02_verdi_rigolettoVerdi - Rigoletto

Diana Damrau; Juan Diego Florez; Željko Lučić; Sachsische Staatskapelle Dresden; Fabio Luisi

Virgin Classics 5099964186894

Verdi was a revolutionary figure himself, often fighting authorities and even having a difficult time getting his Rigoletto performed. The original play by Victor Hugo caused such an uproar in Paris that it disappeared after opening night. Defiantly Verdi chose it as a perfect vehicle for his new opera but it was forcibly transferred to an obscure Italian principality to placate the Venetian censors. Revolutionary, avant-garde German director Nicolaus Lehnhoff was therefore an apt choice to create a new look for Dresden. His concept is good versus evil or tormentors versus victims merged into a surreal nightmarish dream, a dark void, sometimes stained in blood red, populated by scary weird creatures, like the duke’s courtiers all in black with devilish masks. Inside this void for contrast appears Gilda’s pure white bedroom, decorated with stars on its walls that come to shine at night to be backdrop for Gilda’s magnificent reverie “Caro Nome”. Worth going to Dresden for this moment alone.


Three great names in the forefront of opera today came together in Dresden in 2008 to bring this concept alive and throbbing with music of the highest quality. Diana Damrau caused a sensation not only with her thrilling radiant high soprano, but her exceptional portrayal of an innocent young girl who falls victim to the hatred and voraciousness of wicked and thoughtless people. The role of Rigoletto in which Verdi created a hero of heretofore unknown complexity is sung by Željko Lučić, now principal Verdi baritone for our time. Juan Diego Florez lends his exquisite bel-canto tenor voice to the hit studded role of the Duke of Mantua. Music Director Fabio Luisi’s direction has great rhythmic and dynamic drive and clarity, altogether a very sympathetic reading of the complete score. Not a note is missing.


03_marie_nicole_lemieuxNe Me Refuse Pas

Marie-Nicole Lemieux; Orchestre National de France; Fabien Gabel

Naïve V 5201

There are no surprises here. Contralto Marie-Nicole Lemieux sings a number of famous and well loved French opera arias with passion, musicality, technique and a pitch to die for.


She is accompanied by the fabulous Orchestra national de France under the superb guidance of Fabien Gabel. The relationship between the singer and the “accompanist” is so intimate that the recording sounds like it took place in my living room! Unfortunately her performance (with the Jeune choeur de Paris) of Bizet's “L'amour est un oiseau rebelle” (aka “Habanera”) from the opera Carmen lacks the feminine vitality that makes the aria so intriguing. This is the only lapse however, and a listen to her ascending vocal line at the beginning of Massenet”s “Qui m'aurait dit la place” from the opera Werther is to witness a vocal genius at work – a spine-tingling example of Lemieux's artistry.


Alexandre Dratwicki's liner notes titled “the voice of romanticism” is a superlative exposé on the French art of singing during the Romantic era. Thankfully, Lemieux does not engage in the “French screaming” that the author amusingly refers to, but it really is an individual taste to either love or abhor the dramatics of the music and lyrics from this period. I greatly enjoyed this release – the music may not be completely to my liking, but Lemieux's brilliant performance sells me on its credibility.


04_duo_freyaDiamonds of the North - Songs from Scandanavia

Duo Freya

Independent (www.aspasiabooks.com)

This recording of Finnish, Swedish and Norwegian music for voice and piano is truly full of little musical diamonds – and a rich introduction to the world of Nordic art song.


Jean Sibelius and Edvard Grieg are the two most familiar composers represented here. Sibelius’s four dramatic songs with broad dynamic shifts and big piano parts are very impressive, but the transparent melancholy of the fifth, Hiljainen kaupunki (The Silent Town), makes it my personal fave. The composer’s own piano transcription of Finlandia receives an extraordinary performance by Saario, and to which Koistinen joins in for the national song – a much more intimate experience than the symphonic version! The seven Norwegian songs by Grieg are perhaps the most varied in mood, despite their relative simplicity and reserve; the little gems here are To Brune Øyne (Two Brown Eyes), En Svane (A Swan) and the hauntingly beautiful (and famous) Solveig’s Song.


