Monteverdi – Vespro Della Beata Vergine
Various Soloists; Monteverdi Choir; London Oratory Junior Choir; His Majestys Sagbutts & Cornetts; English Baroque Soloists; John Eliot Gardiner
Archiv Produktion 479 7176

The Beauty of Monteverdi
Various Artists
Deutsche Grammophon 479 7193

01a Monteverdi VespersJohn Eliot Gardiner first heard the Monteverdi Vespers when still a schoolboy: over the radio in a performance from York Minster conducted by Walter Goehr. When Gardiner was an undergraduate at Cambridge, he himself conducted the work, in 1964, in the great Gothic chapel of King’s College. It must have seemed to him that here was a great work comparable in scope to Bach’s B Minor Mass, yet totally different. Gardiner was also concerned with moving away from what he saw as the bland English choral tradition which sacrificed dramatic vitality to blend and purity of sound. His first recording of the work came in 1974 and is still available. It uses singers like Jill Gomez and Philip Langridge who were in no way connected with the emerging Early Music Movement. Gardiner’s second recording, now under review, followed in 1989. The third recording, available as a DVD only, was released in 2016. It was recorded in the Chapelle Royale in Versailles. (I reviewed it in the April 2016 issue of The WholeNote.)

The 1989 recording, now reissued both as CDs and a DVD, was recorded in the spectacular space provided by St. Mark’s Basilica in Venice. The DVD fully explores the basilica’s architecture, its mosaics and its sculpture. There is no clear record that the music was originally performed there or anywhere else in Monteverdi’s lifetime. There is now a critical consensus that its first publication (in 1610) does not represent a proposal for an actual liturgical performance but instead constitutes material on which Monteverdi wished to be judged. It may well be on the strength of the 1610 publication that Monteverdi was offered the prestigious post of Maestro di Cappella at St. Mark’s three years later.

The performance is spectacular with rhythmic vitality and precision and with great dramatic emphases. The singers include soprano Ann Monoyios (who has given us so much pleasure in the past in Toronto), tenor Nigel Rogers and, surprisingly, a very young bass-baritone Bryn Terfel. For vitality it will be hard to beat this reissue, but there are now a number of fine recordings. If you prize what has been called “lyric intimacy” over dramatic vitality, you might explore the versions conducted by Savall or Christie, Parrott or Alessandrini.

01b Monteverdi BeautyThe other CDs reviewed here constitute an anthology of parts of Vespers, several of the operas and a selection of the Madrigals, the Scherzi musicali and the Selva morale e spirituale compiled to honour the 450th anniversary of Monteverdi’s birth. Much of the singing is very fine, and the solos by Anne Sofie von Otter and Magdalena Kožená alone are worth the price of admission. This kind of anthology clearly offers limitations, and I would hope that hearing these would spur a listener to explore the works from which they are taken.

07 Room 29Room 29
Jarvis Cocker; Chilly Gonzales
Deutsche Grammophon 28947970101

In this age of streaming, Spotify, iTunes, YouTube, randomized playlists and self-publishing, do we still need record labels? All these electronic access modes are merely measures of popularity, not quality. Sure, an occasional gem will have 10 million views on YouTube, but so will a cat dancing to a laser pointer. The role of record labels is to “curate” (goodness help me for using this word) the listener’s experience.

Enter Room 29, a collaboration that would have been drowned out by the latest Kardashian selfies. Deutsche Grammophon championed this unlikely coming together of two very different musicians. Jarvis Cocker is the former frontman of Pulp, the very definition of Britpop of the 1990s. Gifted with an Elvis Costello-like voice and sensibilities, nowadays, he is an actor, director and radio personality who draws comparisons to Jools Holland and John Peel. Chilly Gonzales, a Jewish Hungarian-Canadian, despite having worked with Feist, Drake and Daft Punk, became truly known for Solo Piano, an album of original music that made some critics compare him to Erik Satie. Here, Cocker and Gonzales team up to sing and play about Room 29 in the iconic Hollywood hotel Chateau Marmont (where Billy Wilder met his inspiration for Norma Desmond of Sunset Boulevard fame). If all this sounds contrived, consider that the inspiration for Room 29 was none other than Ryuichi Sakamoto – known among other things as a composer for film. The biggest surprise, it works very well! Gonzales is a phenomenal pianist, Cocker an engaging balladeer and the album bears a third and fourth listening. Will wonders never cease!!

02 Verdi BalloVerdi – Un Ballo in Maschera
Soloists; Bayerisches Staatsorchester; Zubin Mehta
Cmajor 739408 

Munich has been at the cutting edge of bringing opera into the 21st century with highly original productions by the best directors and designers as well as streaming them live through the internet and onto your TV screen, worldwide and free of charge. A few of these have been released on DVD such as this Ballo from 2016, Johannes Erath’s “musically super-sensitive” gorgeous, highly acclaimed production many people travelled to Munich for.

