05 Alex EddingtonA Present from a Small Distant World: Vocal Music by Alex Eddington
Kristin Mueller-Heaslip; Daniel Ramjattan; Jennifer Tran; Joseph Ferretti; Elaine Lau; Alex Eddington
Redshift Records TK483 (alexeddington.com)

Toronto composer Alex Eddington made a splash in 2004, winning a SOCAN Award for his cheekily titled monodrama Death to the Butterfly Dictator! (libretto by Kristin Mueller-Heaslip). His ambitious vocal-focused debut album A Present from a Small Distant World is as unorthodox and in some ways just as cheeky. 

Eddington’s work embraces orchestral and choral music to electroacoustics, on the way adding period instruments and steel pan ensemble to his catalogue. And like much of Eddington’s oeuvre A Present from a Small Distant World can certainly be branded eclectic. It consists of six art songs composed between 2008 and 2020 authoritatively sung by soprano Mueller-Heaslip, plus three aphoristic acoustic guitar-centred interludes, sensitively played by Daniel Ramjattan, disrupted by spacey, Morse coded electronics by Eddington.

One of the album’s leitmotifs is interstellar communication. Its inspiration is revealed in the title track where Mueller-Heaslip sings part of Jimmy Carter’s 1977 speech that launched the Voyager spacecraft. Onboard was the Golden Record, a phonographic metal disc with a cross-section of the words, images and music of humanity. Explains Eddington, “… there is something wonderful about sending greetings hurtling outward,” even though chances they will be intercepted are slim.

The last track, INTERSTELLAR, To the Makers of Music (text: inscribed by hand on the abovementioned Golden Record) neatly brings together all the elements previously presented – (multi-tracked) vocals, guitar and electronics – atmospherically summing up Eddington’s vision of music drifting through time and space toward an unseen audience.

06 LITANIESNick Cave; Nicholas Lens – L.I.T.A.N.I.E.S
Various Artists
Deutsche Grammophon 483 9745 (deutschegrammophon.com/en)

Dark, intimate and beautiful – the music on this album flows like the fragmented pieces of night’s shadows in search of belonging to a world that is no more. Featuring four voices and an 11-piece instrumental ensemble, this chamber opera is simply breathtaking. There are no big arias here and no extravagant operatic gestures; instead, the melodies are unpretentious and the music is dreamy, almost trancelike, creating a self-enclosed world of small wonders. 

Belgian composer Nicholas Lens and Australian rock icon Nick Cave’s second opera collaboration unfolded during the lockdown in 2020. The album was recorded in Lens’ home studio where he and his daughter, Clara-Lane Lens (who accidentally found herself in Brussels during the lockdown), stepped into the singing roles, along with fabulous Denzil Delaere and Claron McFadden. The understated voices added a beautiful and real vulnerability to both the music and lyrics. Cave’s libretto cuts through the tonal layers like a well-honed knife; his poetry is both haunting and relentless in its chase of divine recognition for humankind. The sparsity of the music proved to be advantageous in this opera – every note, every phrase, every word, has a visible meaning. From the opening Litany of Divine Absence, to the gorgeous violin lines in Litany of the First Encounter and Litany of Godly Love, to the cinematic Litany of Divine Presence, the 12 movements unravel stories of the human condition.

07 Rising The CrossingRising w/The Crossing
The Crossing; Donald Nally
New Focus Recordings FCR281 (newfocusrecordings.com/catalogue/?artist=11549)

Living in the throes of a raging global pandemic we all experience our “new normal” differently. If ever we could imagine a soundtrack that unites us through the silent roar of isolation it would be one that reflects both the hopelessness of it all as well as the uplifting energy of hope itself. With its soul-stirring music, Rising w/ The Crossing certainly qualifies to provide powerful anthems for our self-isolating sensibilities. 

The choral ensemble conducted by Donald Nally brings uniquely thoughtful and penetrating insight to music by Joby Talbot, Ēriks Ešenvalds, Dieterich Buxtehude, Paul Fowler, Alex Berko, Ted Hearne and Santa Ratniece; works that follow in the wake of David Lang’s powerfully prescient protect yourself from infection, the text of which was inspired by instructions that rose out of the last pandemic: the Spanish flu. 

The sense of awe and wonder which hovers over this entire recital is particularly close-focused in Lang’s work. It is echoed in the ever-shifting heartbeat of the wonderfully supple voices of the singers who make up The Crossing; voices that ceaselessly and eloquently trace the melodies of other stellar miniatures too. 

Much of the music is performed a cappella and this gives the works in question a wonderfully spectral quality. This is certainly true of Hearne’s 2016 work What it might say. But equally, it is Buxtehude’s Baroque-period works featuring the Quicksilver ensemble that enliven the elusive moments of this ethereal music’s whispered breath.

