01 Found FrozenCanadian Art Song Project: Jeffrey Ryan – Found Frozen
Danika Lorèn; Krisztina Szabó; Dion Mazerolle; Steven Philcox
Centrediscs CMCCD 30222 (cmccanada.org/shop/cd-cmccd-30222)

Canadian Art Song Project (CASP) – a national treasure of an organization that perennially commissions, performs and records the art song canon of our country – has just released a consummate record of Jeffrey Ryan’s music. Ryan has come to be regarded as an important compositional voice in Canada and here, his unassuming, sensitive lyricism and narrative panache make for a first-rate audio survey of songs.

This new album casts a cyclic triptych featuring eminent voices framed by the superlative pianism of Steven Philcox: the urgent, theatrical soprano of Danika Lorèn; the silken, magnetic mezzo of Krisztina Szabó and the lush, brazen baritone of Dion Mazerolle (whose sensual performance of Ryan’s earliest cycle is amorously candid).

The two youthful cycles on this disc – Of Passion’s Tide and Found Frozen – date from 1991 and 1997, respectively. Here we note Ryan’s vernal approach to the genre, flattering both singer and pianist alike with full-blooded melody and neo-Romantic gesture. (The marked song style of American composer Ned Rorem comes to mind.) There is a quality in Ryan’s musical language that feels familiar, shaped – perhaps involuntarily – by folk traditions: a Canadian lingua franca, earnestly cultivated and sung from the heart.

A departure from the early essays, Miss Carr in Seven Scenes (2017) employs austere accompaniments and dark, wistful lines. Conversational and at times monodic, Ryan’s new set is expertly realized by Szabo, whose refined acting and characterful musicality blazons on full display.

02 Samuel AdlerSamuel Adler – To Speak To Our TIme
Gloriae Dei Cantores; Richard K. Pugsley
Gloriae Die Cantores GDCD 066 (gdcrecordings.com/new-release-samuel-adler)

With over 400 published works to his name, Samuel Adler is a composer who is difficult to fit into a single category or niche. This recording focuses specifically on Adler’s religious choral music and how the composer’s versatility and wide-ranging style take us on a journey blending contemporary musical techniques with the influence of his Jewish heritage.

Adler was born in Mannheim, Germany, where his father was a highly respected synagogue cantor and liturgical composer. Within a year after the nationally orchestrated pogrom known as Kristallnacht, the Adler family emigrated to America, where the elder Adler obtained a position as a cantor in Massachusetts and Samuel began demonstrating his musical talents. He became his father’s choir director when he was only 13 and remained at that post until he began his university studies. During that early period, he began composing liturgical settings, at first under his father’s influence and soon developing his own style.

From the very beginning of this recording, the opening A Hymn of Praise demonstrates this Jewish influence, setting the text to a traditional Yigdal melody commonly known as the hymn tune LEONI. The remaining texts, taken from the Psalms and Old Testament, recount God’s goodness on the journey of life and through the hills, valleys and mountaintop, and every emotion from pain to joy, disappointment to elation and sorrow to hope. The musical settings of these texts are a delight to the ears, wonderfully rich and robust, and brought to life with energy and joy by Gloriae Dei Cantores and their director Richard K. Pugsley.

03 XeniaeJuris Ābols – Xeniae 
Latvian Radio Choir; Sigvards Klava
LMIC SKANI 140 (skani.lv)

When encountering a piece of music for the first time, the brain begins searching for general thematic similarities: is this like Bach or Black Sabbath; Monteverdi or Miles Davis? While this “compare and contrast” method works well for most music, occasionally a listener is confronted by a single work that contains such a vast synthesis of styles that it is both disorienting and astonishing; such is the case with Juris Ābols’ opera Xeniae.

From the very first movement of this opera, we are introduced to a staggering tapestry of eras and references, including early-Baroque recitative accompanied by guitar and smooth jazz. As improbable as this may seem, the effect is both successful and addictive, for as we make our way through this staggering work, we can never guess what comes next, and this propels us forward with eager anticipation. There is, perhaps, no parallel to Xeniae in the world of classical music, for the breadth of material is simply too diverse, and it is rather similar in a number of ways to Pink Floyd’s The Wall

What cannot be overstated is just how impressive the performance of the Latvian Radio Choir and its director Sigvards Kļava is on this recording, especially considering that the entire opera was recorded in the basement of Kļava’s home. Although an unknown name to many, Ābols makes a tremendous impact with Xeniae, and proves that he is one of the 21st century’s most eclectic and exciting composers. This disc is highly recommended, not only to those who favour classical music, but to those who appreciate any music, for there truly is something here for everyone.

05 Kallembach AntigoneJames Kallembach – Antigone
Lorelei Ensemble; Beth Willer
New Focus Recordings FCR331 (newfocusrecordings.com)

James Kallembach’s Antigone relocates Sophocles’ seminal Athenian tragedy to the landscape of Nazi Germany. His libretto draws inspiration from the tragic poetry found in Sophie Scholl’s diary. Scholl, a member of the non-violent student White Rose Movement was arrested and later guillotined – along with her brother Hans – by the Nazis in 1943.      

