04 Britten Death in VeniceBritten – Death in Venice
Soloists; Teatro Real Chorus and Orchestra; Alejo Pérez
Naxos 2.110577 (naxos.com)

Adapted from Thomas Mann’s 1912 novella, Death in Venice (1973) was 20th-century English composer, conductor and pianist Benjamin Britten’s final opera. Its libretto has a stark, dark plotline: Gustav von Aschenbach, a famous but failing German novelist, travels to Venice for invigorating inspiration only to find disturbing mystery, a troubling infatuation with a boy called Tadzio, internal vacillation and melancholy, cholera – and as the title states, death.

The spare narrative, however, allows librettist Myfanwy Piper and composer Britten room to meditate on a rich tapestry of grand themes, primarily through the voice of Aschenbach. These include reflections on dichotomous Apollonian vs Dionysian philosophies rooted in Nietzsche’s writing, Greek mythology and ideals, and the perilous dignity accorded even an acclaimed artist (as Britten was by this time in his career).

Propelling the drama however is the doomed homoerotic May-December longing at the core of the story. It’s lent poignant authenticity by Mann and Britten’s own biographies, underscored by Britten’s dedication of the score to Peter Pears, his longtime professional and life partner, who premiered the role of Aschenbach.

Musically, Britten’s score is a study in brilliant orchestration of refreshing invention, vigour and chamber music delicacy. Characters are deftly rendered in contrasting musical styles and genres. Italian opera buffa is parodied and Aschenbach’s vocals are supported by orchestral strings and winds. By way of contrast a five-piece percussion section provides a very adroit evocation of the timbre and texture of Balinese gamelan music – representing the “other” – underpinning all of the boy Tadzio’s stage appearances.

John Daszak is exemplary as Aschenbach, and Willy Decker’s 2014 Teatro Real, Madrid production brilliantly supports the cumulative impact of the final tragic scene of Britten’s last, emotionally resonant, opera.

05 Golijov AyreGolijov – Ayre: Live
Against the Grain Theatre; Miriam Khalil
Against the Grain Records ATG001CD (againstthegraintheatre.com)

After I heard Ayre: Live for the first time, I knew this recording was going to be one of my favourite albums of 2018. The immediacy of the live recording is always exciting and Osvaldo Golijov’s song cycle for soprano and a small chamber ensemble is beyond gorgeous – it is intimate yet powerful, piercing with emotion and mesmerizing in its tonal expression. Like the air we breathe (the album’s title means air in medieval Spanish), it transcends the boundaries between music traditions, languages and cultures.

Based on the interweaving melodies, rhythms and poetry of Arab, Christian and Sephardic Jewish culture in Spain, Golijov also weaves in his own compositional language thus making Ayre an elaborate historical and emotional narrative. Eleven songs flow inherently from one to another while the energy rises and falls effortlessly with each one. Una madre comió asado and Nani are heavenly sounding, tranquil lullabies (though the texts are implying more complex emotions). Combinations of electronica and traditional melodies in Wa Habibi makes this song surprisingly fresh and captivating. Tancas serradas a muru, with its bewitching vocals and tribal rhythms, is a whirl of primal energies and, in contrast, Kun li-guitari wataran ayyuha al-maa’, a poem spoken in Arabic, creates a wonderful aural sparseness.

The superb chamber ensemble of Toronto’s Against the Grain Theatre has a wonderful synergy with the company’s co-founder, soprano Miriam Khalil, a true star of this recording. Her immense range of colours and fascinating vocal transformations made her performance on this album both spectacular and touching.

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01 Lorelei EnsembleImpermanence
Lorelei Ensemble
Sono Luminus DSL-92226 (sonoluminus.nativedsd.com)

Impermanence is an album on a mission. The liner notes offer a lengthy essay by Beth Willer, artistic director of the nine-voice Boston-based women’s vocal group, Lorelei Ensemble. She mentions the migration of peoples, pilgrimage, the essential impermanence of existence, and the function of music “as a container of meaning,” among other topics.

Examining the old-juxtaposed-with-the-new-repertoire approach of this album, it can be grouped into four categories, beginning with the 12th-century song Portum in ultimo. Among the earliest of works in polyphonic notation, it’s preserved in a book meant for pilgrims travelling along the Camino de Santiago de Compostela.

The much larger second group consists of 15th-century motets by Guillaume Du Fay, the renowned Franco-Flemish composer, plus motets from the contested “anonymous” Turin Codex J.II.9 of Cypriot-French origin. The J.II.9 songs with their polyphonic freedom and piquant resultant harmonies reflect the remarkable fluidity of the people and cultures between the European mainland and the 15th-century French court in Cyprus.

In a third group falls the choral work Tsukimi (Moon Viewing 2013) by American composer Peter Gilbert, eliciting the Japanese celebration of the full moon in ancient Heian era poems. Eight individual songs, evocatively rendered by Gilbert, are interspersed among the motets and two Toru Takemitsu (1930-1996) Vocalises. Constituting the fourth group, these songs are from Takemitsu’s larger composition Windhorse, depicting Tibetan nomads.