Listen to 'Rising w/The Crossing' Now in the Listening Room

08 Ruders 13 ChildPoul Ruders – The Thirteenth Child
Soloists; Odense Symfoniorkester; Bridge Academy Singers; David Starobin; Benjamin Shwartz
Bridge Records 9527 (bridgerecords.com)

The Thirteenth Child is an opera in two acts by Danish composer Poul Ruders (The Handmaid’s Tale) with a libretto by Becky and David Starobin. Performed by a large cast of excellent soloist singers, the Odense Symfoniorkester and the Bridge Academy Singers, the opera is based on the Brothers Grimm fairy tale, The Twelve Brothers.

The Thirteenth Child follows Princess Lyra’s quest to find her 12 exiled brothers and bring them home to save the kingdom. The singers are all excellent and their vocal abilities are displayed throughout the opera via the modern and challenging parts written for them, often covering extreme tessitura on both sides of their vocal range. This is especially evident in the several falsetto effects sung by the two bass-baritones. 

The opera is fast paced and action packed with spells and adventures of good versus evil mixed in with tragedy and triumph. The cast of principals is large and the opera runs a short 77 minutes. As a result, the characters are not as developed as they could be and this makes meaningful audience engagement challenging. It may be that adding a third act could not only resolve this but would also allow for the story to be modernized and for Ruders to showcase more of his capable writing as he does for Princess Lyra and her suitor Frederic.

Commissioned by the Santa Fe Opera and the Odense Symfoniorkester, The Thirteenth Child was recorded in Denmark and New York. It was premiered in Santa Fe, July 2019.

Listen to 'Poul Ruders – The Thirteenth Child' Now in the Listening Room

09 CooperstownCooperstown – Jazz Opera in Nine Innings
Daniel Montenegro; Carin Gilfry; Rod Gilfry; Daniel Favela; Julie Adams; Band; Sasha Matson
Albany Records TROY1848 (albanyrecords.com)

Cooperstown: Jazz Opera in Nine Innings, is scored for a 1950s-style jazz quintet and five singers. The composer is Sasha Matson with libretto by Mark Miller, inspired by A. Bartlett Giamatti’s essay The Green Fields of the Mind. Although this story takes place at the ballpark, it features all of the elements of a great opera: Angel, from impoverished Santo Domingo and newly raised to the majors as a pitcher, falls in love with Lilly from the Upper East Side. Undermining their romance is Marvin, the aging pro catcher and Jan, the jealous sports agent in love with Angel. The dual love of baseball and romantic love stories unfolds as the team manager, Dutch, attempts to manage the relationship struggles to focus on winning games. 

In the liner notes Matson describes in detail the recording process that allowed his team to capture sounds reminiscent of the original Blue Note recordings (microphone choices, specific recording and mixing equipment). The result is an outstanding listening experience: the sounds are rich and full but the music is as close and detailed as it would be in an intimate luscious jazz lounge. The classically trained voices are gorgeous and skillfully blend in with the jazz quintet. Each scene (inning) is bookended by a short and seamless transition in the form of an instrumental jazz chart played with impressive skills by musicians of the jazz quintet. Cooperstown might perhaps be more at home on a theatrical stage than at the opera house but it is a top-shelf musical experience.

Listen to 'Cooperstown – Jazz Opera in Nine Innings' Now in the Listening Room

10 Amanda TosoffEarth Voices
Amanda Tosoff
Empress Music EMG702 (amandatosoff.com)

Toronto-based piano player and composer, Amanda Tosoff, has just released a stunning new collection of songs that blurs the lines between jazz and art song. Cleverly marrying texts by classic poets such as Pablo Neruda and Rumi, with her own and others’ compositions, plus drawing on the talents of seven different singers, a string quartet, two sax players and a jazz trio, Tosoff has given us a very rich body of work.

Opening with the powerful combination of Tosoff’s composition, Edgar Alan Poe’s words and Emilie-Claire Barlow’s singing, A Dream Within a Dream is one of the jazzier pieces on the album. With sax by Kelly Jefferson and Allison Au, and Jon Maharaj (bass) and Morgan Childs (drums) filling out the rhythm section, it’s lively, complex and thought-provoking. The middle part of the album is more in the art song vein and I found myself especially drawn to these songs with their interplay of piano and strings and voice. Birdwings, based on a Rumi poem and beautifully sung by Alex Samaras, also has Tosoff stretching out a bit with a lyrical piano solo. Oh, Life (written by Mike Ross), featuring cello (Beth Silver) and violin (Aline Homzy) plus Laila Biali’s and Samaras’ beautifully blended voices add to the poignancy of the lyrics. To a Stranger, written by Tosoff and based on a Walt Whitman poem, is spare and gorgeous with just a string quartet and Felicity Williams’ ethereal singing. A Canadian album devoted to poetry wouldn’t seem complete without a Joni Mitchell tune and her early anti-war song, Fiddle and the Drum gets a strong reworking centred around Lydia Persaud’s solid vocals.

