06 Rags to RichesFrom Rags to Riches – 100 Years of American Song
Stephanie Blythe; William Burden; Steven Blier
NYFOS Records n/a (nyfos.org)

This debut album from the New York Festival of Song’s new in-house label NYFOS Records features mezzo-soprano Stephanie Blythe and tenor William Burden accompanied on piano by NYFOS artistic director/co-founder Steven Blier, who also arranged some of the songs. It is taken from a March 2000 live concert recording at Kaye Playhouse at Hunter College in New York celebrating 20th-century American songs including art song, musical theatre, jazz and opera. 

The opening track has happy, energetic Blythe solo vocals in a dance-along rendition of Joplin’s Pineapple Rag, arranged by Blier. Blier’s arrangement of Cook’s vaudeville My Lady Frog is amazing, with opening piano leaping frog line, Burden’s musical singing to higher tenor closing pitches and closing ragtime piano riff. Bernstein’s Broadway song Wrong Note Rag provides a fun change of pace with piano “wrong note chords” hilarious under the vocalists. Nice to hear a more classical piece in the mix here with Samuel Barber’s Nocturne for tenor and piano. Other songs include works by Gershwin, Monk, Weill, Rodgers, Sondheim and Bolcom

The 17 songs comprise a comprehensive, stylistically wide-ranging overview of American songs composed in the last century. Blythe and Burden both sing with clear pitch, articulation and musicality in all the diverse styles. Blier’s rock-solid technique, musicality, accompanying and humour is amazing. His arrangements are musically inspiring. This is a superb release from a live production that includes occasional audience applause. Bravo!

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01 Jeanine de BiqueMirrors
Jeanine De Bique; Concerto Koln; Luca Quintavalle
Berlin Classics (berlin-classics-music.com)

Mirrors is Trinidadian soprano Jeanine De Bique’s debut album. Accompanied by the renowned Baroque orchestra Concerto Köln, with musical direction by Luca Quintavalle, the album focuses on Baroque arias and includes three world premiere recordings.

De Bique’s album reflects her unique style and personality in a well-crafted concept. Her flawless technique is impressive and includes carefully sculpted notes and stunning articulation amid invigorating Baroque rhythms and flying high notes. De Bique, a seasoned Handel performer, was also given the freedom to play with and create new ornamentation for each aria.

Developed in collaboration with musicologist Yannis François, the concept of the album is that of looking through a broken mirror; different settings of the same libretti are placed side by side on an album for the first time. Mirrors juxtaposes Handel’s operatic heroines Alcina, Cleopatra, Deidami, and Rodelinda with the same characters’ arias from the works of Riccardo Broschi (brother of famed castrato Farinelli), Carl Heinrich Graun, Gennaro Manna and Georg Philipp Telemann, each prominent opera composers of their time. The arias of Mirrors are meant to relate key moments in the psychological development of each heroine, thereby also opening a window into the varied female experience. In the liner notes De Bique writes that this project allowed her to sing from a place of vulnerability and that she was “given the opportunity to be a voice for women across the ages who are still trying to find spaces to free their voices, and for those ready to reclaim their autonomy.”

02 Verdi MacbethVerdi – Macbeth
Soloists; Filarmonica Arturo Toscanini; Coro del Teatro Regio Parma; Roberto Abbado
Dynamic DYN-CDS7915.02 (naxosdirect.com/search/dyn-cds7915.02)

My love for Verdi’s Macbeth began here in Toronto many years ago when I saw Hungarian soprano sensation Georgina Lukács in the famous Mad Scene, the late Richard Bradshaw conducting with such a rapport between them that it seemed like he was conducting just for her. Today my love has been rekindled with this new CD from Parma. Parma is now what Salzburg is to Mozart or Bayreuth to Wagner, a Verdi Mecca.

Success for Macbeth was a long time coming. In 1847, it was the first time Verdi tried to tackle Shakespeare, his idol since childhood, but the atmosphere of foggy, rainy Scotland plus the witches didn’t please the Italian public. However in 1865, a golden opportunity came from Paris and big money too. He revised the opera by translating it into French, adding new music and a mandatory ballet to suit the taste of Paris. This version fared better and it is presented here.

This is an open air concert performance no doubt necessitated by COVID, using Parma’s resplendent Opera House as a backdrop and with the best singers available. Perhaps the greatest Verdi baritone alive, Ludovic Tézier from Marseille, with his velvety, many shaded but strong voice, simply lives the title role. His bloodthirsty wife and helpmate, Lady Macbeth, is sung by Sylvia Dalla Benetta who is rapidly becoming Italy’s leading dramatic soprano. She is sensational with a tremendously wide vocal range and power. Her high notes could shatter glass and her low notes are bloodcurdling. Her first scene and the cabaletta Viens! Viens! Sois homme! Il faut régner is explosive. Riccardo Zanellato’s smooth basso is heartrending as Banquo. Scholarly conductor and Verdi expert Roberto Abbado conducts with throbbing vitality.

