01_neemaWatching You Think


NEeMAste (www.NEeMA.ca)


Very few people would say they listen to Leonard Cohen’s music for his singing. Most of us put up with his half-spoken rumblings in order to get to his songwriting, in particular his lyrics. The same can be said about NEeMA. Granted her singing is much prettier than Cohen's – who is one of the producers of “Watching You Think” – but that's not why you should get this album. You should get this album – immediately – for the really, really good songs.


Lyric writing is NEeMA's strongest suit and for the most part she's not telling us anything we don't already know and would say ourselves if only we were half as clever. “Some things are better left unspoken, better left unsaid. Some stories better left unwritten, letters left unread.” We understand that and all the other 11 songs NEeMA has written. (The twelfth track is a cover of Mark Knopler's heartbreaker, Romeo and Juliet). Bone To Pick With Time cleverly expresses what we all feel about our “very little window to do what we must do” and “a twisted little jack-in-the-box” is the evocative image in Jealousy.


Sensitively produced, the songs are enhanced but not overwhelmed by the arrangements: a cello here, a tabla there and, mercifully, nary a ping from that overused darling of the modern female singer-songwriter, the glockenspiel. Borrowed from a cross-section of Montreal scenes the musicians include Arcade Fire's Howard Bilerman and Tim Kingsbury, and Joe Grass and Miles Perkin who played with the late Lhasa de Sela. Check neema.ca for tour dates.



Lenka Lichtenberg

Independent SR265 (www.lenkalichtenberg.com)


With “Fray” (Free), her fourth solo CD, the Czech born Toronto-based singer-songwriter Lenka Lichtenberg has embraced Toronto’s World Music aesthetic. Singing expressive Yiddish and English lyrics with an intimate soprano over well-wrought arrangements that bridge Eastern European, Middle-Eastern, Egyptian, South Asian, North and South American styles, Lenka takes us on a lilting musical journey replete with global echoes.


The songs on “Fray” gently blend musical boundaries, accomplished with the aid of a selection of Toronto’s world and jazz musician who’s who. Contributions shine from the quanun master George Sawa, Ravi Naimpally on tabla and dumbek, percussionist Alan Hetherington, bassist extraordinaire George Koller, woodwind expert Ernie Tollar and John Gzowski on guitars and oud. Those listeners who expect to hear standard Klezmer instruments such as piano, violin, clarinet and cornet on such an album are also rewarded.


Notwithstanding the delightful blend of word music arrangements here, Lenka Lichtenberg’s work is foremost a product of her passion and dedication to international Yiddish culture and to the development of what is sometimes called New Jewish Music. Her practice of cantorial singing within the Jewish liturgy “fills me with light and total happiness” she has said. It clearly illuminates “Fray” with a luminous energy, making the cumulative experience of listening to this album a joy.


[Editor’s note: Although for environmental reasons there is no program booklet included with the CD Ms Lichtenberg assures us all lyrics and translations will be available on her website lenkalichtenberg.com.]

Concert Note: Lenka Lichtenberg and special guests including Maryem Tollar will launch “Fray” at the Ashkenaz Festival on September 4 at 6:00 at the Lakeside Terrace, Harbourfront.

01_flagstadFollowing the Second World War the music world awaited the return of Kirsten Flagstad to the stage and recording studio. In the 1930s when the Metropolitan Opera had severe financial shortfalls, for six seasons Flagstad and Lauritz Melchior`s collaboration in various Wagner music dramas guaranteed SRO houses, contributing significantly to the Met`s survival. She came back in 1947 and in 1948 EMI began recording her in Wagner and others. In 1952 she recorded Tristan und Isolde with Wilhelm Furtwangler, produced by Walter Legge. Legge let it be known that his soon-to-be wife, Elizabeth Schwarzkopf had to sing some of the high notes - indiscrete and undiplomatic to say the least. On a new CD derived from Deutschlandradio tapes (Audite 23.416, 2 CDs) we hear Flagstad live in concert in Berlin on May 9 & 11 1952... exactly one month before the Tristan sessions began in London. In the autumn of her career, her voice was still characteristically rich, flexible, well focused and, yes, thrilling. The repertoire is Wagner and Richard Strauss, composers with whom she was associated throughout her long career: The Wesendonck-Lieder; Prelude, Isolde’s Narrative and Curse, and Liebestod from Tristan; and the Immolation scene from Gotterdammerung. Also three of The Four Last Songs (she omits “Im Frühling”) and Elektra’s monologue. The repertoire is taxing but she shows no fatigue or stress. While her delivery is not quite up to her glory days, the old artistry is still there, holding the listener’s attention in a satisfying matter. Admittedly she is favoured by the engineers, being closely miked and slightly prominent. In truth it is not a natural balance as one would hear in a live concert but certainly more pleasing to our ears. A rather small penalty is that the orchestra is sometimes too far in the background. Georges Sebastian conducts The Orchestra of the Municipal Opera, Berlin in the Titania Palace. A treasure if there ever was one.


