01 On Wings of SongOn the Wings of Song
Kira Braun; Peter Krochak
Independent (kirabraunsoprano.com)

The soprano Kira Braun has been a performing soloist since just 2014. Yet she has already released six recordings – five with pianist Peter Krochak – the latest of which is, very possibly her best. Picking up from where their last album The Echoing Air left off, On the Wings of Song – with more art songs by Poulenc, together with works by Mendelssohn and Obradors – is a ravishing duet between a singer who excels at being both a lyric and dramatic soprano and a pianist who springs and leaps with much agility and nuance.   

All the songs receive terrific performances and although the program is weighted slightly in favour of Poulenc and Obradors, Mendelssohn’s Wanderlied is particularly radiant – perhaps predictably so, given Braun’s German heritage. She strikes an ideal balance between a certain compassion and sophistication, something that makes Mendelssohn seem quite ideally suited for Braun as she delivers his songs with affectionate communication of the poetry. Her command of Poulenc is unrivalled and she proves this with her airy sculpting of Les chemins de l’amour. She also grows into the characters of Obradors’ songs with great feeling and intensity.  

Krochak’s contribution to the unique musicality of this disc cannot be overestimated. Being a singer himself seems to give him an added edge over others who might have accompanied Braun. This is what gives his playing a beguiling refinement, enabling him to traverse this repertoire with judicious melodiousness and delicacy.

02 A Sanctuary in SongA Sanctuary in Song
Daniel Cabena; Stephen Runge
Chestnut Hall Music (chestnuthallmusic.com)

A Sanctuary in Song is a collaboration between countertenor Daniel Cabena and pianist Stephen Runge. The album follows a man’s journey via the stages of life, love, loss and death. We follow him first in a prelude, and then, in his wanderings and sanctuary explorations interspersed with instrumental commentaries.

Although the repertoire is mostly curated from the English art songs of composers born in the 19th century (York Bowen, John Ireland, Roger Quilter, Charles Villiers Stanford, Peter Warlock and Ralph Vaughan Williams), other more contemporary composers are also featured (Australian-Canadian Barrie Cabena – the singer’s father – as well as British-born Gerald Finzi and Edmund Rubbra). The influence of, training in, or adherence to musical practices associated with Romantic music are felt throughout the album. Runge’s playing is sophisticated and elegant, all the while creating both intimate and grand pianistic expressive soundscapes for Cabena to soar above. Cabena’s commitment to the texts gives life to the various layers of emotional meaning that one can find in nature, love, beauty, solitude or spirituality.

With 26 pieces of music and over 70 minutes of repertoire A Sanctuary in Song is a generous offering and a thoughtfully curated story that showcases a great number of composers and poets to (re)discover. Kudos to the Canadian duo for also featuring two compositions by Canadian composer Cabena.

A Sanctuary in Song was recorded December 12 &13, 2017 at the Maureen Forrester Recital Hall, Wilfrid Laurier University, Waterloo, Ontario.

03 Artem VedelArtem Vedel – Twelve Sacred Choral Concerti
Luminous Voices; Spiritus Chamber Choir
Leaf Music LM244 (leaf-music.ca)

The choral concerto is a uniquely Eastern European form, arising in the Russian Empire in the 17th century and continuing to be written well into the 19th. In general terms, the choral concerto was defined by its multi-movement form and psalm-based texts, written for unaccompanied chorus and containing passages for full ensemble as well as soloists. While parallels can certainly be drawn between the choral concerto’s form and that of the Western instrumental concerto, this similarity is more coincidence than correlation, as the developments of these like-minded styles occurred largely contemporaneously.

The most renowned and oft-performed composer of choral concertos is Dimitri Bortniansky, an Italian-trained, Russian-Ukrainian musician whose 45 concertos are considered by many to be the pinnacle of the form. At the same time as Bortniansky was putting pen to paper, another Ukrainian composer was authoring his own essays in the choral concerto style, and it is these works by Artem Vedel that are the focus of Vedel: Choir Concertos Nos.1-12 & Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom.

