01 Bach B MinorBach – Mass in B Minor
Cantata Collective; Nicholas McGegan
Avie Records AV2668 (cantatacollective.org)

Some people submit finely-crafted resumes, perfectly-worded cover letters and superfluously supportive references as part of a job application. Johann Sebastian Bach sent (an early version of) the Mass in B Minor. Submitted (along with a letter of appeal) to Elector Frederick Augustus II of Saxony in July 1733, Bach was seeking a position outside of Leipzig, where his work at the Thomaskirche was full of conflict, insufficient resources and, according to Bach, blatant disrespect. Despite this impressive application, there is no evidence that the work was ever performed in Dresden and Bach did not receive the title of Hofcompositeur, or Court Composer, from the Elector until late in 1736.

Now recognized as one of the greatest choral masterworks in music history, the B Minor Mass was not composed all at once, nor was it entirely spontaneous; it was, however, meticulously crafted. Cobbled together over a significant portion of Bach’s career from music that he composed previously and revised as needed, this work is considered his last major composition.

The San Francisco-based Cantata Collective, led by early music specialist Nicholas McGegan, tackles the B Minor Mass head-on in this live recording from March 2023. Measured and well-paced, this performance prioritizes contrapuntal clarity over velocity, giving fleeting movements such as the Et Resurrexit a sense of depth, and slower sections, such as the opening Kyrie, much weight and gravity.

While not as superficially thrilling as more “fast and furious” interpretations of this work, it is a challenging task to find a single note that is out of place or tune; it is, in fact, difficult to determine that this is indeed a live recording. The choir and orchestra are in fine form here, and this recording is an excellent listening opportunity both for those who are intimately familiar with this masterwork and those who are discovering it for the first time.

02 Nickel RequiemChristopher Tyler Nickel – Requiem
Catherine Redding; Northwest Sinfonia and Choir; Clyde Mitchell
Avie Records AV2659 (avie-records.com)

Vancouverite Christopher Tyler Nickel has composed over 100 scores for theatre, film and TV, as well as symphonies, concertos, chamber works and a seven-hour-long (!) oratorio, a complete setting of The Gospel According to Mark. His Requiem (2019), lasting “only” 70 minutes, here receives an emotionally stirring performance from Canadian soprano Catherine Redding and the Northwest Sinfonia and Choir conducted by Claude Mitchell.

It’s scored for a dark-sounding chamber orchestra of oboe, English horn, two French horns and strings; “I wanted to keep a solemnity to the Requiem,” writes Nickel. The choral writing largely avoids rhythmic counterpoint, embracing instead “homorhythm” – all voices in rhythmic unison, creating a sense of granite-like solidity. The music varies in character, each of the 19 sections, says Nickel, having its own “overarching emotion.” He’s drawn from stylistic sources ranging from the austerity of Gregorian chant, in the opening Introitus and Kyrie, to the urgent expressivity of late-Romanticism.

The gently supplicating lyricism of Gabriel Fauré’s Requiem predominates in nine of the sections, while the syncopated, motoric dynamism of Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana energizes the Dies Irae, Confutatis and Responsorium. Brucknerian grandeur magnifies the Tuba Mirum; the Offertorium sounds like a sentimental folk-ballad.

Nevertheless, there’s an overall unity to this beauty-filled music, thanks to Nickel’s distinctive melodic gift. As a chorister, I’ve sung in Requiems by Mozart, Cherubini, Brahms, Fauré and Duruflé; I’d love to be able to add Nickel’s to this list.

03 BreatheBreathe
Hera Hyesang Park; Orchestra del Teatro Carlo Felice; Jochen Rieder
Deutsche Grammophon 486 4627 (deutschegrammophon.com/en/artists/hera-hyesang-park)

Can profound fear be experienced – and expressed – with quintessence of beauty? In theory, probably not. Yet every aspect of this disc does exactly this. The prescient repertoire on Breathe paves the way. The real reason, of course, is an inspired performance by rising-star lyric soprano Hera Hyesang Park. The utter luminosity of her voice, and deep digging into songs, brings special grace to words, and extraordinary lyricism to vocalise and rhapsodising about the exposition of both the literal and metaphorical beauty of fearfulness.