The album closes with Takemitsu’s Vocalise II. It offers a satisfying tonal closing, the core of which is a quote from a Bantu lullaby, resolving the bracing modernist harmonies heard just beforehand. To my ear Lorelei Ensemble’s ambitious concept album works superbly.

02 QuartomRenaissance
Quartom
ATMA ACD2 2769 (atmaclassique.com/En/Albums/AlbumInfo.aspx?AlbumID=1613)

Recorded at St. Esprit Church in Montreal, this CD celebrates Quartom’s tenth anniversary, bittersweet perhaps, with the replacement of founding tenor Gaétan Sauvageau by the accomplished Antonio Figueroa. I was interested to see that the three other members, baritones Benoit Le Blanc, Julien Patenaude, and bass-baritone Philippe Martel, were all members of children’s choirs in their earlier years, two with Les Petits Chanteurs du Mont-Royal and the other, an alumnus of La Maitrise des petits chanteurs de Québec. It is clear that something in the musical education of these singers taught them exceptional phrasing technique in performance. For this is exactly what makes this recording of pure Gregorian chant alternating with Palestrina’s polyphonic settings remarkable.

Palestrina composed in what Monteverdi referred to as “prima prattica,” a “stile antico” of pure counterpoint in deference to an earlier era. Palestrina’s elegant curves of sound and long-breathed melody never detract from the original character of Gregorian chant on which his compositions are based. He imbued the melodies with vitality by incorporating rhythmic irregularities and clean sonorities with a few well-prepared dissonances to reflect textual nuance. He was the master of creating polyphonic textures that have distinct clarity. Therefore, his a cappella motets have a similar requirement of singers performing Gregorian chant: precision intonation and sensitivity to textual phrasing throughout – both of which are evident in Quartom’s performance, in addition to their exquisitely beautiful tone.

03 Nicandro e FilinoPaolo Lorenzani – Nicandro e Fileno
Le Nouvel Opéra; Les Boreades; Francis Colpron
ATMA ACD2 2770 (atmaclassique.com/En/Albums/AlbumInfo.aspx?AlbumID=1610)

Le Nouvel Opéra and Les Boréades de Montréal are Montreal-based companies dedicated to musicologically and performatively reviving, remounting and reimagining music of the Baroque era (1600 to 1750). Clearly committed to the authenticity, accuracy and specificity of this intricate music (along with its detailed performance practices), historical musicology and creative performance coalesce here on this 2018 recording to shine a light on music that otherwise would run the risk of being relegated to the footnotes of music history.

Here, the first ever recording of Nicandro e Fileno, Paolo Lorenzani’s (1640-1713) pastoral opera for six singers that was initially performed, in Italian, in 1681 before Louis XIV at the palace of Fontainebleau, is brought to life by an aggregation of thoughtful scholars, practitioners and performers. And while there is no doubt that the ensemble, under the skillful direction of conductor and Boréades founder Francis Colpron, is dedicated to the period piece accuracy of this music, these sides are not fusty and this music is not ossified. Rather, new life has been imbued across all three acts, and the once-forgotten Italian-style opera comes alive on this beautifully captured and rendered ATMA Classique recording. The music, along with its unpacking of the still-relevant and universal themes of love, along with its trials and tribulations, brings escapist joy to general music fans and early music enthusiasts alike in these troubled times. A detailed accompanying booklet capturing extensive historical notes and the opera’s libretto is a welcome addition.

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04 Mahler Das LiedMahler – Das Lied von der Erde
Magdalena Kožená; Stuart Skelton; Bayerischen RSO; Sir Simon Rattle
BR Klassik 900172 (br-klassik.de/orchester-und-chor/br-klassik-cds/symphonieorchester/br-klassik-cd-symphonieorchester-mahler-lied-simon-rattle-100.html)

Gustav Mahler began work on his “Symphony for Tenor, Alto (or Baritone) and Orchestra” in 1907, a year marked by a series of personal and professional tragedies. Around that time he was given an anthology of Chinese Tang dynasty poetry transliterated from French to German by Hans Bethge. Captivated by the melancholy tone of these poems that so well captured his sense of resignation, he sought out early recordings on wax cylinders of authentic Chinese music and, philosophical by nature, also immersed himself in Buddhist literature. Choosing several poems from this volume he created what he covertly regarded as his ninth symphony the following summer.

The present recording is assembled from live performances conducted by Sir Simon Rattle in January of 2018, his second and unquestionably his finest recording of this work. I normally prefer a darker-voiced contralto (or baritone) in this song cycle, however Magdalena Kožená’s beautiful mezzo-soprano upper register and sensitive tonal inflections eventually won me over. Even more impressive to my mind is the heroic tenor of the Australian Stuart Skelton, whose powerful voice rides effortlessly over the massive orchestration of the opening movement, yet is capable of an agile suppleness in the lighter movements that follow. The excellent Bavarian Radio orchestra once again demonstrate their stellar reputation as a Mahler orchestra dating back to the days of Rafael Kubelík’s superb box set of the symphonies from the 1960s.