Perhaps the most ostentatious compositions on this CD are two songs by Oskar Merikanto (1868-1924), which almost burst with drama and pride - no hint of Nordic understatement here. The one song by Finland’s Yrjö Kilpinen (1892-1959) is an appealing and beautifully crafted piece that makes clear why Kilpinen enjoyed great public popularity. Two of my personal favourites, with their broad palette of colour and texture, were the songs by Toivo Kuula (1883-1918), and Swedish composer Hugo Alfvén (1872-1960) is showcased in four very charming songs.


Duo Freya offers this music up with obvious affection and thoughtful musicality. Though I wish the CD notes included some information on the lesser-known composers, Duo Freya’s spirited and expressive performance is an elegantly convincing introduction to what is, after all, the most important thing.


05_let_beauty_awakeLet Beauty Awake (Vaughan Williams; Glick; Bowles; Barber)

Joshua Hopkins; Jerad Mosbey

ATMA ACD2 2615

Themes of travel evoke the feelings of longing and at times, despair, and are well-loved devices of many poets. The song cycle embraced the idea of travel most famously with the works of Schubert and Mahler, but on this recording we get a wonderful, if at times tenously connected assembly of four contemporary cycles. The works of Vaughan Williams, Srul Irving Glick, Paul Bowles (yes, the Sheltering Sky Paul Bowles!) and Samuel Barber reach for the texts of great poets, including Nobel laureats. Robert Louis Stevenson, Richard Outram, Tennessee Williams, Czeslaw Milosz and James Joyce prove beyond reasonable doubt that a great song cycle does not have to be sung in German.


The young baritone Joshua Hopkins, a “product” of the Houston Grand Opera Studio, must have quite a trophy case at home: he is the winner of 2006 Borletti-Buitoni Trust Award, the Verbier Festival Academy’s 2008 Prix d’Honneur, Placido Domingo Operalia Competition, ARD Musikwettbeverb and the Julian Gayarre Singing competition. His baritone is of a powerful, virile, yet smooth variety, although some will quibble about the unexpected vibrato. The interpretation of at times difficult repertoire (try singing “during the artistic milking suddenly they lie down like cows” and make it convincing!) is flawless and well assisted by Jerad Mosbey’s intelligent piano playing. An interesting CD and a great addition to ATMA Classique’s winning streak.


06_alleluiaAlleluia - Sacred Choral Works by Stephanie Martin

Choirs of Saint Mary Magdalene; Stephanie Martin

Independent SJM 008 (www.cdbaby.com/cd/martinstephanie)

The Church of St. Mary Magdalene in Toronto has long been renowned for the music gracing its services and beyond since the time of famed composer, organist and choirmaster Healey Willan who served at the church from 1921-1968. The latest musician to occupy the Director of Music chair once again offers a repertoire uniquely suited to this most excellent sanctuary of faith, inspiration and artistry. Indeed, suiting the history of this church, much of Stephanie Martin’s music is reminiscent of her predecessor in style and colour, with its free-flowing textures and atmospheric harmonization combined with liberal measures of plainchant. The anthems and mass settings are largely unaccompanied but there are a couple of exceptions such as the lovely arrangements for winds in God so loved the world and the organ taking its rightful place in In Magdelene nomine. Rather than exuberant, the title track Alleluia is soft and sweet with voicings beautiful, serene and sublime. The choir under Martin’s direction performs as a unified and interconnected whole, with the clarity and tonal perfection required for these sensitive and graceful forms. Listening to this recording will inspire many to attend a live service at St. Mary Magdalene while providing an excellent glimpse for those who may never have the opportunity.


01_mozart_piano_concertosMozart - Piano Concertos 12, 13 & 14

robert Blocker; Biava Quartet

Naxos 8.557881

In January 1783 there appeared an advertisement in the Wiener Zeitung from no less a composer than Mozart who was announcing the publication of three new piano concertos that could be performed “either with a large orchestra… or merely a quattro, that is, with 2 violins, 1 viola, and violoncello.” These concertos were the first Mozart wrote after his move to Vienna in 1781, and are presented here performed by the Biava Quartet with pianist Robert Blocker.


