05_chopin_fialkowskaChopin Recital

Janina Fialkowska

ATMA ACD2 2597

Polish sausage is loved for its deep flavours that linger long after the blush of its immediate gratification to the palette. Our reluctance, however, to use food as a frequent metaphor for art means that the only place you’ll ever see Chopin likened to Kolbassa is… well, right here.

Janina Fialkowska is a Canadian pianistic stalwart – more amazing still because of her recovery from a 2002 cancer surgery that threatened her career. Her performance of the Chopin standards in this recording is remarkably strong. Her masculine keyboard energy is undiminished and her feminine subtleties as seductive as ever. This Yin and Yang are so beautifully balanced in her interpretations that one quickly forgets the performer while being drawn deeply into the swirling emotions that make Chopin’s music unique.

Stepping out of the way of the music is something Fialkowska does with clever and manipulative grace. One easily takes the bait offered by her technical perfection and is drawn toward the fiery melancholy of Chopin’s world.

Most unusual in these performances is the jarring pull-apart of the three-four rhythm in the C sharp minor Waltz (Op. 64 No.2) and the D Major Mazurka (Op. 33 No.2). The irregularity of the left hand “oom-pa-pa” is taken to its absolute limit without ever compromising the pulse of the music. This is a high risk interpretation but carried off convincingly because Fialkowska’s Polish roots run deep and true – and her musicianship is impeccable.

The audio balance of this recording leaves just the perfect amount of room space around the piano. And although the Steinway Fialkowska uses sounds a bit brighter and harder in the mid range than we generally hear from these instruments, this disc should definitely be a part of your Chopin collection.

Alex Baran

06_argerich_freireSalzburg

Martha Argerich; Nelson Freire

Deutsche Grammophon 477 8570

Back in the days before TV, radio and stereo recordings, inconceivable to the younger generation but really not that long ago, the only way to hear an orchestral piece was at a concert hall. For that reason composers reduced scores to single or two piano arrangements in order to be performed in the home. The other reason for 2 piano versions was so aspiring pianists could practise piano concertos with the 2nd piano, the orchestra, played by the teacher.

Argerich, the firebrand Argentinean virtuoso, now in her 70’s and still full of her powers, and Brazilian Nelson Freire who is a bit younger and was a child prodigy (who I saw playing as a teenager the Liszt Concerto under Rudolf Kempe), here combine forces at the Grosses Festspielhaus of Salzburg. These two have been playing together for years and have a wonderful compatibility and chemistry.

A carefully selected program from the classic to early and post Romantic and modern pieces gives a good cross section of what can be achieved in this instrumental mode. BrahmsHaydn Variations where the composer is in one of his sunniest moods and at his most inventive, is particularly suited to this version as it reveals the many structural intricacies that tend to be underplayed in the orchestra. It is a lovingly caressed and detailed performance. With the Rachmaninov Symphonic Dances, a piece written by a piano virtuoso, the players have a chance to show deliberate bravura eliciting a strong audience reaction. Their perennial showstopper, Ravel’s La Valse, conjures up many shades of mood and orchestral colour from the charm of a Strauss waltz to the menacing undertones of war. It ends in a gigantic explosion of sound followed by a gigantic explosion of applause.

Janos Gardonyi

07_mahler_5Mahler - Symphony No.5

Gürzenich Orchester Köln; Markus Stenz

Oehms Classics OC650

Founded in 1857, Cologne’s Gürzenich Orchestra gave the first performance of Mahler’s Fifth Symphony in 1904 under the composer’s baton. A century after the premiere the orchestra elected Markus Stenz as their music director and committed itself to recording the complete symphonies of Mahler under his direction. The cycle appropriately enough commences with the Fifth Symphony. This is actually Stenz’s second recording of this work following an earlier critically acclaimed though poorly distributed account during his leadership of the Melbourne (Australia) Symphony. Stenz drives the symphony ahead relentlessly, avoiding the self-aggrandizing expressive distortions so often employed by many another conductor. Some may find this no-nonsense approach a bit one-dimensional, and there are indeed moments such as the triumphant brass peroration at the close of the second movement that clearly benefit from just a bit more grandeur. However Stenz’s tempi in the first movement follow quite closely the outlines of Mahler’s own impromptu performance preserved on a Welte piano roll and his straightforward yet supple account of the famous Adagietto is, as it should be, more romance than lament. The skilful playing, sensitive dynamic nuances and total involvement of the excellent Gürzenich ensemble is well represented in a nicely balanced studio recording which includes an SACD layer.

