01 Andrew Balfour NagamoAndrew Balfour – Nagamo
Musica Intima vocal ensemble
Redshift Records TK522 (musicaintima.org)

Often, in histories of rock music, one confronts the idea that the so-called “concept album” is the sole province of this genre. Friendships, I’m told, have been ruined as a result of heated debates as to whether Frank Zappa’s Freak Out!, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band or Pet Sounds by the Beach Boys can rightly lay claim to being the inaugural blending of music with an extra musical meaning in conceptual form. All of this is ridiculous, of course. Woody Guthrie was recording dust bowl ballads with a shared narrative theme through his recordings as early as 1940. Further, Frank Sinatra’s 1955 In the Wee Small Hours is most certainly united by way of the themes of melancholy and unrequited love, weaving a requisite and consistent thread through the tracks that, by all accounts, is a hallmark of the concept album.

Regardless of the aforementioned problematic claims to historic ownership of the format, composer Andrew Balfour, a self-described “former choir boy” and Sixties Scoop survivor, has waded into this conceptual format in an extraordinary and beautiful way with his 2023 release Nagamo. The title, like several of the album’s lyrics, is Cree (other texts featured here come from Ojibway, English, Latin and Gaelic sources) and the concept mines the fantastical question of what might have happened musically should Indigenous and European musics and cultural expressions come together in a manner collaborative and respectful, rather than divisive. The suggested result, as manifested on the beautiful album here, captures 12 crystalline skilled voices working their way through motets and Elizabethan choral music reimagined into Cree and Ojibway languages, alongside a duo of fine original pieces by Balfour with a Scottish Gaelic text. A beautifully recorded and interesting new release from the ensemble musical intima.

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02 NelliganNelligan
Various artists
ATMA ACD2 2814 (atmaclassique.com/en)

The tragic life story of Émile Nelligan, one of the most renowned 19th-century Canadian poets, has been a subject of several contemporary artistic endeavours and inspires wonder and speculation in creators and audiences alike. Born in 1879, Nelligan joined the École littéraire du Montréal at 17 and produced a significant body of poetic works by the time he was 19, at which point he was committed to a psychiatric hospital by his parents, for reasons that are not entirely clear. He stayed there for another 40 years and never wrote a word of poetry again.

Although characterized as a pop opera, Nelligan’s score is built on a classical foundation mixed with several musical genres, including pop and musical theatre. It is not surprising that the cast on this album is comprised of 15 stellar actors/singers, who brought to life both the emotional and circumstantial aspects of Nelligan’s story. Written by French Canadian icons, André Gagnon (music) and Michel Tremblay (libretto), the full operatic version was premiered in 1990 to critical acclaim. The more intimate version appearing on this album, splendidly arranged for two pianos and cello by Anthony Rozankovic, has an alluring element of confidentiality, as if the characters are spilling their innermost thoughts to our ears. It could be argued that the score does not quite access the emotional intensity of Nelligan’s life, but the featured elements of restraint, melancholy, purpose and poignancy, as well as beautiful melodies, certainly make up for the lack of raw emotion. Tremblay’s libretto is both potent and subtle, displaying societal oppression of artistic freedom and sexual orientation, the explorative tendencies of young artistic minds and linguistic tensions in Nelligan’s bilingual family all in one breath. 

It is interesting that Tremblay chose to portray two Émiles – a young one, completely consumed by poetry, and a much older one, nearing the end of his life in the hospital. Dominique Côté and Marc Hervieux are simply stunning in their portrayal of these two characters. Their heartfelt performance in one of the arias, Les Muses, into which the chanting of nuns is interpolated, is a perfect example of the power of this opera. Kathleen Fortin is poignant in the role of Émilie Hudon, Nelligan’s mother, especially in La dame en noir. The strong instrumental ensemble, featuring Esther Gonthier (piano and direction), Rosalie Asselin (piano) and Chloé Dominguez (cello) underlines the lyricism and storminess of the music with perfect sensibility.