02_gilelsThe legend of Emil Gilels seems to intensify as the years go by even though he has now been gone for fifteen years. His recordings continue to emerge from time to time to the delight of his devotees around the world. However, it is the documents of concert performances that are most exciting to collectors. DOREMI, which has already released seven discs of predominantly rare live concerts performances, has an eighth CD devoted to early such live material from the 1950s and early 1960s (DHR-7920). In top shape, he is heard in spirited performances. A rarity among them is the Khachaturian Piano Sonata alongside the familiar Chopin Ballade no.1 which receives one of, if not the most moving performance in memory... a real find. I should mention the effervescent Polkas by Smetana and a sparkling Etude by Mendelssohn plus works by Pancho Vladigerov, Bartok, and Ravel. Good sound.


03_mahler_deccaThe emotional resonance of the Adagietto from Mahler’s Fifth Symphony makes it one of the most familiar pieces in the 20th century repertoire, thanks in no small way to its importance on the soundtrack of Visconti’s 1971 masterpiece, Death in Venice. The general public responded to the serenity of the Adagietto and were offered similarly calming pieces such as the Pachelbel Canon and Albinoni’s Adagio. A new compilation, Mahler Adagios (Decca 4782342, 2 CDs) contains adagios from Mahler’s symphonies three, four, five, six and nine in addition to - now these are master-stokes - Urlicht from the Second Symphony (Mira Zakai), “Der Abschied” from Das Lied von der Erde (Yvonne Minton), and “Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen” from the Rückert-Lieder. Sir Georg Solti and the Chicago Symphony are responsible for all but the Rückert-Lieder which has Brigitte Fassbaender accompanied by the Deutsches Symphonie, Berlin under Riccardo Chailly. Highly recommended to those new to the repertoire and those who are not.


04_mahler_discographyThe proportion of Mahler lovers among classical music fans has been steadily on the increase both in the concert halls and on recordings. Some avid collectors attempt to acquire every recorded version of every opus. There is no such thing as too many. They will no doubt be surprised to discover the enormous number of recordings documented in the second edition of the authoritative, absolutely comprehensive Mahler discography published by Mikrokosmos (ISBN 723721 481353). This hard cover, 568 page book is printed on glossy stock with many colour plates, and it is fully indexed by work, artist and ensemble and gives timings for every movement or section of every work. The editor, Pèter Fülöp has devoted over forty years to extensive research and detective work in order to acquire, successfully, every Mahler recording ever made. By far the most comprehensive book every published on the subject, this is a reference work, not a critique but an invaluable tool for the really serious collector. Recording dates, venues, and subsequent incarnations are included. The purchaser will find a CD restoration of the most elusive of all Mahler recordings of which only one copy is known to exist, the Fourth Symphony played by the Hilversum Radio Orchestra conducted by Paul van Kempen on December 28, 1949. For the moment, the book is available only from www.mikrokosmos.com.


05_ozawa_anniversarySeiji Ozawa celebrates his 75th birthday this month and Decca has issued an anniversary package containing outstanding performances of 14 works that show him at his best (4782358), 11 CDs in slimline box, specially priced. Although I am not an admirer of his way with Beethoven, Brahms and others, this set is pretty well devoted to works he does very well: Bartok, Berlioz, Ravel, Takemitsu, Mahler, Bach, Poulenc, Rimsky-Korsakov, Richard Strauss, Tchaikovsky, Wagner, Prokofiev and Bernstein. The orchestras are the Saito Kinen Orchestra, The San Francisco Symphony, The Boston Symphony, The Vienna Philharmonic, The Berlin Philharmonic and the Tanglewood Festival Chorus. Incidentally, all the Saito Kinen recordings, Bartok, Berlioz, Ravel, Takemitsu, are stunning, both in performance and for demonstration quality sound. The timpanist is the unmistakeable Everett Firth, recruited by Ozawa from Boston.