Daniel Foley

08_ravel_nezet-seguinRavel

Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra; Yannick Nézet-Séguin

EMI Classics 9 66342 2

A conductor’s baton is a lightning rod. It can charge an orchestra’s performance with breathtaking energy or leave it in smoking ruins. Leading one of the world’s great orchestra’s therefore requires an Olympian confidence balanced with respect for the potential scale of both success and failure.

Young Canadian conductor Yannick Nézet-Séguin has been Music Director of the Rotterdam Philharmonic since September 2008. His appointment caused notable chatter in the small Canadian orchestra world and turned many heads internationally. Early reviews of his work in Rotterdam and London have been strong endorsements of his talent and this recording will be another step in his advancing career.

This disc reflects the French love for dance expressed in the music of Maurice Ravel. His orchestrations are legendary for their colour and dynamism. Both elements are so very French in their sense of abandon yet require a technical precision only available to the finest ensembles under gifted leadership.

In the Daphnis et Chloé Suite No.2 The Rotterdam Phil follow Nézet-Séguin through an impressionistic landscape where this large European orchestra often achieves a chamber ensemble intimacy. They repeat this in the Ma mère l’oye Suite and the Valses nobles et sentimentales. The real dynamism, however, reveals itself in La Valse, especially in the wild finale where 19th century traditions are torn apart and established truths satirically mocked by a cynicism rooted in the morbid trenches of WW1.

These performances are fluid and seamless. Repeated listening reveals new textures in the remarkable playing of the Rotterdam Phil. Nézet-Séguin clearly has this orchestra in hand and speaks their language.

Alex Baran

06_capriceCaprice

Alison Balsom; Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra; Edward Gardner

EMI Classics 3 53255 2

In recent years there has been a trend on the part of some instrumentalists to demonstrate their skills by performing transcriptions of works which were not originally written for their instruments. In some cases they have been orchestral works, and in others they were originally choral or solo vocal works. With one exception, a single movement from a Tomasini Trumpet Concerto, all of the tracks on this CD fall into that category.

Although little known in North America, this young British trumpet performer has made quite a name for herself throughout Europe. On the one hand, her performance is as brilliant as you will hear from any trumpet virtuoso when she plays Mozart’s Rondo alla turca or Paganini’s Caprice No. 24. Then, when she turns to Piazzolla’s Libertango or Rachmoninov’s Vocalise, the result is a haunting mellow tone rarely heard in a trumpet performance. Of particular interest to trumpet aficionados is her rendition of Arban’s Variations on Casta Diva from Bellini’s opera Norma. Casta Diva has always been one of my favourite operatic arias and this version shed a whole new light on it.

Anyone who has ever been serious about playing a brass instrument will be familiar with Jean Batiste Arban’s “Tutor and most will be familiar with his ever popular Variations on The Carnival of Venice. However, I had to dig out my copy of that publication to confirm that I have owned it these many years. These variations would be an amazing challenge for any instrumentalist. Alison Balsom meets that challenge with apparent ease.

Jack MacQuarrie

09a_michael_unger_naxosMichael Unger - Organ Recital

Michael Unger

Naxos 8.572246

 

 

 

09b_universe_of_poetryUniverse of Poetry

Michael Unger

Pro Organ CD 7235 (www.proorgano.com)

 

 

Devotees of organ music are admittedly few but faithful. Their numbers, however slim, do sustain a modest stream of recordings from both major and private labels. Canadian-born Michael Unger offers two new recordings in this genre – each very different from the other.

His Tokyo recital recording follows his 2008 International Organ competition victory there. Curiously enough, the Japanese have proven to be an enthusiastic and well-financed market for new pipe organs. Numerous concert halls throughout Japan have contracted North American and European pipe organ builders to install instruments costing millions. Nobody is certain why Asian audiences have so passionately embraced a culturally foreign form of music, but it gives dwindling numbers of organ enthusiasts in the West reason to be grateful.

