04 Faure IntegralGabriel Fauré – Intégrale des mélodies pour voix et piano
Hélène Guilmette; Julie Boulianne; Antonio Figueroa; Marc Boucher; Olivier Godin
ATMA ACD2 2741 (atmaclassique.com)

ATMA’s new set of Gabriel Fauré’s mélodies offers a fresh approach to one of the most glorious collections of songs by a single composer. These songs are – not surprisingly – frequently recorded. But this complete set is the first to pay particular attention to their historical circumstances. The results are illuminating – and gorgeous.

Each of these 108 songs has been recorded in its original key, by a singer with the voice type Fauré specifically had in mind. To hear the songs with the colour and pitch Fauré intended is, for me, revelatory. The piano is French, an Érard made in 1859, just two years before Fauré wrote his first song. The pitch has been lowered to A435, which was then standard. What’s more, the songs are presented in the order Fauré wrote them. This chronological pathway through these songs, following the lead of the still-wonderful landmark Ameling-Souzay-Baldwin set from 44 years ago, remains the most effective way to approach them. More recent collections tend to group the songs by theme, relinquishing an invaluable opportunity to show how Fauré’s music evolved throughout his long, groundbreaking career.

The five musicians here – all Canadians, all from Québec – capture Fauré’s idiomatic style in truly memorable performances. Mezzo-soprano Julie Boulianne gives such a sumptuously nuanced performance of the early Au bord de l’eau (At the water’s edge) that when she sings “to feel love in the face of all that passes away,” you experience the lovers’ doubts just as forcefully as their longings. In Clair de Lune (Moonlight), the first of Fauré’s magnificent settings of Verlaine, tenor Antonio Figueroa finds just the right balance between ardour and serenity to evoke fountains sobbing with ecstasy in the calm moonlight. Pianist Olivier Godin elicits sublime colours from Fauré’s unsettling piano part.

Baritone Marc Boucher, artistic director of this mammoth project, suffuses the dreamy melodic lines of En Sourdine (Muted) with profound care for the text and elegant phrasing. His tenderness is utterly moving, even when his voice shows some unsteadiness. It takes a singer as expressive as soprano Hélène Guilmette to penetrate the recitative-like rhythmic patterns and distilled chromatic harmonies of Reflets dans l’eau (Reflections in the water) and reveal the enthralling melodic arc of this late masterpiece.

The informative booklet notes by Jacques Bonnaire are given in French and English. But the texts, unfortunately, appear only in the original French (or English in the case of the rarely heard Mélisande’s Song), without translations.

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05 Cradle Will RockMarc Blitzstein – The Cradle Will Rock
Opera Saratoga; John Mauceri
Bridge Records (bridgerecords.com)

On June 16, 1937, the evening of the scheduled premiere of Marc Blitzstein’s The Cradle Will Rock, Blitzstein, the producers, director Orson Welles, singers, musicians and ticketholders found the theatre padlocked, a reaction to Blitzstein’s anti-capitalist opera. Welles was undeterred: an unoccupied theatre and piano were rented and the opera, minus orchestra, sets and costumes, was performed with Blitzstein at the piano, the cast singing from the audience.

This, the first complete recording of Blitzstein’s original score, is from 2017 performances by Opera Saratoga in Saratoga Springs, New York. Blitzstein’s music for his self-written libretto, a bitter satire on America’s corruption by capitalism, was clearly influenced by Kurt Weill’s acerbic scores for The Threepenny Opera and The Rise and Fall of the city of Mahagonny.

Set in “Steeltown, USA,” the arrest and court appearance of anti-union protestors, mistaken by police for pro-union activists, provides the frame for flashbacks revealing how Mr. Mister, the steel factory’s owner, controls all the city’s institutions, while ordering the fatal bombing of union headquarters. Union leader Larry Foreman, arrested for making a speech, sings that when organized labour’s “wind blows…the lords and their lackeys…in the nice big cradle” will find that “the cradle will rock.”

Conductor John Mauceri elicits exuberant, 1930s-style performances from the large cast and orchestra. The 2-CD set also includes an archival recording of Blitzstein (who died in 1964) recounting the events of that now-legendary opening night, adding significantly to the documentation of this iconic 20th-century opera.

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06 Notorious RBGNotorious RBG in Song
Patrice Michaels; Juang-Hao Huang
Cedille CDR 90000 178 (cedillerecords.org)

Marking the 25th anniversary of Ruth Bader Ginsberg’s appointment to the US Supreme Court, this recording honours an 85-year old champion of equal rights who continues to vigorously oppose injustice in an environment of increasingly reactionary conservatism. The title, Notorious RBG, a famous meme (and play on the late rapper Notorious B.I.G.), stuck to Ginsberg after her 2013 dissent in response to a rollback of voting-rights protections.