The act of making breath not simply a gesture of release, but an artistic device is what we – in turn – experience throughout this extraordinary disc. Park delves into the work of a group of composers from the 19th and 20th centuries, exploring their work as part of a bleak, Impressionistic backdrop for the horrors of the global pandemic and the isolation that it inflicted on humanity. In doing so she imbues songs, and their significance, with near-spiritual fervour in the context of the pandemic.

Should familiarity of repertoire be an indicator, then the Lento e Largo movements of Górecki’s Symphony of Sorrowful Songs is the apogee of this recording. But the Evening Prayer from Humperdinck’s Hänsel and Gretel and the Flower Duet from Delibes’ Lakmé are also sensational. 

So deeply does Park embody this material that she lives the songs rather than projecting them as outside entities of breathing. Everything about this disc declares: A minor miracle.

04 La FlambeauDavid Bontemps – La Flambeau
Suzanne Tafflot; Catherine Daniel; Paul Williamson; Brandon Coleman; Orchestre Classique de Montréal; Alain Trudel
ATMA ACD2 2880 (atmaclassique.com/en)

La Flambeau is a chamber opera by David Bontemps. Premiered in 2023 with the Montreal Classical Orchestra and conducted by Alain Trudel, La Flambeau features Canadian mezzo-soprano Catherine Daniel, American bass-baritone Brandon Coleman, Cameroonian-born soprano Suzanne Taffot and Jamaican-Canadian tenor Paul Williamson. 

Based on the play of the same name by Haitian poet and playwright Faubert Bolivar (b.1979), the opera is sung in French with short passages in Haitian Creole. The opera begins with an overture and evolves into seven scenes scored for string orchestra and maracas. Set in Haiti, La Flambeau’s characters have no names: Monsieur who has political ambitions and is preparing a speech; Madame, his wife who speaks to deceased family members; Mademoiselle, their working-class maid abused by Monsieur; and l’Homme, a sort of judge who condemns and ultimately sentences Monsieur, turning him into a zombie in the service of his community. 

While on the surface drawing on Yoruba mythology and Haitian Vodou traditions, the composer also embeds commentary on women’s rights, deceit, prejudice and corruption. Bontemps writes unornamented melodies with Afro-Haitian elements and in the style and rhythm of spoken word. 

The recording of La Flambeau is an opportunity to hear a cast of prominent Black singers in a medium where they are historically underrepresented. The singers’ musicality and commitment to the text invites listeners on a journey inside of our humanity to show that individual struggles are of a universal nature, regardless of gender, colour or caste.

05 The ShiningPaul Moravec – The Shining
Lyric Opera of Kansas City; Gerard Schwarz
Pentatone PTC5187036 (operatheshining.com)

In an isolated mountain hotel with a blood-soaked past, ghostly voices and visions propel a troubled man’s descent into murderous madness. “Opera’s power as an art-form,” writes Buffalo-born, Pulitzer Prize-winner Paul Moravec, “springs from its essentially primordial, irrational nature. It’s ideally suited to the adaptation of Mr. King’s irresistibly compelling story.” Opera goers agree; since its 2016 Minnesota Opera premiere, The Shining has been enthusiastically received in San Francisco, Atlanta and Kansas City, where this two-CD set was recorded in 2023. 

Mark Campbell says his libretto (included in the booklet) hews closer to Stephen King’s novel than to Stanley Kubrick’s film (not having read the book nor seen the movie, I’ll take his word for it). Moravec’s score, however, is thoroughly “cinematic” – in the best sense – effectively creating an agitated, discordant atmosphere of irrationality and impending violence.

Heading the cast of 17 soloists is baritone Edward Parks, vocally powerful and dramatically convincing as the tormented Jack Torrance. Soprano Kelly Kaduce is sympathetic as his loving but fearful wife Wendy. The hotel’s cook, Dick Hallorann (baritone Aubrey Allicock) recognizes the psychic abilities – “the shining” – of the Torrances’ son Danny (treble Tristan Hallett), becoming his supportive friend.

Enhancing the opera’s theatrical impact, Torrance’s hallucinations were seen and heard by the audience; hopefully, they were immune to the phantasms’ murder-inducing influence. Immune, thankfully, the Lyric Opera of Kansas City Chorus, Kansas City Symphony and conductor Gerard Schwarz contributed greatly to this performance’s unrelenting intensity.