The instrument is by European builder Marcussen & Son. Its tonal design seems a careful balance between the brightly voice ranks needed for the recital program’s Buxtehude and Bach as well as the 19th – 20th century French repertoire. The instrument’s scale reflects the desire to have a large and grand sound in the concert hall although one suspects the designers may have neglected to leave enough acoustic space in the hall to adequately blend the organ’s voices as cavernous churches do so well.

The treat in this recital is definitely Messiaen’s Dieu parmi nous (from La Nativité du Seigneur). Unger exploits the organ’s potential for colouristic effect and presents Messiaen with unreserved energy and brightness. The Gaston Litaize Prélude et danse fugeé is also a track worth hearing for its contemporary flavour.

Universe of Poetry presents Unger in a program of more traditional repertoire at Sacred Heart Cathedral, Rochester, N.Y. The organ is by American builder Paul Fritts and is as stunning visually as it is aurally. The Cathedral’s ambient space provides a marvellous acoustic setting for the instrument. The organ is voiced brightly making it perfect for a wide range of German repertoire and reasonably suitable for some English and American composers as well, especially the more contemporary ones. 19th century French music may not fare so well, but that’s the nature of tonal design in the organ world.

Unger’s program on this disc is mostly German (Bach, Buxtehude, Rheinberger) recognizing the instrument’s strengths. The few English, French and Belgian pieces do however, come across very well.

The performances on this disc convey a sense of fun and love for the music that contrasts with the fiery showmanship of Unger’s Tokyo competition. Production values are good on both CDs but the Cathedral recording in Rochester N.Y. has the definite edge.

Alex Baran

10_angele_dubeauVirtuose

Angèle Dubeau

Analekta AN 2 8729

 

I would venture to say that alongside tantalizing food products, sleek public transportation vehicles and couture fashion, violinist Angèle Dubeau could be regarded as an equally important Quebec commodity. Although she emerged as a soloist at a young age, her career has never been marked by flash and pizzazz. Rather, the approach she chose has been one of solid musicianship coupled with continuous learning and development, as seen in the 25 discs recorded for the Analekta label, either as a soloist, in chamber groups, or with her ensemble, La Pietà.

This newest release, titled simply Virtuose is rather like a tribute album, for instead of presenting newly-recorded material, it draws from recordings she has made over the last twelve years. The result is a most attractive and eclectic collection ranging from solo performances to those involving a full orchestra.

 

The CD opens with two familiar solo Caprices, the first by Locatelli, and the second by Paganini. Dubeau’s warm tone and technical virtuosity are immediately apparent as she treats these miniature gems with apparent ease. Considerably more dramatic are two final movements from 19th century concertos, those by Mendelssohn and Glazunov, and involving, respectively, the Orchestre Metropolitain, and Bulgarian Radio Symphony. Her affinity for chamber-music is discernible in pieces such as the finale from Schubert’s Violin Sonata in D major (with pianist Anton Kuerti), and the cheeky finale from the Martinu Sonata for Flute, Violin and Piano. Concluding with the tempestuous opening movement from the Sibelius Violin Concerto, the CD is a fine homage to an established Canadian virtuoso whom we certainly hope to enjoy for a long time to come.

 

Richard Haskell

 

Concert Note: Toronto audiences can hear Angèle Dubeau and La Pietà perform at the Jane Mallett Theatre on February 10.

 

09_lennyCelebrating Lenny

Leonard Bernstein

Medici Arts 2057068-1/2/3/4/5

One recent release of 20th century performances takes second place to none – the five-DVD video recordings by Medici Arts of Leonard Bernstein at his florid, warm-hearted best in a variety of musical contexts. In seven hours they illuminate his fierce involvement in every note of the works he’s conducting, the authority he radiates without the grim demeanour adopted by so many peers, the ability to draw the right emotional insights from his charges, the serene, closed-eyes reverence and relaxation masking his inner fire and his tireless insistence in keeping listeners attentive.