Verdi’s opera of illicit love, betrayal, conspiracy, revenge and murder has been a special favourite of mine, with its heavenly music throbbing with emotion and ecstasy, reminding me of Tristan. Erath created a dreamlike, surrealistic show in dominant blue and black with projections of shadows and in semi-darkness, suggesting the ever-present power of black magic and the subconscious. There is a single set throughout, a bedroom that with effective light changes can transform in one’s imagination into many different settings.

The Staatsoper selected a dream cast as this opera requires the highest order of singers. Young Polish tenor Piotr Beczała, in love with his best friend’s wife but also guilt-ridden, is vocally and visually radiant in the role of Governor Riccardo. Amelia, the wife, tormented and in a conflict that threatens to tear her apart, is German soprano Anja Harteros, her dark-hued voice full of intensity. The wronged husband Renato, one of Verdi’s most inspired creations, is George Petean who perhaps lacks the expected aristocratic bearing but his strong, heroic and heart-rending baritone completes this exemplary trio of principals. Even the lesser roles: Sofia Fomina (Oscar) and Okka von der Damerau (Ulrica) store wonderful surprises and, to top it all, Zubin Mehta’s masterly handling of the score makes this production truly memorable.

03 Elina GarancaRevive
Elīna Garanča; Orquestra de la Comunitat Valenciana; Roberto Abbado
Deutsche Grammophon 479 5937

Elīna Garanča from Latvia is unquestionably the greatest mezzo of our time, already a legend. The mention of her name fills up opera houses and concert halls instantly worldwide. Her debut at the Met in Carmen was a world sensation, redefining the role and making us forget any Carmen heard before or ever after. Wherever she goes, she conquers. This is her fifth solo disc for DG, the previous four all award-winning runaway bestsellers and each showing different sides of her talent and development towards more and more complex roles.

“Strong women in moments of weakness” is how she defines this new release, and that means conflicting strong emotions but also a breakaway from her earlier bel canto repertoire into French and Italian verismo and, of course, Verdi. The point of departure is the role of Santuzza in Cavalleria Rusticana (her next project) with the gut-wrenching aria Voi lo sapete, o Mamma of human misery and despair, with Garanča rising to the occasion in a voice of tremendous range of vocal colour, intensity, passion and, above all, power.

Challenging and beautiful arias by Cilea, Massenet, Thomas and Saint-Saëns and more each give us a tantalizing glimpse into mezzo territory. And then comes Verdi: one huge role, Eboli in Don Carlo, which she hasn’t done yet and which everyone is waiting for. If this thrilling showstopper, Song of the Veil with its fiery Spanish rhythms and exuberance, is any indication, it will be another triumph. Roberto Abbado’s intense and passionate conducting adds to the success of this remarkable collection.

05 LucyJohn Glover – Lucy
Andrew Wilkowske; Christopher Zemliauskas; REDSHIFT Ensemble
New Focus Recordings FCR 183 (newfocusrecordings.com)

In 1964, Maurice and Jane Temerlin “adopted” the just-born Lucy as part of a series of cross-fostering experiments in which chimpanzees were raised as if they were human, with mostly tragic outcomes for the chimps. Lucy lived with them until 1977, when they could no longer deal with her. She was finally set free in The Gambia, where her mutilated body was found in 1987.

Kelley Rourke’s libretto (included in the booklet) imagines Maurice Temerlin learning of Lucy’s death and recalling episodes from their years together, drawn from his memoir, Lucy: Growing Up Human. John Glover’s hour-long opera (2014) features baritone Andrew Wilkowske (Temerlin), speaker Sarah Sokolovic (Researcher), pianist Christopher Zemliauskas and the four-member REDSHIFT Ensemble, with Glover conducting.

The hearty-voiced Wilkowske sings with energy and expression, but his music is less engrossing than his words, recounting many humorous, sometimes frightening, scenes of his “daughter” Lucy running around with unrolled toilet paper, getting drunk, carrying a kitten on her back, learning American Sign Language, dialling a telephone, attacking and biting a visitor. Most of Lucy’s musical pleasures are provided by the varied colours and bubbling rhythms of the instrumental accompaniment.

Bonus tracks include comments by Glover, Rourke, Wilkowske, stage director Erik Pearson and, most eloquently, Robert Ingersoll, who worked on the cross-fostering project but now advocates for chimps to be treated as chimps. “We stole their lives from them,” he laments. Lucy helps explain Ingersoll’s anguish.

06 Jane EyreJohn Joubert – Jane Eyre
April Fredrick; David Stout; Gwion Thomas; Mark Milhofer; English Symphony Orchestra; Kenneth Woods
SOMM Recordings SOMMCD 263-2

British composer John Joubert and his librettist (and former student) Kenneth Birkin worked on his opera Jane Eyre from 1987 through 1997. Incorporating cuts made for the world-premiere concert performance in October 2016 in Birmingham, this live recording is a tribute for the composer’s 90th birthday and an exceptional permanent record of a great work.

