01 Marie Josee LordFemmes (Verdi; Puccini; Massenet)
Marie-Josée Lord; Orchestre symphonique de Laval; Alain Trudel
ATMA ACD2 2758 (atmaclassique.com)

Canada is a frustratingly large place. Despite having sung professionally since the early 2000s, Marie-Josée Lord did not conquer the country until 2012, when her first recording (from 2010) was nominated for the JUNO award in the best classical vocal album category. Personal disclosure here: I was one of the judges, voting, albeit unsuccessfully, for that album. To say that Lord’s voice stunned me would be an understatement. She has proved to be an elusive singer – appearing mostly in Quebec, and not gracing operatic stages frequently enough. In addition, Lord holds a deep conviction that she must be a popular singer – in her concerts and on record – mixing Quebec chanson, spirituals and classical pieces. That is why her new album is such a rare gift: a full CD of operatic performance. And what a performance it is! As her voice matures, she relies more on vibrato. What may have been lost in agility is more than compensated for in power and range. She can easily become one of Verdi’s heroines – I would give my proverbial eye tooth to see her on stage as Violetta! The music of Massenet and Puccini, especially as gracefully presented here by Maestro Trudel, suits her well too.

Her self-titled debut CD became a bestseller – over 30,000 copies sold, which in the world of classical music is massive. This one has a potential of beating that record – and bringing an extraordinary performer to full triumph over the Great White North.

Listen to 'Femmes (Verdi; Puccini; Massenet)' Now in the Listening Room

02 Schnittke PartSchnittke – Psalms of Repentance; Pärt – Magnificat & Nunc Dimittis
Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir; Kaspars Putnins
Bis BIS-2292 (bis.se)

In the final years of his life Alfred Schnittke became increasingly interested in religious music and in the relationship between his music and the Russian orthodox tradition, both religious and musical. The Psalms of Repentance, which date from 1988, consist of 11 penitential psalms followed by a final wordless humming movement. Some movements are intensely dramatic; others are more lyrical. It is to the latter kind that I found myself especially drawn. The Russian poems which Schnittke set are anonymous; they date from the 16th century. The central narrative event to which the work alludes is the murder of the youngest sons of Grand Prince Vladimir by their brother in 1015, but many of the psalms are penitential in a more general way.

The Schnittke work is complemented by two shorter works by Arvo Pärt, both in Latin: the Magnificat (1989) and the Nunc Dimittis (2003). Both are very moving. The very fine Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir has performed in Toronto several times and many readers will have heard the choir in concert. The choir was founded in 1981 by its first conductor Tönu Kaljuste and has, since 2014, been led by Latvian conductor Kaspars Putnins.

03 ArnesenKim André Arnesen – Infinity: Choral Works
Kantorei; Joel Rinsema
Naxos 8.573788 (naxos.com)

Kantorei, a greatly admired ensemble with international tours, workshops and major commissions to its credit, is an elite choir based in Denver, Colorado and led by artistic director Joel Rinsema. This recording of compositions from the past eight years by Norwegian composer Kim André Arnesen (b.1980) places it in the front ranks. Rich, clear tone, balance and expressiveness characterize recordings of these religious and meditative pieces, four of which are commissions by Kantorei and Rinsema. Some Arnesen works show the influence of composers like Morten Lauridsen and Eric Whitacre, with long-sustained tones, division of the chorus’ sections and high clusters of soprano voices that produce radiant effects. Of these, I found the adventurous title work Infinity and the Holocaust-inspired Even When He is Silent especially moving. The lullabies Dormi Jesu and Cradle Hymn (the latter of which was sung for President Obama in the White House) are among the more appealing simpler works. Here babies and parents could perhaps provide the most authoritative reviews! When simplicity ventures into harmonic cliché, though, my inner music theory cop is triggered, as in The Gift I’ll Leave You.

In its mastery of textures and vocal registers, Arnesen’s compositional craft is remarkable. The choice of works and the disc’s overall smooth sound also suggest its potential for meditation; in any case I found myself taking long, even breaths. This serene and attractive disc is recommended for both secular and religious listeners.

04 Daniel TaylorThe Path to Paradise
The Trinity Choir; Daniel Taylor
Sony Classical 19075801822 (theatreofearlymusic.com)

The Trinity Choir was founded in 2015 by countertenor and conductor Daniel Taylor. It is a chamber choir (with, on this recording, 32 singers); they sing a cappella. The centre of their repertoire is the 16th century (Thomas Tallis, John Sheppard, Orlando di Lasso, William Byrd, Nicolas Gombert) but they make a point of also including more modern works. This recording includes the Miserere of the 17th-century composer Gregorio Allegri (much the most familiar work on this disc) and Arvo Pärt’s Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis (which coincidentally appear on the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir’s 2017 Schnittke/Pärt release, also recently reviewed by me for The WholeNote).