01_beethoven_trio_projectThis month I had the pleasure of receiving a disc which contains two world premiere recordings of works by Beethoven. It’s not often that a new work by that Master comes to light and so my curiousity was piqued, especially since as an amateur cellist I have enjoyed working on several of his piano trios, and both of the “new” works are in that genre. The very thorough liner notes accompanying The Beethoven Project Trio CD (Çedille CDR 90000 118) explain in detail the pedigree of the pieces and why they have remained unperformed all this time. The Piano Trio in E Flat Major, Hess 47 is Beethoven’s own transcription of the first movement of his Opus 3 String Trio of 1794, thought to have been done sometime after 1800. The two-movement Piano Trio in D Major, Kinsky/Hahm Anhang 3 was originally thought to be by Mozart and catalogued by Ludwig Ritter von Köchel as Anhang 52a and thus has the distinction of being the only work by Beethoven with a Köchel number. By the 20th century however it had been recognized by scholars as an original piano trio by Beethoven dating from 1799, although its genesis is still unknown. Part of the complication of authenticating the trio is the fact that the existing manuscript is not in Beethoven’s hand, but rather in that of his younger brother Kaspar Karl who served as copyist and manager for Ludwig in his early years in Vienna. There are two pages – 33 measures – missing from that manuscript which have been re-constructed by Robert McConnell, who provides the rationale behind his choices in the notes. Undertaken in conjunction with the American Beethoven Society, the Association Beethoven France and the Beethoven-Haus Bonn, The International Beethoven Project musicians are European-trained pianist George Lepauw who is now based in Chicago, and Americans Sang Mee Lee, violin and Wendy Warner, cello. Although the concert of American premieres took place in Chicago, this excellent recording was done at the American Academy of Arts and Letters in New York City last September. The concert (and the CD) also include the American premiere of another little-known Beethoven work, the Piano Trio in E-Flat Major, Op. 63. Although it has since been acknowledged as authentic Beethoven there has been some controversy since its original publication in 1806 (according to the notes, 1807 according to my Grove’s Dictionary). It is an arrangement of the String Quintet Op. 4 of 1795, which is itself a re-working of an earlier wind octet written as dinner music for the Bishop of Bonn in 1792 before Beethoven’s move to Vienna (published posthumously in 1830). Isn’t scholarship wonderful? Suffice it to say that even though none of this is Beethoven at his best, these are welcome additions to the repertoire, immaculately performed and recorded. I look forward to the publication of the performance edition of the scores currently in production by The International Beethoven Project and promised by the end of the year. Now there’s a project for my trio to undertake next summer!

02_shostakovich_7I was pleased by the thoroughness of the program notes included in the latest addition the TSO Live series (TSO-1108). Heather Slater gives us a detailed history of the origins of Symphony No.7 “Leningrad” by Dmitri Shostakovich including the original “party line” programmatic description for each of the movements and apocryphal speculation about Shostakovich’s subtexts. The booklet includes a complete list (including guest musicians) of the personnel of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra – something rarely seen in orchestral releases – in addition to the expected biography of conductor Peter Oundjian and a blurb about the orchestra. The performance, recorded in March 2008, is suitably dramatic. The signature first movement March over the snare drum ostinato begins in near silence and builds ever so gradually over the next thirteen minutes to deafening bombast before subsiding into the gentle strains of solo clarinet, bassoon and lush strings. Shostakovich we are told was aware of this section’s similarity to Ravel’s Bolero but asked to be forgiven as “this is how I hear the war”. As in Bolero the careful combination of individual instruments is like a guide to the orchestra as the tension grows and grows. The orchestra shines collectively and individually in this showcase. The thunderous applause when we reach the end of our mammoth journey nearly seventy-eight minutes later confirms this feeling as unanimous. Concert note: The Toronto Symphony will perform Shostakovich’s Fourth Symphony along with the Sibelius Violin Concerto (Henning Kraggerud, violin) and Stravinsky’s Fireworks under Jukka-Pekka Saraste October 14 & 16.

03_from_the_heartlandFrom the Heartland, the most recent addition to the Centrediscs catalogue, features works written for and performed by Toronto violinist Erika Raum, accompanied by pianist David Moroz. The disc (CMC-CD 15410) includes works by three prairie-based composers, Sid Robinovitch, David McIntyre and the violinist’s mother Elizabeth Raum. We are presented with two full fledged sonatas written for Raum very early in her career. Her mother’s sonata was composed in 1994 and premiered at Walter Hall the following year with accompanist Lydia Wong. McIntyre’s 1996 second sonata was written for Erika’s debut at the Women’s Musical Club of Toronto with pianist Francine Kay, also at Walter Hall. Both are substantial works which exploit the full range of the instruments. McIntyre’s is the lighter of the two, with a finale that begins not far from Tin Pan Alley and swings through a number of styles including a few bars reminiscent of a raucous barn dance. Elizabeth Raum is also represented by an even earlier work which Erika premiered in 1989 with the co-dedicatee Rachel Andrist. It was later revised in 1996. Robinovitch’s contribution, Dance Set #2, is a set of mostly playful dance movements – the exceptions being the Gymnopedie-like Waltz and the Processional. This is the only work presented here that was composed specifically for Raum and Moroz, for their 2003 Prairie Debut concert tour. Recorded at the Banff Centre in June 2008, around the same time that she conceived triplets with her husband composer Omar Daniel, the disc showcases Erika Raum at the top of her game. Her recent performance of Daniel’s Violin Concerto with Esprit Orchestra assures us that the burden of motherhood has not dampened her control or musical passion.

