04 Richard ThompsonRichard Thompson – The Mask in the Mirror, A Chamber Opera
SANAA Opera Project; Stephen Tucker
Navona Records nv6209 (navonarecords.com) 

Richard Thompson’s haunting opera in three acts The Mask in the Mirror tells the story of the ill-fated marriage between the African-American writer Paul Laurence Dunbar and the lighter-skinned Alice Ruth Moore. Thompson tells the story of the lovers with minute and tragic detail, allowing his singers plenty of space to explore the tension of this extraordinary relationship, which unfolds in the context of racism in 19th-century America as well as in terms of the psychological drama surrounding two lovers ill-equipped to distinguish between sexual desire and the loftier ideals of their fraught relationship.

Cameo Humes’ Dunbar is truly inspired and the character unfolds through his sonorous tenor which is wielded with enormous power to unlock the vivid metaphor of the mask in the mirror. Angela Owens’ Moore is equally spectacular. She describes Moore’s less successful but nevertheless equally strong character with dramatic thrust. Together with other incidental characters – all exceptionally developed by Thompson – and the superbly moody orchestral performance, The Mask in the Mirror is powerful and heady, as well as appropriately literary.

The score remains relatively spare throughout yet provides enough detail to tell the complex story. Thompson demonstrates a masterly control of dramatic pace, ratcheting up tension slowly but surely so that the final dénouement reaches a devastating climax, aided by performances – led by the dark-hued timbre of Humes’ Dunbar – which vividly project the complicated nature of the drama.

05 Perpetual TwilightPerpetual Twilight
Choral Scholars of University College Dublin; Desmond Earley
Signum Classics SIGCD558 (signumrecords.com) 

While Ireland has long been renowned for its outstanding literary tradition, it is perhaps less well known for its contributions to choral music. Nevertheless, if this CD Perpetual Twilight, featuring the Choral Scholars of University College Dublin under the direction of Desmond Earley, is any indication, it would appear that the current Irish choral scene is a very vibrant one indeed.

The 28-member chamber choir was founded by Earley in 1999, and since then, numerous tours to various parts of Europe and the United States have earned the ensemble international acclaim. From the opening track Dúlamán, a lively traditional working song from Northern Ireland, it’s evident that the disc is infused with a strong Irish flavour – and what a warm and mellow sound the ensemble produces! Tenors – rares aves in many vocal ensembles – appear to be a major component of the Choral Scholars, resulting in a well-balanced blend of vocal ranges.

The thoughtfully chosen program – an attractive mix of traditional folk songs with newly commissioned pieces – includes the well-known My Love is like a Red Red Rose and Danny Boy in addition to the less familiar Maid of Culmore and Bó na Leathadhairce, the latter arranged by the conductor. Earley is also a composer, and works such as the uplifting Body of the Moon and Strings in the Earth and Air, are testament to his creative talents.

Throughout, the 13-member instrumental ensemble – including a bodhrán, a tin whistle and a harp – provide a solid and sensitive accompaniment. For lovers of the Irish folk tradition, Perpetual Twilight is a delight – joyful singing from the land of Joyce and Beckett – comhghairdeas!

01 Ottawa Bach ChoirHandel – Dixit Dominus; Bach & Schütz – Motets
Ottawa Bach Choir; Lisette Canton
ATMA ACD2 2790 (atmaclassique.com/En)

The Ottawa Bach Choir and Ensemble Caprice join forces in this recording for thrilling performances of Baroque masters Handel, Bach and Schütz. From the outset of Dixit Dominus, the quick pace and precision with which the chorus deftly moves through Handel’s ever-running and cascading phrases is awe-inspiring. Daniel Taylor guests for the alto aria Virgam virtutis in which the interplay between his golden voice and the continuo instruments is sublime. Soprano Kathleen Radke maintains a wonderfully relaxed vocal line through the execution of elaborate lines in Tecum principium in die virtutis and later she and Kayla Ruiz create enchanting chemistry in the soaring duet De torrente in via bibet.

