01 Monteverdi VespersMonteverdi – Vespers of 1610
The Thirteen; Children’s Chorus of Washingon; Dark Horse Consort; Matthew Robertson
Acis APL53837 (acisproductions.com)

As we are reminded in the informative liner notes of this new recording of Claudio Monteverdi’s sacred masterpiece, Vespers is an early evening prayer service, part of the Liturgy of the Hours, fulfilling Jesus’ command to “pray always.” Replete with psalm texts, a hymn and the Magnificat (the canticle of the Blessed Virgin Mary) Vespers is designed to be contemplative and Monteverdi’s setting is miraculous in its variety of textures, virtuosity and hypnotic harmonies. In addition, it marries Renaissance and Baroque musical styles with staggering beauty and uniformity, featuring a wide array of vocal and instrumental writing. 

The Thirteen was founded in 2012 in Washington, D.C. by Matthew Robertson and the group has a wide mandate, performing music from all eras, specializing in early and contemporary choral works and educational outreach. Their recording of Vespers – in collaboration with the Children’s Chorus of Washington and the early winds of the Dark Horse Consort – took place in the reverberant acoustic of Washington’s Franciscan Monastery. 

The solo and small ensemble singing is uniformly excellent, including a radiant Nigra Sum sung by soprano Michele Kennedy, a sumptuous Pulchra es sung by sopranos Molly Quinn and Katelyn Jackson and a tour de force Duo Seraphim from tenors Aaron Sheehan, Stephen Soph and Oliver Mercer. The chorus and instrumental ensemble bring a suitable glory and grandeur to the performance: 90 minutes of life-affirming, provocative “new” music, written over 400 years ago.

02 Scarlatti La SposaAlessandro Scarlatti – La Sposa Dei Cantici
Meghan Lindsay; John Holiday; Jay Carter; Ryland Angel; Ars Lyrica Houston; Matthew Dirst
Acis APL53721 (acisproductions.com)

The Scarlattis were a tremendously gifted and prolific musical family, with Domenico composing over 500 keyboard sonatas and his father Alessandro writing over 100 operas, 600 cantatas and 30 oratorios. Even in comparison to their impressively productive contemporaries such as Bach, Handel and Telemann, their output remains staggeringly high and defined Italian musical style for decades.

This recording, performed by Ars Lyrica Houston and directed by Matthew Dirst, features Alessandro Scarlatti’s La Sposa Dei Cantici (The Bride of Songs), which is scored for strings, continuo and four soloists: three countertenors and one soprano. As with many early works, this music’s journey from composition to 21 st century performance is characteristically complex, its material existing in numerous reworkings, adaptations and even different libretti set to the same music for performance in different locations at different times of year. Long story short, this recording is essentially a snapshot of the music’s state in 1710 in Naples, as indicated through manuscripts in the Stanford University Library and Paris’ Bibliotheque National.

As with almost all Italian Baroque oratorios, La Sposa Dei Cantici consists mostly of recitatives and da-capo arias, with a brief orchestral Sinfonia and the occasional dramatic interjection. Despite this formulaic nature, Scarlatti was able to craft a large-scale work of striking beauty, using both vocal and instrumental soloists to achieve ranges of expression that are both delightful and captivating.

Built on a libretto far less dramatic and aggressive than Italian opera, Ars Lyrica brings out the best of Scarlatti’s La Sposa Dei Cantici, keeping a sense of momentum and expression that ensures a smooth flow from recitative to aria and back again. This is a wonderful recording that deserves to be heard by all, whether familiar with the Scarlatti family or discovering them for the first time.

03 Smyth Der WaldEthel Smyth – Der Wald
Soloists; BBC Singers; BBC Symphony Orchestra; John Andrews
Resonus RES10324 (resonusclassics.com/products/smyth-der-wald-the-forest)

No paragon of “proper” English womanhood, the openly bisexual, cigar-smoking feminist who composed the suffragette anthem, The March of the Women, spent two months in jail for stoning and shattering an anti-suffrage politician’s office windows. Nevertheless, Ethel Smyth (1858-1944) achieved success at a time when women composers were routinely ignored, becoming in 1922 Britain’s first female composer honoured as a “Dame.”