03 Tu me voyaisTu Me Voyais
Christina Raphaëlle Haldane; Carl Philippe Gionet
Leaf Music LM257 (leaf-music.ca)

Christina Raphaëlle Haldane and Carl Philippe Gionet come together on Tu me Voyais to take us on a fascinating journey with lieder richly evocative of Acadian culture. Haldane is an agile soprano with a whisper-soft, tremulous vibrato. Always plangent and eloquent, she often inhabits a range that is dramatically lower than her soprano and darker in tone texture. Gionet is an equal partner in this exquisite recital and Haldane’s renditions of these songs is borne aloft throughout on Gionet’s delicate, shimmering – often spellbinding – pianism. 

The song poetry does much to elevate the music on this album. With repertoire that ranges from (the fin-de-siècle) Douze chansons folkloriques acadiennes, exquisitely arranged by Gionet, the dramatic Icare: premier fragment by Adam Sherkin, and pour une Amérique engloutie (IV) and Il va sans dire by Jérôme Blais, vocalist and pianist create a canvas that is by turns sensuous, ruminative, teasing and dramatic. 

Both artists weave mighty artistic spells throughout – Haldane with her impassioned and often amorous vocals that are melismatic and hauntingly beautiful, and Gionet with unmatched pianism that is marked with subtle lyricism. Listening to them is like experiencing an exquisitely choreographed pas de deux – one moment graceful and balletic, the next robust and athletic. Their supple ornamentation, informed by evidence of theatricality in the traditional Acadian sources, is also most effective. The open sound of this finely balanced recording enhances the ethereal quality of these delicate songs.

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04 Wagner RingWagner – Der Ring des Nibelungen
Stemme; Hilley; Paterson; Jovanovich; Teige; Pesendorfer; Deutsche Oper Berlin; Donald Runnicles
Naxos DVD 2107001 (naxos.com/CatalogueDetail/?id=2.107001)

Deutsche Oper in Berlin has always been famous for avant-garde, innovative, even iconoclastic versions of operas, so this brave new production was eagerly awaited. Filmed by Naxos on seven DVDs, all in HD full stereo sound in a deluxe edition, Der Ring des Nibelungen is a tetralogy that took Wagner 25 years to compose while in exile in Switzerland. It is directed by Stefan Hernheim, a multiple award-winning Norwegian-German director. It is a visionary Ring for the 21st century with today’s complex issues like the refugee crisis, inclusiveness and gender equality worked in, but fully respecting Wagner’s drama and music. It’s a stunning production, a visual knockout with an international cast of the best singers available today, masterfully conducted by Donald Runnicles.

Das Rheingold begins with an empty stage. A group of refugees with worn out suitcases walk across it stopped by a grand piano. The leader of the group strikes an E-flat note and the music begins. The E-flat triad is the basis of the Prelude and represents pure unspoiled Nature, the depth of the river Rhine; from here onwards things start to go awry (like the Expulsion from Paradise, the Original Sin). The group then breaks up, some become the singers, like the Rhine maidens, plus many extras. The backdrop is a white silk handkerchief that has a life of its own and expands into a giant screen. It undulates like the waves of the Rhine but later, with clever videography and projections, becomes a forest, mountains, fire or the majestic hall in Asgard. At the Finale the sheet is spectacular with all the colours of the rainbow as a backdrop to the Gods entering Valhalla. Outstanding singers are the young Wotan (Derek Welton), Alberich (Markus Brück) and Fricka (Annika Schlicht). Thomas Blondelle’s performance of the clever demi-god Loge is exceptional.  

The grand piano is omnipresent at centre stage. Interestingly it stands for musical inspiration and is said to represent the famous Érard on which Wagner composed the entire Ring cycle. At emotionally charged moments a singer sits down and pretends to play with enthusiasm. Another important feature is the extras who do many different things, but mainly form a group like a Greek Chorus and at key points watch and silently comment on the action. Also, the director constantly reminds us of the plight of refugees with worn black suitcases piled up and forming a rocky terrain in the outdoor scenes. 

