01 Antonio FigueroaCanciones de mi abuelito
Antonio Figuero; La Familia Figueroa
ATMA ACD2 2856 (atmaclassique.com/en)

This recording is a master work, created in celebration of the paternal Figueroa Grandfather (Don José Figueroa), through the veil of the potent 1950s/1960s “Golden Age” of Mexican music composed by noted 20th-century Mexican composers. Featuring the vocal work of dynamic tenor Antonio Figueroa, the talented Figueroa family performs on a variety of instruments throughout and includes Anton Virquis on voice/violins; Esteban Duran on voice/violin and arrangements; Tomy Figueroa on voice/trumpet; Manuel Figueroa on vihuela (he’s also artistic adviser); José-Luis Figueroa on voice/guitar; Alexandre Figueroa on voice/guitarron and José Figueroa on voice. Grandfather José first visited Canada as a performing mariachi during Expo 1967, and eventually emigrated to Montreal with his 11 children, beginning a thrilling cross-cultural relationship. It wasn’t long before Mariachi Figueroa became a family business.

Mariachi music and particularly the “Cancion Ranchera” is an emotional genre by which Mexicans express the raw pain of a broken heart. The stirring opener, Paloma Querida (José Alfredo Jiménez) features Antonio’s superb, limitless and communicative tenor. Every track here is a cultural and musical gem – rendered with authenticity and skill. Highlights include the lithesome Martha (Mosés Simóns), Dime Que Si (Alfonso Esparza Oteo) with supple trumpet and violin work, El Pastor (Los Cuates Castilla) with its gymnastic, stratospheric melodic line brilliantly negotiated by Antonio and Diez Años (Raphael Hernandez) a stunningly arranged gem of Musica Mexicana. The closer of this compelling collection, Ojos Tapatios (Jose F. Elizondo & F. Menendez) is an exceptional and deeply moving example of authentic Mexican music – performed to perfection by the entire ensemble.

02 Bach MotetsBach – Six Motets
Ottawa Bach Choir; Lisette Canton
ATMA ACD2 2836 (atmaclassique.com/en)

Founded in 2002 by Dr. Lisette Canton, the Juno Award-winning Ottawa Bach Choir (OBC) is an ensemble which specializes in the performance of early music, with a particular emphasis on the works of Johann Sebastian Bach. Their latest release, titled Six Motets, is a monumental effort featuring Bach’s choral motets, noted for their complexity, profundity and breathtaking beauty.

This recording begins with a thrilling rendition of Singet dem Herrn ein neues Lied, BWV225, which launches at breakneck speed through passages of virtuosic counterpoint and driving rhythmic patterns, eases into a luxurious aria and returns with fiery energy for the conclusion. Such focus on rhythm and clarity is a defining feature of this entire disc, which brings Bach’s music to life in an illuminative and vital way.

Perhaps the most exceptional excerpt of OBC’s Six Motets is the monolithic Jesu, meine Freude BWV227, an 11-movement work for five-part chorus that spans a tremendous range of moods and affects. Here the choir offers a masterclass in precision and execution, but never at the expense of musicality. The opening chorale is well-paced, expertly phrased and subtly expressive, the devilish “Trotz dem alten Drachen” is one of the best this reviewer has encountered, and the lyrical “Gute Nacht, o Wesen” is hauntingly beautiful.

In a market saturated with recordings of Bach’s famous motets, it could be challenging to rationalize yet another addition to the catalogue, yet this effort from the OBC holds its own as one of the finest on record. There is not a weak point present and, whether familiar or not with these legendary works, Six Motets is highly recommended listening for all.

03 A Left CoastA Left Coast (A Heartfelt Playlist from British Columbia)
Tyler Duncan; Erika Switzer
Bridge Records 9574 (bridgerecords.com)

In their booklet notes, baritone Tyler Duncan and pianist Erika Switzer, both B.C.-born, call this CD “our heartfelt playlist for the place we will always call home: British Columbia.” The “playlist,” drawn from seven of their B.C. “friends and colleagues,” begins with two songs by Iman Habibi, set to Edward FitzGerald’s translations of two quatrains by Omar Khayyam. The vocal lines are earnest and emphatic, the piano parts flavoured with hints of Persian exoticism.

Jean Coulthard’s Three Love Songs are appropriately edgy and irritable, as they’re set to poems from Louis MacKay’s collection, The Ill-Tempered Lover. In three highly dramatic songs, Jocelyn Morlock’s Involuntary Love Songs, with verses by Alan Ashton, traces the narrator’s development of love from repression through turmoiled denial to blissful, sensual ecstasy.

Melancholy lyricism infuses Melissa Hui’s song Snowflakes (poem by Longfellow) and Leslie Uyeda’s Plato’s Angel, four songs set to what Uyeda calls “some of the most introspective” poems by Lorna Crozier but, writes Uyeda, “I do not mean them to be depressing!” (They’re not.) For real depression, listen to Jeffrey Ryan’s Everything Already Lost, commissioned by Duncan and Switzer. Ryan’s sombre music matches the gloomy moods of four poems by Jan Zwicky, with repeated references to “night” and “darkness.”

