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01 Schubert WinterreiseSchubert – Winterreise
Nathaniel Watson; Michael McMahon
Leaf Music LM253 (leaf-music.ca)

Having been recorded well over 500 times, Winterreise remains one of the most beloved compositions by Schubert. Set to 24 poems by Wilhelm Müller, a poet, soldier and Imperial Librarian, this song cycle follows the journey of a heartbroken wanderer through the countryside. Narratively nothing much happens here, everything unfolds inside the protagonist. This music requires a high level of maturity and insight from both performers and listeners. From the darkness of Good Night, to the beautiful torment of On the Stream and the turbulence of The Stormy Morning, the intensity of Schubert’s music never lessens.

Nathaniel Watson, baritone, and Michael McMahon, piano, convey a world that is bleak and lonely, profound in its vulnerability yet, on the other end, almost exhilarated in its core. These two artists are well attuned to Schubert’s music, their phrasing impeccable and their synergy unmistakable. Originally written for tenor, Winterreise is frequently transposed to other voices. Baritone works particularly well, with its range of colours and a degree of masculinity. Watson’s voice is dark and expressive, adding a layer of intensity to the words. The piano, having an equal role to the voice, paints the winter imagery of the harsh natural elements such as storms and wind, and McMahon does it exuberantly. On the other hand, he parallels the emotional unrest expressed in the voice with a wonderful restraint.

Not for the faint of heart, this album is a heartfelt addition to the music libraries of contemplative listeners.

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02 Amour et FantasieAmour et Fantaisie – Melodies de Lionel Daunais
Dominique Côté; Esther Gonthier
ATMA ACD2 2839 (atmaclassique.com/en)

Canadian baritone Dominique Côté is world renowned for his opera and concert performances. Here Côté demonstrates his talented musicianship by singing his favourite songs by multi-talented Quebecer Lionel Daunais (1901-1982). Côté’s illustrious singing is accompanied with passion by Quebec pianist Esther Gonthier. 

Daunais’ popular, accessible songs are as wide-ranging as his career as a composer, singer/songwriter, performer, author, artistic director and radio host. Daunais sets his own lyrics brilliantly. Highlights include the opening track L’amour de moi with slightly atonal short piano intro, low-range-touching vocals, faster mid-section and “très” dramatic build to piano flourish and held note vocal closing. Four humourous Folklore songs include folksy, happy À Montréal, a city tribute with rhythms, a slower alternating section and entertaining spelling out of the letters Montréal closing. What Montreal food to eat drives Les patates, with operatic rhythmical lyrics mentioning potatoes, chips and even a federal election! Famous La tourtière is about its flavourful wonders, highlighted by back-and-forth answering of Côté’s clear lead vocals by Ensemble Vocal Charlevoix, under musical director Julie Desmeules. Daunais’ songs with texts by writers including Paul Fort, Paul Eluard and Éloi De Grandmont are equally entertaining.

Côté writes in his liner notes, “his music speaks to me and moves me,” which comes across in his Daunais homage, understandable even with my working knowledge of French. He loves these songs, and so should listeners!

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03 Lux AeternaLux Aeterna – Choral works by György Ligeti and Zoltán Kodály
Danish National Vocal Ensemble; Marcus Creed
Our Recordings 6.220676 (naxosdirect.com/search/6220676)

At first glance, the pairing of Kodály and Ligeti might seem strange, given the disparate nature of their musical works. While Kodály composed in a largely conventional yet extended tonal idiom, Ligeti is a renowned master of the avant-garde, famous for his introduction of micropolyphony and the use of his atmospheric music in the films of Stanley Kubrick. Despite this musical disconnect, both composers share close personal connections, including their Hungarian nationality. Four decades older than Ligeti, Kodály appointed his younger countryman as a teacher of theory and counterpoint at the Liszt Academy in Budapest before Soviet troops entered Hungary in 1956 and Ligeti fled to Vienna.

One of the fundamental elements underpinning this disc is the importance of folk music in Hungarian musical traditions, which was the basis of their institutional training methodologies. Indeed, it was Kodály’s study and use of folksong in his compositions, which formed a new basis for musical life in Hungary. It is no surprise, then, to find that much of the material on Lux Aeterna is arrangements and adaptations of folk songs.

While Ligeti’s music is often synonymous with the avant-garde, many of his folk songs are surprisingly conventional, particularly the 1955 collections written while he was still in Hungary. These songs pair exceedingly well with Kodály’s more traditional fare, while the inclusion of Lux Aeterna consists of the 1982 Drei Phantasien nach Friedrich Hölderlin give listeners seeking the modernistic Ligeti repertoire something to look forward to.

The Danish National Vocal Ensemble is in fine form on this disc, embracing and showcasing the extraordinary complexity of Ligeti’s modern works, the brilliant word-painting of his earlier folk songs and the late-Romantic sumptuousness of Kodály’s musical settings.

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04 Martins VilumsMartins Vilums
Latvian Radio Choir; Kaspars Putnins
LMIC SKANI 131 (skani.lv)

The musical heritage of the Baltic countries is rich and unique, offering a wide range of composers and works which are unlike those of any other tradition. This disc features the music of Martins Vilums (b.1974), a Latvian composer and accordionist whose material is characterized by fascinating titles and rich textures, all expertly performed by the Latvian Radio Choir and their director Kaspar Putnins.