In Die Walküre there are magnificent scenes. In the first act when the weaponless Siegmund desperately cries Wälse, Wälse! wo ist dein Schwert!? he is elevated on a platform some 20 feet above the stage which suddenly turns pitch black with only Siegmund illuminated. Spring bursts in as a giant translucent ball lit up inside in springtime colours – just gorgeous. The passionate love duet is beautifully sung by Brandon Jovanovich and Elizabeth Teige. In the Third Act the Ride of the Valkyries becomes pandemonium. The score is seing thrown around and the singers occasionally check it as if not sure of what they are doing. The corpses they carry come alive, crowd the stage and try to rape the warrior maidens(!). Finally they are all hustled off the stage by the angry Wotan. Wotan’s Farewell to Brünnhilde is affectionately sung by Iain Paterson as the stage becomes enveloped in fire (which is spectacular).

Some say that in Wagner one must sit through long boring bits to reach the gorgeous climaxes. Not so here, as the director, by closely working with the actors, ensures that every detail in the music is correlated to the stage action. This way there are no boring bits. The Second Act’s very long, angry monologue by Wotan venting his anger to Brünnhilde (the wonderful Nina Stemme) becomes interesting, even exciting.

In Siegfried, the title character (American heldentenor sensation Clay Hilley “who brought vocal heft and clarion sound to the role” – The New York Times) is raised in the forest by the evil dwarf Mime (the terrific Ya-Chung Huang). The Forging Scene is spectacular with vocal fireworks; the slaying of the dragon is fearsome and there is a lovely, tender scene of Siegfried’s dialogue with a forest bird, sung by a little boy soprano. In the final love scene the group of extras who surround the rock are interracial, sometimes even same sex young men and women eager to make love and urge Siegfried and Brünnhilde to do the same. They applaud and rejoice when it finally happens.

In Götterdämmerung we leave the fairy tale and enter reality, the world of men who are cunning and greedy. Hagen, Alberich’s evil son (Albert Pesendorfer) is a tremendous basso and there are great musical highlights like Siegried’s Rhine Journey and his gradual awakening from the magic spell (just before being murdered by Hagen) and the magisterially conducted Funeral Music.

In a cataclysmic ending – Brünnhilde’s self-sacrifice throwing herself into a giant funeral pyre – the Ring returns to the Rhine and in the conflagration Valhalla collapses and the age of the Gods is over. The stage is now empty in a silvery light and there is hope for a new era.

05 Mahler Das LiedMahler – Das Lied von der Erde
Claudia Huckle; Nicky Spence; Justin Brown
Champs Hill Records digital (claudiahuckle.com)

This recent disc is a self-described “lockdown project” from the accomplished Anglo-German contralto Claudia Huckle, released with the support of the British Gustav Mahler Society. Recorded in 2021, it utilizes Mahler’s own rediscovered piano version published in 1989. Prepared in conjunction with the final orchestral version, this piano reduction offers the option of a more intimate interpretation of the work, notably so concerning the bellicose tenor part which must normally blast its way through perilous orchestral onslaughts; this possibility has been demonstrated in several recordings of the 1920 chamber version prepared for Arnold Schoenberg’s short-lived “Society for Private Musical Performances,” notably by the Smithsonian Chamber Players with a plangent John Elwes in 2007 and Reinbert de Leeuw’s 2020 release with the supple Yves Saelens. Nicky Spence however sings in full heldentenor voice throughout. Be that as it may, he’s quite excellent despite his stentorian, operatic approach, which might not seem so inappropriate in an orchestral setting. 

Huckle’s intense and moving performance brings us far deeper into the emotional world of these songs, however. As she writes in her liner notes, “One thing I realized during that beautiful spring of 2020 was that if I never performed again, my greatest regret would be never having sung Das Lied von der Erde.” Her deep commitment shines through in every bar. 

Equally splendid is the masterful pianism of the American conductor Justin Brown, who contributes an impressive tonal palette and sensitive dynamic shadings to the complex keyboard part.