Stephen Chatman’s very pretty Something like that, one of a set of Eight Love Songs written for Duncan, injects some welcome, warm sunshine into this CD’s ever-looming storm clouds. Is B.C. weather always like this?

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01 Duo OrianaHow Like a Golden Dream
Duo Oriana
Leaf Music LM264 (leaf-music.ca) 

The repertoire on How Like a Golden Dream traverses the sacred and the secular; 17th-century hymns and antiphons from the Office of Hours, sung at Vespers and Compline in monasteries and Irish folk songs influenced by Celtic missionaries. Throughout, the luminous soprano of Sinéad White illuminates the long shadows of dusk and night. Jonathan Stuchbery adds energizing precision. With both lute and theorbo he serves White with silvery gusts of harmonic colours.  

Familiar melodies such as ‘Tis now dead night by John Corprario, Come, Heavy Sleep by John Dowland and Never weather-beaten sail by Thomas Campion are made to float weightlessly by White. Meanwhile Stuchbery weaves his instruments in and out turning poetic lines into a sort of diaphanous harmonic quilt that quiets the imaginary fears of the night. Louise Hung’s glorious textures on the organ are subtly, yet appropriately expressive when added to the music.

The plaintive sound world of sacred and secular polyphony not only evokes a sense of wistful melancholy, but also lifts the listener from grief and sadness to unfettered joy and hope of salvation in the celestial realm. This is superbly evoked by two closing hymns by Francesca Cassini: Te lucis ante terminum and the deeply expressive Regina Caeli. Booklet notes with richly referential song-by-song English and French commentary by Jill Rafuse and Pierre Igot deserve special mention as part of the excellence of this production.

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02 Affetti AmorosiAffetti Amorosi
Bud Roach
Musica Omnia MO0805 (budroach.com) 

Whether known as a troubadour or a singer-songwriter, the concept of a solo singer providing their own accompaniment has been around for centuries, and tenor Bud Roach delves into 17th-century Italian “singer-songwriter” music with Affetti Amorosi, in which he accompanies himself on the theorbo. Performing music by seven composers, ranging from the well-known Claudio Monteverdi to the lesser-known Berti and Milanuzzi, this disc explores a range of solo vocal repertoire that demonstrates the lyrical beauty and musical inventiveness of the time.

Perhaps the most interesting facet of this repertoire is the variety of interpretive choices presented to the performer. Reconciling the lost oral traditions and conventions of the 17th century with the notated score is an objectively impossible task for modern performers, and a high degree of informed subjectivity is required of the contemporary interpreter. Even with current scholarship and research, the quest for an “authentic reproduction” remains an unattainable oxymoron.

The benefit of this historical ambiguity is that the listener gains greater insight into the uniqueness of an individual performer’s interpretations – no two recordings are alike. Roach’s approach is sustained and lyrical and utilizes both the modality of the music and the drama of the texts to great effect. By accompanying himself, Roach maximizes the potential for rhetorical invention and provides a convincing suggestion of how this music might have sounded on the streets of Venice almost 500 years ago.

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03 Worship in a Time of PlagueWorship in a Time of Plague
Capella Intima; Gallery Players of Niagara; Bud Roach
Musica Omnia MO0804 (budroach.com) 

In 1629, Heinrich Schütz published his Symphoniae Sacrae, a collection of vocal sacred music based on Latin texts. Influenced by his exposure to the Venetian school, Schütz set psalms and excerpts from the Song of Solomon for one to three voices, with various instruments and continuo. After a period of great productivity in Italy, Schütz returned to Dresden just before the plague outbreak which would kill one third of the population.

Capella Intima’s Worship in a Time of Plague places its focus on Venice in 1629, highlighting a selection of music which Schütz would likely have heard, as well as several of Schütz’s own works. These were effectively some of the last scores published and disseminated before the plague led to the collapse of the music publishing industry, church choirs and the opportunity for large-scale musical performances, and they undoubtedly attained even greater meaning as the opportunities for producing and publishing new music were swiftly curtailed. 

Despite the dreary temporal background of these works, each of them, from Grandi’s florid O beate Benedicte to Schütz’s sublime Paratum cor meum is a vibrant essay in the art of 17th-century composition that radiates both contrapuntal mastery and expressive piety. Capella Intima and the Gallery Players of Niagara under Bud Roach’s direction give a wonderful performance, unearthing the subtleties of the scores and ensuring that both tuning and text are executed with precision. This is a magnificent recording for all to gain an understanding of Italian vocal music of the period, especially for those who appreciate the choral music of Heinrich Schütz.