The DVDs cover the years 1973 through 1990, the final one a mighty take on Bruckner’s Ninth Symphony in D Minor in Vienna just months before his death. It’s no revelation to note the historical significance of the fourth in this series, another D Minor symphony – by Beethoven, his Choral, performed on Christmas Day 1989 with international choirs and musicians just weeks after the Berlin Wall came down. Usually dubbed ‘Ode To Joy’ from Schiller’s poem, Bernstein rechristened it ‘Ode To Freedom’. It still delivers goose-bumps, despite the lagging Adagio, and is the pick of the other examples of Bernsteinian mastery here - conducting Brahms with the Israel Philharmonic, Franck and Milhaud with the French national orchestra, Mozart and the Bruckner with the Vienna Philharmonic.

This contribution from Bernstein, so adept at the serious and the light, if West Side Story and Candide are truly light, is a not-to-be-missed box set gem.

Geoff Chapman

EXTENDED PLAY – VIOLINS GALORE

By Terry Robbins

01_beethoven_capucon_nezet-seguinI’ve been a bit reluctant to jump on the Renaud Capuçon bandwagon, despite his meteoric rise through the violin ranks, but his new recording of the Beethoven and Korngold Violin Concertos (Virgin Classics 9 694589 0) would make a believer of anyone. Capuçon is a ‘big vibrato’ player, but here it’s put to a controlled and telling use in a beautifully-judged performance. What really pushes this CD into the stratosphere, though, is the contribution of the Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra under Yannick Nézet-Séguin: perfect tempi, and remarkable balance and clarity that reveal details in the orchestration I’m not sure I’ve ever heard before. The Korngold benefits from exactly the same treatment, and Nézet-Séguin’s interpretation merges with Capuçon’s huge, warm sound to produce a terrific performance. It’s not always easy to appreciate the effect a conductor can have, but the reasons for Nézet-Séguin’s rapidly-growing international reputation are here for all to hear.

02_bruch_brahms_changAlthough I thought her Vivaldi Four Seasons CD was simply outstanding, I must admit I found the new Bruch and Brahms Violin Concertos from Sarah Chang (EMI Classics 9 67004 2) a bit on the ordinary side – if ‘ordinary’ can ever be applied to a player of Chang’s enormous talents. Chang tends to be another ‘big vibrato’ player, and in the Bruch – a work closely associated with her – I found it a bit distracting, despite the Romantic nature of the music. It’s much the same in the Brahms, where her big, wide vibrato makes it sound more like a “reach-the-back-of the-hall” live concert performance than a closed recording. Kurt Masur’s accompaniment with the Dresdner Philharmonie is rhythmically strong, but a bit pedestrian. Quality performances without a doubt, but, given the performers, a little bit nearer the middle of the pack than you would expect.

 

Concert Note: Sarah Chang will perform a concert on February 24 at 8pm at Markham Theatre.

 

03_paganini_vriendWith his CD of Paganini Violin Concertos Nos. 1 & 2 (Challenge Classics Super Audio CC72343), Rudolf Koelman certainly answers the question “How?” when it comes to playing Paganini, but more importantly also answers the question “Why?” It’s easy to dismiss Paganini’s works as empty show pieces, with little to recommend them musically, but this disc not only highlights Paganini’s close personal friendship with Rossini but also stresses their musical association by including the overture to Rossini’s opera Matilde di Shabran. It’s a brilliant stroke, because it shows that Paganini’s works are not simply vehicles for virtuosity, but are firmly rooted in the Italian operatic and vocal style of the time; the violin merely replaces the voice. Koelman has the complete arsenal of technical skills, but plays with smoother lines and fewer sharp edges than many Paganini performers. Jan Willem de Vriend leads the Netherlands Symphony Orchestra in live performances, but audience noise is never an issue.

04_dvorak_szymanowski_steinbacherI’d forgotten just how much I love the two violin concertos by Karol Szymanowski, but Arabella Steinbacher’s stunning new CD of his Concerto No.1, together with the Dvorák Concerto (Pentatone Classics Super Audio PTC 5186 353) is a dazzling reminder. This is, by any standard, a wonderful performance of a gloriously lyrical and rhapsodic work; if the achingly beautiful theme that runs through the work doesn’t get to you, then nothing will. Steinbacher sounds as if she’s been playing this work all her life, and receives passionate and faultless support from Marek Janowski and the Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Berlin. The Dvorak receives no less perceptive and committed a performance, and his Romance in F minor is made to sound much more than just filler. A simply stunning CD.