06 MassenetJules Massenet – Intégrale des mélodies pour voix et piano
Various Artists
ATMA ACD2 2411 (atmaclassique.com/en)

The prospect of even approaching a presentation as epic in scope as this 13CD box set, Intégrale des mélodies pour voix et piano from the pen of Jules Massenet, is utterly daunting. The reason is that the reviewer is, to paraphrase the words of Pliny, “being choked with gold.” This is not such a hyperbolic metaphor once you traverse this repertoire. The majestic sweep of these songs is the more significant when you consider that Massenet was once pilloried as “Mademoiselle Wagner” with a style of light, lyrical “saccharine” music. Green-eyed comments such as those are only some of the epithets that were directed at one of 19th century France’s finest and most prolific composers of oratorios and opera, examples of which include Manon, Werther and the now-celebrated Thaïs. 

With the soaring arias in those operas, Massenet redefined the lyrical French tradition – the tradition of Gounod – in the light of Wagner’s advances in dramatic structure. This “lyric French” tradition clearly also found its way into Massenet’s shorter works – the songs that have been collected and presented in this mammoth set. 

It has often also been said of Massenet that he was uninterested in profundity of any sort, but on evidence contained in these songs it is also clear that few composers have ever created such attractive, lyrical works. The composer Vincent d’Indy also suggested that Massenet’s work had a “discreet and pseudo-religious eroticism” (borne out by his 1872 opera Marie-Magdeleine). This eroticism, together with an affection for orientalism, coloured most of Massenet’s subsequent work – including some of these songs. Massenet never denied or admitted to those characteristics. However, he was openly cynical about pandering to the French taste for religiose themes, even declaring: “I don’t believe in all that creeping Jesus stuff, but the public likes it and we must always agree with the public.”  

Massenet gained a firm handle on operatic scoring and with the inherent melodiousness of the aria form it was only natural that the composer fused his prodigious gift for the lyric and the dramatic into a shorter art song form. He put all of this brilliantly to work in the airborne poetry of the songs that make up the breathtaking repertory of the Intégrale des mélodies. 

There are 333 songs in these 13 CDs. The selection constitutes an almost complete edition of Massenet’s shorter work. The box also includes 13 unpublished and 31 never-before recorded songs. In short the box has epic proportions by any standard applied to any one musical genre – in this case, the song form. Each of the CDs features marquee-worthy stars including the great Canadian coloratura Karina Gauvin (cue L’Inquiétude and Le soir from CD 2). Of course Gauvin is not the only celebrity soprano featured here. Others include the quite brilliant Magali Simard-Galdès (Voix de femmes, CD 9). Still others include: mezzo Julie Boulianne (Avant la bataille, CD 10), contralto Florence Bourget (Le Noël des humbles, CD 5). Tenors include Eric Laporte (Napolitana, CD 2), while baritones feature Jean-François Lapointe (Amoureaux d’une étoile, CD 12), and among the narrators is Jean Marchand (Le vision de Loti, CD 12). 

While the vocalists are indubitably the stars on these discs the accompanists also deserve special mention. The cast of musicians includes violinist Antoine Bareil, cellist Stéphane Tétreault, guitarist David Jacques, harpist Valérie Milot and Olivier Godin who plays a radiant 1854 Sébastien Érard piano, harmonium and harpsichord. All the accompanists play with sublime idiomatic grace and must be recognised for their restrained artistry, which allows the vocalists to shine through the poesy of these works. Rarely has any box of CDs offered the kind of thrill-a-minute listening as this one.

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07 Artur SchnabelArtur Schnabel – Complete Vocal Works
Sara Couden; Jenny Lin
Steinway & Sons 30208 (steinway.com/music-and-artists/label)

In his book The Great Pianists, music critic Harold Schonberg devoted an entire chapter to Austrian Artur Schnabel (1882-1951), the first to record all 32 Beethoven sonatas. (I especially cherish his soul-searching Schubert recordings.) Yet now almost forgotten is that Schnabel also composed – a lot! – including three symphonies and five string quartets. 