The Biava was formed at the Cleveland Institute of Music in 1998, and since then, has gone on to win top prizes including the London International Competition and the Nuremberg Chamber Music Award. The American-born Blocker has enjoyed a multifaceted career as pianist, educator (at Yale University), and music advisor for such prominent institutions as the Avery Fisher Artist Program, and the Curatorium of the Ferenc Liszt Academy of Music in Budapest.


What a joyful sound these musicians create – this is surely “Mozart with a smile on his face!” The Biava plays with a keen precision, providing a solid accompaniment for Blocker’s lucid and sensitive interpretation. This most sympathetic pairing between quartet and piano is clearly evident, for example, in the cheerful opening movement of concerto No.12, the languorous second movement of No.13, and the sprightly finale from the fourteenth, all duly presented in a stylish manner of which Mozart surely would have approved. Indeed, to my mind, the smaller resources found here result in a wonderful sense of intimacy, transporting the listener from the vast space of the concert-hall to a private chamber in 18th century Vienna.


02_beethoven_gryphonBeethoven - Piano Trios Op. 70 Nos.1/2; Op. 11

Gryphon Trio

Analekta AN 2 9860

It will surely come as no surprise to learn that the wonderful Gryphon Trio are in their usual superb form on this latest CD, the third and final volume in their recording of the complete Beethoven Piano Trios.


Included on this disc are the two Op.70 works from 1808 – the D major “Ghost” Trio and the E flat Trio – and the Op.11 B flat Trio from 1798, originally conceived for clarinet, cello and piano but published for clarinet or violin, apparently to increase the sales potential.


The Gryphons have been together for 17 years now, and their mutual understanding and sense of ensemble is unsurpassed. From the cascade of unison notes that opens the “Ghost”, through the lengthy and eerie slow movement that prompted the work’s sub-title, to the ebullient closing bars of the Op.11, there is never a moment when you don’t feel that this must surely be the only way to play this music.


Jamie Parker, as usual, anchors the performances with his immaculately brilliant piano playing, and violinist Annalee Patipatanakoon and cellist Roman Borys are every inch his equal. In every possible respect – tempo, phrasing, dynamics, ensemble, style – this is playing and interpretation of the highest quality, and the result is an outstanding CD that adds to the Trio’s already impressive catalogue of recordings.


Recorded in the Salle Francoys-Bernier at Domaine Forget in St. Irenee, Quebec, the sound is warm and resonant, and the balance ideal.


03_brahms_violinBrahms - Violin Sonatas 1-3

Mark Fewer; Peter Longworth

Azica ACD71259

Long-time collaborators Mark Fewer and Peter Longworth have produced a fascinating and thought-provoking CD of the three Brahms violin sonatas. This is not necessarily the sonatas the way you would expect to hear them: first impressions are that they’re possibly a little too restrained, and perhaps lacking a sense of urgency and tension at times, but this soon proves to be irrelevant.


The opening bars of the Op.78 G Major sonata – the two warm piano chords and the almost hesitant off-beat entry of the violin – always set the tone for the whole work, and Fewer and Longworth set up their stall from the outset. The tempo is perfect, with a gentle, rhythmic lilt that never falters, and a fine sense of melodic line. Fewer’s tone and vibrato are warm but never large or effusive, allowing Longworth to shine and establish a true balance and sense of partnership. No histrionics here – just subtle, reflective playing.


This mood of thoughtful interpretation continues throughout the work, and throughout the Op.100 A Major sonata as well. Finally, when the mood changes in the Op.108 D minor sonata, the duo dispel any possible doubts about their commitment with a passionate ending to a deeply satisfying CD.


The Salle Francoys-Bernier in Domaine Forget was the venue for the warm, resonant and intimate recorded sound.


These are intelligent and richly rewarding readings that offer more each time you hear them. I’ll be playing them again and again.


04b_nutcracker_experience1Tchaikovsky - The Nutcracker

Berlin Philharmoniker; Simon Rattle

EMI: two editions: 509996 4638522 2CD set;

509996 3162127 Experience Edition

Surely there is no more beloved score in all music than Tchaikovsky’s enchanting Nutcracker, traditionally enjoyed by young and old alike at this time of year... at least in North America. Many countries regard Humperdinck’s “children’s opera,” Hansel and Gretel as the must-see event of the season.