06 Michael Hersch PoppeaMichael Hersch – Poppaea
Ah Young Hong; Steve Davislim; Silke Gang; Ensemble Phoenix Basel; Jerg Henneberger
New Focus Recordings FCR390 (newfocusrecordings.com)

Even if you were not aware of the details of the violence of Roman rule during the early Anno Domini era you will feel its effects in the pit of your stomach as you listen to the operatic recreation of the story of the Empress Poppaea.

On one level, Michael Hersch’s recreation of Poppaea Sabina (30AD-65AD), the second wife of the legendary imperial despot Nero, may be a simple tale of palace intrigue. However, there seems to be a much deeper motive in this shrill, masterful retelling of the tragedy. And it is this: The conniving woman who won the heart and hand of the emperor and bore him a child, appears to have created a powerful, matriarchal rule in the imperial household.

Brilliantly detailed booklet notes by Dr. Lauren Donovan-Ginsberg, Associate Professor of Classical Studies at Duke University and a specialist in Neronian culture and history, make for riveting reading. Stephanie Fleischmann’s prescient libretto recreates the bloody and devious plot. 

Poppaea – played with shrill and terrifying ingenuity by the soprano Ah Young Hong – tears Nero (an appropriately despotic tenor Steve Davislim) away from his first wife Octavia, superbly sung by the dark and smoky-voiced mezzo Silke Gäng. 

You will also find yourself harbouring high praise for the superb casting and performances, and especially for the sensitive and vigorous direction of Jürg Henneberger who brings this Neronian tragedy of Poppaea to vivid life once again.

Listen to 'Michael Hersch: Poppaea' Now in the Listening Room

01 Monteverdi returno dulisseClaudio Monteverdi – Il ritorno d’Ulisse in patria
Soloists; I Gemelli; Emiliano Gonzalez Toro; Mathilde Etienne
Gemelli Factory audiobook (gemelli-factory.com/nos_releases/il-ritorno-dulisse-in-patria)

There are as many ways to perform Claudio Monteverdi’s Il Ritorno d’Ulisse in Patria as there are performances. The earliest known score contains just the vocal parts, the text and the bass line. Even the instrumental passages indicate nothing about what instruments are to play. So vital decisions about basic elements like orchestration and harmonization must be made.

Terrific recordings have appeared in recent years – those under Gardiner, Cavina and Fuget come happily to mind (not to overlook Harnoncourt’s landmark recording from 1972). But none for me has matched René Jacobs’ 1992 recording for momentum and spirit – that is, until this production from I Gemelli, led by musical director Emiliano Gonzalez Toro and artistic director Mathilde Etienne (with both performing as singers). 

A fine-tuned sense of early Baroque style and an adventurous sense of theatre have shaped this recording. The cast here is large – it includes nine tenors! That means remarkably few doublings, so characters are easily distinguishable. And every performer, whether singer or instrumentalist, projects the kind of commitment that gives their time in the spotlight, no matter how brief or extensive, dramatic impact. 

It’s unlikely Monteverdi’s instrumental ensemble for the first performance in 1640 would have been as large, or as varied. Historically authentic instruments like the gorgeous triple harp of Marie-Domitille Murez and the delightful trio of mellifluous cornetts add colour. But they never swamp the singers, since they are featured in smaller groups. Instead, they provide vivid counterparts to the resonant phrases of Giacomo Badoaro’s libretto, a skillful adaption of the final verses of Homer’s Odyssey.

Monteverdi gives the gods the most florid passages. Emőke Breath as Minerva ravishes with her lucid elegance. Philippe Jarroussky is an eloquent Fragilitá Umana (Human Fragility), Juan Sancho an impassioned Mercurio. Jérôme Varnier’s petulant, vindictive Nettuno captivates with his rich, agile basso profundo.  

Among the mortals, Gonzalez Toro’s Ulisse is deftly theatrical as he disguises himself as an old beggar, and affectingly tender as he pleads with Penelope to recognize him. Rihaieb Chaib brings highly charged urgency and a complex range of emotional states to the role of the faithful Penelope. The exciting Canadian mezzo-soprano has not been known for Baroque opera. But that is bound to change with her powerful performance here. Right from the opening phrases of her heart-rending lament, she commands our empathy. When she does recognize Ulisse – and they finally sing together – it’s all the more expressive for the contrast in their voices. The word “yes” has never sounded more sensual than in their magnificent duet, “Yes, my life, yes, my heart, yes!” 

