01 Ensemble ScholasticaArs elaboratio
Ensemble Scholastica
ATMA ACD2 2755

These days, the kids call them remixes, but in the hands of musicologist Rebecca Bain, the music on Ars elaboratio is the product of taking plainchant and adding tropes from other sources to create new versions. This was not unheard of in the millennium that was not litigious about intellectual property and it was common because of a more flexible and oral, rather than notated, tradition of handing music down. Think of this as more serious Mediæval Babes repertoire with scholastically informed liberties, which in that era were called elaborations.

The result is litanies, antiphons, poetry and scripture that are often mesmerizing and calming, especially with the addition of symphonia or, in the instrumental version of Claris vocibus, of organetto, a portable precursor to the pipe organ, played with one hand on the keyboard and the other working the bellows. The medieval pronunciation charmed this Latinist, although I may have heard some elision, as in spoken Latin poetry recitation, which may throw some listeners. And there are spots in the CD booklet that omit the original liturgical text that is discussed (e.g. the melisma on “mulierum” in Velox impulit) so that only the tropes can be followed, if that is your wont.

The fascinating background to some of the elaborations contains some ballsy feminist stuff (praise of the chastity of innocent virgins aside), such as the one in Dilexisti iustitiam, in which St. Catherine of Alexandria kicks some male philosophical-debate butt. The approachable narrative in Sancti baptiste of “amice Christi Johannes” ([O] John, friend of Christ) reflects the presumed (relative) egalitarianism of the coeducational abbey of St. Martial de Limoges in the 1100s.

The acoustics of the Chapelle Notre-Dame-de-Bon-Secours in Old Montreal lend themselves to a lovely presentation of the organic nine-voice Ensemble Scholastica. Hildegard of Bingen must be pumping her fist in coelis.

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02 Opus 8Melancholy & Mirth
Opus 8
Independent OPUS001 (opus8choir.com)

Review

Opus 8 is a new Toronto ensemble. This is their first disc. The ensemble consists of eight singers and it is directed by Robert Busiakiewicz, who also sings tenor. Busiakiewicz is the director of the choir of St. James Cathedral in Toronto and a number of the singers in Opus 8 are members of the cathedral choir.

Great care has been taken on this disc to provide songs from different periods. The oldest is Josquin des Prez’s great elegy on the death of Johannes Ockeghem; the most recent is a folk-song arrangement by Keith Roberts, who was born in 1971 (when I myself was in my early 30s). In between we have Renaissance madrigals (Thomas Weelkes and John Ward), part-songs by Delius and Parry and 20th-century works by Ravel and Schoenberg, Stockhausen and Maconchy. There is also variation in the number of singers employed: the three Ravel songs take the form of a duet between mezzo and tenor; the Stockhausen sets a soprano soloist against the choir.

Different listeners will like different things. I myself could do without the Martinů with which the disc opens. On the other hand, I was very moved by How are the mighty fallen by Robert Ramsey, an early 17th-century work, perhaps an elegy written on the death of Prince Henry, the British Crown Prince. I was also much taken by Elizabeth Maconchy’s piece on the burial of a dead cat, sad and skittish at the same time.

The performances are very fine in terms of rhythmic precision and purity of intonation. I look forward to the group’s next concert and their next CD.

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03 Julie BoulianneAlma Oppressa – Vivaldi; Handel – Arias
Julie Boulianne; Clavecin en Concert; Luc Beauséjour
Analekta AN 2 8780

Review

There are on this recital disc six arias by Handel and three by Vivaldi; there are also several instrumental interludes by both. Care has been taken to pair the very well-known Lascia ch’io pianga from Handel’s Rinaldo as well as the relatively well-known arias from his Giulio Cesare and Ariodante with the less familiar arias from Imeneo and from Arianna in Creta. Of the Vivaldi arias I was especially moved by the extract from Andromeda liberata. This serenata was apparently composed by a number of composers but Luc Beauséjour assures us that Vivaldi “almost certainly” wrote this particular aria. What I think this means is that there is no real evidence who wrote it but that it is so fine that it has to be Vivaldi. I don’t think that argument would stand up in a court of law but the aria is indeed so good that it would be hard to contradict it.

Julie Boulianne, the mezzo-soprano soloist, is moving in the slow arias and very impressive in the technically demanding fast items. Clavecin en Concert is a crack ensemble of 13 players. There is especially fine work from the cellist Amanda Keesmaat and the lutenist Sylvain Bergeron.

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04 PaderewskiPaderewski – Piesni/Songs
Anna Radziejewska; Karol Kozlowski; Agnieszka Hoszowska-Jablonska
Dux 1246 (dux.pl)

Not many composers can honestly say that they have changed the world. Ignacy Jan Paderewski has that distinction. Not through his music, but rather through his political and diplomatic activities. He was instrumental in persuading President Wilson to take up the cause of an independent Poland at the Versailles Conference. Quick historical recap: the once-mighty Poland fell to the surrounding empires of Russia, Germany and Austro-Hungary and disappeared from the map of Europe in 1795. No small feat, then, was the recreation of the Republic of Poland after the Great War. Paderewski was also well-known and regarded in the United States as a virtuoso pianist and his lobbying efforts paid off. He also served briefly as the Polish prime minister, before returning for good to North America in 1922.

