01 MonteverdiMonteverdi – Complete Madrigals
Delitiae Musicae; Marco Longhini
Naxos 8.501505 (naxosdirect.com/search/730099150545) 

Claudio Monteverdi is such an important figure in the history of Western music that it is easy to overlook the majority of his prolific oeuvre in favour of those few works that are frequently heard and even more frequently mentioned in musical history texts as the thin line that separates the Renaissance from the Baroque. Of course, such neat-and-tidy divisions are largely artificial and can only be made with significant hindsight and generalization; amid this oversimplification of the musical-historical spectrum, we sometimes need to be reminded to look beyond the Vespers and Orfeo, and turn our gaze to such smaller-scale material as the religious motets and secular madrigals.

Whether expertly familiar with Monteverdi’s madrigals or a total neophyte, one cannot find a better starting point than Delitiæ Musicæ’s latest release – a 15-disc survey of the complete madrigals – which summarizes and concentrates the composer’s essential characteristics into countless pieces ranging anywhere between two and five minutes in duration, and provides a musical biography tracing the career of this great Italian composer. This immense five-year project (all 15 discs were recorded between 2001 and 2006) was undertaken by conductor Marco Longhini and the Delitiæ Musicæ ensemble, established by Longhini to perform unpublished masterpieces of early Italian music. 

This focus on musicology-based performance serves the listener well, as the chronological order of presented material, combined with thorough and enlightening program notes, allows one to track and contextualize the subtle (and sometimes not-so-subtle) changes that take place over time. For example, the unaccompanied Renaissance-style polyphony on the first disc undergoes dramatic transformations by the seventh, to the extent that Monteverdi himself developed a new term to define the form: “Concerto.” By the ninth disc, we hear viol consorts and instrumental ritornelli that begin pointing forward to the developments of Baroque composers and, by the 15th disc, we have arrived at the starting point for the next generation of musical minds, with arioso passages, early recitative, and a basic cantata structure.

These connections between contextual understanding and listening are enormously important, especially when immersing oneself in as vast a body of work as we find here. But these are audio discs and the most important component in deeming this collection successful is how it sounds and, in short, it sounds very good. One of Delitiæ Musicæ’s great stylistic attributes is their ability to convey affects and expressions without being overly musically dramatic; the great swells and sweeps that are utilized in some Renaissance recordings are avoided here, taking the notes on the page as they come and avoiding the imposition of interpretation over composition. This approach makes even greater sense when we reach the “invention” of the concerto, as instrumental forces are added and augmented, and rhythmic complexity increases exponentially.

Although some may be apprehensive at the prospect of tackling over 15 hours of Monteverdi, this is a collection that is meant to be savoured over time, rather than devoured in a binge-listening marathon. With plenty of textual information and excellent musical performances, these discs will fascinate all who listen, whether already steeped in this master’s music or simply interested in learning more about one of Italy’s great cultural figures.

02 ORA Singers Spem in AliumThomas Tallis – Spem in Alium; James MacMillan – Vidi Aquam
ORA Singers
Harmonia Mundi HMM902669.70 (orasingers.co.uk/tallis2020) 

chief among them Thomas Tallis’ magnificent 40-part Spem in Alium, 450 years old this year. It is complemented by Vidi Aquam (2019) by Sir James MacMillan – also for 40 voices – an impressive 21st-century painterly commentary on the Tallis. 

Spem in Alium (Hope in Any Other) was composed for eight choirs of five voices each. They interweave in many-layered, structurally complex ways on paper, and in performance in physical space. A high-water mark of the musical aspirations of the English Renaissance ruling class, as a composition it has long been acknowledged by its students as an apotheosis of European vocal polyphony. 

Spem in Alium can be an emotional experience. Beginning with a single voice, other voices join in imitation as the music passes around the eight choirs, a study in constant change and metamorphosis, like a great river in motion. After brief tutti sections, the choirs sing in antiphonal pairs, throwing their voices across the space between them, all flowing together in the work’s powerful sonic tsunami finale.

 Stephen FryThere was a plague around in Britain when Tallis wrote his music and there is a plague around now… ‘Spem’ translates as ‘Hope’; and this is about Hope for our future, and the future of the arts.” Amen.