04_urban_meadowComing Soon is a sample of what we can expect from a new local “alt jazz” label Urban Meadow. Founded by trumpeter-singer Michael Louis Johnson and clarinettist Bob Stevenson the label will provide a home for some “old timey” jazz if this collection is an accurate indication. Songs that were “a hit before your mother was born”, or at least sound like they might have been, dominate this sampler, with the exception of two more ambient, experimental tracks from composer and string wizard Monteith McCallum. Other featured artists include swing band Michael Louis Johnson and the Red Rhythm, the a cappella duo MooCow, clarinet-centric The Bob Standard, guitarist Chris Bezant, and the ensembles BIG IDEA, Safety in Numbers and RAMBUNCTIOUS. There’s no information booklet with the CD and the website (www.unbanmeadow.ca) is skeletal at the present time, but the good-time feel of the performances, variety of musical vision and good production values bode well for the future of this little label. Note: You can read Jim Galloway’s impression of Urban Meadow’s first full release “Saturday Matinee” (um201001) by Michael Louis Johnson and The Red Rhythm in this month’s Jazz reviews.

We welcome your feedback and invite submissions. CDs and comments should be sent to: The WholeNote, 503 – 720 Bathurst St. Toronto ON M5S 2R4. We also encourage you to visit our website, www.thewholenote.com, where you can find added features including direct links to performers, composers and record labels, “buy buttons” for on-line shopping and additional, expanded and archival reviews.

David Olds
DISCoveries Editor

01_beatae_mariaIn Nativitate Beatae Mariae Virginis
Schola Sanctae Sunnivae; Anne Kleivset
Lindberg Lyd AS 2L-069

Norway’s Reformation of 1537 was harsh on liturgical codices; very few survived. Ten folios from a choir book from Nidaros Cathedral in Trondheim did survive (having been cut into strips for ledger covers!) and they are the basis of this celebration of the Nativity.

In fact, thirteen sung antiphona are interlaced with five interludia for melodic percussion by the Norwegian composer Henning Sommerro. Under the title Maria, the work as a whole was performed for the 800th anniversary of Our Lady Church, Trondheim. A transcription for melodic percussion was then made especially for this recording.

Twelve female voices and their conductor explore the nativity in the greatest detail on this CD. As no individual singers are singled out, the entire ensemble may claim collective success in an uplifting rendition of this collection of simply-written but richly spiritual pieces.

There is, it must be said, a contrast, perhaps a void, between the chanted antiphonae and the instrumental interludia, which are modern in their style. This can not distract from the purity of the voices of Schola Sanctae Sunnivae.

One criticism. The final interludium unfortunately does not blend in with the remaining pieces - its own style is out of place, not least as in the preceding track, the last sung piece, singers and percussionists join in a celestial plea to observe the birthday of Mary.

02_stabat_mater_jarousyStabat Mater - Motets to the Virgin Mary
Philippe Jaroussky; Marie-Nicole Lemieux; Ensemble Artaserse
Virgin Classics 693907 2

The beauty of the countertenor voice has always had its sway over me. The same can be said for contralto. These are extraordinary voices, pushing the limits of human singing ability and delivering rewarding, sometimes unexpected results. When you add to these inherent voice attributes the individual gifts of Philippe Jaroussky and Marie-Nicole Lemieux, the resulting disc should be stunning to listen to. And yet, it isn’t. Oh, it is very good, meticulously produced, well played and very well sung. Unfortunately, the freshness and youth of Jaroussky’s voice, which is usually an attribute, renders the material too light and airy, as if this Stabat Mater Dolorosa did not suffer at all. Where you would hope for some audible anguish and sorrow, there is instead the solid, new-knife steely shine of the young artist’s voice, unperturbed by the matters at hand. Lemieux, usually a dark and mysterious voice, joins in this light-music making and allows herself to be carried towards almost a celebration – not exactly the mood called for. There are so many better recordings of the two, especially in the celebrated Vivaldi series on the naïve label; it would not do justice to the artists to recommend this particular disc.

03_verdi_otelloVerdi - Otello
Aleksandrs Antonenko; Marina Poplavskaya; Carlos Alvarez; Wiener Staatsopenchor and Philhamoniker; Riccardo Muti
Unitel Classics 701408

With the first ff shrieking chords of the orchestra Verdi forcefully draws us into the world of Shakespeare’s horrifying tragedy, one of fullest embodiments of evil ever created. Each of the characters is widely different from one another: Otello the accomplished fearless hero, but insecure and gullible; Desdemona full of love, but naïve; and Jago congenitally and relentlessly evil. Their interaction is the stuff of drama and of one of the greatest in Verdi’s oeuvre.

Salzburg hasn’t seen a production of Otello since 1970 when Karajan conducted it in a noble, unforgettable performance with our Jon Vickers in the title role. Now it’s Riccardo Muti’s turn. Muti today has become a conductor of stature and a true master of Italian opera repertoire since his early years as a young firebrand when I saw him a few times here in Toronto. His usual forceful style helps ‘shine a light on Otello’s violence’ and turns the orchestra into a snarling monster when required. His orchestra is well balanced throughout, swift moving yet he finds time to bring out much of the richness, hidden meaning and delicacy of the score.