In 1902, Smyth’s 66-minute, one-act opera Der Wald premiered in Berlin and in 1903 became the first and only opera by a woman produced at the Metropolitan Opera until 2016 (!). The libretto, by Smyth and Henry Brewster, originally in German, is sung here in Smyth’s English translation (included).

The peasant maiden Röschen (soprano Natalya Romaniw) and her fiancé, woodcutter Heinrich (tenor Robert Murray), are beset by the malevolent Iolanthe (mezzo Claire Barnett-Jones), who lusts for Heinrich. Of the five other soloists, baritones Andrew Shore (Pedlar) and Morgan Pearse (Count Rudolf) play important parts in the unfolding of the tragic drama.

Smyth’s admiration for two composers often considered opposites – Brahms and Wagner – is manifested in the lush, warm, Brahmsian choruses of forest spirits and the Wagner-enriched arias of Röschen, Heinrich and Iolanthe. Other highlights are the Röschen-Heinrich love-duet, the ebullient peasant dance and chorus, and the stirring, defiant, dying declamations of Heinrich and Röschen.

Conductor John Andrews, the BBC Singers and BBC Symphony Orchestra energetically provide rich colours and powerful climaxes in this premiere recording of Smyth’s landmark opera.

04 Village StoriesStravinsky, Janáček, Bartók: Village Stories
Prague Philharmonic Choir; Lukáš Vasilek
Supraphon SU4333-2 (supraphon.com/album/763075-stravinsky-janacek-bartok-village-stories)

Village Stories brings together the worlds of ethnomusicology and nationalism in one compelling package. The featured composers were all profoundly influenced by their interest in indigenous musical materials to varying degrees. Bartók roamed far and wide scientifically recording and transcribing source materials on Edison cylinders; Janáček did much the same, though more modestly, while also probing deeply into the melodies concealed in everyday human speech. Stravinsky took a more leisurely approach, shamelessly stealing his materials from pre-existing publications. (The eerie opening bassoon solo of his Rite of Spring, for example, is cribbed from a volume of Lithuanian folk songs.) 

The apogee of Stravinsky’s magpie-mania culminated in his explosive and highly influential ballet Les Noces (The Wedding) for chorus, four pianos and percussion ensemble, completed after many false starts in 1923.

Janáček’s whimsical Říkadla (Nursery Rhymes, 1926) is a late work based on humorous doggerel culled from the funny pages of his daily newspaper. Scored for ten instruments (including a toy drum and an ocarina!) and a small choir, it is a patently absurd and highly enjoyable treasure trove of good clean fun. He considered these Czech verses as “frolicsome, witty, cheerful – that’s what I like about them. They’re rhymes after all!” This delightful set of 18 choral miniatures is guaranteed to put a smile on your face.

Bartók’s Three Village Scenes, also composed in 1926, is scored for female choir and chamber orchestra. It is considered by some to be his response to Stravinsky’s Les Noces, but with a twist. The opening movement likewise depicts a wedding scene, though the agitated, asymmetric orchestral outbursts and minor key setting hint at a dim future; a line of the text reads, “I’m a rose, a rose, but only when I’m single. When I have a husband, Petals drop and shrivel.” The subsequent Lullaby touchingly laments an uncertain future for a mother’s child. A rollicking Lad’s Dance concludes the work on a more positive note.

Full English translations of the Russian, Czech and Hungarian texts are included with the physical product; unusually, the Stravinsky libretto is also provided in the Cyrillic alphabet. The perfoóóórmances are uniformly excellent and the audio production first class. Not to be missed.