11 Lara SolnickiThe One and the Other
Lara Solnicki
Outside In Music OiM 2013 (larasolnicki.com)

Multi-gifted vocalist, composer and poet, Lara Solnicki, has just released a compelling and kinesthetic recording project, utilizing her considerable gifts to manifest a cinematically framed collection of original post-modern art songs. Solnicki has said, “I call these songs ‘tone poems,’ because they are governed and held together by a ‘poetic logic.’” Produced by eminent multi-instrumentalist and film composer Jonathan Goldsmith, the CD also features performances by skilled musicians Peter Lutek (alto sax/electro-acoustic clarinet and bassoon); Hugh Marsh (electric violin); Rob Piltch (electric and acoustic guitar); Scott Peterson (acoustic and electric bass); Rich Brown (electric bass); and Davide DiRenzo on drums.

Well recorded by Jeff Wolpert, the first offing is Bit Her Sweet Christopher Street, where Solnicki’s poetic lyrics and her gorgeous, sonorous vocal tone evoke stark images that speak to diverse emotional reactions in a physical space of contrasts. This song seems to address the dense, urban zones where many of us live our lives, and that there can still be beauty, mystery and the deep presence of nature. Goldsmith’s acoustic piano work here is mesmerizing, as is Piltch’s masterful contribution on both electric and acoustic guitar. The Embrace is a composition of incredible beauty and Solnicki brings to mind the incomparable Norma Winstone as she wraps her warm voice around each intriguing musical nuance and syllable.

This inspired song cycle concludes with the three-movement The One and The Other, described as an allegory and tragic story in which a man ironically drowns in the image of love. 1) Pass a Glass, is a free-form tour-de-force for both Marsh and DiRenzo. 2) Awe of the Sea effectively incorporates pizzicato strings and the entire ensemble to evoke waves, motions, seagulls and unfathomable depths. 3) Hollow the Need, leaves the listener washed up on a paradisiacal shore, having passed through a vortex of emotions, images and the sublime glory of words and music.

01 MachautMachaut – The Lion of Nobility
Orlando Consort
Hyperion CDA68318 (hyperion-records.co.uk/dc.asp?dc=D_CDA68318)

Guillaume de Machaut’s status as the 14th century’s greatest composer is borne out by the respect in which he was held by his contemporary musicians as well as by the list of aristocratic patrons who supported him. One such patron, King John II of France, must surely have been the Lion of Nobility alluded to in the title of this CD; his capture at the battle of Poitiers in 1356 personified the massive English victory.

So it is that En demantant et lamentant comprises the longest track on this CD. (At a whisker under 18 minutes, it is an eternity by early music standards!) There are no choruses in this composition, as Machaut commences his powerful lament for King John’s fate. He sums up his own distress as he recounts his sad task, going on to describe the King’s bravery: “A lion of nobility in good times, leopard of ferocity in adversity...” Listen to the Orlando Consort as they unravel Machaut’s text, the countertenor part adding its own ethereal quality.

Of course, there are other compositions. Dame, se nous m’estes lointeinne is a rarity, a monophonic composition, since Machaut is famous for his highly profound polyphonic pieces. Even stranger is his Moult sui de bonne heure nee – written from a woman’s perspective. And, yes, the lady is as passionate and romantic in her love for her lover as the male nobles are for their ladies. 

Overall, however, Machaut’s tribute to King John dominates this CD. Much as Machaut dominated 14th-century music.

02 Strozzi Vaso DesioVago Desio – Barbara Strozzi Opus 8, Part 1
Elissa Edwards; Richard Kolb
Acis APL90277 (acisproductions.com)

Venetian singer and composer Barbara Strozzi (1619-1677) is perhaps one of the most prolific composers of secular music of her time. With Vago Desio, musicologist and theorbo player Richard Kolb and soprano Elissa Edwards offer Strozzi’s eighth and last known opus, performing from an edition edited by Kolb himself (Complete Works of Barbara Strozzi, Cor Donato Editions, 2019).

Vago Desio’s five arias and two cantatas are set to poetry about the intricacies of love and it is highly likely that Strozzi wrote them for herself to sing. Strozzi’s maturity as a composer is displayed throughout the opus with her powerful vocal writing style, which is lyrical, expressive, dramatic and always guided by text. Most notable is the show piece L’Astratto. The light-hearted parody cantata is sung by a distressed lover who sets out to choose an appropriate style of aria to express the pains of love. The ten-minute piece mixes aria-like phrases, short bursts of recitatives and sarcastic commentary which interrupts each of her short unsuitable attempts before finding an acceptable formula which leads to the complete aria. 

Vago Desio shows Kolb as a sensitive and audacious theorbo player while Edwards shines in interpretations that are gorgeously nuanced with engaging and passionate vocals. Edwards is also a specialist of expressive melodic gestures, which were essential to Strozzi’s style. As such, a concert version of Vago Desio would be welcome. The album also includes two sets of Correntes by Venetian composer Bernardo Gianoncelli with Kolb on the archlute.

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