The extraordinary width of the stage of Grosses Festpielhaus has always been difficult to handle for stage designers and directors. Director Stephen Langridge with George Souglides solved the problem by subdividing it into multiple elements: galleries, stairs, projection screen and a fragile transparent platform that shatters at the end of act 3, symbolizing Otello’s descent into insane jealousy.

The cast is international, nearly all young, very talented singers with spectacular voices. Latvian Aleksandrs Antonenko is a powerful, clear heldentenor whose ‘ringing’ entry ‘Esultate!’ sets the tone for his performance. Russian soprano Marina Poplavskaya brings much richness to the part of Desdemona not just with her voice but her wonderful acting. Famous Spanish baritone Carlos Alvarez’s turncoat portrayal of Jago, alternately evil and suave, is skilfully acted and brilliantly sung. His shattering ‘Credo’ is one of the best I ever heard. This is a performance worthy of Verdi and Shakespeare, highly recommended.

04_rossini_otelloRossini - Otello
Michael Spyres; Jessica Pratt; Filippo Adami; Gerogio Trucco; Ugo Guagliardo; Geraldine Chauvet; Transylvania State Philharmonic Choir, Cluj; Virtuosi Brunensis; Antonino Fogliani
Naxos 8.660275-76

Justifiably overshadowed by Verdi’s penultimate masterpiece, Rossini’s Otello has suffered terribly in the last 150 years. This beautiful opera, first performed in Naples in 1816 and very popular soon thereafter, was nearly ignored after the composer’s death and in the 20th century. Rossini wrote it for Naples at age 24 about the same time as his ever popular Barbiere and La cenerentola. However, anyone seriously interested in the Othello of Shakespeare will be severely disappointed. Except for the 3rd act, the libretto by the Marchese Berio di Salsa took extreme liberties with the play, changed the plot, the location; no love duet, no Cassio…, no Cyprus…, no handkerchief. Everything takes place in Venice and the chief competitor for Desdemona’s hand is Rodrigo, a minor character in Shakespeare.

But the opera! A wonderful collection of arias, trios and ensembles here immaculately performed by a group of young artists at the Rossini festival in Wildbad, Germany. Antonino Fogliani, young Italian conductor vigorously conducts with great flair and sensitivity in the great Rossinian style. His success is much helped by the Czech orchestra with their legendary wind players.

There are 3 major tenor roles in the opera (Otello, Rodrigo & Jago) perhaps because the original theatre group in Naples had an overabundance of tenors. Each of these are murderously difficult, especially Rodrigo who is a high tenor, and Filippo Adami is sensational with the Rossini fioraturas. Powerful American tenor Michael Spyres is in lower tessitura and sings Otello characterfully and flawlessly. English soprano Jessica Pratt, is strong and heartfelt in the role of Desdemona. All supporting roles are equally fine.

Before ending I’d like to commend Naxos for undertaking the huge task of recording all of Rossini’s operas and if I may add, their uncompromising excellence overshadows many earlier recordings of other famous recording companies. Bravo Naxos!

05_tenor_ariasTenor Arias
Marc Hervieux; Orchestre Metropolitain; Yannick Nézet-Séguin
ATMA ACD2 2618

After years of writing CD reviews for this magazine, it’s time to come out of the closet: I am a big, loud, unabashed snob. I believe that cross-over artists are sell-outs and that Il Divo, Andrea Boccelli and Charlotte Church cheapen, not popularize, classical music. A personal opinion, to be sure, but one augmented by many years of education, listening to music and developing some discernment. The battle lines drawn, I can now review the latest disc from the quintessential cross-over artist, Marc Hervieux. The Quebec singer did not read music until his mid-twenties, sang in a rock band and still cannot pass over an opportunity to sing for kings, presidents or with Patsy Gallant (don’t ask!). Except for the fact that Hervieux has a great, undeniable talent with a capital T. His voice, a spinto tenor in full Italian style, invites positive comparisons with young Pavarotti. This truly wonderful recording spans all the classics – from Verdi, Mascagni, Cilea, and Leoncavallo to a good dose of Puccini. Moreover, it allows the music, deftly handled by Nézet-Séguin (whose own meteoric rise takes him onto podiums of the greatest opera houses in the world) breathe in unison with the voice. At the end, you are left with a feeling of peaceful contemplation – not at all a feeling I expected from a “cross-over” artist. So as long as Monsieur Hervieux continues to record discs as beautiful as this one, I will keep on listening to them, my snobbery be damned!

