01 Dowland Heavenly TouchDowland – Whose Heavenly Touch
Mariana Flores; Hopkinson Smith
Naïve E 8941 (naxosdirect.com)

Perhaps the most renowned composer of music for lute and voice in the history of the genre, John Dowland’s songs continue to captivate modern performers and audiences with their esoteric melancholy and expressivity. Far from being a downer, Dowland’s seemingly depressing themes were as much a practical choice as an artistic one, reflecting the melancholia that was so fashionable in music at that time. In fact, Dowland wrote a consort piece with the punning title Semper Dowland, semper dolens (always Dowland, always doleful), reflecting his tongue-in-cheek self-awareness.

Whose Heavenly Touch presents selections from Dowland’s First and Second Book of Songs, published in 1597 and 1600 respectively, and begins with the striking and enduringly popular Flow, my tears. This recording features Argentinian soprano Mariana Flores and American lutenist Hopkinson Smith, who has received numerous accolades for his work in a wide range of early music, from Dowland to lute arrangements of Bach’s sonatas and partitas. From the beginning of this first song through to the disc’s end, Smith’s mastery of the lute is apparent in his clarity and control, arpeggiations and scalic interpolations providing rhythmic motion through tasteful and virtuosic interpretation.

Perhaps the most conspicuously atypical aspect of this recording is Flores’ distinct Spanish accent, a rather disorienting imposition on this Tudor music which can occasionally mask textual subtleties through excessively rolled “R”s and unexpectedly modified vowels and diphthongs. While her tone and interpretations are delightful, it occasionally takes attentive listening to discern the words that Flores considers worthy of such thoughtful expression.

Gluck – Orfeo ed Euridice
Iestyn Davies; Sophie Bevan; Rebecca Bottone; La Nuova Musica; David Bates
Pentatone PCT 5186 805
(pentatonemusic.com)

Gluck – Orphée et Euridice
Marianne Crebassa; Hélène Guilmette; Lea Desandre; Ensemble Pygmalion; Raphaël Pichon
Naxos 2.110638 (naxos.com)

03a Orfeo ed EuridiceGluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice is a landmark work in the operatic canon, as famous for its restoration of the ideals of Greek art in opera seria as it is for its musical and dramatic content. As well as being aesthetically progressive through its deliberate conservativism, Orfeo merges French and Italian styles into a synthetic whole, combining the Italianate style utilized by Handel and Vivaldi with the influence of Lully and Rameau. First premiered in Vienna in 1762, Gluck later re-adapted the opera to suit the tastes of a Parisian audience at the Académie Royale de Musique and several alterations were made in vocal casting and orchestration to suit French tastes.

Between 1784 and 1859 the concert pitch in Paris rose so significantly that the French government passed a law which set the A above middle C at 435 Hz. To combat the effects of this inflation in pitch, Hector Berlioz prepared a version of Gluck’s opera (Orphée et Eurydice) in which he adapted the title role for a female alto using the key scheme of the 1762 Vienna score, and incorporating much of the additional music of the 1774 Paris edition. Although Berlioz’s version is one of many which combine the Italian and French scores, it is the most influential and well regarded and has since been revised and reissued in numerous editions.

03b Orphee et EuridiceIt is Berlioz’s 1859 version of Gluck’s opera which the Opéra Comique presents in their DVD Orphée et Eurydice, a wonderful representation of Gluck’s artistry and reflection of Berlioz’s craft as adapter. The style and performance practice are decidedly classical, rooted in the 18th-century tradition, and Berlioz’s personal influence is appropriately indiscernible. There are, however, some notable modifications to Gluck’s original score: the overture has been replaced with another of Gluck’s orchestral overtures; and the harpsichord is nowhere to be found, a decision that is open to interpreters, as the instrument was removed from the Parisian orchestral pit around the time of Orphée’s premiere. This is an overall weightier approach to Gluck, with a larger orchestra playing with full sound and prominently voiced soloists, suggesting a 19th-century approach commensurate with the sound Berlioz likely had in mind.