It is small wonder that in this larger context, his compositional output has been overlooked. This disc is a part of a series attempting to correct that oversight by publishing all of his music. He was not a groundbreaking musician. Rather, he worked happily within an established idiom, adding to the catalogue of Polish songs so monumentally established by Chopin and Szymanowski. Here, the settings of poems by the “Polish Bard” Adam Mickiewicz, and the works of Théophile Gautier and of his son-in-law, Catulle Mendès, are rendered brilliantly (emphasis mine!) by the tremendous tenor Karol Kozlowski and equally formidable mezzo, Anna Radziejewska. A long-overdue tribute to the “Father of modern Poland.”

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05 GurreliederSchoenberg – Gurre-lieder
Soloists; choirs; Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra; Edward Gardner
Chandos CHSA 5172

This is an astonishingly fine performance of this mighty work composed in the early part of the 20th-century. Along with Verklärte Nacht, Gurre-lieder gave little hint of the path Schoenberg was soon to follow through almost half a century, producing works that many think of at the mere mention of his name.

A few months ago I was very enthusiastic about the recent version conducted by Markus Stenz with the Gürzenich-Orchester Köln and now, so soon as Gurre-lieders go, here is another new performance to be considered. Stenz has the measure of the work, as does Gardner, but Gardner’s expertise developed during his years in Glyndebourne and the English National Opera serves the entire work perfectly. He builds a more atmospheric, larger-scaled and, to my ears, a better-balanced performance. The mood-setting orchestral interludes demonstrate this perfectly, particularly the important opening prelude evoking the serene lake beside the Gurre castle at twilight and the set-up for the Wood Dove. Without going into comparisons, Gardner’s cast are all very convincing including the now deservedly ubiquitous heroic tenor, Stuart Skelton as King Waldemar whose mistress Tove (soprano Alwyn Mellor) is murdered by the jealous Queen Helwig. The news of Tove’s death is brought to Waldemar in the tragic narrative delivered by the Wood Dove sung by mezzo Anna Larsson.

Heard in Part Three are Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke singing Klaus-Narr, the Fool, and James Creswell as Bauer, the Peasant. The speaker is Sir Thomas Allen. There were 350 performers on stage in the orchestra’s home, the Grieghallen in Bergen over four days of performances in December 2015 comprising, in addition to the soloists, the Bergen Philharmonic Choir, Choir of Collegium Musicum, the Edvard Grieg Choir, the Orphei Dränger, students from The Royal Northern College of Music, musicians from the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra, the Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra and, of course, conductor Edward Gardner. This recording is based on live recordings made of these concerts.

In this performance, as the sequence of events unfolds, there is palpable tension, holding the listener’s rapt attention through to the awe-inspiring radiance of the colossal choral sunrise. The sound is brilliant. Chandos’ multi-channel SACD recording, heard in two channels in my case, effortlessly captures every nuance of the huge augmented orchestra including four harps, multiple sets of timpani, extra brass, etc. All are heard in their natural perspective, as are the massed voices of the choirs. A spectacular work, a spectacular performance, accorded spectacular sound!

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06 Eotvos ParadisePeter Eötvös – Paradise Reloaded (Lilith)
Annette Schoenmueller; Rebecca Nelsen; Eric Stoklossa; Hungarian RSO; Gregory Vajda
BMC Records CD 226 (bmcrecords.hu)

In the newly emboldened theocracy, also known as the United States of America, the phrase “God created Adam and Eve” is bandied about to score specific political points. The majority of Bible-thumpers forget, however, that at first it was actually Adam and Lilith. Not created from Adam’s rib, rather, his equal and a powerful being. This is Lilith, who we are pressured to forget in favour of the more feminine, easily yielding Eve. Here we have a major revision of Eötvös’ 2010 opera The Tragedy of the Devil and, in effect, it is an entirely new work.

The axis is the conflict between Lilith and Eve and an exploration of what might have happened, if the first wife of Adam was not thwarted in her efforts to reconcile with him. Lilith, the exiled demon-mother attempts to reload Paradise, and yet loses again. Eötvös, a composer as highly regarded, as he is at times controversial, in this, one of his 12 operas, draws equally on the Viennese tradition of Schoenberg and Berg and on post-war serialism. The fascinating libretto is the work of the Munich-based writer, Albert Ostermaier. The three protagonists and a cast of other characters are accompanied by the Hungarian Radio Symphonic Orchestra, guest-conducted here by Gregory Vajda. This same podium was shared in the past by such titans, as John Barbirolli, Antal Doráti, István Kertész, Otto Klemperer, Neville Mariner and Leopold Stokowski. Biblical proportions, indeed!