05_sarasate_yangTianwa Yang’s third CD in a projected seven-volume set of the complete works of Sarasate is the first volume of his Music for Violin and Orchestra (Naxos 8.572191). A wonderful Zigeunerweisen starts things off, and the standard never flags. Certainly it would be difficult to imagine more suitable support: Ernest Martinez Izquierdo draws passionate and nuanced playing from the Orquesta Sinfonica de Navarra, the orchestra founded by Sarasate in 1879, and the recording venue was their concert hall in Pamplona, the composer’s birthplace. Tianwa Yang toured China with this same orchestra in a series of Sarasate concerts, and clearly understands the music, going beyond a dazzling technique to get at the Spanish soul within.

Terry Robbins

11_farah_unfoldingUnfolding

John Farah

Dross:tik Records DTK10 (www.johnfarah.com)

Toronto composer and pianist John Farah noted in a recent interview, “I wanted Unfolding to be like my favourite juggernaut classical pieces, something you could listen to hundreds of times because you're always hearing new details ..." (Hour Magazine, 2009). In this goal, it seems to me that he succeeded brilliantly. I can’t wait for a live concert version with full symphony orchestra.

Overall, the structure of Unfolding resembles a grand 20th c. piano concerto in ten movements. Its symphonic accompaniment is here deftly provided by synthesizers and acoustic drums, clarinet and cello. Its style and musical language is a veritable musical alchemical amalgam, drawing from an incredibly varied range of Western and Middle Eastern contemporary and historical sources. Established musical forms abound, both Middle Eastern (the 10 beat samai metre in mvt. 6), and Western (the passacaglia underpinning mvt. 5). Contemporary urban dance styles are welcome in Farah’s concerto too. They make guest appearances alongside advanced jazz augmented chords and tonal passages reminiscent of Schoenberg’s 12 tone musical language. The composer’s love for the keyboard music of the Renaissance is not neglected either and gets a place at the table, though the harpsichord is not included as it was on his first CD, Creation.

Unfolding reflects a mature fully-realised musical voice in the tradition of European keyboard-composers. Imagine one part rippling jazzy piano and Rhodes lines blended into crunchy augmented chords, one part chopped-up drum samples, trippy acid synth lines and drum ’n’ bass, plus another part Middle Eastern percussion and modal references, all served in a sophisticated highball glass in the form of a 20th century piano concerto. Can’t? Then you’ll just have to listen to this album.

Andrew Timar

01_necksSilverwater

The Necks

Fish of Milk ReR Necks 9 (www.rermegacorp.com)

Aptly described as mesmerizing, the sonic currents created by Australian trio The Necks sweep listeners along without complaint during any one of the band’s hour-long, time-suspending performances. The audience at the trio’s Music Gallery show in late January could testify to that. Yet “Silverwater” – named for an industrial suburb of Sydney – pulses with even more textures, since with overdubbing and granularization multiple and fungible sonic layers can be exposed.

That means that the swelling and jabbing organ tones played by Chris Abrahams that quiver throughout this one-track CD to reach a crescendo of almost visual three-dimensional polyphony, sometimes operate in tandem with knife-sharp piano chording – also played by Abrahams. Additionally, samples and patching split Tony Buck’s percussion skills so that rhythmic tambourine shakes, thick press rolls, ratcheting wood scrapes and a steady backbeat are heard all at once. Holding the bottom are the rhythmically powerful and chromatic spiccato runs of bassist Lloyd Swanton, occasionally doubled by overdubbing.

Suffused with contrapuntal clinking, chording and clattering, the extended improvisation here becomes a nearly opaque interlude of frozen time made up of bonded organ washes, bass thumps and percussion cracks. That is until steadying piano chords and the drummer’s shuffle beat isolate the different tinctures of this musical color wheel, allowing the narrative to loosen and separate into sections. The ultimate straight-ahead theme is then divided among low-frequency keyboard tinkles, spanked cymbals and solid bass string plucks.