In contrast with the Opéra Comique’s presentation, Pentatone has issued a new recording of the 1762 Orfeo which includes both harpsichord and the original overture, as well as a countertenor Orfeo. This version is, although very similar to the Berlioz edition, considerably leaner in its orchestral timbre and more fluid with its Italian text, further emphasized through an interpretation that is deliberately direct and essentially Baroque, rather than bold and Romantic. In both instances the singers, choruses and orchestras are magnificent, presenting Gluck’s music in equally superb and successful ways.

05 Flying DutchmanWagner – Der Fliegende Holländer
Samuel Yuon; Lars Woldt; Ingela Brimberg; Bernard Richter; Les Musiciens du Louvre; Marc Minkowski
Naxos 2.110637 (naxos.com)

Richard Wagner’s opus, Der Fliegende Holländer was completed in 1840, and then revised three times during the next 20 years. Arguably the opera in which Wagner found his voice, it was inspired by the story of a Dutchman whose blasphemy led to his being condemned to sail the seas for eternity unless he could be redeemed by a faithful woman.

The action begins in a Norwegian fjord where a sailor named Daland is sheltering his vessel from a storm. A ghostly ship pulls alongside and its captain – the Dutchman – offers Daland vast wealth in exchange for a single night’s hospitality. Daland’s daughter, Senta, who is obsessed by the tales she has heard about the Dutchman’s fate, vows to be his salvation. Forsaking her lover, Erik, she joins the Dutchman and proves her fidelity to him unto the end, when she throws herself into the sea after him. In the climax that follows, the lovers are seen transfigured, rising above the waves.

Der Fliegende Holländer is set in three acts but is often performed as a continuous two-and-a-half-hour whole. Highlights are Die Frist ist um and Johohoe! Johohoe! Marc Minkowski’s conducting is triumphant. Olivier Py’s direction – amid a bleak set – brilliantly captures Wagner’s opera with cohesion and fluency. Samuel Youn’s full-voiced, bass-baritone Dutchman has anguish and desperation, Ingela Brimberg’s Senta is sweet and effortless and Lars Woldt’s Daland is resonant and noble. Orchestra and chorus are in glowing form too.

06 Boris GodunovMussorgsky – Boris Godunov
Tsymbalyuk; Paster; Kares; Skorokhodov; Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra; Kent Nagano
BIS BIS-2320 SACD (bis.se)

Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov with its grandeur, epic sweep and forward-looking music is possibly the greatest Russian opera, but it had a difficult time. The original “dark and raw” 1869 score had to be revised drastically to be acceptable for the Imperial Theatre in St. Petersburg; later Rimsky-Korsakov (and Shostakovich) changed the orchestration to suit Western ears. It was Rimsky-Korsakov’s version that became successful outside of Russia. Now there is a trend towards authenticity so Kent Nagano, music director of the Bavarian State Opera, chose the original score for the opera’s visionary avant-garde and very successful revival in 2013, in Munich. He later performed it in Stockholm in concert form which is the basis of this recording.

The original version is brutal, concise and dark-hued and concentrates mainly on the Tsar Boris – who came to the throne by murdering the legitimate heir – his ascent, his struggle with a guilty conscience and a final decline into madness.

Nagano’s selection of Alexander Tsymbalyuk, relatively young and a voice more lyrical than that of the legendary Chaliapin (who owned the role for decades), was ideal for the vulnerable and tormented Boris. Of the other bass voices, young Finnish basso Mika Kares (Pimen) and Alexey Tikhomirov (Varlaam) with his iconic song Once upon a time in the city of Kazan, stand out. The tenor Grigory, the false pretender who causes Boris’ downfall but curiously disappears from the plot after a short appearance, is Sergei Skorokhodov. Another protagonist, the Chorus, “the voice of Russia” ,has tremendous power, but the real star is Nagano who is by now one the greatest conductors of our time. His superb control and total immersion into the score remind me of Abbado a generation before him.