Looking back almost a century, next on the recording are rarely heard Passion Motets from Heinrich Schütz’s Cantiones Sacrae. Heavily influenced by Italian madrigals of the time, Lisette Canton coaxes the full anguish of the thematic material from the choir in emphasizing dissonances and highly expressive rhetoric. The recording ends with homage to the choir’s eponym. In Bach’s Komm, Jesu, komm, excellent recording technique and choice of venue shine through, with a lovely resonance from the start and an erudite interchange captured in the dialogue of a choir divided into two sections by the composer.

02 Da Capo New WorksNew Works
Da Capo Chamber Choir
Independent DC 003-18 (dacapochamberchoir.ca)

Waterloo-based DaCapo Chamber Choir is celebrating its 20th anniversary with this release featuring Canadian choral works by six established and four emerging composers, set to words ranging from Shakespeare to D.H. Lawrence. Recorded in four sessions over a two-year period, each work was a choir premiere, with all but James Rolfe’s composition featured in DaCapo’s annual, national composition competition.

Choral lovers will rejoice (and perhaps sing along) to these diverse works. Of the established composers, Benjamin Bolden’s Harvest features classic choral counterpoint with slightly atonal sounds interspersed with tonal sections. Jeff Enns’ Le Pont Mirabeau has higher-pitched Romantic harmonies to stress the words. Rolfe’s Shadows is a to-be-expected well-written piece with dramatic word-painting rhythms at “autumn deepens” and atonality on “distress,” and a vibrant unexpected high-pitched tenor solo (sung by Brian Black) at the dramatic highpoint. Emerging composer David Archer’s In Sweet Music is a slow work with classic choral qualities (swells and lyricism) with a touch of minimalism at the repeated “fall asleep” end part. Works by Christine Donkin, Don Macdonald, Sheldon Rose, Matthew Emery, Nicholas Ryan Kelly and Patrick Murray complete the recording.

Conducted by founding artistic director Leonard Enns, the choir sings with both technical and musical acumen. Each vocal section is strong, knowledgeable and unafraid to sing both new and established choral sounds with perfect balance and articulation. Canadian choral music shines thanks to DaCapo!

01 Bach BWV21JS Bach – Cantata BWV 21
Bach Choir of Bethlehem; Greg Funfgeld
Analekta AN 2 9540 (analekta.com/en)

Of all the musical commentaries on the biblical texts used in service – most importantly on the Gospel reading – the cantatas of Johann Sebastian Bach are not only the most famous, but are also as pious as they are magnificent. These are the works that foretold the choral masterpieces such as the mighty St John and St Matthew Passions that came in 1724 and 1727 respectively.

The repertoire on this disc, Ich hatte viel Bekümmernis, Cantata BWV21 (1714) precedes those two great Passions as well as Bach’s B-Minor Mass (1749). The cantata marks a transition from motet style on biblical and hymn text to operatic recitatives and arias on contemporary poetry; and Bach characterized the work as “e per ogni tempo (and for all times),” indicating that due to its general theme, the cantata is suited for any occasion. On this disc it is bookended by two arias: Heil und Segen from Gott, man lobet dich in der stille (God, You are praised in the stillness) BWV120 and Liebt, ihr Christen, in der Tat from Die Himmel eräzhlen die Erhe Gotte (The heavens tell the glory of God) Cantata BWV76.

These gentle works get suitably sensitive performances from the Bach Choir of Bethlehem with sopranos Cassandra Lemoine and Rosa Lamoreaux, countertenor Daniel Taylor, tenor Benjamin Butterfield and baritone William Sharp investing everything as they solo with heartfelt intensity. Conductor Greg Funfgeld points up the drama of Bach’s choral works with eloquent restraint, seriousness and joy.