Ken Waxman

02_larry_bond_trioThe Larry Bond Trio

Larry Bond; Bob Mills; Richard Moore

Independent (www.larrybondtrio.com)

If you enjoy good quality relaxed jazz with a mix of standards and lesser known numbers, this CD may be for you. From Rogers and Hammerstein to Thelonious Monk, George Shearing and Thad Dameron, Larry Bond and his cohorts provide a solid hour’s worth of good listening. While there are no frantic tracks on this offering, it certainly would not be fair to label it with the hackneyed easy listening label. A total of nine top quality tunes with an interpretation to match, cover a spectrum of rhythms from Waltz for Debbie to Blue Bossa. Larry Bond’s piano dominates, as one might expect, but he certainly does not hog the show. Throughout, this CD is a tasteful team effort with excellent balance. Particularly interesting are the somewhat unconventional up tempo treatments of It Might as Well be Spring and Stella by Starlight. All in all an excellent addition to the library of some standards and lesser known numbers in a relaxed jazz style.

Jack MacQuarrie

MAPLE LEAF JAZZ

By Geoff Chapman

01_here_nowCanadian guitarist Jake Langley fought his way through the ranks to long-term sideman in Joey DeFrancesco’s organ trio. Now he bosses his own threesome with American Sam Yahel doing the grunt work on ancient Hammond B3 (plus Fender Rhodes) and Vancouver transplant drummer Ian Froman, now of the Big Apple. It’s clear on Here And Now (Tonepoet TPCD2012 www.jakelangley.com) that Jake’s in charge, his Gibson guitars setting the menu for nine tracks, five by him plus a Mingus, classics by McCoy Tyner and Michel Legrand plus Gordon Lightfoot’s mega-hit If You Could Read My Mind. The music swings hard without grating pyrotechnics, even with blues, rock and funk dominating themes. Yahel’s vigorous bass lines groove as the Langley guitars lay out forceful ideas, particularly strong on modal cuts Singularity and 2012. There’s a short, daring take with seriously dark passages on Goodbye Pork Pie Hat showing how the trio knows when to caress, when to drop out and when to get tough. The Langley unit displays finely developed harmonic sense, creates a light jazz anthem of the Lightfoot and underscores the leader’s unfailing imagination.

02_chunkedTriodes comprises the co-chiefs of big band NOJO, guitarist Michael Occhipinti and keyboardist Paul Neufeld, joined by resonant bassist Roberto Occhipinti and drummer Doan Pham with a gaggle of guests. On Chunked (Modica Music MM0110 www.triodes.ca) there are three pieces each from the leaders in an eclectic, easy-on-the-ear selection of vintage soul and R&B, designed to conjure memories of The Meters yet allowing players licence to blunder into Desmond Dekker’s Israelites. Catchy cuts like Occhipinti’s Big Belly gets additional fire from Jeff Coffin’s sax, Black Disciples features woolly trombone and a rapper ruins Blue Pepper but the popping pulse, clean notes, witty notions and upbeat atmosphere carry the day. The strutting Funky Miracle and old school wailing on The Kick are distinct bonuses.

03_other_sideBlasting trumpeter Alexis Baro likes funk as well as swirling Cuban rhythms and is in take-no-prisoners mode on From The Other Side (www.g-threejazz.com). There’s polyrhythmic mayhem early on with Robi Botos, Jeff King and Larnell Lewis prominent conspirators in a mix of high power bathed in funky blasts and whirling percussion. Baro shows off some awesome technique as well as lapses of concentration, which actually gives the album – his second – live jam appeal with African Escape a thriller. Baro then steers his large troupe through some ordinary light bop before plunging into whiplash funk that exploits searing guitar from KCRoberts. You can hear the potential in Baro’s laid-back moments, where technique is not everything, instead supplanted by tone control and emotional appeal. Wake up Call before it boils over is proof. His second album, with 10 of his tunes, bodes well for the future.

04_pleased_to_meetHank Jones is 91, Oliver Jones a mere 75. These storied veterans, brought up on melodic jazz, the will to swing and the example of Oscar Peterson, deliver a lovely, relaxed disc that should suit every occasion and trounce age stereotyping. The 11 tunes on Pleased To Meet You (Justin Time Just 2326-2 www.justin-time.com) provide no barrier to the fecund jazz minds of these elder statesmen who employ on three cuts two rising stars – bassist Brandi Disterheft and drummer Jim Doxas - they don’t really need. Jones and Jones, who hadn’t recorded together before, do sound pleased to meet each other, comfortable in five duets that include a pair of Peterson chestnuts, Cakewalk and Big Scotia, while Oliver contributes his own I Remember OP. Hank offers solo ruminations Monk’s Mood and Ornette Coleman’s Lonely Woman in a warm, welcoming session executed to perfection.