For those who know the music only from the Nutcracker Suite, there is another hour of equally enchanting, instantly captivating music. The electrifying Pas de deux from Act II is sometimes played as an encore by visiting Russian Orchestras, to thunderous applause. Without fail, many of the audience are at a loss to identify it or else confirm that it is from Swan Lake. Collectors will remember the Philips CD of selected excerpts (not the suite) from The Nutcracker played with astonishing intensity by Mravinsky and The Leningrad Philharmonic. After hearing the Rattle, the Mravinsky excerpts, while still very impressive, sound inflexible and the Russian orchestra does not exude the flavour and the joy of the subject matter as the Berliners do. The complete ballet is rarely, if ever, heard at a symphony concert and, according to Rattle, the 1st Act music presents a challenge to even a great orchestra.


Checking a few other complete versions for comparison the Rattle has the edge with its infectious exuberance and good feelings. The recorded sound is stunning in its delineation of details, width, depth and dynamics.


04a_nutcracker_experience204b_nutcracker_experience1The regular set includes access to live concert footage and a one day free pass to the online Berlin Philharmonic Concert Hall. The Experience Edition is a beautiful little hard-bound 60 page art book with the two CDs included; adding exclusive interviews, and downloads to the regular edition. A handsome package for only a few dollars more.

05a_mahler_celebrationThe Gustav Mahler Celebration

Thomas Hampson; Anne Sophie von Otter; Marita Solberg; Mahler Chamber Orchestra; Manfred Honeck

EuroArts 2058148

05b_introducing_mahlerIntroducing Mahler - Symphony No.2

Lucerne Festival Orchestra; Claudio Abbado

EuroArts 2056178

There’s not a lot to see in Kaliště, the tiny enclave of some 330 souls in the present-day Czech Republic, but on July 1 this past summer the town was inundated to celebrate the 150th birthday of their most famous son, Gustav Mahler. Set in a temporary outdoor structure, the greatly augmented Gustav Mahler Chamber Orchestra (originally founded by Claudio Abbado) appeared under the direction of Manfred Honeck for a festival performance of excerpts from Mahler’s towering Second Symphony and a handful of his more intimate songs with orchestra featuring baritone Thomas Hampson and soprano Anne Sofie von Otter. Despite the compromised acoustics of the band shell the sound of the performance is actually quite good; while von Otter is content with the conventional park-and-bark position to deliver her considerable vocal gifts, hammy Hampson relishes the opportunity afforded by his wireless headset microphone to roam the stage both back and front in a riveting performance of the great anti-war song Revelge. Though little of the town that Mahler knew remains, the camera glimpses a ghostly military band in the distance and briefly roams through the local Jewish cemetery. The Czech Boy’s Choir and Prague Philharmonic Choir chime in remotely from the local church in Es sungen drei Engel and appear on the bandstand to great effect for the concluding paean of the Symphony.


Introducing Mahler is an episode from a music documentary series on EuroArt, Introducing Masterpieces of Classical Music. It features a succinct explication of the Fifth Symphony by British musicologist Jeremy Barham, with piano excerpts leading into the corresponding orchestral segments augmented by appropriate visual footage, scrolling music examples, and additional commentary by anonymous voices reading from period documents. Unfortunately these secondary narrative sub-tracks are at times near-inaudible in the stereo mix. The real draw of this DVD is the magnificent performance of the symphony by Claudio Abbado and his hand-picked Lucerne Festival Orchestra, repackaged from an earlier incarnation of this 2004 once-in-a-lifetime concert. The expertly directed camera work brings an extra dimension to the intense concentration and amazing ensemble work of this distinguished ensemble responding as one with the greatest Mahler conductor of our time.


02_chinese_recorderChinese Recorder Concertos

Michala Petri; Copenhagen Philharmonic; lan Shui

OUR Recordings 6.220603

This remarkable CD presents the premiere recordings of four concertos by living Chinese composers, two of whom currently work in the USA. The disc opens with Tian Jianping’s Fei Ge (Flying Song), originally written in 2002 as a concerto for dizi (Chinese bamboo flute) and pan-Asian instrumental ensemble. This transcription by the composer for western orchestra and recorder, on which Petri eloquently evokes the dizi in tone and effect, works beautifully with playing of the highest order from both orchestra and soloist.