03 Renee Fleming Nezet SeguinVoice of Nature: The Anthropocene
Renée Fleming; Yannick Nézet-Séguin
Decca Classics (deccaclassics.com/de/kuenstler/reneefleming)

Voice of Nature: The Anthropocene is another album responding to the devastating current pandemic. According to celebrated veteran American opera diva Renée Fleming it was inspired by the solace she found while hiking near her Virginia home during lockdown. Canadian conductor and pianist Yannick Nézet-Séguin and Fleming have chosen 16 songs which feature lyrics exploring “the centrality of nature in Romantic-era song and highlight[ing] the peril … of the natural world today. … Now, in the Anthropocene, we see the effects of our own activity, and the fragility of our environment,” reflects Fleming.

A dedicated performer of art song, she draws on her classical repertoire including scores by Liszt, Grieg, Fauré and Hahn for the core of this recital. Also featured are recording premieres of Caroline Shaw’s 2017 Aurora Borealis, evoking flickering lights in the northern sky, plus two commissions from American composers. 

Pulitzer Prize-winner Kevin Puts gives Evening by the American poet Dorianne Laux a retro-musical setting, characterized by a supple lyric soprano melody highlighted by Fleming’s soaring high notes, and supported by Nézet-Séguin’s rippling tonal arpeggios and harmonies. 

Nico Muhly’s bricolage-like Endless Space, on the other hand, draws on several disparate texts: poetry of the 17th-century English theologian Thomas Traherne plus writing by climate change journalist Robinson Meyer. It starts with a sort of recitative before taking advantage of Fleming’s core vocal strengths still at her command in her sixth decade: velvety rich lows, graceful high passages, flawless intonation and dynamic control.

04 Cassidy The Mass jpegPatrick Cassidy – The Mass
Laude; David Harris; Christoph Bull
Supertrain Records (supertrainrecords.com)

The Catholic Mass is one of the most frequently set texts in the history of music, encompassing works ranging from the 14th century to modern times. Whether Palestrina’s marvellous Missa Papae Marcelli or Beethoven’s grandiose Missa Solemnis, performances and recordings of these masterpieces bear testament to the inspirational power of these ancient rites and texts. 

Unique among the plethora of recordings of the Mass, however, is this documentation of Patrick Cassidy’s The Mass, originally composed for choir and orchestra and later adapted for choir and organ. Growing from the challenges of quarantine, it is perhaps among the first major works in history to be recorded virtually, with each member of the choral group singing their individual part in isolation. Anyone who has worked on a virtual choir project is aware of how involved, tedious and time-consuming such a task can be, especially when the result is intended to be a release-worthy recording, and the excellence attained in this instance cannot be overstated.

Cassidy’s writing is stunningly beautiful and primarily uses a late-Romantic idiom, with luscious harmonies and gorgeous melodies that are both profound and sublime. The singers, despite their isolation, blend with a precision and clarity that is, in a word, unbelievable, while Christoph Bull, organist-in-residence at the First Congregational Church of Lost Angeles – which houses one of the world’s largest pipe organs – is in fine form, making that single instrument sound as varied and convincing as an entire orchestra.

If the above review sounds almost too good to be true, that is because this recording is as well. This project demonstrates the human potential to persevere, and the spiritual capacity to grow together and bring to light beauty in isolation, regardless of external factors and influences. It is highly recommended to anyone whose spirit needs uplifting, or who simply wants to bathe in the glorious sounds of Cassidy’s Mass.

05 Thomalla Dark SpringHans Thomalla – Dark Spring: Opera in 11 Scenes
Shachar Lavi; Anna Hybiner; Christopher Diffey; Magid El-Bushra; Nationaltheater-Orchester Mannheim; Alan Pierson
Oehms Classics OC 994 (oehmsclassics.de)

The whole idea of Dark Spring as being born of both song and opera is a considerable philosophical and stylistic leap. But what its creator Hans Thomalla achieves in this work is a lofty Singspiel recast as musical meta-theatre. Happily the 11 scenes are acted and/or sung by a fine cast who interact with each other in a deeply emotional manner as this avowed song-opera goes like a bolted arrow directly into the listener’s heart.

Thematically this is a cautionary tale (the word “narrative” is technically more appropriate), one whose four characters we meet at an existential 21st-century crossroad where the theatre of Brecht and the angst of Jean-Paul Sartre collide. The playwright and novelist appear to have inspired Thomalla’s work, an operatic adaptation of Frank Wedekind’s Spring Awakening (1891). Dark Spring roars with the socio-political demons that drive our digital media world. Song lyrics by Joshua Clover reflect the shattered mirror of violence, while peer and parental pressures hover dangerously close at hand. 