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01 Bach Magnificat

Bach – Magnificat BWV243; Kuhnau – Cantate “Wie schön leuchtet der Morgenstern”
Winkel; Zomer; Laing; Wilder; Brock; Arion Orchestre Baroque; Alexander Weimann
ATMA ACD2 2727 (atmaclassique.com)

Review

Bach composed the Magnificat for Christmas 1723. The work was originally in E-flat Major but revised to the lower tonality of D Major. Like most recordings this CD presents the revised version but with two differences. The first version included four interpolations. These have been included (transposed in accordance with the D-Major tonality) on the present recording. A more substantial difference with most performances lies in the handling of the choral sections. Most performances observe a marked difference between the solo and the choral sections but Weimann’s interpretation follows the views of Joshua Rifkin and Andrew Parrott that the choral sections should also be sung one to a part. The gain in clarity in movements like Fecit Potentiam and Sicut locutus is unmistakable. There is an odd error in the Table of Contents which states that Suscepit Israel is a duet between the two soprano voices. It is actually a trio with the alto taking the lowest part.

The performance is very successful and several moments stand out: the virtuoso trumpets in the opening and closing movements, the soprano solo (Johanna Winkel) and oboe d’amore obbligato (Matthew Jennejohn) in Quia respexit, the alto and tenor duet (James Laing and Zachary Wilder) in Et misericordia and the alto solo and the flutes’ obbligato (Claire Guimond and Alexa Raine-Wright) in Esurientes implevit bonis.

The CD also contains Johann Kuhnau’s Wie schön leuchtet der Morgenstern, also for five voices and also performed one to a part. It is an imaginative coupling: Kuhnau is best known as Bach’s predecessor as cantor of Saint Thomas’ in Leipzig, but he is clearly an important composer, whose works are worth listening to for their own sake.

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02 Franco Fagioli

Rossini
Franco Fagioli; Armonia Atenea Choir and Period Orchestra; George Petrou
Deutsche Grammophon 479 5681

Review

The best ever? In the early 1960s I was fortunate to hear and meet Alfred Deller and Russell Oberlin, pioneers who created the standard for countertenors well before their voice type entered the musical mainstream. They were models for those who followed and eventually surpassed them, such as the splendid David Daniels.

But when I watched the DVD of Vinci’s Artaserse (Erato 46323234) I felt a new level of countertenor brilliance had been achieved. The DVD of Hasse’s Artaserse and the CD Arias for Caffarelli (Naive V5333) convinced me that Franco Fagioli’s phenomenal coloratura technique and uniquely dark timbre make him the greatest of all countertenors.

This, Fagioli’s first CD as an exclusive DG artist, focuses on Rossinian trouser roles, male characters written for and traditionally sung by mezzo-sopranos. Other than arias from Tancredi and Semiramide, four rarities are represented: Demetrio e Polibio, Matilde di Shabran, Adelaide di Borgogna and Eduardo e Cristina.

Though unfamiliar, the music is high quality, showcasing Fagioli through emotions from anguish to joy, fearfulness to triumph. I especially enjoyed the two scenes from Adelaide featuring martial choruses and Fagioli as the heroic Otto singing, of course, heroically. In the scene from Eduardo e Cristina, he spins a breathless, lyrical line before launching into the spectacular coloratura finale, also the CD’s thrilling conclusion. Special credit to George Petrou’s crackling period-instrument orchestra and chorus.

Texts and translations are included. A super disc by a super singer.

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03 Verdi AidaVerdi – Aida
Lewis; Rachvelishvili; Berti; Doss; Orchestra and Chorus Teatro Regio Torino; Gianandrea Noseda
Cmajor 736908

Aida was composed to celebrate the opening of the Cairo Opera House; this production marks the reopening of the Egyptian Museum in Turin. The director is William Friedkin, mainly known as the director of The Exorcist, who has become interested in directing opera in recent years: Wozzeck and Rigoletto in Florence, Salome in Munich and Tales of Hoffmann in Vienna. His production of Aida is not particularly innovative but it is to his credit that he does not try to impose a counternarrative on the opera as so many directors now do. The balance between solemnity and intimacy is well conveyed.

Of the singers I did not particularly like the Radames, Marco Berti. He has a strong voice but tends to be unremittingly loud. If one turns to Jon Vickers’ rendition of the role (with its wonderful tenderness in Celeste Aida) one has a clear sense of how that part could be performed. The female singers are much finer: Kristin Lewis as Aida is particularly fine in O patria mia (Act III) and in O terra addio (final scene). The mezzo Anita Rachvelishvili (we recently heard her as Carmen in Toronto) as Amneris and the baritone Mark S. Doss as Amonasro are also very good. A particular mention should be made of the very fine choreography by Marc Ribaud.

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