Bright Sheng’s evocative and strikingly beautiful Flute Moon is more a full orchestral work than a concerto, and Petri plays solo parts originally assigned to the flute and piccolo. The piece revels in a rich array of orchestral colours, dazzling musical gestures, and dramatic shifts of mood. The three-movement Bang Di Concerto by Ma Shui-long is the composer’s best known composition, and is an extraordinarily effective fusion between Chinese and western musical languages. It receives an utterly virtuosic performance from all involved. Written for Petri by Chen Yi, The Ancient Chinese Beauty draws inspiration from Chinese figures, script, and flutes. The second movement, particularly in its evocation of the ancient xun or large Chinese ocarina, is particularly impressive.

For several decades now Michala Petri has been one of the busiest and most familiar recorder players to audiences around the globe, and with programs such as this she continues to do great things beyond the recorder’s more typical boundaries. She seems eminently at home here, making her own distinct music in a fascinating project designed “to creatively collaborate in an international musical dialogue.”

Kudos to her, to the wonderful Copenhagen Philharmonic and conductor Lan Shui – and to the composers of these wonderful pieces.

Concert Note: Chen Yi is the featured composer at this year’s New Music Festival at the Faculty of Music, University of Toronto with events January 23 through 29. Chen’s Yangko is also included in Soundstreams Canada’s January 25 concert “Tan Dun’s Ghost Opera” at Koerner Hall.

03_harrisonLou Harrison - Scenes from Cavafy

Gamelan Pacifica; Jarrad Powell

New World Records 80710-2 (www.newworldrecords.org)

The long list of non-Indonesian composers who have been intrigued and inspired by the instruments and music of the gamelan (an indigenous Indonesian orchestra) goes back some 250 years. Starting with Jean-Philippe Rameau in the 18th c., the lineage continues with Debussy and led to compositions by the Canadian Colin McPhee, and to works of Steve Reich and to many more musicians active today.

There was no more eager convert to the gamelan as a Western musical resource however than the American composer Lou Harrison (1917–2003). As well as composing dozens of works for various types of gamelans, Harrison served as a generous mentor to a generation of musicians who have subsequently taken the gamelan music model into their own musical domains. These include Toronto’s Evergreen Club Contemporary Gamelan and Seattle’s Gamelan Pacifica.

The top-notch musicians of the latter perform definitive versions of the three large-scale Harrison works for Central Javanese style gamelan on this album. The Seattle composer and expert gamelan musician Jarrad Powell convincingly directs the extended ensemble of instrumentalists, choir and vocal soloists in the three works here.

The Concerto for Piano with Javanese Gamelan (1987) is the most substantial of the eight Harrison works combining Western solo instruments and the gamelan. The piano is retuned to match the gamelan instruments. This is an effect which provides bracing listening at first, but to which friendly ears warm by the slow cantabile movement, a Harrison specialty.

A Soedjatmoko Set (1989) illustrating Harrison’s mature gamelan style, features Jessika Kenney, an outstanding American soprano. She manages the most difficult of musical tasks: to convincingly nail a sort of magical amalgam of both Javanese and late 20th c. American vocal style, articulation, timbre, intonation and mood, at the same time. Together with the excellent liner notes, this recording is a fitting tribute to Harrison’s ideal of the peaceful coexistence of world music cultures, demonstrated here at a very high level indeed.

01_laila_bialiTracing Light

Laila Biali

Independent LB09102 (www.lailabiali.com)

Laila Biali has had quite a year – a new gig as backing vocalist with Sting, a new baby and now a new CD. “Tracing Light” is the third solo album for the Vancouver-raised, Toronto- and New York-based performer and composer.

Although Biali started out her still-burgeoning career as a jazz piano player who sang occasionally, with “Tracing Light” it’s her singing that predominates. All the tunes except two – an instrumental and another that features Sudanese vocalist Waleed Abdulhamid, both of which Biali composed – feature Biali’s light pretty voice, which is at times reminiscent of Sarah McLachlan. The disc starts strong with an absolutely stunning cover of Imogen Heap's Let Go, featuring Larnell Lewis's exquisite drumming. (Lewis is a standout throughout the disc, turning in some of the most exciting drum work I've heard in a long time.) The Best Is Yet to Come is shaken out of its customary casual groove and turned into a barn burner with Lewis and bassist and producer George Koller driving the tempo and Biali right there with them coolly and capably navigating multiple key changes. The disc closes out with Biali alone on Billy Joel's And So It Goes to which she adds a layer of harmonic complexity on piano and fathoms of emotional depth to the poignant lyrics.