While a relatively unknown composer in modern times, Vedel was widely respected in his homeland during his lifetime and was one of the “Golden Three” composers, along with Maxim Berezovsky and Bortniansky. Vedel’s concertos are strikingly expressive yet deceptively simple, many of them written for three- or four-part chorus, and often set anguished texts from the psalms: nine of the eleven intact concertos are written in minor keys and are of a pleading, mournful nature. 

Far from being pessimistic and despite Vedel’s angsty outlook, there are moments of great beauty and striking optimism contained within each work, particularly as the texts turn to the goodness and saving power of God; these cadences are arguably some of the most delightful and satisfying in the oeuvre and are magnificently executed by the performers.

This double-disc collection is immense, containing over 150 minutes of material, all of it performed by the Calgary-based ensemble Luminous Voices. A seven-year project, this recording is a testament both to the compositional capabilities of Vedel and the musical skill of Luminous Voices and its director, Timothy Shantz.

Listen to 'Artem Vedel – Twelve Sacred Choral Concerti' Now in the Listening Room

04 Cosi Fan Tutti HarnoncourtMozart – Cosi Fan Tutte
Eriksmoen; Dragojevic; Schuen; Peter; Kulman; Werba; Concentus Musicus Wien; Arnold Schoenberg Choir; Nikolaus Harnoncourt
Unitel Edition 804108 (naxosdirect.com/search/804108)

Collaborations between composer and librettist always create happy results, often the composer’s best operas, e.g. between Verdi/Boito, R. Strauss/Hoffmanstahl or Wagner/Wagner (as he wrote his own librettos). This is the case with Lorenzo Da Ponte with whom Mozart produced three of his masterworks: Figaro, Don Giovanni and Cosi fan Tutte. 

Nicholas Harnoncourt’s long-cherished dream has been to conduct all three of them, one after the other, as authentically as possible, in an intimate setting with close collaboration with singers while still maintaining complete control. This is a concert performance, with bare stage, no sets or costumes. Singers sing from scores, but act and move freely, interact with each other and the emphasis is entirely on the music; the most beautiful music of the three operas according to connoisseurs.

Cosi fan Tutte means all women are fickle, deceitful (even Verdi’s Duke of Mantua sings it: La donna è mobile), a thesis proven by the philosopher Don Alfonso (Markus Werba, baritone) with an experiment on two sets of lovers Fiordiligi (Mari Ericksmoen, soprano) and Dorabella (Katija Dragojevic, mezzo) vs. Ferrando (Mauro Peter, tenor) and Guglielmo (André Schuen, baritone) in this hilarious comedy. And in the music, one beautiful piece after another. Like Fiordiligi’s angry outburst: Come scoglio immoto resta in Act One, or Ferrando’s Un aura amorosa so beautiful that even Harnoncourt sings along. Dorabella’s È amore un ladroncello is tempestuous and Gugielmo’s Donne mie la fate tanti is a swaggering boast of male pride. The clever and worldly chambermaid, Despina (Elisabeth Kulman), the interlocutor who helps Don Alfonso carry out his scheme, also sings a lovely aria Una donna a quindici anni that delights Harnoncourt and garners big applause.

“Something we had never heard before like this” says the Serbian newspaper Kurir, and that just about sums it up.

06 Malcolm ArnoldMalcolm Arnold – The Dancing Master
Vocal Soloists; BBC Concert Orchestra; John Andrews
Resonus Records RES10269 (resonusclassics.com)

London, 1952: Malcolm Arnold, Oscar-winner-to-be for The Bridge on the River Kwai, is rapidly churning out one film score after another; his friend, filmmaker Joe Mendoza, has written a screenplay based on a 1671 comedy, The Gentleman Dancing Master. For years, they’ve discussed collaborating on an opera; now, Mendoza turns the screenplay into a made-for-television opera libretto. Only two weeks after receiving Mendoza’s draft, Arnold completes the score for a one-act, 75-minute opera. Deemed “too bawdy for family audiences” by BBC executives, The Dancing Master languishes until an amateur concert performance with piano in 1962; it finally receives its first full production in 2015 in London. 