Most of the singers are young and at the beginning of their career, although several, like the soprano Ellen McAteer and bass-baritone Joel Allison, are beginning to make a name for themselves through their participation in other choirs. The singing is very fine throughout. I was particularly taken with Gombert’s Media Vita with its long melodic lines.

05 Barbara HanniganCrazy Girl Crazy
Barbara Hannigan; LUDWIG Orchestra
Alpha Classics ALPHA 293 (alpha-classics.com)

As internationally celebrated Canadian soprano and conductor Barbara Hannigan said in a 2015 CBC radio interview: “I love taking risks as a performer …” Her risk-taking paid unexpected dividends when her Crazy Girl Crazy CD was awarded the 2018 GRAMMY for Best Classical Solo Vocal Album.

In fact, Hannigan went well beyond the solo vocalist category. She not only sang but also conducted the Amsterdam-based LUDWIG Orchestra. She even had a hand in the newly minted orchestral arrangement of songs from Gershwin’s 1930 musical Girl Crazy in collaboration with Bill Elliott.

Sequenza III (1965) for female voice serves as the album’s spectacular curtain-raiser. Originally composed for the legendary American diva Cathy Berberian by Luciano Berio, Hannigan puts her own vocal and intellectual stamp on this vocal tour de force. Berio opened the door to multiple renderings of his score, noting, “In Sequenza III I tried to assimilate many aspects of everyday vocal life, including trivial ones, without losing intermediate levels or indeed normal singing … Sequenza III can also be considered as a dramatic essay whose story [… explores] the relationship between the soloist and her own voice.” I think the composer would be chuffed with Hannigan’s powerfully idiosyncratic interpretation and advocacy of this seminal work.

The core of Crazy Girl Crazy is however centred on Hannigan’s long-term love affair with Alban Berg’s opera Lulu, the lead character of which she has portrayed onstage to great acclaim. It is represented here by Berg’s masterful symphonic-scale Lulu Suite, given an emotionally powerful performance by LUDWIG Orchestra under Hannigan’s direction.

The album closes with Girl Crazy Suite, the Elliott/Hannigan re-orchestration of Gershwin’s original songs, but re-contextualized in light of Berg’s orchestral sound world.

As a long-term fan of the music on this disc, I found it a very satisfying listen. It’s also satisfying to know that in Hannigan this repertoire has a convincing advocate able to convey it with passion and intellectual rigour to future generations.

01 Secret Fires of LoveSecret Fires of Love
Daniel Thomson; Terry McKenna; Thomas Leininger; Studio Rhetorica; Robert Toft
Talbot Productions TP1701 (belcantohip.com)

The love song has been a mainstay of vocal music, through its incarnations as performed by minnesingers or troubadours, followed by lieder or chanson artists, to John Cusack with a boom box above his head in Say Anything, to the seemingly ubiquitous Ed Sheeran. Throughout this time, it grew steadily louder: the meekest of instruments, the lute, has been supplanted by the guitar (sometimes electric) while the harpsichord yielded to the pianoforte and synthesizers. One thing, seemingly, has been lost: the contemplative, almost meditative quality that permeated the Renaissance and Baroque songs of courtly love. The intimate connection is still there in modern music, the sweet pain of love still exerts its pangs, but the whisper has turned to a shout. No wonder – in our crazy 24/7 world, who really does take time to smell the roses? Robert Toft, that’s who! The music scholar from Western University in London brings together a stellar cast to survey the love songs of the Italian and English Renaissance and Baroque. The unique talents of Daniel Thomson, Terry McKenna and Thomas Leininger recreate the very intimacy, closeness and wonder of music played and sung pianissimo, requiring us to tune out the world and meditate alongside.

Thomson, an Australian countertenor, is having “his” moment: his muscular, precise voice is pure joy. McKenna, a Canadian lutenist, coaxes his “meek instrument” into a commanding performance. Leininger, a German master of the harpsichord, makes one long for the days before the invention of the pianoforte. Arriving a few weeks late for Valentine’s Day, nevertheless this will be the best gift for the one you love.