05_double_doubleWhen two Toronto vets get together it’s more than a cutting session – much more here with flugelhornist Chase Sanborn and pianist Mark Eisenman going at it on a disc subtitled Always Swinging. Swing it does on a dozen tunes they stack with vigour and creative acumen you’d expect from expert practitioners. Double Double (Samo Media MFA 18249 www.chasesanborn.com) opens with a jointly-composed tune and shows how the challenges of democratic duet playing are answered, as two musicians at the top of their game breeze through tunes with sure-handed panache. Each contributes a brace of songs – Sanborn Great Gait and Call It and Eisenman Benny’s Ballad and N.O.O.N. and they round out the performance with standards, classics and originals. The dynamic duo deftly exchanges ideas, quotes freely and offers up some groundbreaking passion with a celebratory tone. The ‘contest’ is especially appealing on Benny Golson’s Stablemates and Hoagy’s The Nearness Of You, impeccably done.

EXTENDED PLAY – COLOURFUL COLORATURAS

By Seth Estrin

These new releases showcase four of the finest coloratura opera singers on stage today. Together, they offer the listener numerous opportunities to marvel at both the technical and emotive capabilities of the human voice when placed in the throat of superb dramatic actors.

01_natalie_dessayFrench soprano Natalie Dessay’s disc Mad Scenes (Virgin Classics 6 99469 0) brings together mad scenes from I Puritani, Hamlet, Candide, and Le Pardon de Ploërmel bookended by two recordings of the famous demise of Lucia di Lammermoor – one in French, and one in Italian. All the material on this CD has been previously released, yet it makes a compelling if (perhaps appropriately considering the theme), idiosyncratic compilation. Composers from Donizetti to Bernstein were united by an unwritten rule: the crazier the heroine, the faster and higher her music. Fortunately, Dessay can sing both very fast and very high (up to a sustained G above high C in the Meyerbeer selection). What’s more, she can do so while convincingly sounding insane, alternating between moments of delicate serenity and full-blooded drama when her plangent voice almost threatens to unravel. If you are not already familiar with Dessay’s artistry, this is an excellent starting-point.

02_diana_damrauGerman soprano Diana Damrau’s voice is essentially of the same type as Dessay, less delicate and poised but somewhat brighter and more full-bodied, and so it is not a surprise to find some of the same selections on her disc Coloratura Opera Arias with the Münchner RFO under Dan Ettinger (Virgin Classics 5 19313 2). It is a testament to the abilities of both singers that they can bring strikingly different yet equally convincing approaches to similar repertoire – both of their over-the-top interpretations of Bernstein’s Glitter and be gay are not to be missed. Damrau’s fluttering voice has a natural smile that she uses to great advantage in portraying ebullient characters such as Zerbinetta, Rosina, and Oscar. Yet even in more subdued moods, such as when portraying Anne Trulove, her dramatic inclinations are spot-on. Aided by perfect enunciation, Damrau is so immersed in her characters that you hardly notice her modulating between four different languages in this varied program. This is an outstanding disc from beginning to end.

03_joyce_didonatoMezzo Joyce DiDonato tackles more limited repertoire, focusing on arias written by Rossini for the famous singer Isabella Colbran on Colbran, the Muse with the Orchestra e Coro dell'Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia under Edoardo Muller (Virgin Classics 6 94579 0). Written as showpieces for a particular singer’s unique voice, Colbran’s roles are notoriously difficult to sing, but I doubt they have been better sung in modern times than on this disc. DiDonato has an intense, focused voice with a quick vibrato, impeccable coloratura, and lovely legato. But she is not afraid to embolden it with robust expressions of joy or desperation. Her incredible range allows DiDonato to bring to roles that are often sung by lighter sopranos (such as Elena, Semiramide, and Armida) a richer mezzo tonal colour, but without any hint of strain or lack of high notes. An exceptional release, with excellent support from both orchestral and vocal colleagues.