Miranda faces an unwanted marriage to her Frenchified cousin, “Monsieur” Nathaniel, arranged by her pompous father and puritanical aunt. Supported by her maid Prue, Miranda attempts to pass off her ardent but maladroit admirer Gerard as her dance instructor. Comic complications inevitably ensue.

Mendoza’s libretto (included in the booklet) boasts sharply drawn characters and abundant clever rhymes. It’s hardly “bawdy” – mildly risqué only when Prue tries to seduce Nathaniel. Arnold’s score is brightly orchestrated, poignant in Miranda’s lament, boisterous in the ensembles, unashamedly cinematic in the climax of Miranda and Gerard’s love duet, wickedly satiric in Nathaniel’s absurd serenade, clearly echoing Beckmesser’s hapless effort in Die Meistersinger’s song contest.

The Dancing Master is a melodic, laugh-inducing romp. While a more distinguished cast might have been desirable, this CD promises guaranteed operatic entertainment.

01 DistanceDistance
Choeur de l’Eglise St. Andrew and St. Paul; Jean-Sébastien Vallée
ATMA ACD2 2840 (atmaclassique.com/en) 

Recorded at the height of Montreal’s second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic under extremely specific and restrictive public health conditions, Distance could not be more appropriately titled. Despite these challenging times and conditions, this disc manages to distill an extraordinary amount of strength and beauty into its 69 minutes, a testament to the quality of the Choir of the Church of St. Andrew and St. Paul and its director, Jean-Sébastien Vallée.

Spanning nearly five centuries of music and a great range of styles, there is something for everyone here. Beginning with a stunning performance of Samuel Barber’s Agnus Dei (his own arrangement of the Adagio for Strings), Trevor Weston’s atmospheric Magnificat and Bach’s Komm, Jesu, Komm, the first three works are notable for the way in which the choir is able to modify their performance practice to meet the demands of each era.

The remainder of Distance is equally stimulating, with Elgar’s legendary Nimrod appearing in a vocal arrangement by John Cameron titled Lux aeterna, and works by Rachmaninoff, James MacMillan, and Uģis Prauliņš. In addition to these renowned composers, there are also appearances by contemporary composers Reena Esmail, Caroline Shaw and William Kraushaar, each born in the 1980s. 

There is little more to say about the performances on this disc, other than that they are extraordinary. The virtuosity present in the Barber is entirely different from that demanded by Bach, which is itself radically different from Prauliņš, and each is simply stunning in its own way. This reviewer is very rarely rendered speechless but, when something is done as well as the interpretations presented here, it is undoubtedly better to talk less and listen more.

Listen to 'Distance' Now in the Listening Room

02 Winterreise DiDonatoSchubert – Winterreise
Joyce DiDonato; Yannick Nézet-Séguin
Erato 0190295284245 (warnerclassics.com)

There is ample evidence, in their individual oeuvres, to suggest that luminous mezzo Joyce DiDonato and maestro Yannick Nézet-Séguin are artists of the first order; enough, it may be said, to have earned them the right to do whatever they may wish to. This recording of Winterreise, Franz Schubert’s iconic and desolate song cycle, is an altogether more challenging assignment, but one that’s pulled off with aplomb. 

This unique duo interprets this music from the despondent woman’s perspective and provides Schubert’s music and Wilhelm Müller’s verses with a new benchmark. This is no simple replacement of the male protagonist – the rejected lover on the verge of madness – with a female one. The lonely peregrinations of Schubert’s old character through the snowbound landscape have been given dramatically new meaning by DiDonato. Müller’s 24 verses speak to the mezzo in a very special way. She has, in turn, interiorized the bleak despondency of Die schöne Müllerin and recast the music’s unrelenting desolation in a breathtaking new landscape of personal pain. 