Relationships crumble in overwrought romanticism and roiling sexuality leading to the climactic suicide of one of the four characters, Moritz, played with explosive combustion by countertenor, Magid El-Bushra. Tenor Christopher Diffey, contralto Anna Hybiner and mezzo-soprano Shachar Lavi sing their respective ways through the storyline that exudes visceral energy throughout Dark Spring. The Nationaltheater-Orchester Mannheim conducted by Alan Pierson shines as it navigates this difficult score.

06 Brian FieldBrian Field – Vocal Works
Various Artists
Navona Records nv6360 (navonarecords.com/catalog/nv6360)

Reactions to Brian Field’s Vocal Works – as well as the red-white-and-blue graphic evocative of the forbidding spires on a US/Mexican border wall – can be predicted: it’s an important disc, no doubt, often dripping with sardonicism and bitterness, shrouded in the music’s frequent dissonance. Gorgeous songs complemented by great choral and solo singing, however, triumph over these feelings, in a program selected and sequenced with uncommon care, with Field drawing on his consummate musicianship fuelled by hopefulness. 

Field’s extraordinary lyricism is deeply attuned to human emotion. Even when his music is immersed in feelings of fear, disappointment or even sarcasm – as in his adaptation of Charles Albert Tindley’s poem on By and By, in the swirling music accompanying Pablo Neruda’s bittersweet love poems, Tres Canciones de Amor and his own uniquely American satirical commentary in Let’s Build a Wall. In those works as well as elsewhere, Field shows that he isn’t afraid to wear his emotions on his sleeve, nor does he shrink away from the bitterness of social commentary. 

He is also a master of atonal turbulence and semi-spoken lines describing both political and intimate interactions. Field’s music in the song cycle Chimneys, Sonnets-Realities, dramatically reinvigorates the poetry of e.e. cummings with masterfully applied dissonant harmonies. The pinnacle of the recording, however, comes when Field pours his spirituality into the intense, gospel-soaked Let the Light Shine on Me.

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07 Stephen PowellWhy do the Nations
Stephen Powell
Acis APL51200 (acisproductions.com)

American baritone Stephen Powell’s album Why do the Nations is a personal, vibrant and thoughtfully curated collection of 27 art songs from 11 nations in ten different languages, written between 1839 and 1965.  

Dictated by world pandemic isolation requirements and in part as a personal challenge, Powell takes on the musical task of both singing and accompanying himself on the piano. Powell’s artistry imprints the album and flows via his warm and capable voice. His skillful accompaniment is especially on display in the songs of de Falla, Ives and Rachmaninoff. Even more compelling is the album's depth of introspection, based equally on the minutiae of his research and his interpretation of text. 

Why do the Nations takes its title from a bass aria in Handel’s Messiah, Why do the Nations so furiously rage together? (Psalm 2). This question ultimately guides the album’s journey with Powell asking his listeners to reflect not on the manmade geographical lines that divide us into nations, but to focus on what unites, what connects us and our shared humanity: “if listeners can hear the connections between countries represented perhaps they will appreciate that everything we do ripples across oceans and through time.” 

Why do the Nations offers a rich repertoire of art songs from well-known composers (Brahms, Schubert, Verdi) and composers to discover such as Xavier Montsalvatge (Spain), Cláudio Santoro (Brazil), Rentarō Taki (Japan) and Zhao Yuanren (China). Also of note, Terra e Mare, one of the few works Puccini wrote outside of opera, and a world premiere recording of Petits Enfants by Émile Paladilhe (France).

01 grazia delle donne 5qsixLa Grazia delle Donne
Miriam Leblanc; Ensemble La Cigale; Madeleine Owen
Analekta AN 2 9159 (analekta.com/en)

Eight books of compositions? Little, if any support from the Church? Or from a spouse? And a woman? This was Barbara Strozzi, understandably the best known female composer of her time (1619-1677).

It is her compositions that occupy pride of place on this CD. Lagrime mie combines the passion of Myriam Leblanc’s soprano singing, the anguished lyrics of Pietro Dolfino and the supportive yet inspiring playing of Ensemble la Cigale to form a masterpiece of the Italian Baroque. Masterpiece, too, is the deserved description for Strozzi’s other piece on the CD, Hor che Apollo, as the same musicians master perhaps even greater achievements with this latter text and score. 

It is clear from the very first two tracks, Isabella Leonarda’s Purpurei flores and Sonata prima, that this CD brings together the best in female Baroque vocal writing along with one instrument in particular which is at last allowed to display its versatility – the Baroque recorder. Full credit, indeed, to Leblanc and recorder-player Vincent Lauzer. 

The prominence given to the two composers above should not detract from the others’ contributions. Prodigiously talented, Vittoria Aleotti mastered the harpsichord at a phenomenally early age. The results are very apparent as Leblanc interprets three of her songs, all very short but all very moving in their musical and lyrical context.

This CD proves the presence of female singers and, above all, female composers in the Renaissance. It challenges preconceptions.

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