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04 Handel SemeleHandel – Semele
Soloists; NZ Opera; Peter Walls
Opus Arte OA1362D (naxos.com/CatalogueDetail/?id=OA1362D) 

Disguise is the elaborate subtext of Semele. Indeed, the same might be said of the work itself for it is an Italian opera masquerading as an English oratorio. Gone is Handel’s Biblical subject matter. In its place is the decidedly secular fable from Ovid’s Metamorphoses with a libretto by the dramatist William Congreve.

The beautiful mortal, Semele, becomes the lover of the god Jupiter, which panders to her overweening vanity. Jupiter’s jealous wife, Juno, seeking revenge, appears to Semele in disguise and easily persuades her that she too could become immortal, and so Semele asks Jupiter to reveal himself to her in his full glory. Unfortunately, he does just that and Semele is destroyed by his burning brightness. End of story. The moral? “Be careful what you wish for.”

This was exactly what happened to Handel, who anticipated – indeed expected – a glorious reception for Semele when it was premiered during the Lent of February 1744, in Covent Garden. The audience was unimpressed. In the memorable words of Winton Dean: “where they expected wholesome Lenten bread, they received a glittering stone dug from the ruins of Greek mythology.” Handel’s most secular opera, however, stayed alive thanks to Jupiter’s Act II aria, Where’re you walk

Emma Pearson (Semele), Amitai Pati (Jupiter/Apollo), Sarah Castle (Juno/Ino) and Paul Whelan (Cadmus/Somnus) brilliantly perform Handel’s opera around the iconic church altar marriage setting, propelling this New Zealand Opera production into the stratosphere where Semele rightfully belongs.

05 LAmant AnonymeJoseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges – L’Amant Anonyme
Haymarket Opera Company
Cedille CDR 90000 217 (cedillerecords.org) 

With the recent release of the film Chevalier, the life of Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges, one of the small number of biracial early composers whose works were celebrated in the 18th century, has been thrust into the spotlight. Before Chevalier was on theatre screens, however, Chicago’s Haymarket Opera Company issued their world-premiere recording of Bologne’s L’Amant Anonyme, the only one of his six operas to survive to the present day.

Often called “the Black Mozart”, Bologne’s nickname has provided his music with relatively recent recognition through its celebratory comparison, but also obscured his own originality and influence. This recording clearly demonstrates that Bologne was an exceptionally gifted composer of his own accord, and that his works merit widespread rediscovery and respect, whether Mozart is nearby or not. (Bologne was highly respected and well-connected in his day – he and Mozart were neighbours in Paris, and he commissioned Haydn’s six Paris Symphonies.)

Premiered in 1780, L’Amant Anonyme is a two-act opéra comique (it contains spoken dialogue instead of recitative) that is a striking combination of Baroque and classical forms, utilizing galant styles and earlier dance forms to create an aristocratic air that is always delightfully tuneful. Indeed, this melodic genius is even more impressive when one considers that Bologne wrote this opera before any of Mozart’s major operas, reversing the conventional understanding of which composer influenced who.

No matter how perfect the composer’s intentions, music needs performers to make it come alive, and the Haymarket Opera Company does not disappoint. Both singers and orchestra are light, agile and transparent in tone, and the tempi are neither rushed nor tardy. This disc is highly recommended for all who love the early classical repertoire, and especially for those who watched Chevalier and are eager to learn more about this unsung hero.

06 Schubert GoerneSchubert Revisited – Lieder arranged for baritone and orchestra
Matthias Goerne; Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie Bremen
Deutsche Grammophon 483 9758 (store.deutschegrammophon.com/p51-i0028948397587) 

The fact that Franz Schubert was not – like Beethoven or Mozart – a virtuoso musician seemed to overshadow (even diminish somewhat) his greatest achievements as a composer. His unfettered gift for melody and attachment to classical forms didn’t help his cause either. However, Schubert helped shape the art of lieder like no other composer of his day, or after. For all he did to give wing to the poetry of (especially) Goethe (but also others), Schubert himself might easily lay claim to being a true lieder poet, great in every way as the writers whose poetry he set to music. 

More than anything else Schubert’s songs live and die with the talents of their performers. Like the plays of Shakespeare, the songs respond to a variety of interpretations while always needing the singer who can strike the right balance between characterisation and vocal beauty. Baritones like the great Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, the Welshman Bryn Terfel and German-born Thomas Quasthoff mastered that and distilled the beauty of Schubert’s profound art with majesty.

The pantheon of great Schubert lieder interpreters must also include Matthias Goerne. His performance is truly masterful on Schubert Revisited – Lieder arranged for baritone and orchestra. Together with the Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie Bremen Goerne gives a particularly atmospheric and powerful performance of songs set to the poetry of Goethe, Claudius, Mayrhofer and others. Highlights include the dramatic Grenzen der Menschheit, and the wonderfully fleet-footed and joyful Gesänge des Harfners.

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