03 Der MessiasHandel/Mozart – Der Messias
Soloists; Philharmonia Chor Wien; Les Musiciens du Louvre; Marc Minkowski
Unitel Edition 803408 (naxosdirect.com/search/814337017583)

In 1789, Mozart’s loyal patron, Gottfried van Swieten, asked the composer to write a German arrangement of Handel’s Messiah. Van Swieten had in his possession the original Messiah score as well as the Ebeling/Klopstock German translation used by CPE Bach for a 1775 performance. With these primary sources, Mozart arranged Der Messias by first augmenting the woodwinds and brass sections with two flutes, two clarinets, one bassoon, two horns and three trombones. Mozart then skillfully wrote contrapuntal conversations between soloists and instruments, seamlessly introduced and featured the clarinet, a new instrument, and filled in passages with harmonies that are unmistakably classical. The resulting sonorities inject Der Messias with vibrant colours and enriched textures that are undeniably Mozartean in style. 

Important revisions include considerable cuts to the libretto (Thou art gone up high and Let all the angels of God are excluded), new music (noticeably for If God be for us which he writes as a recitative), and, most startling, the changes in vocal parts: Mozart not only reduced the alto and tenor solos, he often reassigns them to the soprano (He shall feed his flock, All they that see him, Thy rebuke hath broken His heart); the quartet of soloists, and not the chorus, sings the entrance of For unto us a Child is born; and, most shocking, the alto aria But who may abide is given to the bass and the famous soprano aria Rejoice is sung by the tenor. 

American director Robert Wilson’s staging of Der Messias includes surrealistic imageries that are difficult to decipher (exploding iceberg video, seated headless man with lobster on a leash, dancing haystack) and caricatured characters that contribute to desacralizing the work. Mozart’s version includes compositional techniques that make this work “operatorio-like,” from deliberate libretto cuts and enriched textures to register changes in solos, and, most telling, a delayed chorus entrance to the first “Wonderful” in For unto us. Wilson’s minimalistic and incoherent staging not only shows a lack of understanding of both the stories told in Messiah and Der Messias but denies Mozart his grand vision for Handel’s Messiah. 

Performance practice purists will most certainly bristle at Der Messias – it is eerie to hear Handel sound like Mozart. However, the original discomfort soon transforms into pure enjoyment as Mozart weaves together a different, but convincing and powerful Der Messias that is worth listening to many times over, albeit with your eyes closed. 

Recorded in Salzburg for the 2020 Mozartwoche, Der Messias is directed by Marc Minkowski with an original sound orchestra from Les Musiciens du Louvre and the Philharmonia Choir Vienna.

04 ZauberfloteMozart – Die Zauberflöte
Portillo; Fomina; Sherratt; Burger; Wettergreen; Glyndebourne Chorus; Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment; Ryan Wigglesworth
Opus Arte OA1304D (naxosdirect.com/search/809478013044)

Reviewing a new production of any opera in 250 words is a challenge, but even more so when the material is as genre-defining as Mozart’s The Magic Flute, here recorded at Glyndebourne in 2019. This presentation is fascinating, with Roald Dahl-esque sets and costumes accompanied by the magnificent Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment.

From the outset, the music is stunning in its energy and crispness, rhythmically vital yet expressive and constantly transparent. The orchestra is in fine form, accompanying with a sensitivity and articulateness which allows the listener to perceive the multiple layers of sound taking place: the soloist or ensemble in the foreground; the woodwinds and upper strings in the middle ground; and the lower strings below, underpinning the higher parts with immovable precision.

One of the more beautiful components of this performance is the way in which the orchestra’s use of period instruments determines the dynamic levels of all involved. To use a well-known example, Der Hölle Rache – the famous Queen of the Night aria – can be so driven by the aggressive rage contained in the text that the interpretation becomes a caricature of its inherently lyrical nature, pitting pyrotechnical technique against musical sensibility. Not so in this instance, though; the control exercised in tandem by soprano Caroline Wettergreen and the OAE ensures that there is beauty amidst the chaos, producing an unusually moving result. 

While the music is treated with historically informed sensitivity, the sets and staging for this production are decidedly and wonderfully nontraditional, a surreal and eccentric exploration of Alice in Wonderland-style visual effects. With each background made to look hand-sketched, colourful costumes and perspective-bending design, the visual impression made by this presentation is as impactful, if not more so, than the musical. Those acquainted with Mozart’s operatic masterwork will surely appreciate such a novel and engaging reimagining of this familiar favourite.