Handel – Agrippina
Theater an der Wien; Patricia Bardon; Jake Arditti; Danielle de Niese; Filippo Mineccia; Balthasar Neumann Ensemble; Thomas Hengel Brock
Naxos 2.110579-80 (naxosdirect.com)

Handel – Ode to St. Cecilia’s Day
Bach Choir of Bethlehem; Greg Funfgeld
Analekta AN 2 9541 (analekta.com/en) 

These two recordings take very different approaches to two key works in Handel’s life, including choices between period and modern instrumentation.

02a Handel AgrippinaIn 1709, in the early phase of Handel’s operatic career, he was approached in Venice by Cardinal Vincenzo Grimani to set Grimani’s satirical libretto based on Agrippina’s machinations to have her son Nero named emperor of Rome. Generally regarded as Handel’s first great opera – there’s a treasure trove of arias – its ribald text has been inspiring radically contemporary stagings for the past 20 years, most notably by David McVicar. Theater an der Wien’s production is a highly entertaining combination of musical purity and Robert Carsen’s provocative staging. The Balthasar Neumann Ensemble plays period instruments and three of the eight roles are sung by countertenors. Meanwhile, there’s a steely sheen to the furnishings, an iMac adorns a desk, and the fine mezzo-soprano Patricia Bardon, who has sung many of Handel’s principal females, plays the title role, stalking the halls of power in a leather skirt; at other times, the scatterbrained Nero, sung by countertenor Jake Arditti, frolics poolside with bikini-clad maidens. There’s some quickie desktop sex, a conspicuous issue of Vogue, onstage cameras and projections, staged news stories, a Mussolini-esque Claudio and, following the traditional happy ending, a gratuitous grand guignol bloodbath led by a mad Nero. Filmed in March 2016, staging that might have seemed over the top just three years ago approaches verisimilitude as our political culture increasingly resembles ancient Rome in decline.

02b Handel St CeciliaWith a 30-year leap in Handel’s career, we come to his 1739 setting of John Dryden’s Ode for Saint Cecilia’s Day, here performed by the Bach Choir of Bethlehem and issued in commemoration of the choir’s 120th anniversary and Greg Funfgeld’s 35th as its conductor. The 88-voice choir is a Pennsylvania institution along with its annual Bach Festival and Bach Festival Orchestra. It’s Handel on a relatively moderated but still grand scale, harkening back to 19th- and early 20th-century traditions. The orchestra is playing modern instruments, but there are only 27 of them, and that large choir provides depth and an impressive richness. Two fine Canadian singers appear as soloists, lending distinguished skills to the arias. Halifax-native, tenor Benjamin Butterfield, brings a brassy bravado to the drum and horn effusion of The trumpet’s loud clangor, while Edmonton-born Cassandra Lemoine’s refined soprano dovetails beautifully with Robin Kani’s flute on The soft complaining flute. Lemoine’s grace and clarity also highlight the full force of choir and orchestra in the sustained conclusion of As from the pow’r of sacred lays.

03 Mahler Alexander QuartetIn Meinem Himmel – The Mahler Song Cycles
Kindra Scharich; Alexander String Quartet
Foghorn Classics FCL 2019 (foghornclassics.com) 

This project comes from San Francisco and it is an experiment by the renowned Alexander String Quartet to transcribe three of Mahler’s orchestral song cycles, Songs of a Wayfarer, Rückert-Lieder and Kindertotenlieder for string quartet in order to experience this repertoire in an intimate chamber music setting and perhaps enrich and enhance its emotional world. I had some misgivings, because nowadays there is a definite trend to different versions of the great works, by ambitious musicians, that could harm and distort the composer’s original intent.

To my mind, these are definitely orchestral songs and require the power and the colours of the full contingent of a symphony orchestra with Mahler’s unique orchestration for their musical and emotional impact. The sound of a string quartet is entirely different and hasn’t the pungent quality the wind instruments provide and it cannot possibly duplicate what Mahler had in mind, although the transcriber violinist Zakarias Grafilo, gave much thought and effort to preserve some of the aural colours and even the emotional innigkeit of the original, yet es ist kein Mahler as I imagine Leonard Bernstein would say.