Meanwhile, from his vantage point in the shadows behind his piano, Nézet-Séguin conducts himself with impeccable decorum, occasionally emerging into the limelight if only to gently emphasize or provide poignant relief from the music’s bleak mood. His musicianship throughout is eloquent. His astute pianism – especially in Der Leiermann – highlights and embellishes the emotional veracity of Winterreise, combining with DiDonato’s darkly lustrous performance to take Schubert’s magnificent art song cycle to a rarefied realm.

03 Donizetti Lucrezia BorgiaDonizetti – Lucrezia Borgia
Marko Mimica; Carmela Remigio; Xabier Anduaga; Varduhi Abrahamyan; Orchestra Giovanile Luigi Cherubini; Coro del Teatro Municipale di Piacenza; Riccardo Frizza
Dynamic 37849 (naxosdirect.com/search/37849)

Nestled on the southern slopes of the Italian Alps is the lovely small town Bergamo, birthplace of one of the great masters of Italian bel canto, Gaetano Donizetti. Lucrezia Borgia, one of his early successes, premiered in 1833 at La Scala shortly after Anna Bolena, his first major breakthrough. It is rarely performed, as it requires soloists, especially the lead soprano, of the highest calibre. Over the last century the opera went through many revisions, but it never left the stage and attracted the likes of Caruso, Gigli, Caballé, Sills, Gruberova and Sutherland for the principal roles.

The opera centres around one of the most despicable characters of the Italian Renaissance, the daughter of Pope Alexander VI, Lucrezia Borgia who murdered three husbands and is presently on her fourth, Don Alfonso, ruler of Ferrara. The story that follows is a total mayhem of horror, jealousy, vendetta, poisoning, mass murder and suicide, but the music remains one of the composer’s most compelling and forward-looking scores. In fact, he is attempting to break the traditional rigid rules of bel canto by bringing the recitativo and aria closer together towards a more fluid style and expressive language, a step closer to Verdi.

The strongest feature of this memorable performance is Italian soprano Carmela Remigio in the title role. She truly carries the show with her dramatic persona, total emotional involvement, absorption into the role and a mesmerizing voice powerful in all registers. Gennaro, her illegitimate son, cause of much of her grief and anguish, is the sensational Spanish tenor Xabier Anduaga, winner of Operalia Competition 2019. Young Marko Mimica from Zagreb, Croatia, as Don Alfonso, is a powerful bass-baritone and the supporting cast is remarkable. Riccardo Frizza, master of Italian opera, conducts.

05 Visca LAmorVisca L’Amor – Catalan Arts Songs
Isaí Jess Muñoz; Oksana Glouchko
Bridge Records 9548 (bridgerecords.com/products/9548)

Six song cycles by Catalan composers, music and words brimming with urgency and passion, are illuminated by the fervent, vibrato-warmed singing of tenor Isaí Jess Muñoz, accompanied by pianist Oksana Glouchko.

In La rosa als llavis (The Rose on the Lips) by Eduard Toldrà (1895-1962), a lover burns with desire until the sixth and final song, Visca l’amor (Long Live Love), ending with the words “la volia, i l’he pres” (I wanted her, and I took her). Ricard Lamote de Grignon (1899-1962) set his three brief Cants homèrics (Homeric Hymns) to translations of ancient Greek prayers. Those to the Muses, Apollo and Zeus are declamatory in words and music; that for Aphrodite, gentle and caressing.

Achingly beautiful melismas make Haidé, three miniature love poems set by Narcís Bonet (b.1933), my particular favourite among this admirable collection. Combat del somni (Struggle in the Dream) by Frederic Mompou (1893-1987) is filled with intense yearning for an absent lover. (I first heard these three plaintive songs, infused with extravagant poetic imagery, on a still-treasured LP from the 1950s.) 

The four songs of Imitació del foe (Imitation of Fire) by Elisenda Fábregas (b.1955), commissioned by Muñoz and Glouchko for this CD, dramatically deal with “delirium,” “blood waves,” long-haired winged men,” “racing suns” and “sharpened flames.” The devotional Ave Maria, Benedictus and three Alleluias of Les Paraules sagrades (Sacred Words) by Joan Comellas (1913-2000) provide a richly satisfying conclusion to this richly satisfying CD.

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