05 Rossini MoiseRossini – Moïse
Soloists; Gorecki Chamber Choir, Krakow; Virtuosi Brunensis; Fabrizio Maria Carminati
Naxos 8.660473-75 (naxosdirect.com/search/730099047371)

Well, the ancient Hebrews certainly didn’t know that they would be marching out of Egypt to a Rossini tune! Rossini composed Moses in Egitto for Naples in 1818 when he was 26 years old. Then, like many other Italian composers he went to Paris for fame and fortune, and as a wealthy and successful composer turned Moses into a French grand opera (Moïse et Pharaon) with new, spectacular stage effects, adding additional music and even a ballet. The opera became tremendously successful.

The biblical story is the struggle of Moses (Russian basso Alexey Birkus) to convince the Pharaoh (Italian basso Luca Dall’Amico) to let his people go by producing miracles punishing the Egyptians with calamities until the hesitant Pharaoh gives in and the rest is history. Interwoven in the plot is a love story between the Egyptian crown prince (virtuoso American tenor Randall Bills) and a Hebrew girl (Italian soprano Elisa Balbo) in conflict between love versus loyalty to family and country. Somewhat like the Aida/Radames love story later in Verdi.

The rather lengthy opera is musically very rich, extremely enjoyable with catchy tunes, beautiful arias, duets, ensembles and exciting stretta finales. The second act is a work of genius with show-stopping hits coming one after the other. The heavenly vocal quintet O toi dont la clémence is followed by an animated duet between Pharaoh and son (Moment fatal! que faire?) and a tremendous scene and aria by Queen Sinaide (Italian soprano Silvia dalla Benetta). The opera ends unforgettably with the Prayer Scene when the Israelites are praying for the Red Sea to part with a marvellous, iconic melody so beautiful that even Liszt wrote a paraphrase on it. Flawless cast, superb soloists and expertly conducted with true Rossinian flair by Fabrizio Maria Carminati.

06 Verdi Il TrovatoreVerdi – Il Trovatore
Netrebko; Eyvazov; Salsi; Zajick; Orchestra, Chorus and Ballet of the Arena di Verona; Pier Giorgio Morandi
Cmajor 754608 (naxosdirect.com/search/814337015466)

Il Trovatore is an immensely popular opera in which an implausible plot is transformed by a dizzying succession of glorious melodies. Along with Rigoletto and La Traviata, it forms the great trilogy of Verdi’s middle period, but it is the most traditional of the three. A melodrama about chivalry, honour, valour and tragic love powered by unremittingly high-voltage music. Leonora, Manrico and the count are all given passionate arias, but Verdi appeared most drawn to Azucena, the Gypsy outsider whose burning desire for revenge is finally rewarded in the opera’s final denouement. 

This is an unrelievedly intense performance, staged by the master of epic visual drama, Franco Zeffirelli, and has a stellar cast backed by choral and orchestral playing – helmed by Pier Giorgio Morandi – that is electrifying. Anna Netrebko, always at her magnificent best, gives an extraordinary performance as Leonora, while Dolora Zajick more than lives up to the intensity and challenge of Azucena’s character. Zajick’s arias – Madre non dormi? followed by Si la stanchezza m’opprime o figlio – are sublime.

The most moving passages are created through dialogue, notably the Act 4 Miserere duet between Manrico and Leonora, in which she sings to the imprisoned troubadour above a chorus of praying monks, and the final exchanges between the lovers beginning with Yusif Eyvanzov’s fearsome tenor outburst Parlar non vuoi. Moments such as these raise Il Trovatore way above the level of period costume drama. This is absolutely a performance to die for.

08 Komitas Divine LIturgyKomitas – Divine Liturgy
Latvian Radio Choir; Sigvards Klava
Delos DE 3590 (naxosdirect.com/search/013491359021)

The profound music of Divine Liturgy is a historic recording, performed to commemorate the 150th birthday of its composer, Komitas Vardapet (1869-1935). Komitas is considered the founder of the Armenian national school of music and an important pioneer in the field of ethnomusicology. He completed this monumental work in April 1915 as the Armenian Genocide perpetrated by the Ottoman government intensified. Komitas himself was arrested shortly thereafter. Although his life was spared, he was driven out of Armenia, soul destroyed, and spent the last 20 years of his life in an asylum in Paris.