The recording is clear and close-miked with negligible extraneous noises, and text and translations are included. Of the 60 or so recordings of this work that have seen the light of day this one surely belongs among the top ten.

05 Faure Duruffle RequiemFauré; Duruflé – Requiem
Julie Bouliane; Philippe Sly; Choeur de l’Eglise St. Andrew and St. Paul; Jean-Sebastien Vallée
ATMA ACD2 2779 (atmaclassique.com/En/Albums/AlbumInfo.aspx?AlbumID=1615)

The Requiem Masses by Fauré and Duruflé prove a nice pairing on this CD. Each composed three different versions of the choral Requiem, scored for chamber or full orchestra, or with organ accompaniment as chosen and lovingly performed by Jean-Sébastian Vallée on this recording. Both composers, eschewing the operatic 19th-century Requiem settings of Berlioz and Verdi, chose instead to focus on images of rest and peace. In both masses, the highly dramatic sections of Dies irae are omitted while the uplifting Pie Jesu is retained. Both composed Libera me for baritone soloist, and in this performance, Philippe Sly so beautifully intones the humble plea, never once diminishing the powerful timbre of his voice.

Fauré composed his melodies using the Hellenic principles of clarity, balance and serenity and Duruflé, writing 60 years later, based his on the Gregorian melodies for the Mass of the Dead, imbuing them with rhythmic variation and harmonic enhancement. The pace with which the Choir of the Church of St. Andrew and St. Paul is directed on this album allows for a deeply reverent quality throughout. In the Duruflé Pie Jesu, the interweaving of mezzo-soprano Julie Boulianne with Elinor Frey’s ad libitum cello results in a beautifully warm and inviting entreaty, while it is interesting to hear Les Petits Chanteurs du Mont-Royal sing Fauré’s Pie Jesu in perfect unison, rather than performed by the traditional solo treble.

07 Britten Death in VeniceFrank Martin – Mass for Double Choir
Westminster Choir; Joe Miller
Independent wcc1809 (naxosdirect.com/items/miller-mass-for-double-choir-465897)

Why isn’t the music of Frank Martin better known? Born in 1890 into a fervently Christian family – his father was a Calvinist minister – this Swiss-born composer reached maturity at a time when many composers were experimenting with new means of expression such as serialism and atonality. Nevertheless, while Martin did adopt certain contemporary styles, most of his music remained firmly rooted in the past. This was particularly evident in his works for chorus and never more so than in his great Mass for Double Choir performed here by the Westminster Choir under the direction of Joe Miller.

Written in 1922, the Mass was Martin’s only unaccompanied choral work and today it is regarded as among the greatest a cappella works of the 20th century. An intimately personal creation, Martin kept it under cover for nearly 40 years and it wasn’t until 1963 that it was first published and performed.

Not surprisingly, the Westminster Choir does it full justice. The work opens with simple flowing lines not dissimilar to those of Gregorian chant. Yet very soon, the score leaves medieval Europe and joins the 20th century with lush impressionistic harmonies. Indeed, the five-movement mass is a study in contrasts from the introspective Kryie to the solid Gloria and the mysterious Agnus Dei. Throughout, the choir provides a sensitive and profound performance – music written as a true testament to a composer’s deep Christian faith.

An added bonus on this disc is the inclusion of four short choral pieces by Edward Bairstow, Joel Phillips, Anders Öhrwall and Bernat Vivancos, all of which round out a most satisfying recording. For lovers of choral music this CD is a must – beautiful music exquisitely sung – we can’t ask for more.

01 Adieu mes tres bellesAdieu mes tres belles
Poline Renou; Matthieu Donarier; Sylvain Lemêtre
Yolk Records 3 2076 (yolkrecords.com)

The vocalist Poline Renou and clarinetist Matthieu Donarier have been making ethereally beautiful music for more than a decade. Joined on this excursion Adieu Mes Tres Belles by the percussion colourist Sylvain Lemêtre, their music makes a magical rhythmic turn with Renou’s pristine, high-sprung voice being daubed by rhythmic paint, so to speak, while both musicians are embraced by Donarier’s near-mystical harmonics as he breathes into his various clarinets.

This repertoire cuts a majestic swathe from early European monodies through the polyphonic music of the late Renaissance to the edge of the Baroque era. Despite this extraordinary range of music cutting through a myriad of modal frameworks, a magical gossamer-like thread sews it all together. This is largely due to the wraith-like presence of Renou, whose chaste, slender voice creates a sense of rapt spirituality throughout the proceedings. Her vocals are bathed in the voluptuous, round sound of Donarier’s clarinets, aptly suggesting a warm and resonant music from ninth-century anonymous works to those of Gilles Binchois, Michelangelo Rossi and Vicente Lusitano from the 15th to the 17th centuries.

Lemêtre’s drums create contemporary drama around the moments of Renou’s vivid word paintings and Donarier’s expressive chromaticisms and dissonance, of which Heu Me Domine is a splendid example. Overall the disc is a rapturous unveiling of sacred and secular works – a happy marriage of astute scholarship and daringly rigorous, idiomatic performance.

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