This first complete collection of his vocal music memorializes Schnabel’s relationship with contralto Therese Behr, who brought her young accompanist (she was six years older) to public attention. The visually odd couple – Behr six feet tall, Schnabel five-four – married in 1905.

Schnabel composed 22 songs for Behr between 1899 and 1906, influenced by Brahms’ warm lyricism, rather than the febrile emotionalism of Mahler or Richard Strauss. Making her CD debut, American contralto Sara Couden, with her dark sepia timbre, perfectly suits the songs’ restrained, autumnal moods, prevalent even when the texts rhapsodize about the beauties of nature or love’s joys and sorrows. Pianist Jenny Lin admirably provides pianist-composer Schnabel’s often elaborate accompaniments.

Schnabel wasn’t immune, however, to the stylistic revolutions of Schoenberg and Stravinsky preceding World War I. His 22-minute Notturno, Op.16 (1914), written for Behr, marked a significant departure from his previous compositions. In Richard Dehmel’s lengthy poem, the narrator recounts an agonized dream about a dead friend. Dispensing with bar-lines, Schnabel’s music creates metric ambiguity along with discordant touches of the atonality he later firmly embraced. It’s a compelling musical psychodrama.

08 Milton BabbittMilton Babbit – Works for Treble Voice and Piano
Nina Berman; Steve Beck; Eric Huebner
New Focus Recordings FCR349 (newfocusrecordings.com)

Milton Babbitt (1916-2011) was one of the 20th century’s most significant composers and music theorists, whose analytical work on the music of the Second Viennese School continues to influence theory seminars throughout the world. Babbitt gained notoriety from his 1958 article Who cares if you listen? in which a strong case for the avant-garde composer is made, whether conventional audiences appreciate their efforts or not.

As a composer, Babbitt wrote both electronic and serial works, including the songs contained on this album which span throughout his career. Performed by soprano Nina Berman and pianists Steve Beck and Eric Huebner, this recording provides a window into Babbitt’s inherently complex, yet surprisingly tuneful style of composition. 

Unlike Schoenberg and other proponents of the Second Viennese School, whose 12-tone methods permit some semblance of almost-tonality, the serialist approach employed by Babbitt strips away any reference to earlier systems of melody and harmony. Although the scores themselves are incredibly dense and challenging to execute and the music is undoubtedly atonal, there is much for listeners to focus on, for even the most random and aleatoric method of composition still results in some semblance of both melody and harmony, albeit far removed from the music of earlier times.

Performing and recording music of this complexity is no small feat and Berman, Beck and Huebner deserve double praise: first, for masterfully presenting this collection of 20th-century art song; secondly, for bringing greater awareness to one of the greatest “musician’s musicians” to ever live. While Babbitt publicly eschewed easy accessibility and immediate audience gratification, his music continues to stimulate, challenge and reward musicians brave enough to engage with his masterful body of work.

02 Maestrino MozartMaestrino Mozart – Airs d’opera d’un jeune genie
Marie-Eva Munger; Les Boreades de Montreal
ATMA ACD2 2815 (atmaclassique.com/en)

Canadian soprano Marie-Eve Munger presents Maestrino Mozart, a program dedicated exclusively to the arias of a young Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Accompanied by the equally accomplished ensemble Les Boréades de Montréal and conductor Philippe Bourque, the album includes rarely heard works composed by Mozart between the ages of 12 and 16 years old. 

Munger, already known as a skilled and musical Mozart interpreter, continues to impress, especially in the three arias from Mitridate and in Lucio Silla’s In Un Istante Oh Come – Parto m’affretto. Throughout Maestrino Mozart, Munger’s voice is warm, her technique is flawless and the coloratura light and agile. Her attentive musicological research is shown in the intelligent and careful consideration with which she brings Mozart’s various characters and stories to life. Munger’s accomplishments reach beyond the music presented; Maestrino Mozart shows that Mozart’s early arias, often considered immature and discarded, are in fact rich works encompassing many of the beloved musical elements Mozart develops further in his later works. Maestrino Mozart should not only please Mozart enthusiasts, it is worthy of both discovery and further performances.

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