This recording features works by five American composers celebrating Ginsberg’s family and professional life. Family is, after all, at the heart of this project. Cedille Records is Ginsberg’s son James’ label. Soprano and daughter-in-law Patrice Michaels is the ardent album performer and composer of the nine-part cycle The Long View, which gives us a deeply personal glimpse into Ginsberg’s life as daughter, wife, mother, lawyer, academic and public figure. Composer Lori Laitman’s setting of Wider Than the Sky by Emily Dickinson, was performed as a tribute to Ginsberg on her 80th birthday. Canadian composer Vivian Fung’s Pot Roast à la RBG is a lighthearted play on the judge’s domestic life, while Stacy Garrop’s My Dearest Ruth poignantly recalls the farewell letter written by Ginsberg’s late husband. The final piece, You are Searching in Vain for a Bright Solution, is an aria from Derrick Wang’s comic opera Scalia/Ginsberg, celebrating the unlikely friendship of two colleagues able to find common ground despite oppositional viewpoints. A tribute to the intelligence and humanity of this phenomenal woman.

01 Beethoven MissaBeethoven – Missa Solemnis
Ann-Helen Moen; Roxana Constantinescu; James Gilchrist; Benjamin Bevan; Bach Collegium Japan; Masaaki Suzuki
Bis BIS-2321 SACD (bis.se)

Masaaki Suzuki has made a large number of recordings, both as a keyboard player and as the conductor of the Bach Collegium Japan. Many of these are of works by J.S. Bach (they include a complete set of the cantatas) but Suzuki has ranged further and has recorded Handel’s Messiah, Monteverdi’s Vespers and, more recently, Mozart’s Mass in C Minor.

Beethoven wrote two masses: the Missa Solemnis Op.123 and the Mass in C, Opus 86. In the past I have much preferred the latter since the Missa Solemnis seemed to me pompous and overblown. Well, one of the advantages of being a CD reviewer is that it forces one to re-examine what is often no more than a prejudice. This is a passionate, full-blooded performance leading up to a beautiful Agnus Dei.

02 WinterreiseSchubert – Winterreise
Randall Scarlata; Gilbert Kalish
Bridge Records 9494 (bridgerecords.com)

It was the great lieder exponent and baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, who put possibly the most indelible stamp on one of Schubert’s most famous song cycles. Over the course of Wilhelm Müller’s 24 poems Winterreise describes grief over lost love which progressively gives way to more general existential despair and resignation. The beloved is directly mentioned only halfway into the work and the literal winter’s journey is arguably in part allegorical for this psychological and spiritual one. Wintry imagery of cold, darkness and barrenness consistently serve to mirror the feelings of the isolated wanderer.

With wonderful control, Randall Scarlata’s big dramatic voice clearly grasps every subtlety of the various shades of gray and black described by Müller’s dark poetry. Scarlata breathes life into the rejected lover on the verge of madness, as we follow his lonely peregrinations through the snowbound landscape. Several tenors have played the role, and some believe the contrast between vocal tone and meaning has enhanced the drama. But Scarlata’s dark-chocolate-like baritone epitomizes the darkness in the work perfectly.

Pianist Gilbert Kalish is no shrinking violet either. Although one does not have to wait very long to experience his fulsome participation in the cycle, the Einsamkeit vignette is a superb example of the perfect partnership he strikes with Scarlata as Kalish emerges from the shadows cast by the baritone to dramatize the cruel and unsympathetic fate with forceful emotional veracity.

03 Caroline GelinasConfidences
Caroline Gélinas; Olivier Godin
ATMA ACD2 2781 (atmaclassique.com)

Mezzo-soprano Caroline Gélinas, having recently received the honour of Révélation Radio-Canada in the classical category, is, as an alumna of Atelier Lyrique de l’Opéra de Montréal, already known for her “magnetic stage presence, rich timbre and authentic and moving interpretations.” And listening to the emotively complex repertoire chosen for this debut solo recording, one couldn’t agree more. Having chosen to sing the roles of strong women acting ingeniously in difficult situations and tragic circumstances, Gélinas demonstrates an enormous dramatic range whilst maintaining exquisite vocal tone. As the three songs of Ravel’s Shéhérazade progress, the singer increases the intensity to portray the storyteller’s ingenious effort to prolong her life. For Debussy’s Trois Chansons de Bilitis, her voice floats freely as if in a dream over a more structured accompaniment, beautifully executed by pianist Olivier Godin. Gedichte der Königin Maria Stuart by Robert Schumann is a song cycle which spans 26 years of Mary Stuart’s life, from young girl to mother to imprisoned queen. Gélinas demonstrates a poignantly exquisite tenderness in the last movement as Mary prays while awaiting execution.