EXTENDED PLAY – Recent Opera DVDs from Britain

01_rossinii_barbieriSomething unusual happened even before the curtain came up on this performance of Rossini’s Il Barbiere di Seviglia at Covent Garden last July - the conductor himself, Antonio Pappano, came out on stage. He told the audience that the evening’s Rosina, Joyce DiDonato, had broken her leg during the previous performance. She would sing – but in a wheelchair. The directors, Moshe Leiser and Patrice Caurier, had already left town, their work apparently done. So it was up to the cast to figure out how to accommodate a wheelchair-bound heroine restricted to a ramp across the front of the stage. The results on this DVD (Virgin Classics 9 694581 9) are so fresh, invigorating and thoroughly enjoyable that it’s easy to overlook the unflattering costumes and drab, claustrophobic sets. The splendid DiDonato, in a role she has made her own, is such a feisty and alluring heroine that the wheelchair proves to be just another aspect of who this Rosina is. The mellifluous Pietro Spagnoli creates an unconventionally soulful Barber. But, inevitably, it’s Juan Diego Flórez as the Count who stops the show with his ravishing Cessa di più resistere.

02_maw_sophiesSophie’s Choice, composed by British composer Nicholas Maw to his own massive libretto, made a lengthy drawn-out evening when it was premiered at Covent Garden in 2002. But now that it has finally been released on DVD (OpusArte OA 1024 D) it’s possible to see what conductor Simon Rattle meant when he called it “an instant classic” in a bonus interview here. There’s much to appreciate in Maw’s moving work, with its tender melodies, atmospheric harmonies and searing orchestrations. I can’t imagine a more impassioned, convincing cast, especially with Canadian tenor Gordon Gietz as the impressionable young writer, Dale Duesing as his older self, who narrates this tragic tale, Rod Gilfry as the charming and dangerous Nathan, and above all, Angelika Kirschschlager in a fearless, unforgettable performance as the doomed Holocaust survivor Sophie. Director Trevor Nunn shapes the too-frequent scene-changes and flashbacks into a compelling narrative, which gains resonance with each viewing. By the time narrator sings the final lines, “At Auchwitz, tell me, where was God? The response: where was Man?", the incalculable cost of the Holocaust for all of humanity is inescapable.

03_verdi_falstaffBoito based his libretto for Verdi’s final opera, Falstaff, on Shakespeare’s comedy, The Merry Wives of Windsor. Director Richard Jones’ delightfully boisterous and witty production, recorded last summer at Glyndebourne (OpusArte OA 1021 D), is set in a post-World War II middle-class suburb where the houses are mock-Tudor, the furniture covered in chintz, and the gardens are planted in obsessively neat rows of cabbages. The terrific cast and orchestra attack Verdi’s final work with alacrity, especially in the ensembles. Christopher Purves gleefully exploits the foibles of Verdi’s puffed-up safari-suited knight, but still gives him some dignity. The vocally nuanced Canadian contralto Marie-Nicole Lemieux, in a brilliant piece of acting, plays Mistress Quickly as a cunning martinet. Conductor Vladimir Jurowski, leading the London Philharmonic, supports the remarkable teamwork on stage even to the extent of downing a pint with the cast while they do full justice to the magnificent closing fugue, Tutto nel mondo è burla – life is a joke.

04_handel_acis_galateaAlthough Acis and Galatea was Handel’s most popular stage work during his lifetime, this production with Christopher Hogwood conducting the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment from last year marks the first at Covent Garden in almost a century. Especially noteworthy is how the director-choreographer, Wayne McGregor, has teamed up both of Covent Garden’s resident companies, the Royal Opera and the Royal Ballet. By pairing each singer with a dancer, McGregor works choreography into every element of the score. Just how moving this can be is apparent in the enchanting final scene when soprano Danielle de Niese - a trained dancer – as Galatea performs a captivating pas de deux with Acis’s ethereal double, Edward Watson. But the semi-divine enchantments of this work, based on classical mythology, are undermined by Hildegard Bechtler’s bizarre costumes, which dampen both the comedy and the pathos. Bass Matthew Rose as the giant Polyphemus sings with plenty of bravado, but he looks like a thug with his bare chest covered in scars. Di Niese’s voice is expressive, but her shapeless coat, ratty scarf, and bleached-blond braided wig turn this lovely-looking singer – surely a director’s dream – into a frump. At least tenor Paul Agnew’s costume as the shepherd Damon works, since his ardent, stylish Consider fair shepherd provides the vocal highlight of the DVD (OpusArte OA 1025 D).

Concert Notes: Gordon Gietz sings with the Toronto Summer Music Festival Ensemble in a program including Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde and the world premiere of Song of the Earth by Glenn Buhr on Saturday, August 7 in the MacMillan Theatre. Opera Atelier is mounting a new production of Acis and Galatea, directed by Marshal Pynkoski and choreographed by Jeanette Lajeunesse Zingg, at the Elgin Theatre from Oct. 30 – Nov. 7. David Fallis conducts the Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra.