Nevertheless it’s a labour of love. Idiomatic and virtuoso string playing and the singing is simply gorgeous. Young American mezzo Kindra Scharich has a beautiful voice, total emotional commitment and musical imagination that certainly makes worthwhile listening. Her soulful, anguished tone when the rejected lover sings about the two beautiful blue eyes of his lost sweetheart (Die zwei blauen Augen) is simply heartbreaking and I just loved her voice so full of joy in exclaiming Heia! in Ging heut morgen. An interesting experiment, but not quite Mahler.

04 Harbison RequiemJohn Harbison – Requiem
Soloists; Nashville Symphony Chorus and Orchestra; Giancarlo Guerrer
Naxos 8.559841 (naxosdirect.com) 

John Harbison’s Requiem captures the nature of death with both metaphysical and aesthetic sophistication, firstly because of the authentic use of the Latin text in its scriptural context and secondly because of the utterly existential prescience of this choral performance. Despite the fact that the music eventually soars with the apposite release of Libera me, the shadowy solemnity of the preceding sequences makes the work both profoundly melancholic and breathtakingly beautiful. It is a monumental work – Harbison’s pièce de résistance – appropriate to the events of 9/11 which inspired it. Consequently the use of the Latin in the setting of a traditional requiem might commemorate a divine passion – such as in the Introit – yet the work commemorates abject human suffering.

The musicians of the Nashville Symphony and Chorus convey the gravitas of Harbison’s epic work with a powerful sense of both sorrow and spontaneity. Chorus director Tucker Biddlecombe’s inspired choices of male and female voices – the powerful and incisive (solo) singing of Jessica Rivera (soprano), Michaela Martens (mezzo-soprano), Nicholas Phan (tenor) and Kelly Markgraf (baritone) – and the ensemble performances, bring a passionate, soaring intensity to the antiphons, responsories and sequences, to produce an absorbing and inexorable service. Giancarlo Guerrero fixes his sights on the sheer drama of the proverbial solemn high mass and shepherds a program that swirls with sinewy energy heavy with the atmosphere of foreboding before its ultimate – even joyful – release of the final In paradisum.

05 Kira BraunDamask Roses – Art Songs by Mozart; Dvorak and Quilter
Kira Braun; Peter Krochak
Independent (kirabraunsoprano.com)

With Valentine’s Day approaching I enjoyed this love-themed CD, the latest in a series of varied art-song programs by Canadian duo Kira Braun and Peter Krochak. A relative (niece/first cousin) of famed Canadian father-and-son baritones Victor and Russell Braun, soprano Kira demonstrates her own high standard. Here there are three song groups by different composers: Mozart (18th century, in German), Dvořák (19th century, in Czech), and Roger Quilter (early 20th century, in English). The opening three Mozart songs demonstrate the duo’s fine ensemble and Braun’s excellent diction and tone, though I would have liked to have heard even more charm and colour in both voice and piano. By contrast, the interpretations of four selections from Quilter’s Seven Elizabethan Lyrics, Op.12 are especially appealing, including the title song, Damask Roses. Braun’s pure soprano is attractive and she brings both restraint and conviction to Weep You No More and also to Quilter’s earlier Love’s Philosophy from Three Songs, Op.3.

In both the Quilter lyrics and Dvořák’s Gypsy Songs, Op.55 there are songs in a higher range, that she is quite equal to, adopting a fiery demeanor in Set the Fiddle Scraping that Krochak matches with lively piano accompaniment. Their version of the well-known Songs My Mother Taught Me is appropriately affectionate; they bring out Dvořák’s contrasts and distinctive touches in this set, making it one I’m pleased to be able to return to.

Listen to 'Damask Roses: Art Songs by Mozart; Dvorak and Quilter' Now in the Listening Room

Roger Knox

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