusapin is known for drawing upon many contrasting styles – from the paroxysmal avant-garde to expressionist late Romanticism – throughout his impressive output. His new opera, Penthesilea is no exception. This is Dusapin’s second foray into the operatic genre, and we receive a rather restrained and meditative musical interpretation of Heinrich von Kleist’s almost absurdist verse play. 

The music is meditative and unrelenting in its impressionistic treatment of the text and drama. The chant-like vocal writing is often set against vast tapestries of lower register washes from the ensemble. Several lesser-known instruments – such as the dulcimer and Egyptian rattle – create familiar beacons of a rather uneasy cerebral quality. While the near 90-minute work lacks a definitive climactic arch, the adventurous novelty of the musical material provides more than adequate satiation for the ear. 

13Eotvos Tri SestryPéter Eötvös – Tri Sestry
Soloists; Frankfurter Opern-und; Museumsorchester; Dennis Russell Davies
Oehms Classics OC 986 (naxosdirect.com)

In this opera by Hungarian composer Péter Eötvös – a towering figure in the contemporary classical music world – a mind-boggling number of characters weave strange relationships that are all held together by a very strong musical setting of Chekhov’s play Three Sisters. The orchestra and cast in this recording masterfully execute Eötvös’ complex and demanding score. From the opening passages all the musicians create a world-class atmosphere of artistic confidence. The orchestra provides massive percussive screeches and rugged landscapes upon which beauty and hysteria interweave harmoniously. 

With dozens of performances, it would be safe to say that his opera has become a standard of the repertoire – a testament to the masterful writing we are used to from Eötvös This opera is artistically sound, and the fabulous music-making by the singers and orchestra make for a compelling listen that is a must for contemporary opera lovers.

Back to top