01a_gesualdo_dvdGesualdo - Death for Five Voices
Werner Herzog
ArtHaus Musik 102 055

01b_gesualdo_cdGesualdo - Madrigals Book 1
Delitiae Musicae; Marco Longhini
Naxos 8.570548

The sordid tale of a murderous prince is alluring; all the more so when the subject is also a supremely innovative composer for his time. While certainly intriguing for music aficionados, Carlo Gesualdo seems to have also left a legacy of fascination bordering on obsession for the current-day inhabitants of the village attached to his castle’s ruins. In 1586, he married his beautiful cousin, Maria d'Avalos. Only a few years later, in a pre-meditated act of jealous rage, he murdered Maria and her lover and displayed their bodies first on the steps of the house, then preserved them for display in a nearby church. Being a prince, he was never prosecuted for this “crime of passion” or for subsequently killing their young son, nonetheless, he did torture himself through unrelenting flagellation for the rest of his days.

Werner Herzog’s movie Death for Five Voices takes his audience on a tour of this house of horrors through the eyes of colourful local inhabitants: the bagpiper who regularly flushes out evil spirits, a mad opera singer who thinks she’s the reincarnation of Maria and local chefs who describe the decadent 120-course wedding feast. A few of his madrigals are performed by the Gesualdo Consort and Il Complesso Barocco led by Alan Curtis who also provides useful musical commentary. Both of these ensembles perform this difficult repertoire with its many harmonic and rhythmic twists and turns most admirably, if a bit too scholarly. The women do manage to evoke some of the sensuality of the “Three Ladies of Ferrara” that Gesulado would have certainly known from the house of his second wife Leonora d’Este (who later fled to a nunnery).

I did prefer the inclusion of female voices when comparing these performances with a recent recording of Gesualdo’s Madrigals Book 1 by Delitiae Musicae, an all-male ensemble led by Marco Longhini. That preference aside, this group does a superb job of conveying the sweet and painful longings inherent in texts by Guarini and Tasso made ever so much more excruciating by Gesualdo’s dissonances, chromaticism and quick tonal discombobulations. The group’s purity of tone and precise intonation ensures that these turns are well articulated and deeply understood.

Both DVD and CD releases provide artfully crafted insights into a virtuosic but deeply disturbed individual. Gesualdo’s history and his music are neither for the faint of heart nor the disingenuous.

02_senza_continuoSenza Continuo
Margaret Little
ATMA ACD2 2612

The formidable gamba player Margaret Little – one half of the legendary Montreal duo Les Voix Humaines – is “a chamber musician at heart” and “this is her first adventure in solo repertoire.” So says the bio of her at the back of the booklet of this outstanding recording. From the opening strains of the first of three preludes by Jean de Sainte-Colombe which open the disc, I was transfixed by Little’s tone and freedom of sound. The varied program of music ranges from the late 16th century to the early 18th and clearly demonstrates why this instrument was so beloved, particularly in France.

Two solo suites, one by Le Sieur de Machy – a 17th century viol player about whom virtually nothing is known – and another by the celebrated virtuoso Marin Marais, make up the meat of the program and are both played with ease, elegance and poetry. Little has complete command of the ornamentation and character of each dance movement, and manages to convey the beautiful emotional arc of both large works. The rest of the CD is made up of four airs by the English composer Tobias Hume and two short “recercatas” by Italians Aurelio Virgiliano and Giovanni Bassano.

This lovely recording is a reminder of how special and expressive the viola da gamba is. In the hands of a confident and tender musician such as Little, a strong case is made for the unique solo repertoire of this oft undervalued instrument.

03_bach_brandenburgBach - Brandenburg Concertos
English Baroque Soloists; John Eliot Gardiner
Soli Deo Gloria SDG 707

Rare is the list of essential classical recordings which does not include the Brandenburgs. What makes this interpretation stand out is not just the actual playing but also some thoughtful commentaries by the conductor and soloists on the challenges Brandenburg players face.

From the start, this interpretation respects the instruments of Bach’s times. The horns of Anneke Scott and David Bentley are literally hunting horns, although never the “disruptive influence” she claims they are. All instruments blend into an enjoyable performance of Concerto No 1.   

The reviewer is a life-long lover of No 2, Bach’s allegro movements bringing out the best of baroque ensembles in general and the baroque recorder in particular. Rachel Beckett demolishes the idea that the recorder is a teaching instrument for children.

So to No 3, best-known of the six. This recording is upbeat in the initial allegro, enhanced by a silvery quality to the strings which continues through the much-over-looked adagio to the second even more inspired allegro.

Catherine Latham joins Rachel Beckett on recorder in No 4, reinforcing the virtuoso skills demanded of the instrument. The recorder conveys the plaintive tones of the andante, perhaps more poignantly than would the flute, which only makes its (belated) appearance in a subdued No 5.   