05 Dean Burry HighwaymanDean Burry’s The Highwayman
Kristina Szabó; Sarah Moon; Kornel Wolak; Gisèle Dalbec-Szczesniak; Wolf Tormann; Younggun Kim; Darrell Christie
Centrediscs CMCCD 32123 (cmccanada.org/product-category/recordings/centrediscs)

The Highwayman – a romantic and gory extended poem written in 1906 by the English poet Alfred Noyes – has been given a splendidly vivid and evocative musical setting by the Kingston-based composer Dean Burry. Burry takes as his model Arnold Schoenberg’s expressionist masterpiece Pierrot Lunaire, writing for the same forces: flute/piccolo, clarinet/bass clarinet, violin, cello, piano and mezzo soprano. While the two works share moon imagery and certain ensemble colours, Burry’s work has a bolder, more cinematic quality that complements the epic sweep of Noyes’ poem in contrast to Schoenberg’s spooky transparency. Indeed, it would be a treat to hear the two pieces together in concert. 

A powerful instrumental prologue sets the scene for a tour-de-force performance by the celebrated Canadian mezzo Krisztina Szabó who brilliantly dramatizes the story and offers up a varied and gorgeous sound throughout her extended vocal range. Her brilliant diction and operatic sensibility coupled with Burry’s clear and attractive writing keep the interest and intensity throughout the 17-movement work. The five instrumentalists contribute strong and confident playing under the sensitive direction of Darrell Christie, with violinist Gisèle Dalbec-Szczesniak being a particular standout. 

The project was recorded at the Isabel Bader Theatre in Kingston with Burry producing. The sound is first-rate. There’s an informative short documentary A Torrent of Darkness: The Making of Dean Burry’s The Highwayman available on YouTube.

06 Bramwell Tovey InventorBramwell Tovey; John Murrell – The Inventor (an opera in two acts)
Soloists; UBC Opera Ensemble; Vancouver Symphony Orchestra; Bramwell Tovey
Centrediscs CMCCD 31723 (cmccanada.org/product-category/recordings/centrediscs)

Although the conductor and composer Bramwell Tovey was born and educated in the United Kingdom, many Canadian classical music enthusiasts associate him principally with the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra, for whom he worked as music director from 2000 until 2018. Tovey died in 2022 but his name lives on in Vancouver, as his significant contributions to that city’s musical culture and community is reflected in the renaming of the Tovey Centre for Music that now houses the VSO’s School of Music. How fitting then, that the Canadian Music Centre should put out a new release of a 2012 recording of Tovey’s first opera, The Inventor with a libretto by John Murrell, that in sound and script tells the story, heretofore unknown to me, of Alexander “Sandy” Keith.

Although the narrative and back story is indeed compelling – Keith was a scoundrel, con artist and murderer, who attempted to take down a transatlantic steamship with a bomb – knowledge of this tragic and decidedly Canadian story is not a prerequisite to enjoying this fine new release. Recorded at Vancouver’s beautiful Orpheum Theatre and featuring the VSO with Tovey at the helm, The Inventor is a sprawling two-disc double-act modern opera that clocks in at over two hours of music. Capable of inspiring a thesaurus worth of musical descriptors (modern, dissonant, lush, romantic, cinematic, declamatory), this ambitious project both deserves and needs to be heard to appreciate the magnitude of its creativity and breadth. Although the closest analogue to my ears is Alva Henderson’s work with Nosferatu, I suggest that this 2023 release would be enjoyed by opera and modern classical music enthusiasts alike.

07 IspiciwinIspiciwin
Luminous Voices; Andrew Balfour
Leaf Music LM267 (leaf-music.ca)

Having had the good fortune to review both a CD (Nagamo) and a live performance of Andrew Balfour, the Toronto-based Cree composer and member of Fisher River First Nation, I looked forward to exploring Ispiciwin (Journey), a project on which Balfour serves as composer and creative lead. Once again, I was tremendously impressed. Impressed by both the ambition of the conceit of the project, as well as the resulting beautiful sonic capture from either the Bella Concert Hall at Mount Royal University in Calgary, or the Chapel at the University of Alberta’s Augustana Campus Camrose, both fitting venues for this haunting and engaging set of new music.