07 Bartok BluebeardBartók – Bluebeard’s Castle
John Relyea; Michelle DeYoung; Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra; Edward Gardner
Chandos CHSA 5237 (naxosdirect.com)

There are many fine recordings of Bartók’s gothic, two-character psychodrama; this one is special because both singers have made this opera their own, performing it around the world. As a tandem, American mezzo Michelle DeYoung and Toronto native, bass John Relyea, have sung these signature roles on many stages from Carnegie Hall to the Sydney Opera House.

It’s essential that Judith and Bluebeard be, as here, evenly matched vocally and dramatically, in their life-or-death battle of wills. (I’ve attended performances featuring very unequal pairings.) DeYoung’s impassioned singing convinces us of Judith’s love for Bluebeard and her determination to bring light into his gloomy abode, demanding to see what lies behind his castle’s seven locked doors. Relyea’s firm, resonant bass, plumbing the emotional depths of Bluebeard’s ghastly secrets, makes him today’s definitive Bluebeard.

Conductor Edward Gardner relishes the phantasmagoric colours and textures of the largest orchestra Bartók ever used, creating vivid sonic imagery of the grim, blood-soaked scenes behind the opened doors. The fortissimo tutti when the fifth door opens to reveal the magnificence of Bluebeard’s realm and Judith’s ecstatic, sustained high-C reaction, is truly one of the most thrilling moments in all opera.

The Hungarian-sung text is included along with an English translation. Librettist Béla Balázs’ two-minute spoken Prologue, not always performed, is also heard here, asking (in Hungarian) “Where did this happen? Outside or within? Ancient fable, what does it mean…? Observe carefully.”

Listen to this CD carefully, too.

08 Mahler Orchestral Songs organMahler – Orchestral Songs: The Organ Transcriptions
David John Pike; David Briggs
Analekta AN 2 9180 (analekta.com/en)

The English organist David Briggs, a student of the renowned Jean Langlais, is no stranger to these parts, having served as artist-in-residence at the Cathedral Church of St. James in Toronto from 2012 to 2017 before moving on to his current post at the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine in New York City. Briggs is also a composer, a stalwart transcriber of the improvisations of the legendary Pierre Cochereau, and an arranger with a particular interest in the symphonies of Mahler, five of which he has refashioned for the organ. He is joined on this recording by the excellent young Canadian baritone David John Pike (now based in Luxembourg) in commanding performances of Mahler’s Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen, Kindertotenlieder and Rückert-Lieder orchestral song cycles.

One might think it a bit of a stretch to re-imagine these works in this unusual context, but in truth Mahler rarely ventures beyond three-part writing even at his most gargantuan moments and these works are routinely performed in the composer’s own piano versions. Briggs’ thoughtful choice of timbres reflect Mahler’s own instrumentations quite convincingly. The recording venue is quite an interesting one: The Basilica of Constantine (Konstantin-Basilika) at Trier, Germany dates from the beginning of the fourth century. Burned in an air raid in 1944, subsequent repairs exposed the original inner brick walls; at the back of this spartan edifice hangs a newly built organ from 2014 designed by the firm of Hermann Eule. Though Eule normally specializes in neo-Baroque Silbermann-era designs, this particular installation is symphonically arranged with 87 stops (over 6000 pipes) on four manual works and pedal, making it the largest organ in Trier and offering a vast palette of exceptionally beautiful tones to choose from.

09 Magdalena KozenaSoirée
Magdalena Kozena & Friends
Pentatone PTC 5186 671 (pentatonemusic.com)

How nice it is that a singer would take some time out of her crazy, busy life, sit down with friends and a few drinks and sing her favourite songs. And that’s exactly what by-now-world-famous-Czech mezzo, award-winning recitalist, recording artist and opera star, Magdalena Kožená, does here. This is her debut issue on the Pentatone label. The “friends” include a string quartet, a clarinet, a flute and a piano, the latter played by her husband, Sir Simon Rattle. Each combination of these instruments creates different tonal effects and colouring for an idiomatic and unique accompaniment.