Charlotte Brontë’s novel surprisingly suits this operatic venture. As Joubert explains in the detailed liner notes, the two acts of three scenes each are not an exact retelling of the lengthy story, but a selective take on Jane’s adult life. The libretto captures all the important storyline components while the composition is amazing. The music is so original, with touches of such influences as Wagner and Strauss surfacing throughout. The vocal music captures the story but it really is the brilliant orchestration that rules – it almost sounds like equal duets between the vocals and instruments. The Act One argument between Jane and Brocklehurst is driven by rhythmic orchestral shots, low-pitched mysterious crescendos and countermelodies in the strings. The closing joy in Jane and Rochester’s reunion is reinforced by the sweet string lines.

The soloists perform with passion and expertise. The orchestra members play with astounding musical force, driving the operatic score to out of this world artistic heights. There is so much musical detail here that only repeated listening can illuminate. Though at times musically too melodramatic, this is an opera that should stand the test of time.

01 Orlando di LassoOrlando di Lasso – Laudate Dominum
Studio de musique ancienne de Montréal; Andrew McAnerney
ATMA ACD2 2748

Review

Orlando di Lasso is generally considered to be one of the last and one of the finest composers of the Franco-Flemish school, a school (if that is the right word) that begins with Dufay and includes several great composers: Ockeghem and Josquin, de la Rue and Isaac. The forms that di Lasso’s motets take are often complex. Of the 13 on this disc none are in the standard four parts: six are for double choir (with eight, nine or ten voices), one is 12-part, one ten-part, one eight-part, one seven-part and one six-part. The organization within these parts also tends to be complex. In the six-part Te Deum the odd-numbered parts are plainchant and the even-numbered polyphonic. Omnia tempus habent sets the presentation of youth against old age by having a high voice choir of four sing the former and another four-voice choir, of low voices, sing the latter.

The Studio de musique ancienne de Montréal was founded in 1974 by Christopher Jackson and has, since Jackson’s recent death, been directed by Andrew McAnerney. On this record the choir consists of 13 singers who perform a cappella. This is challenging music, for the listener and the performer alike. The singing is glorious and the disc is strongly recommended.

02 Amabile ChoirsSing Your Song – Music by Matthew Emery
Amabile Choirs of London
Centrediscs CMCCD 23617

Sixteen unique choral works by Canadian composer Matthew Emery are performed here with passion. An alumnus of London’s Amabile Boys & Men’s Choirs, Emery uses his experience with choirs’ abilities to create soundscapes of shifting harmonies and glorious colours. One of CBC Music’s 30 hot Canadian classical musicians under 30 for 2016, Emery is a musical individualist in his tonal yet offbeat harmonies, word settings and phrasings.

A number of the songs deal with death and parting. In the opening track Sweetest Love, John Donne’s words are set to tonal harmonies with the occasional atonal note sneaking in. Especially moving are the high notes on the word sleep. Likewise in Still Colors (Velvet Shoes), the astounding tight ensemble performance with low and high harmonies drives the reflective mystery of this parting song.

All is not sadness. Let Your Voice Be Heard is a rousing song with a nod to minimalism as the line “let your voice be heard” is repeated as a reminder to be yourself. The Newfoundland folk song Haul on the Bowline has men’s voices working hard to get a boat to shore, while percussion and fiddle add a traditional flavour. The closing title track Sing Your Song is an upbeat work with driving percussion and piano adding to the pop music and sing-along qualities.

All the Amabile Choirs of London give first-class enthusiastic performances. Matthew Emery composes choral music at its very, very best.

03 WinterreiseSchubert – Winterreise
Matthias Goerne; Markus Hinterhäuser
Cmajor 738008

It is fascinating to observe how new pressures from audiences and technology constantly induce change in the way we consume art. Vinyl and tape having been first supplanted by CD, DVD and Blu-ray, quickly gave way to live streaming and playing hi-fi music on definitively low-fi smartphones. None of this has ever happened without controversy – remember the brouhaha accompanying the introduction of surtitles in most opera houses of the world?

Here is a recording of a conventional voice and piano performance augmented, or diminished (choose your side), by visual projections designed by William Kentridge. Only vaguely related to the music, these graphic designs and animated images seek to appease the multisensory needs of modern audiences. Or are they designed to stop them from checking their Twitter feed or Facebook updates during the concert? Whatever their purpose, they surely did not work for me, detracting from the performance, rather than enhancing it. And what a performance! Goerne, who is surely one of the world’s leading singers of Lieder, especially by Schubert and Mahler, is in fine voice here. Compared to previous recordings, his voice sounds rounder, more velvety and supported across the tessitura, while developing a darker, more intriguing timbre. So, this is a great performance, whether you close your eyes (me) or keep them wide open (some of my ADHD, millennial, image-hungry colleagues).

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