09 Henze PrinzHans Werner Henze – Das Prinz von Homburg
Adams; Boecker; Margita; Schneiderman; Kallenberg; Ebbecke; Orchestra of the Staatsoper Stuttgart; Cornelius Meister
Naxos 2.110668 (naxosdirect.com/search/747313566853)

Towards the end of Hans Werner Henze’s great opera, Der Prinz von Homburg, soldiers from the Prince of Homburg’s regiment sing “Remember: feeling alone can save us.” They are pleading for mercy for their leader, a highly distractible, irrepressibly romantic dreamer, governed more by feeling than by rules. He is about to be executed for disregarding his orders – even though by not following them he led his troops to a crucial victory. 

This production from Stuttgart Opera in 2019, set in a run-down gymnasium, is no treat for the eyes. But director Stephan Kimmig charges it with urgency, theatricality and a deep commitment to the humanitarian concerns of Henze and the brilliant Austrian writer Ingeborg Bachmann, whose libretto is based on a much-loved play from 1811 by Heinrich von Kleist. 

Kimmig is especially persuasive in highlighting the contrast between the Prince’s poetic world of imagination and the military’s regimented world of discipline in a way that forcefully resonates today, over 60 years after Henze wrote it – that is until the heavy-handed, awkward finale, where the cast pulls out scarves and T-shirts messaging sensitivity, empathy and freedom. 

Musically, the pleasures are innumerable. The singers are without exception convincing, especially Robin Adams as an endearing Prince. The orchestra of the Staatsoper Stuttgart under the direction of Cornelius Meister is incisive in the gorgeous orchestral interludes, and responsive in arias like Homburg’s moving ode to immortality, Nun, o Unsterblichkeit.

11 Eric WhitacreEric Whitacre – The Sacred Veil
Los Angeles Master Chorale
Signum Classics SIGCD630 (naxosdirect.com/ search/635212063026)

The Sacred Veil is a collaboration between longtime friends, composer Eric Whitacre and poet Charles Anthony Silvestri. In 2005, Silvestri lost his wife Julie to cancer, leaving him to raise their two young children. A decade later, Silvestri began to reflect on his loss and wrote poetry about his relationship with Julie, their courtship, love, hopes and dreams, and his loss and grief. The CD contains an interview with Whitacre and Silvestri where they discuss this; the booklet is generous, with each poem contextualized by Silvestri. 

The Sacred Veil refers to moments of births and deaths when a thin curtain, an almost imperceptible shield, lies between those who are living and those who have passed. The 12 movements each explore particular slivers of Silvestri’s reflections. The settings are intimate with poetry that offers powerful imagery throughout, the music is profound and heart wrenching, the chorus sounds exquisite, and pianist Lisa Edwards and cellist Jeffrey Zeigler’s emotional artistry is matched by their superb musical abilities.

The Sacred Veil is a deeply personal piece for Silvestri, yet the personal journey speaks to each of us individually. It is a memorable musical experience that transports us from one gripping moment to another and reaches its peak in the second-to-last movement with You Rise, I Fall; in the moment of death, when the loved one lets go and rises, those left behind descend into their darkest moments of grief. 

Premiered in February 2019, The Sacred Veil was recorded by the Los Angeles Master Chorale.

12 Tonu KorvitsTõnu Kõrvits – You  Are Light and Morning
Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir; Tallinn Chamber Orchestra; Risto Joost
Ondine ODE 1363-2 (naxosdirect.com/search/0761195136324)

Estonian composer Tõnu Kõrvits contributes a moving 60-minute work to the immense Estonian choral/orchestral repertoire with his colourful and detailed composition, You are Light and Morning (2019), performed here with compassion by the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir and Tallinn Chamber Orchestra conducted by Risto Joost.

Based on the poetry of 20th-century Italian writer, Cesare Pavese (1908-1950), the cycle abounds with emotional feelings of loss, grief, love, life and nature in Kõrvits’ Romantic- and Mahler-influenced tonal/atonal music. Six parts are sung in Italian and two in English. Highlights include the opening Fade In with its mysterious orchestral quiet minor chord that later reappears before the final song, enveloping the work in contemplative haunting soundscapes. The first part, Tu sei come una terra (You Are Like a Land), is accessible and modern simultaneously, as its introductory vocal motive (which recurs throughout the entire work), traditional choral colours and high string held notes with atonal touches, prepare the listener for what’s coming. Pavese’s poetic declaration to his love Constance is musically symbolized in To C. From C featuring full choir singing above softer walking/tiptoed pizzicato in the strings. The lush sound changes (like love sometimes) to suspenseful minor tonalities until the final vocal hum with more string plucks.  

As an Estonian-Canadian, I grew up and still listen to Estonian choral music. Kõrvits’ work here is so clearly his own, with the performers outdoing themselves in their interpretations.  Thank you/aitäh for this memorable music!