Her choice of program gives a cross section of lieder literature from the late Romantics (Chausson, Dvořák, Brahms and R. Strauss) through French Impressionism (Ravel) and some Moderns (Stravinsky and Janáček). In fact we can follow the development of the art song with a fascinating variety and style where the golden thread of Kožená’s imagination, wonderfully expressive voice, beautiful intonation and some lovely inflections are evident throughout. Just listen to her inflection on “Vögelein” in Gestillte Sehnsucht, by Brahms!

Naturally she is strongest in her native Czech and Moravian idiom. She sings with youthful freshness and confidence. Especially impressive and unique are the Nursery Rhymes by Janáček; some are outrageously funny. And I am happy she included one of my all-time favourite songs by Dvořák, When my mother taught me.

A lovely, relaxed musical evening you will cherish.

10 RencontreRencontre – Debussy; Delage; Poulenc; Ravel
Raquel Camarinha; Yoan Héreau
Naïve V 5454 (naxosdirect.com)

Despite competition in this repertoire from other discs, I think that readers partial to the mélodie (art song) will find much to appreciate in this first recording by the young French duo of Raquel Camarinha, soprano, and Yoan Héreau, piano. Already these artists have busy European careers as recitalists, chamber musicians and opera professionals.

On this disc Camarinha’s tone stays rich and consistent through the top register, while Héreau rises to the works’ colouristic challenges whether playing rapid figuration or subtle sonorities. In Ravel’s three-song Schéhérazade, Asia’s imagined voyage receives evocative treatment. The Enchanted Flute, a favourite of mine, is concise and flowing. Turning to well-known Debussy settings of two groups of symbolist Paul Verlaine’s poems, the combination of langour and sadness in Ariettes oubliées is conveyed effectively; the wonderful Fairground Horses breaks those moods with brio and virtuosic pianism from Héreau. In Fêtes galantes I was struck by soft floating high tones from Camarinha at the close of Clair de lune (incidentally, this music is completely different from Debussy’s identically titled piano piece).

Quatre poèmes hindous by Maurice Delage (1879-1961) adds the influence of Eastern scales and melody to idioms of Debussy and Ravel. Lahore is especially worth hearing for Camarinha’s vocal flexibility and sensitivity in a gorgeous extended vocalise. Finally, a generous selection of songs with exquisite syllabic text settings by Poulenc demonstrates her wonderfully clear diction – including the adept execution of the rapid tongue-twisters Fêtes galantes and He steals!

11 Canadian Chamber ChoirSeasons of Life and Landscape
Canadian Chamber Choir
Independent CCCCD003 (canadianchamberchoir.ca)

A truly national ensemble, the Canadian Chamber Choir draws its membership from across the country, gathering for seven to ten-day projects in different regions in order to actualize a mandate to bring Canadian choral music to every corner of the land. This particular project is meant to guide the listener, as if walking through an art exhibit that draws on different media but is built around a common theme; in this case, the ever-changing seasons.

At the beginning of the recording, a gorgeous Intro featuring Jeff Reilly on bass clarinet, Keith Hamm, viola, and Beverley Johnston, vibraphone, sets a high bar for the rest of the program. The forces of nature and its effect on the human spirit are then conjured through pieces like Laura Hawley’s undulating Le Rideau and effervescent Singing Summer’s Praises while mystic elements shine forth in Imant Raminsh’s In the Night We Shall Go In and Cree composer Andrew Balfour’s Vision Chant, as well as Antiphon by Peter Togni and Jeff Reilly. Reminiscences shape shift like clouds in Levasseur-Ouimet’s Parlez-moi and composer-in-residence Jeff Enns’ Le pont Mirabeau. Throughout these offerings, members of the choir execute a myriad of styles soulfully, meticulously and with remarkable quality of tone. They also do a fine job with arrangements of Joni Mitchell’s River and Gordon Lightfoot’s Song for a Winter’s Night.

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