There is even an unsung heroine - viola-player Jane Rogers alone performs in all six concertos, saving her best for No 6. Her comments are worthy of the reflections published in this invigorating CD.

dragonettiDragonetti's New Academy - Chamber Music of Domenico Dragonetti
John Feeney; Loma Mar Quartet
Independent DNA2009

In these days of specialized musical disciplines, we tend to forget how often instrumental virtuosity and excellent compositional skills went hand-in-hand in the 18th and 19th centuries. No surprise, then, to discover that the Italian double-bass virtuoso Domenico Dragonetti wrote a large number of chamber works, although hardly any were published during his lifetime.

Dragonetti spent most of his adult life in London, and all the works on this disc were prepared by John Feeney from manuscripts in the Dragonetti collection in the British Museum. They may not seem particularly memorable on first hearing, but the composer was not only a regular at salons and musical evenings in London but also travelled in Europe, particularly to Vienna, where the development of the Viennese Style in the late 1700s had been of huge significance in the emergence of the double bass as a solo instrument. His compositions intelligently reflect the musical language of the day and the various styles he encountered.

The String Quartet No.1 employs the regular line-up, but the three string quintets are quite different. No.31 is for 2 Violins, 2 Violas and Bass, so the violin still handles most of the solo work, but Nos. 13 and 18 are for Violin, 2 Violas, Cello and Bass, giving the works a somewhat bottom-heavy feel as the bass assumes a solo role.

Top-class performances and excellent recording ambience make this disc – possibly the first of a series – an absolute delight.

01_Brahms-IIIBrahms - Piano Music Vol.3
Antonin Kubalek
Independent ak01 (www.cdbaby.com)

The Czech Republic’s loss was surely Canada’s gain the day Anton Kubálek decided to flee political unrest in his homeland in 1968 to settle in Toronto. Since that time, he has quietly carved out his niche, earning a reputation as an outstanding pianist, pedagogue, and recording artist, his talents exemplified in the nearly 20 CDs produced for the Dorian label.

This latest offering is one originally intended to be Volume 3 in a series of music by Brahms, but Kubálek managed to obtain the rights, and has released it personally. Recorded in 1995, it features four early works: the Sonata Op.1, the Ballades Op.10, the Variations on a Hungarian Song Op.21 #2, and the Scherzo Op.4. The sonata is a large-scale work - Brahms first attempt at the form - and from the opening chords, Kubálek treats this confident music with a bold assurance. Considerably more mysterious and dramatic are the four Ballades Op.10, music from 1854 inspired by the Scottish poem Eduard. The Variations and the Scherzo (Brahms earliest extant composition) abound in technical challenges, while possibly proving that the composer’s piano music is sometimes less than “pianistic.” But Kubálek meets the difficulties with apparent ease, demonstrating both virtuosity and intense lyricism, and without the flashiness that often characterizes the playing of many of his younger contemporaries. As always, he remains the consummate musician.

Since the fall of communism in 1989, Kubálek has travelled back to the Czech Republic several times in order to give recitals and hold master classes, but luckily for us, he has no intentions of returning permanently. May he continue to share his talents - both in concert and on fine CDs such as this one - for a long time to come.

02_jeunesses_60Jeunesses Musicales Canada 60
Various Artists
Analekta AN 2 9927-8

Since the founding of Jeunesses Musicales du Canada 60 years ago in 1949 by Gilles Lefebvre following a meeting with Father J.H. Lemieux, Anaïs Allard-Rousseau and Laurette Desruisseaux-Boisvert, the admirable organization has been supporting young artists embarking on their concert careers through concert tours, scholarships, competitions, and just plain good advice on the various options available to them. Many acclaimed Canadian artists have played the JMC circuit – no wonder then that this two CD compilation features a plethora of world class Canadian JMC talent extracted from a number of previous Analekta releases.

Space prevents me from naming everyone, so here are my gems. The set kicks off with a gut wrenching performance of a man's heart breaking by bass Joseph Rouleau (with the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden) in “Elle ne m'aime pas!” from Verdi's Don Carlos. Violinist James Ehnes is perfect in the Adagio from Bach's Sonata in G Major BMV 1021. Ensemble Caprice's take on Vivaldi's Concerto in C major RV 533 is surprisingly successful in its spirit. It is a joy to hear pianist Anton Kuerti as the accompanist to violinist Angèle Dubeau in Schubert's Sonata for violin and piano in D Major. The Gryphon Trio's rendition of Piazzolla's The Four Seasons of Buenos Aires meticulously captures the quality of the composer's own performances.

I only wish more contemporary music had been included (even though harpist Valerie Milot is excellent in Salzedo's Scintillation). Also, performance dates would have made the liner notes more complete.

This is a fine release to enjoy time and time again, and a fitting tribute to JMC's 60 years of work with Canada's finest musicians.

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