Concert Note: Biali is performing a live-to-air concert with Lewis and Koller on December 6 on Jazz.FM91.

02_nat_king_coleThe Forgotten 1949 Carnegie Hall Concert

Nat King Cole

HEP Records CD 91

David Lennick, local music collector and archivist has, since the 90's, made a living restoring archival recordings. Recently he came up with a winner - a November 4, 1949 recording of Nat King Cole and his trio at Carnegie Hall, never issued until now.

Irving Ashby, guitar, Joe Comfort, bass and Jack Costanzo on bongos make up the trio and the programme consisting, for the most part, of familiar material flows along as smooth as silk with Cole's smoky voice making each song sound as if it were written for him. At the time the group was touring as a double bill with the Woody Herman Orchestra which plays on the last cut on this CD.

The concert was recorded on acetates, a not uncommon practice at Carnegie in those days. Bass and guitar are somewhat underrecorded, not the fault of the restoration process, and I would have liked to hear more of Nat Cole the pianist, but it does not take away from the overall feeling of being present at a pretty special event.

Congratulations to everyone involved in making this performance available. If you are a fan of Nat King Cole, and who isn't, you will want to add this one to your collection.

This CD is on HEP Records based in Edinburgh, Scotland, owned by Alastair Robertson. The label has a catalogue of historically significant recordings which can be accessed at www.hepjazz.com.

03_one_takeOne Take Volume Four

Joey Defrancesco; Robi Botos; Vito Rezza; Phil Dwyer

Alma ACD11912 www.almarecords.com

One Take is exactly what it says - a freewheeling session of straight ahead jazz with no rehearsal, no edits, no overdubs - just four masters of their craft blending their skills together to create almost an hour's worth of high octane jazz.

Reticent, never - fiery, always and they take no prisoners when the music starts. Everybody is at the top of his game, although as a saxophone player I feel I have to single out the playing of Phil Dwyer who couldn't play poorly even if you paid him to. Over the years he has developed a maturity and depth in his playing which make him stand out in any musical setting. Having said that, every player on the session puts his stamp on the music and you just know that to hear this band in a live setting would be an experience to remember

It's a well balanced programme, ranging from a lyrical reading of the Dorothy Fields, Jimmy McHugh classic Tenderly to a roaring version of Broadway by the team of Wilbur H Bird/Teddy McRae/Henri Woode. All four musicians are well-known to Toronto audiences, Rezza and Botos being very active on the local scene. DeFrancesco is a frequent winner of the Downbeat Critics' Poll, while Dwyer spent 15 years in Toronto before moving to Vancouver Island.

So take five and give “One Take Volume Four” a listen.


04_John MacLeod CD

Our First Set

John McLeod's Rex Hotel Jazz Orchestra


In my column last month I suggested that there are three ingredients to look for in jazz - swing, melodic content and a knowledge of the roots. You don't have to look any farther than this excellent CD. John MacLeod is one of the most committed and complete musicians I am privileged to know and his dedication and musical philosophy are stamped on this programme of originals and great standards. Four of the originals are by John with additional contributions from Gord Sheard and Mike Murley. Add three superior standards, one of them arranged by Rick Wilkins, and you have one of the most rewarding albums I have heard this year. It also serves to underscore just how many great players we have in this city. Featured soloists include Andy Ballentine, Joey Goldstein, Terry Promane, David Braid, Perry White, Jon Challoner, Brian O'Kane, Alastair Kay, John Johnson and Mike Murley. The rhythm section is rounded out with Jim Vivian and Ted Warren giving a great foundation for this star-studded musical organisation.

I can't choose favourite pieces from the album. There are so many gems.

This is not a recording you will listen to once and put on the shelf. It deserves repeated playing and will give pleasure many times over.

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