Kallembach’s Antigone unfolds in the impassioned struggle of the title character, a woman determined to fight for the truth amid tyranny. The struggle features Antigone and Ismene locking proverbial horns with their dictatorial uncle Creon. Kallembach’s narrative seamlessly weaves the characters’ lives in and out of Athens into the warp and weft of Nazi Germany. Members of the Lorelei Ensemble create a shimmering luminosity as they delicately vocalize the sisters and the powerful voice of Creon. In particular, Christina English, Sarah Brailey and Rebecca Myers Hoke sing with enormous sensitivity, superbly characterizing everyone from the sensitive Ismene to the powerful Creon and the tragic Antigone who is none other than Scholl. 

The Ensemble delivers this outstanding libretto, directed by the sensitive yet firm hand of Beth Willer. In particular the encounters between Scholl and Lisa Remppis, with words from the former’s diary entries, have a pared-down style, particularly effective in the vignettes from late March, 1942. The reading of Scholl’s pamphlets is expertly melded into the disturbing backdrop created by moaning cellos. Something elegant and different emerges after each hearing of this disc.

04 La ZingarellaLa Zingarella: Through Romany Songland
Isabel Bayrakdarian; Gryphon Trio; Juan-Miguel Hernandez; Mark Fewer
Avie Records AV2506 (avie-records.com/releases/la-zingarella-through-romany-songland)

Gypsies, Romanies, Zigeuner, Gitans – however they were named, the peripatetic people from north India who entered and traversed Europe in medieval times were everywhere scorned as mountebanks, maligned as thieves. Nevertheless, the wanderers’ music, with its exotic timbres, vibrant rhythms and soulful melodies, has been an enduring source of inspiration for innumerable composers, including the 11 on this CD.

Multi-Juno-winning soprano Isabel Bayrakdarian, singing here in German, Czech, Spanish, French and English, is joined by violinist Mark Fewer, violist Juan-Miguel Hernandez and the Gryphon Trio performing vigorous, freshly created instrumental arrangements by Peter Tiefenbach and John Greer.

Accounting for 15 of the disc’s 27 tracks are two song-cycle masterworks known in English as “Gypsy Songs” – Brahms’ Zigeunerlieder, Op.103 and Dvořák’s Cigánské melodie, Op.55 (including the much-loved Když mne stará matka – “Songs My Mother Taught Me”). Three sassy, saucy Spanish songs by Sebastián Iradier are especially ingratiating; the third, El arreglito (Canción habanera), was the tune Georges Bizet borrowed and slightly modified for the CD’s following track – the Habanera from Carmen!

Bayrakdarian is in fine voice and exuberant high spirits for these mostly high-spirited selections, yet poignant or sensuous when appropriate. Songs by Franz Liszt, Joaquín Valverde and Henry F.B. Gilbert, plus arias from operettas by Maurice Yvain, Franz Lehár, Emmerich Kálmán and Victor Herbert, all reflect these composers’ admiration (not “appropriation”) of a marginalized ethnic minority’s distinctively spicy, rhapsodic music. This exhilarating cross-cultural excursion is enthusiastically recommended!

06 My LaiJonathan Berger; Harriet Scott Chessman – Mỹ Lai
Kronos Quartet; Vân-Áhn Vanessa Vo; Rinde Eckert
Folkways SFW CD 40251 (folkways.si.edu)

Every once and a while the invisible cosmic forces align in such a manner as to create art that is spectacularly dark and forbidding, yet utterly irresistible and monumental. For the operetta M Lai those forces fuelled its composers, the musician Jonathan Berger and the librettist Harriet Scott Chessman, who conspired to bring M Lai back to life with the great Kronos Quartet, traditional Vietnamese instrumentalist Vân Ánh Vanessa Võ and the ineffably brilliant vocalist Rinde Eckert. 

Ordinarily you would credit any operetta as having a fairly linear narrative line. But M Lai is no ordinary operetta. It is a revelation of an open wound in the history of the Vietnam War, one in which US soldiers’ massacred 504 South Vietnamese civilians in M Lai village. 

On this recording the terrifying narrative is woven into the howl of the Kronos strings and the roar of Eckert’s singing – voicing several characters who were involved in or witnessed the event. Meanwhile the evocative percussion colours of Võ’s instruments add an eerie contrapuntal voice, redolent of delicate tintinnabulation and ghostly echoes of mallets on metal keys,

Highly charged performances by the Kronos and Võ, employing the sound-mass textures of Berger’s orchestral work and the unearthing of the naked horror in Chessman’s libretto by Eckert, together make M Lai an unforgettable work of art. It is the most powerfully moving anti-war palimpsest since Picasso painted Guernica

08 Global WagnerGlobal Wagner: From Bayreuth to the World
A Film by Axel Brüggemann
Naxos 2.110708 (naxos.com/catalogue/item.asp?item_code=2.110708)

German director/scriptwriter/filmmaker Axel Brüggemann made this documentary film almost 140 years after composer Richard Wagner’s death. Brüggemann offers a look at and listen to Wagner’s life, music and his Festspielhaus in Bayreuth, by exploring and filming backstage at rehearsals and performances, and including countless Wagnerite fans, international Wagner societies around the world today and individual viewpoints about the enigmatic, controversial composer. Mostly in German with no voiceovers, the subtitles in English (among other languages) are legible.