Divine Liturgy reflects Komitas’ deeply spiritual life but the backdrop evokes the socio-political events of the times. Thus, praise and worship are set in sombre tones and colours reflecting spiritual darkness. To capture this, Komitas “heard” male voices expressing praise for God as well as reflecting the mood of the times. However, arranger Vache Sharafyan has made a boldly presumptuous leap of faith and illuminates Komitas’ deeply meditative sound-mass textures, choosing to mix the shadowy darkness of male voices with the dappled light of soaring female ones.

Thus we have a brilliantly daring new Divine Liturgy expressed as much in the eerie tones of Hovhannes Nersesyan’s dark and sonorous bass voice on Chosen of God and the eloquent outpourings of the tenor Armen Badalyan set amid pliant sopranos and contraltos. The mixed Latvian Radio Choir is superbly directed by Sigvards Klava, whose efforts – together with the bold ones of Sharafyan – give wings to the structural logic and deep spirituality of a work that many see as Komitas’ crowning achievement.

09 Hamilton HartySongs by Sir Hamilton Harty
Kathryn Rudge; Christopher Glynn
Somm Recordings SOMMCD 0616 (naxosdirect.com/search/748871061620)

I’m a longtime admirer of Hamilton Harty’s distinctively Irish-sounding orchestral works, especially his unfairly neglected Piano Concerto, so I welcomed the opportunity to hear and review this CD containing 23 songs, nearly half his total output, 16 recorded for the first time.

Set to words by 17 poets, including W.B. Yeats, Padraic Colum, Walt Whitman and Harty himself, the songs range across Ireland’s natural landscapes, love, lullabies, work, worship, war and death. Many are infused with the traditional melodic turns, lilt and sentiment we immediately identify as so uniquely and ingratiatingly Irish.

English mezzo-soprano Kathryn Rudge’s shiny, firmly focused voice surges thrillingly in the more dramatic songs, while she’s sensitively subdued in the tender or reflective selections, varying her vocal colours, always acting the texts.

The piano accompaniments are elaborate and fully fleshed, not surprising because Harty, in addition to his distinguished career as a conductor, performed as piano accompanist (he preferred the term “collaborator”) for violinist Fritz Kreisler, tenor John McCormack, soprano Agnes Nicholls (his wife) and mezzo Elsie Swinton (his purported mistress), the latter two for whom he composed many of his songs. Pianist Christopher Glynn “collaborates” admirably, adding, on his own, two charming salon-like solo piano pieces by Harty, one in its first recording.

Harty’s lustrous, warm-hearted songs surely deserve to be included in the repertoires of today’s vocal recitalists and the CD collections of lovers of beautiful music, like you! Detailed notes and texts are provided.

10 Kastalsky RequiemAlexander Kastalsky – Requiem
Soloists; Choirs; Orchestra of St. Luke’s; Leonard Slatkin
Naxos 8.574245 (naxosdirect.com/search/747313424573)

Alexander Kastalsky’s vision for his grand Requiem for Fallen Brothers – which included all those who died in WWI on both sides – was summarily snuffed out because by the time he was ready to unveil it on stage, in 1917, political power in Russia was in the hands of the Bolsheviks. More tragically his cross-cultural, 17-movement requiem – a work of immense proportion in which he weaves not only Latin and Orthodox rites in multiple languages, but even manages to use Eastern music, seamlessly and with dark grandiosity – remains virtually unknown within the canon of Western classical choral-orchestral works.

Appropriately, this definitive recording, featuring the Orchestra of St. Luke’s conducted by Leonard Slatkin, brings together a spectrum of players including the Cathedral Choral Society, the Clarion Choir, the Saint Tikhon Choir and the Kansas City Chorale, who illuminate the work’s breathtaking array of meditative, sparse and nimble sonorities. 

This is a highly reverential recording, distinguished by exquisite solo contributions from soprano Anna Dennis and bass-baritone Joseph Charles Beutel, supported with fine choral work by all of the vocal ensembles. Together they turn this awe-inspiring requiem into something truly memorable from the darkness of the Confutatis and the following Lacrymosa, the undulant Interludium: Hymn to Indra and the magnificent Domine Jesu. Through it all, Slatkin reveals the inner logic and structural grandeur of this complex work with exemplary clarity and inner detail.

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