       I love how Alix Le Saux as Ulisse’s old nurse Ericleia colours the word “languise” (languishes). Fulvio Bettini’s virtuosic Iro delights as he moves from comedy to tragedy. Zachary Wilder creates a poignant Telemaco, while Etienne brings playful charm to Melanto. Her extensive background essays are bound with the libretto – more than 200 pages in all – with three CDs in an attractive hardbound case. It’s certainly indicative of the loving care that has gone into this superb recording.

02 Penitence LamentationPenitence & Lamentation (Gombert; Byrd; Tallis; Crecquillon; Ramsey; Muhly; Carver)
Byrd Ensemble; Markdavin Obenza
Scribe Records SRCD12 (byrdensemble.com/recordings)

Ten Renaissance pieces set to religious texts expressing, say the booklet notes, “guilt and grief” are movingly performed by the Seattle-based Byrd Ensemble under artistic director Markdavin Obenza. Four selections are by the a cappella group’s inspiration, William Byrd. Particularly affecting are Emendemus in Melius and Byrd’s elegy for his late friend, Thomas Tallis, Ye sacred muses. Tallis himself is represented by two pieces – Absterge Domine and In jejunio et fletu, the latter darkly solemn, sung by only one alto, two tenors and two basses.

Nicolas Gombert’s intense Lugebat David Absalon dramatically sets David’s howling lament over his rebellious son, while Robert Ramsey’s How are the mighty fallen effectively expresses David’s anguish over his beloved Jonathan. Thomas Crecquillon’s earnest Pater peccavi presents the Prodigal Son’s rueful plea to his father. Although only five to ten singers perform the forementioned works, the reverberant acoustic creates the illusion of much larger forces.

American composer Nico Muhly’s Fallings, especially commissioned for this CD, involves 12 singers. Set to verses from Isaiah describing the destruction of Solomon’s temple, the music is often tumultuous and discordant, yet not out of place among the Renaissance works. Ending the CD, 19 singers – 14 of them tenors and basses – join in the longest selection, Robert Carver’s grandiloquent, 12-minute O bone Jesu. The male-heavy sonorities add depth and richness to this cry for mercy – “O good Jesus, let not my sin destroy me.” Texts and translations are included.

03 MeistersingerWagner – Dei Meistersinger von Nurnberg
Soloists; Orchestra and Chorus of the Deutsche Oper Berlin; John Flore
Naxos DVD 2.110766-67 (naxos.com/CatalogueDetail/?id=2.110766-67)

Deutsche Oper has always been famous for thought-provoking, even iconoclastic, productions so this latest incarnation of Wagner’s lengthy masterpiece comes to us certainly as very different from anything I’ve ever seen before. The scene is a Conservatory with the Masters as professors, the Apprentices as students, all in a modern setting. The school is owned by the wealthy Veit Pogner (Albert Posendorfer, bass) who intends to turn it over to the public by organizing a singing contest but stipulating that the winner must be a Master and should marry his only daughter Eva (Heidi Stober, soprano). The contest is held on Midsummer Day and there are numerous complications, but we all know the story. In this provocative staging the music and the text remain unchanged; there is constant action, and the show is entertaining throughout. But the question remains for someone who has never seen/heard this opera before should I recommend this production rather than an opulent, glorious traditional one such as I grew up with?

The directorial team has decided to “remove the deadweight of previous productions to get closer to the opera itself” which is all about music, the composition and delivery of music. This translates itself into composing a master song and it all comes together beautifully in the wonderful third act. The master song is composed by Walther von Stolzing, the tenor lead (beautifully sung by the latest German heldentenor sensation, Klaus Florian Vogt, who aspires to be a Master and is in love with Eva. The elderly Hans Sachs (Johan Reuter, baritone), a Master and the real hero of the opera, is also in love with Eva but having to give her up, realizes Walther’s song is, although different, truly beautiful. He magnanimously offers advice to improve the song according to the established rules. The master song is then baptized (on St. John’s day) by the glorious quintet Selig wie die Sonne, with all five principals, and later Walther wins the contest and Eva’s hand. A happy ending, indeed.

Deutsche Oper’s giant orchestra pit much resembles the one at the Bayreuth Festspielhaus and the large orchestra is led by John Fiore, an internationally famous American conductor from Seattle. He is much praised by the world’s opera houses as a respected leader with unusual musical sensitivity. The show was enthusiastically received. What more can we ask ?

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