Brüggemann’s journalistic documentary approach, with colourful scenic visuals throughout, is to be commended. The film opens in Venice, where Wagner lived, loving the city’s calmness, with breathtaking city clips, including fascinating emotional footage from the room where he died in 1883. Then to Bayreuth with astounding aerial views. Other worldwide sites include Newark New Jersey, Riga Latvia, Abu Dhabi, Tel Aviv and Tokyo, with these city visuals complementing interviews, concerts and fans, making this a “never leave your home” trip around the world. And the background Wagner music performances are perfect!

Lots to learn from the interviews with such Wagnerites as Bayreuth artistic director /business manager Katharina Wagner, conductor Christian Thielemann, operatic bass-baritone Kevin Maynor and American music critic Alex Ross, among others. Especially fun are day-to-day commentaries from Ulrike and Georg Rauch who own a butcher shop near the festival theatre. Emotional contrasting footage is of Jerusalem-based Jewish lawyer and chairman/founder of the Israel Wagner Society, Jonathan Livny, who is quoted in the liner notes as saying “Wagner was a terrible person but he wrote heavenly music.”

And viewers get up-close looks at rehearsals and performances. We see the Bayreuth orchestra musicians rehearse and set volume and dynamic levels, we watch stage hands move and place sets and hear director commentaries during sung/acted rehearsals and subsequent performance footage in the acoustically unique theatre. All are eye-opening. Lots of packed crowds of well-dressed fans of (surprisingly) all ages to see entering the theatre.

Short fragmented music, visuals and interview cuts are joined seamlessly together, making this an easy group of stories for all to follow about the world’s fascination for Wagner today.

01 Marianne LambertCanzone di Notte
Marianne Lambert; Valerie Milot
Fidelio FACD052 (mariannelambert.com)

The grand conception of this disc, intended to be in praise of bel canto, is instantly discernible. Why would it not be? Quebec soprano Marianne Lambert inhabits this repertoire, sliding into it as if into a second skin; musical secrets revealed from the tablet of her heart. 

The singer’s lustrous voice soars in melismatic and arpeggiated leaps, sometimes with sly, but glorious coloratura. She is an eminently graceful singer who can generate genuine pathos, as superbly captured on Vivaldi’s Sposa, son disprezzata or Rossini’s Giusto Ciel, in tal periglio!; conjure great hope as in Mozart’s Ridente la calma and Rossini’s La promessa; and unfettered joy on Donaudy’s Vaghissima sembianza

Lambert is an artist of the first order. She makes key phrases in these arias come alive and spring in balletic arcs, cutting through the still air of this room. She digs into the meaning of words and phrases and infuses their poetry with a sense of nostalgia and melancholy, painting the song’s fluid melodies with poignant candour.

With radiant chromaticisms and splendid sonorities the harpist Valérie Milot complements the plaintive soundworld of the characters played by the singer. Her notes are ideally weighed and measured, and fit perfectly onto Lambert’s vocals as if punctuating these songs with wistful and melancholy accents. Together Lambert and Milot create a grand edifice of song through this well-chosen repertoire.

03 Brian FieldBrian Field – Choral and Orchestral Works
Budapest Symphonic Orchestra and Choir; Lviv Philharmonic Society and Chorus; Composers’ Choir; Heelan Chorale
RMN Classical RMN70709 (brianfield.com)

I grew up in the Anglican tradition: high mass, chant choir in front, choir and organ in the loft behind, masses by Healey Willan, smells and bells, the lot. All this to say, “I get how American composer Brian Field can sound so English. His music is shamelessly ear-friendly, his instrumental writing idiomatic and choirs seem to revel in the beautiful sonorities he elicits from them.” I’m back as a bored altar boy dozing off amidst incense and anthems. Snapping awake to assure you this is a very enjoyable recording, I take issue with one reviewer’s pronouncement that Field “stretches tonality to and beyond its limits.” He seems quite content within tonality’s limits, whatever those are. 

Choral excellence from a variety of groups sets a standard not met by the instrumentalists of the Budapest Symphonic Orchestra. While the ensemble’s standards of rhythm and phrasing are acceptable, they seem casual regarding intonation; “stretched tonality” might have masked this, but Field’s tonal palette deserves more care. Carping aside, Shiva Tandava is a compelling concerto grosso and makes a nice change from the very fine choral writing. 

Perhaps more generous liner notes would explain how the Hindu god of destruction gets along with the reputedly benign Christian version, or at least what the title references. I’d appreciate knowing too, which choirs sing which of the various sacred (Christian) texts. His lovely setting of the Christina Rosetti poem In the Bleak Midwinter adds just a few pounds of tonal stretch to Gustav Holst’s version.

Listen to 'Brian Field: Choral and Orchestral Works' Now in the Listening Room

Back to top