13 Part StabatMaterArvo Pärt – Stabat Mater
Gloriae Dei Cantores; Richard K. Pugsley
Gloriae Dei Cantores Recordings GDCD065 (naxos.lnk.to/StabatMaterEL)

If any composer could, singlehandedly, have created a public receptive to the holy minimalism of John Tavener and Górecki’s third symphony, it would be the monkish Estonian, Arvo Pärt whose 85th birthday (September 11) was the occasion of this release. Pärt‘s music has evolved through serialism – using the dissonances of atonal music – and Franco-Flemish choral music until, after years of meditation, religious consultation and even a break from composing, Pärt settled into using his singular voice to initiate his enduring tintinnabuli period, featuring such masterpieces as Tabula Rasa, Fratres and Cantus in Memory of Benjamin Britten.

This disc takes its name from Stabat Mater but also consists of other masterfully performed still and contemplative choral works. As with Pärt’s orchestral pieces, the uniqueness of this choral music is achieved largely through a build-up of dynamics and contrasting sonorities used in an almost circular manner. The Magnificat and Nunc dimittis are particularly eloquent examples. 

The longest work is Stabat Mater. While this music is intense, Pärt eschews the pain of the crucifixion; rather he imbues the event’s sadness with a ritualistic element by way of the gently rocking motion that forms the basis of the work. You couldn’t ask for a better end to this disc. Yet the build-up to it is extraordinary because Gloriæ Dei Cantores, directed by Richard K. Pugsley, has interiorized Pärt’s spirit – indeed his very soul – as they traverse his music to an unprecedented degree of poignancy, with beautifully moulded choral textures and colours.

Listen to 'Arvo Pärt: Stabat Mater' Now in the Listening Room

14 Marfa SongsMarfa Songs
Danielle Buonaiuto
Starkland ST-234 (starkland.com)

For her debut album, Marfa Songs, Danielle Buonaiuto enlisted four emerging composers to write song cycles for her. Marfa Songs features 19 premiere recordings by Douglas Buchanan, Natalie Draper, James Young and Canadian composer, Cecilia Livingston. Each composer provides a unique vocal terrain for Buonaiuto to explore: Buchanan’s Scots and Waters is influenced by Scottish music; Draper’s O sea-starved, hungry sea is ritualistic and portrays the sea’s powers; Young’s miniature Marfa Songs pay homage to the Texas high plains; and Livingston’s Penelope and Kalypso voyage through Homer’s Odyssey.

Marfa Songs is marked by stylistic differences that make it challenging to find musical cohesiveness and is best considered as a soundscape journey. Together with pianist John Wilson, Buonaiuto creates atmospheres that include a minimalistic panorama of a desert city, water odysseys, themes of mortality and eternity as well as Scottish folk songs and a Scots rendition of Psalm 23. Buonaiuto’s vocal agility is most notable in the Young song cycle, which is brazen and fun, although the purposeful minimalistic instrumentation and jumpy nature of the songs do not always serve her voice. Buonaiuto’s diction is flawless, especially in the highest registers and her emotional capacity as well as her full and warm voice is especially displayed in the Buchanan cycle.

Marfa Songs comes with a booklet that includes composer notes, lyrics and an introduction by American soprano Phyllis Bryn-Julson, one of the great interpreters of 20th century vocal music.

15 Togni Luminous VoicesPeter-Anthony Togni – Sea Dreams
Luminous Voices Chamber Choir
Leaf Music LM236 (leaf-music.ca)

Sea Dreams showcases eight works by Dartmouth-based composer, Peter-Anthony Togni, performed by the Calgary professional chamber choir, Luminous Voices, under artistic director Timothy Shantz, with special guest instrumentalists. 

The three-movement title track, Sea Dreams (2018), for choir and two flutes (Sara Hahn-Scinocco and Sarah MacDonald) reflects on Togni’s relationship with the ocean/sea/water and journey of faith. The first movement, Pray for those who are in Ships, draws on texts from T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets. The choir is cast as the sailing ship, singing diverse dynamics, held notes and harmonies, highlighted by soprano Katie Partridge’s warm high-pitched solo. The flutes are the water, playing atonal lines, puffs and breaths. Alma Redemptoris uses a Marian hymn text in its calmer mood and floating vocal swells. More Eliot texts, choir held notes, whispers, a tenor solo by Oliver Munar and flute wavelike runs adorn Perpetual Angelus

Sparse instrumentation in Earth Voices (2014) as hand drummer Tova Olson and percussionist Victor Cheng play contrasting builds to a more atonal vocal section, and bell rings with choral whispers. Bass clarinetist Jeff Reilly plays with nuance, low pitches and extended technique touches, especially during tenor Timothy Shantz’s colourful solo in Responsio introit, and the dramatic clarinet/choir duets in Silentio. The five a cappella compositions include the earlier work Psaume 98 (1997) with its more traditional counterpoint and repeated bass/tenor rhythms.

Togni’s choral composition evolution is perfectly recorded by Luminous Voices. An amazing artistic accomplishment by all!

Listen to 'Peter-Anthony Togni: Sea Dreams' Now in the Listening Room

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.

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