Perhaps the most traditional piece on this disc is Vilums’ Lux Aeterna, inspired by the traditional requiem text and portrayed through a wide range of timbres and layers. The use of melodies resembling Gregorian chant and Eastern Orthodox psalmodic declamation which emerge through luminescent choral textures make this work immediately appealing, especially for those familiar with Ligeti’s setting of the same text.

Other works range greatly in instrumentation and theme, from the Zoroastrian cosmological text On the conflict waged with the primeval ox which features extended vocal techniques including overtones and micro-intervals, to the expansive Aalomgon for percussion, trombone, horn and 12 voices. This latter piece is perhaps the most fascinating, a mini-oratorio over 30 minutes in length and comprised of a “libretto” of syllables, arranged in a particular system by the composer, intended to resemble words of demonic conjuring and godly cursing. Aalomgon is a dense yet utterly fascinating experience, and a unique sonic expression of deeply spiritual themes.

If there is one word to best describe this disc, it may well be “abstract.” While Vilums’ music can certainly be experienced without guidance, the composer’s words and insights are vital to achieving complete comprehension of many of these pieces. From the systemically syllabic Aalomgon to the overarching spirituality of Lux Aeterna and On the conflict waged with the primeval ox, there is much on this disc worthy of appreciation, not least of which is the monumental effort put forth by the Latvian Radio Choir.

05 Heidi BreyerHeidi Breyer – Amor Aeternus: A Requiem for the Common Man
Various Artists
Winterhall Records WRC006 (heidibreyer.com)

Composer/pianist Heidi Breyer composed this ten-movement contemporary Requiem for chorus, vocal soloists, piano, strings, harp and horn over almost a decade. As Breyer writes, “Amor is a musical anthology of our times…” It is another musical pandemic project for the listener, this one recorded during the first year of COVID lockdowns.  

Sung in Latin, Breyer composes with moving vocal and instrumental combinations. Introit opens with low-pitched strings, followed by slow choir entry. Love its haunting dark strings under the high female voices and accessible contrapuntal tonality. Breyer’s virtuosic piano solo opening in Kyrie Eleison leads to a solo baritone and then full choir sorrowful lament. Another piano introduction starts Domine Jesu Christe with emotional full choral singing and colourful strings, which also are featured in the slightly faster Sanctus. Lacrimosa is especially unique with a dramatic piano part now in the forefront throughout from the opening solo introduction, orchestral lower pitch support entry, sudden faster tempo with vocals, and return to slower closing with higher vocals supporting the piano. Calming, reflective and beautiful Lux Aeterna, with its angelic vocal legato melody, piano ostinato sections and mellow instrumentals, could stand as a fully independent top-ten piece all on its own! The closing faster movement, In Paradisum, has a jubilant vocal chorus creating a hopeful closing to the entire work.

This masterpiece is surprisingly Breyers’ first large-scale choral work. It is powerful, musical and brilliantly composed, performed and produced.

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01 Schutz David et SalomonHeinrich Schütz – David & Salomon
Les Cris de Paris; Geoffroy Jourdain
Harmonia Mundi HMM905346 (store.harmoniamundi.com) 

One of the great German Baroque composers, Heinrich Schütz’s output of sacred music is remarkable for both its quantity and quality. By incorporating Italian techniques and methods and applying them to German-language religious texts, Schütz influenced the future of German music in the sacred and secular realms and is often regarded as the most important German composer before Johann Sebastian Bach.

Schütz lived until the age of 87 and, with over 500 surviving works, any recording of his material needs a specific focus or organizing principle. For the program featured on David & Salomon, Schütz’s two trips to Italy – taken 16 years apart from each other – serve as bookends, with every piece of music on this disc composed between 1612 and 1628. 

From 1609 to1612 Schütz studied with Giovanni Gabrieli in Venice, and it is this influence that is most clearly apparent on David & Salomon, as the tremendously vital and energetic nature of Italianate polychoral writing is synthesized so effectively with Luther-translated scriptural excerpts throughout. With the first notes of Alleluja! Lobet den Herren, we quickly understand that both the composer and performers are masters of their craft, as the rhythmically demanding score is executed with precision, thoughtfulness and joy.

Not everything on this disc is unending exaltation, but Schütz’s expressions of grief, angst and solemnity are as successfully executed, if not more so, than their exuberant counterparts. Vulnerasti cor meum, a setting of text from the Song of Solomon, is a masterful display of chromatic part-writing, while An den Wassern zu Babel uses polychoral techniques to great effect, made even more so through the antiphonal panning present in the audio itself.

A magnificent ensemble with an equally gifted director, Les Cris de Paris and Geoffroy Jourdain are in fine form on David & Salomon, which is highly recommended to Schütz aficionados everywhere.