As a final offering on this recording, Gélinas tackles, and does great justice to, one of Maureen Forrester’s favourite cycles, The Confession Stone by Robert Fleming, based on poems by playwright and teacher Owen Dobson. Gélinas deftly changes character with each segment, portraying Mary, Joseph, Mary Magdalene, Jesus, Judas and God.

04 the SixteenSacred and Profane: Benjamin Britten; William Cornysh
The Sixteen; Harry Christophers
CORO COR16159 (thesixteen.com)

The music on this disc by The Sixteen, the United Kingdom-based choir and period instrument orchestra founded by Harry Christophers, includes work from various recordings that date back to 1991. Guided by Christophers, The Sixteen displays a technical command of polyphony and counterpoint matched only by the eloquence of their singers, memorably arrayed in this sacred and secular music from William Cornysh and Benjamin Britten.

Sacred and Profane is a sublime exaltation of the human voice in formal and more adventurous settings. The work of Cornysh (father and son) and Britten takes flight in these voices. Christophers and The Sixteen bring new renown to the Cornysh music marked by their more old-fashioned florid melodic style and Christophers and The Sixteen bring new renown to the Cornysh music, marked by their more old-fashioned melodic style and proto-madrigalian manner, as revealed in lucid and dynamic performances of Salve Regina and the celebrated Ave Regina, Mater Dei.

Britten’s choral music – the dark elements are rarely far from the surface, especially in the Sacred and Profane sequence – is superbly cast and performed. The Hymn to St Cecilia is quintessential Britten, with text by W.H. Auden and a setting that emphasizes not just the emotional and aesthetic power of music, but its eroticism as well. Britten’s music, like Auden’s poem, combines a classical tightness of form with a complexity of ideas about the role of the artist in the face of a disintegrating civilization. The Sixteen’s voices are clear and pure, and this acoustic gives the music the right amount of bloom.

01 Echo WomenOne Voice – Greatest Hits Vol.2
Echo Women’s Choir
Independent (echowomenschoir.ca)

Echo is a choir of women based in Toronto, cultivating in its own words “the beautiful, rich and powerful sound of adult women’s voices.” Co-directed by community music-maker (and past music director at Holy Trinity Anglican Church, the home of Echo) Becca Whitla and singer and choral conductor Alan Gasser, the 27-year-old choir has grown to 80 voices while committed to inclusivity and diversity in membership and repertoire.

Echo’s second album One Voice: Greatest Hits Volume 2 provides vivid live concert recordings of 25 favourite songs from its past 16 years. The choir’s commitment to social justice rings true in several selections. Just two examples: the anti-war anthem Last Night I Had the Strangest Dream penned by Ed McCurdy in 1950, and You Will Be Free, set by Gasser with words by South African religious leader and human rights activist Desmond Tutu.

Among the things that attract me to Echo’s repertoire is its warm-hearted global embrace. In addition to original Canadian compositions – I’d like to mention Echo’s premiere of the choral version of my own North of Java in its formative years – it also covers traditional folk song arrangements from several regions of Europe, Africa and the Americas.

The album’s global journey ends with the stirring gospel song Everything Will Be Alright by the Grammy Award-winning Rev. Dr. James Cleveland. It’s a passionate downtown Toronto rendition of the African-American Baptist original, its positive message echoing through my speakers.

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02 Handel Prima DonnaHandel’s Last Prima Donna: Giulia Frasi in London
Ruby Hughes; Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment; Laurence Cummings
Chaconne CHSA 0403 (chandos.net)

There have in recent years been many CDs consisting of solos or duets taken from the operas and oratorios of Handel. Such recordings always carry the danger of becoming merely a heterogeneous collection of extracts. A number of CDs have rectified this by concentrating on those roles created by particular performers. The CD reviewed here carries that strategy further by giving us a portrait of the soprano Giulia Frasi, who created several roles in Handel’s late oratorios but also sang in works by Vincenzo Ciampi, Thomas Arne, John Christopher Smith and Philip Hayes (extracts from works by these composers are included here). Many of these works were composed after Handel’s death in 1759 and, as David Vickers points out in an informative accompanying essay, they show how music moved from the high Baroque to the style of J.C. Bach and Haydn.

We don’t know much about what kind of singer Frasi was. My sense is that she had a bigger voice than Ruby Hughes, who is a lovely lyrical soprano. Most of the arias are slow and are designed to evoke pathos. This no doubt reflects the kind of parts that Frasi was asked to sing. The only aria which allows the singer to show her virtuosity is from Arne’s Alfred. It was written for Frasi as part of the 1753 revival of the work and is given the marking allegrissimo.

The singing and orchestral playing are both very fine on this disc. The members of the orchestra are not listed; if they had been, I would have singled out the splendid first oboist.

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