04_vivica_genauxFellow American mezzo Vivica Genaux, likewise concentrates on a single composer: Vivaldi, on Pyrotechnics - Vivaldi Opera Arias (Virgin Classics 6 94573 0). Genaux’s disc rivals DiDonato’s not simply for the number of notes sung or the sheer technical accomplishment of the singing, but also for the skill with which she uses coloratura to express emotion. Though her voice is earthy and vibrant, with a visceral, palpitating quality, it is light enough to give it a buoyancy that allows Genaux to navigate astoundingly difficult coloratura with ease. This facility with the passagework lets her focus on the drama, so that arias such as “Agitata da due venti” from La Griselda are not simply Baroque showpieces, but music sung by true operatic characters. Genaux’s singing is bolstered by the flamboyant playing of the period instrument group Europa Galante under Fabio Biondi.

Seth Estrin

03_la_cenerentolaRossini - La Cenerentola

Joyce DiDonato; Juan Diego Florez; Gran Teatre del Liceu; Patrick Summers

Decca 074 3305

It is such a pleasure to enjoy this completely original, very imaginative and colourful DVD performance of the 24 year old Rossini’s comic Cinderella masterpiece completed under great pressure in a few weeks for the carnival season of 1817. Original indeed. What an inspired idea to bring in the ‘Comediants’, a group of itinerant players who give outdoor impromptu performances all over Catalonia much like in the Middle Ages. The overall effect is the work of Joan Fonts (director) and it’s like a comic book fairy tale with strong primary colours that are ever changing with mirrors and the magic of backlighting. One hilarious feature is a group of anthropomorphic rats constantly moving around in the background following and silently commenting on the action.

And it’s a musical triumph as well. The two principals, Joyce diDonato and Juan Diego Florez are top of the line today in terms of bel canto singing. American mezzo DiDonato easily conquers the fierce technical demands of Rossini fioraturas but is also capable of pathos and introspection to move audiences with the warmth of her voice. Juan Diego Florez’s voice is spectacular in the high flying tessitura and he throws out the high C’s with the greatest of ease. After his aria in the second act Si, ritrovarla, io giuro the audience goes simply hysterical.

There is no disappointment in the three supporting baritone/basso roles either. Perhaps veteran Italian basso Bruno de Simone (Don Magnifico) stands out in his characterization, irresistible comedy and bravura Rossinian pattering, a feature that Arthur Sullivan adopted later into his English operettas.

Indiana born conductor Patrick Sommers is fast becoming a force to reckon with, especially in bel canto repertoire. His unerring beat of metronomic precision and graceful and stylish tempos, sometimes at lightning speed, contribute to an outstandingly memorable evening.

Janos Gardonyi

04_nixon_in-chinaJohn Adams - Nixon in China

Robert Orth; Maria Kanyova; Thomas Hammons; Marc Heller; Tracy Dahl; Chen-Ye Yuan; Opera Colorado Chorus; Colorado Symphony Orchestra; Marin Alsop

Naxos 8.669022-24

Watching modern operas become a part of the standard repertoire is like watching the children grow up. Some of the precocious ones (the ones by Philip Glass) sometimes become rather dull adults, others are still gawky teenagers (works by Corigliano), while others reach their full, stunning potential. The seminal work by Adams, Nixon in China, belongs to that last category.

Just over 25 years old, the opera has had numerous productions in North America and Europe, initially overshadowed by the premiere Peter Sellars production and sacrosanct casting of voices (Maddalena, Sylvan, and Craney). Its one and only recoding, an excellent rendition on Nonensuch Records with The Orchestra of St. Luke’s under Edo de Waart became the de-facto reference recording… But some 5 years ago, the tide started changing. When I saw in 2006 an early version of the current production, here recorded live in Denver, it was a fresh and fascinating experience. The excellent Naxos CD recording conveys this freshness and Alsop brilliantly reveals the lyrical, almost romantic side of Adams’ music. That lyricism, often buried under the trappings of minimalism, emerges victoriously.

Winnipegger Tracy Dahl is every director’s dream of Madame Mao, both vocally and visually, especially in her triumphant coloratura “I am the wife of Mao Tse-Tung”. Robert Orth brings us a strangely sympathetic, pre–“I am not a crook!”Nixon; just listen to his opening aria “News has a kind of mystery”. Overall, this is my first must-have recording of the new decade!

Robert Tomas

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