02 ResurrexiResurrexi! – Easter in Vienna with Mozart and the Haydn Brothers
The Choir of Keble College Oxford; Instruments of Time & Truth; Paul Brough
CRD Records CR 3539 (keble.ox.ac.uk/about/music) 

It has been suggested that Mozart may have written sacred music to remain in favour with his patrons. This is unlikely, but even if it is true it makes no difference to the meaning of the music, for the music of Resurrexi – the Easter mass – expresses a deep, childlike and unquestioning faith, while being quintessentially Mozart: questing and pious, yet at the same time, irresistibly joyful. Director Paul Brough has added two additional pieces to this full mass: a Sequenza by Michael Haydn celebrating the paschal lamb which includes the plainchant; and the heartfelt and passionate Te Deum by the great Joseph Haydn that is, in every measure, as celebratory and full of nervous energy as the Mozart.

Brough espouses that this recording is an object lesson in the music of liturgy. Indeed there is a profound depth and beauty in the exemplary declamation of chants such as Vidi aquam and the Pater Noster, and fervent and thrilling singing through the Sequenza to the Te Deum, by the Choir of Keble College, Oxford. 

The choir has mastered sustained, seamless legato singing; complemented with sensitive accompaniments by the Instruments of Time and Truth, the music is revelatory and rewarding. Voices, brass and reeds, timpani and strings inhabit this Latin liturgy with unaffected brilliance striking gold from the opening Regina Cœli by Mozart to the fervent account of Haydn’s Te Deum at closing.

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03 Zandonai FrancescaRiccardo Zandonai – Francesca da Rimini
Sara Jakubiak; Jonathan Tetelman; Ivan Inverardi; Charles Workman; Deutsche Oper Berlin; Carlo Rizzi
Naxos 2.110711 (naxosdirect.com/search/2110711)

In The Divine Comedy’s circle of Hell reserved for “carnal sinners,” Dante encounters Francesca and Paolo, historical 13th-century lovers murdered by Francesca’s husband, Paolo’s brother Gianciotto. Their story, which left Dante “overcome with pity,” has inspired numerous composers, including Liszt, Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninoff, none more persuasively than Riccardo Zandonai, whose melody-soaked, intensely dramatic 1914 opera deserves much greater renown. (In 1984 the Metropolitan Opera, with stars Renata Scotto and Plácido Domingo, brought it to Toronto’s International Festival; the DVD of this vocally and visually resplendent production is still available.)

Unlike the Met’s historically appropriate medieval splendour, this 2021 Deutsche Oper Berlin production is senselessly updated to the early 20th century, with Guelfs and Ghibellines somehow still at war, absurdly still fighting with crossbows. Silent actors wander around without apparent function or purpose; the chorus, due to COVID restrictions, sings offstage.

In contrast to the misconceived staging, this production’s musical values are superlative. Soprano Sara Jakubiak, the radiant Heliane in the Deutsche Oper DVD of Korngold’s Das Wunder der Heliane, is electrifying as the tormented Francesca. Jonathan Tetelman’s gleaming, clarion tenor and tall-dark-and-handsome looks make him an ideal Paolo, known as “Il Bello” (the Handsome). Heavy-set baritone Ivan Inverandi’s Gianciotto is suitably coarse in voice and appearance, though neither “crippled” nor “demonic” as described in the libretto. They and the other 12 fine soloists, together with Carlo Rizzi’s urgent, surging conducting of Zandonai’s impassioned score, deliver immensely rewarding operatic pleasures.

05 Stanley GrillStanley Grill – Und das Lied bleibt schön
Lisa Rombach; Nicholas Spanos; Pandolfis Consort
Gramola 90254 (stangrillcomposer.com) 

“I sometimes feel I was born 500 years too late,“ says New York native Stanley Grill (b.1953), alluding to his “passion” for the medieval and Renaissance music that imbues his melodies and the sonorities of the Vienna-based Pandolfis Consort’s four period instruments – viola d’amore, viola, cello and theorbo.

Predominantly slow, melancholy songs, composed between 2009 and 2020, traverse memory, mysticism, love, suffering and death. Viennese soprano Lisa Rombach brings poignant, expressive vibrato to settings of eight poems by Rainer Maria Rilke and three poems by Jewish women – Rose Ausländer (1901-1988), who survived the Holocaust and Selma Meerbaum-Eisinger (1924-1942), who didn’t (note her dates).

Greek countertenor Nicholas Spanos hauntingly evokes a medieval troubadour in Les Fugitifs (Rilke) while projecting a more Romantic sensibility in settings of Heinrich Heine’s Mit deinen blauen Augen and Ich wandle unter Blumen.

I most enjoyed seven songs in which Grill favours more contemporary melodic contours over early-music modality: Eingang and Klage (Rilke), Schnee and In jenen Jahren (Ausländer), the two Heine songs and Ein Schlaflied für dich (Meerbaum-Einsinger).

Grill channels Renaissance vibes in his three-movement instrumental Lieder ohne Worte (2009), its central Moderato providing one of the CD’s rare bits of energy. The prevailing moodiness makes this a disc best suited for dipping into. I would have welcomed some more up-tempo music and a clearer acoustic; perhaps the heavy reverb was intended to simulate the ambience of a medieval cathedral. Texts and translations are included.

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