A meaningful attempt in sound to explore the concept of artistic reconciliation, Ispiciwin pairs Balfour’s immense talent, creativity and insatiable desire to push musical borders with the vocal group Luminous Voices, Timothy Shantz artistic director, along with Jessica McMann on bass flute and Walter MacDonald White Bear on Native American courting flute. The result is an expansive set of new choral music sung in Cree that derives from, explores and celebrates various histories, backgrounds and extractions (from Sherryl Sewepagaham to Sofia Samatar to John Dowland). 

Although this recording most certainly does not prioritize a political agenda over the music, there is indeed something inherently political about the fact that, as Balfour acknowledges in the album’s liner notes, such a recording would have been virtually unthinkable some 30 years ago when he was coming up as a young choir boy and lover of Renaissance vocal music. The result writes important new voices into the canon of choral music and is recommended listening indeed. 

Listen to 'Ispiciwin' Now in the Listening Room

08 James RolfeWound Turned to Light – New Songs by James Rolfe
Alex Samaris; Jeremy Dutcher; Andrew Adridge; Lara Dodds-Eden
Redshift Records TK540 (redshiftmusicsociety.bandcamp.com)

We ought to have been done with COVID-19, but the effects of “The Pandemic of the Century,” has had a lasting, profound psychological and sociological effect on humanity, even as the health of the species bounces back. Happily, we have been rescued (again) by poets, the very tribe that Plato – who disparaged them for relying on imagery at some distance from reality – would rather have nothing to do with in his Republic of Grecian times. But oh… how times have changed!

Former Poet Laureate of both the City of Toronto and the Canadian Parliament, George Elliott Clarke commissioned 15 Canadian members of this very (disparaged) tribe to lift our sinking hearts. The result is some edifying poems – including two of his own – the eloquence of which James Rolfe has turned to exquisite music. And so, our existential angst has been briefly assuaged, and Rolfe lifts our hearts with his Lieder. 

Wound Turned to Light dwells not in some forgotten utopia or impending dystopia, but in nature, dreams – broken and fulfilled – and in the mysticism of life and death asking, as Schiller once asked in Die Götter Griechenlands: “Schöne Welt, wo bist du?” (Beautiful world, where are you?). 

Alex Samaras does much of the lifting of Rolfe’s music with a combination of rich and lofty vocals in his singular, delicious tenor sound (cue Marigold). His mature insights into the lyrics are utterly convincing, all but eclipsing the celebrated Jeremy Dutcher who shines on Set me as a seal. Andrew Adridge is elegant on Bombastic. Pianist Lara Dodds-Eden is the uber-sensitive accompanist.

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09 Frank Horvat FracturesFrank Horvat – Fractures
Meredith Hall; Brahm Goldhamer
I Am Who I Am Records (iam-records.com)

Canadian composer and environmental activist Frank Horvat’s most recent album, Fractures, is a cycle of 13 songs performed by soprano Meredith Hall and pianist Brahm Goldhamer. Inspired by the 2016 anthology Fracture: Essays, Poems, and Stories on Fracking in America, this work explores the controversial practice of fracking, a method used to extract natural gas and oil from deep rock formations known as shale. With lyrics curated from several Canadian and American writers who have been directly affected by fracking, the song cycle explores various viewpoints that surround the procedure. 

Horvat’s song cycle speaks to the ramifications of fracking, from the resources required to the impact on both the land and surrounding communities. Each song has an independent theme and musical structure and the cycle is unified by recurring motifs of fire and water. Although Hall and Goldhamer, both seasoned performers, demonstrate great commitment to the text and the music, listening to Fractures is, at times, difficult, for it requires a certain window into the knowledge of fracking to better understand the ironies and or musical choices that accompany certain texts. To the uninitiated, a more relatable song can be found in Lullaby in Fracktown, where a mother sings to her young child against the backdrop of her husband’s employment insecurity. 

Notwithstanding, it is a gift when living composers take time to explain their work and thought processes, which is what Horvat does in the generous liner notes of Fractures. His explanations enhance our ability to reflect more deeply on fracking and our environment. Horvat’s activism and dedication to this project (and others) are reminiscent of R. Murray Schafer’s soundscape work and that’s a very good place to be.

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