02 Peoples PurcellThe People’s Purcell
Michael Slattery; La Nef
ATMA ACD2 2726 (atmaclassique.com)

As with his 2012 recording, Dowland in Dublin, tenor Michael Slattery has collaborated again with La Nef to present the music of a beloved composer, reworked and transformed in fresh and novel ways that prove most pleasing (and accessible) to a modern listener. Though Henry Purcell enjoyed an elevated position as composer at the court of Charles II, his theatrical music, based on popular song and dance forms of the time, was clearly loved by the more common folk. As well, there has been a long tradition of re-arranging Purcell’s sublime melodies for public use, beginning with Playford’s collection The Dancing Master in 1651.

Each piece selected for this recording has been individually stamped by either Slattery or a member of La Nef, without compromising the original intent of the music. Baroque cellist Amanda Keesmaat and cittern player Seán Dagher infuse their arrangements of instrumental suites from The Fairy Queen and King Arthur with playful interplays and folksy articulations. Flutist Grégoire Jeay and tenor Slattery take turns providing arrangements of the songs, with stunning results. The recording ends with Slattery’s reworking of Dido’s Lament in which a vacillation between the minor and major key provides a surprisingly dramatic and rather surreal effect, poignantly enhanced by the tenor’s artful and subtle delivery.

Listen to 'The People's Purcell' Now in the Listening Room

03 sony yonchevaThe Verdi Album
Sonya Yoncheva; Münchner Rundfunkorchester; Massimo Zanetti
Sony Classical 88985417982

“A high C that takes no prisoners,” muses Presto Classical editor Katherine Cooper wittily about the final note on this disc. And neither does Verdi. In fact, he “murders” sopranos so the legend goes (even though he married one). Bulgarian dramatic soprano Sonya Yoncheva is his latest intended victim. I’m happy to report that she is alive and well after her sensational debut at the Met’s Tosca and this, her latest CD issued on February 2, has already won an award. The final high C comes from Abigaille’s hair-raising cabaletta in the second act of Nabucco, young Verdi’s first breakthrough success.

Verdi is the ultimate challenge for the soprano. Not just for the voice, but a certain quality the great master insisted on: beauty of tone, intelligence and feeling. Right at the outset in Leonora’s opening cavatina (Il Trovatore, Act I), Yoncheva’s handling of the wonderful soaring tune that culminates in a heartrending fortissimo makes her rich vocal colour and emotional intensity immediately manifest. In the ensuing cabaletta, her voice becomes light as a feather by contrast. Her stunning high register further impresses in Come in quest’ora bruna from Simon Boccanegra: the heroine sings her heart out to a shimmering spring morning in Genoa on the Ligurian Sea, and I shiver in delight whenever I hear it.

But the real test is far more difficult: the tragic, the defiant, the anguished, the women in despair (Odabella in Attila, Luisa Miller, Lina of Stiffelio, Desdemona or Elisabetta in Don Carlo), where Yoncheva’s congenital empathy and effortless mid- and low register dominate. And then there are those iconic prayers sung in hushed near silence like Ave Maria from Otello... and more. Massimo Zanetti of Tutto Verdi fame conducts with zest and vigour.

A daring new issue by a singer with a great future.

04 Sarah WegenerInto the Deepest Sea!
Sarah Wegener; Gotz Payer
SWR2 8553374 (sarah-wegener.de)

For the profound beauty of Brahms’ Meine Liebe ist grün Op.63 No.5 to have its greatest impact on the senses, its majestic beauty must unfold in a mere minute and 44 seconds. It does so here in the voice of lyric soprano Sarah Wegener. At her command even the shortest of phrases are sung with gilt-edged, almost liquid silkiness. This is, however, not only the case with Wegener’s Brahms. It’s true of her Schubert, Strauss and everything else.

Throughout Into the Deepest Sea! not only does Wegener sing with utter beauty, but her interpretations of Brahms, Schubert, and indeed, the other composers, communicate very strongly the meanings of the words, as if each song speaks to her in the secret of her heart before reaching her lips. Her expressive manner of communicating pure poetry of feeling is echoed in the pianism of Götz Payer, who enters into each lied as a protagonist in his own right, playing his part in the music with vim and verve.

Wegener is wonderfully adept at maintaining the emotional centre of gravity of each song, navigating with graceful beauty around the outermost extremities of its narrative, yet always returning to the beating heart of the song. Her passionate performance extends to the mystical songs of Sibelius and the pastoral grandeur of Grieg, too. Everywhere on this disc, every nuance and subtlety has been carefully considered and beautifully sung, performed with both sublime delicacy and intense contrasts.

Back to top