09 Elora SingersReena Esmail – This Love Between Us: Prayers for Unity; Barbara Croall – Giishkaapkag
Elora Singers; Mark Vuorinen
Independent TESR-001 (elorasingers.ca/hear/recordings)

The professional Elora Singers have established a reputation as one of the finest chamber choirs in Canada, particularly known for their commitment to Canadian repertoire. This admirable new release on their own imprint features two contrasting large-scale choral works by Canadian composer Barbara Croall and American composer Reena Esmail.

The subtitle, Prayers for Unity, of Esmail’s This Love Between Us (2016) tips listeners off to the composer’s intent. The work’s seven movements are titled after the major religious traditions of India: Buddhism, Sikhism, Christianity, Zoroastrianism, Hinduism, Jainism and Islam. Esmail has selected representative texts in the original seven languages from each, evoking unity, universal brotherhood and kindness. A signature element of the work is the inspired and effective incorporation of a Hindustani sitarist, vocal soloist and tabla player into the orchestral and choral texture, underscoring the fusion of North Indian and Western classical musical elements, both traditions Esmail is at home in.

Odawa First Nation composer and musician Barbara Croall’s 2019 Giishkaapkag (Where the Rock is Cut Through) is scored for choir, percussion and the pipigwan (Anishinaabe cedar flute) eloquently played by the composer. The vocals are underscored by a powerful, elegiac text condemning the violence to the feminine in creation. “Due to colonization,” writes Croall, “many women and girls likewise have suffered (and continue to suffer) … due to the many past and continuing violations of Shkakmigkwe (Mother Earth).” Referencing the present tragedy of murdered and missing Indigenous women, Croall reminds us that “the rocks bear witness and speak to us of this” – a message also heard clearly through her powerful music.

10 Rosa MysticaRosa Mystica – Musical Portraits of the Blessed Virgin Mary
Royal Birmingham Conservatoire Chamber Choir; Paul Spicer
Somm Recordings SOMMCD 0617 (naxosdirect.com/search/748871061729)

Among the stated objectives of this record label, one stands out and it is this: “to uncover new [music] … from the unique to the extraordinary…” This disc, Rosa Mystica, not only fits that objective, but it does so with a great deal of reverential eloquence. 

The centerpiece – halfway through the album – is Benjamin Britten’s ardent setting of Gerald Manley Hopkins’ poem Rosa Mystica (Mystical Rose), an invocation in the 16th-century Litany of Loreto, which actually dates back to the Tanakh and Song of Songs (2:1), and which, when translated, reads: “I am the Rose of Sharon.” Paul Spicer and the Royal Birmingham Conservatoire Choir interpret the work with shimmering passion. 

It is Siva Oke, the recording producer, who makes sure that your edification begins from track one, with the inimitable John Tavener’s Mother of God, here I stand. Remarkably, each track thereafter is instrumentally and lyrically fresh despite the underlying theme of all the music being the same: that is, dedication to the praise and worship of the Blessed Virgin Mary. 

The producer has also reflected a keen sense of history and openness for new material in the selection of these Musical Portraits of the Blessed Virgin Mary. The Nicholas Ludford (1485-1557) offering, Ave cujus conceptio, is the oldest. Meanwhile, from the contemporary era, Carl Rutti’s Ave Maria, Judith Bingham’s Ave virgo sanctissima and Cecilia McDowall’s Of a Rose make their debuts on this impressive recording.

11 Lieberson SongsPeter Lieberson – Songs of Love and Sorrow; The Six Realms
Gerald Finley; Anssi Karttunen;Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra; Hannu Lintu
Ondine ODE 1356-2 (naxosdirect.com/search/0761195135624)

American composer Peter Lieberson (1946–2011) had a fascinating, bicultural career. A composition student of rigorous American modernists Milton Babbitt and Charles Wuorinen, at an early age he imbibed the classical music of earlier eras, as well as mid-century jazz and musical theatre in the NYC home of his prominent record-executive father Goddard Lieberson and ballerina mother Vera Zorina. 

Starting in the 1970s he embraced the teachings of Tibetan Buddhism which profoundly influenced his compositional approach. Lieberson’s mature works successfully fuse those seemingly disparate influences into a cohesive idiosyncratic chromatic style threaded with an appealing lyricism and anchored by inventive orchestration.

Lieberson composed The Six Realms (2000), a dramatic concerto for amplified cello and orchestra, at the request of Yo-Yo Ma. The work’s backstory outlines a key Buddhist teaching: differing states of mind shape human experience. Thus each of the concerto’s six continuous sections illustrates a different realm in Buddhist cosmology and aspect of human emotion. The work receives a powerfully emotional rendering on the album by contemporary music specialist, cellist Anssi Karttunen, a close Lieberson friend.

The record’s other work features an outstanding performance by Canadian bass-baritone Gerald Finley as soloist in Lieberson’s orchestral song cycle Songs of Love and Sorrow (2010), among his last works. Set to five sonnets from Cien sonetos de amor by Pablo Neruda, the Songs are imbued with love for – but also a sense of quiet farewell to – the composer’s late wife, Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, ending with a haunting repeated “adios.”

12 Venables RequiemIan Venables – Requiem
Choir of Gloucester Cathedral; Adrian Partington
Somm Recordings SOMMCD 0618 (naxosdirect.com/search/sommcd+0618)

The requiem Mass is one of the most frequently set texts in all of music, with many of history’s greatest composers turning their pens to this ancient burial rite. Traditional settings date from the medieval era to the present and range from the contemplative (Fauré and Duruflé) to the bombastic (Berlioz and Verdi), while a number of 20th- and 21st-century settings incorporate additional texts, such as Britten’s War Requiem and Howard Goodall’s Eternal Light.

One of the most recent contributions to the requiem genre is Ian Venables’ 2018 Requiem, Op.48, which presents a selection of the traditional requiem Mass texts in a contemporary setting. Scored for chorus and organ, Venables composed this work with liturgical performance in mind; although this might seem to be a restrictive limitation when compared to the immense orchestrations of the great musical requiems, Venables uses the timbres and textures of both the organ and choir to produce a range of effects that reflect the drama, terror and peacefulness present in the text. This attentive and effective synthesis of words and music should come as no surprise, as Venables is a respected and highly experienced art song composer who has also written a range of instrumental and choral works.

Venables’ Requiem is characterized by a mixture of textures, woven together throughout the duration of the work to produce varying results. One such distinguishing feature is the use of modality, which often erupts into bright, open quartal chords that produce a luminescence not otherwise attainable in the major/minor system. While tuning is always of paramount importance for any performing group, it becomes even more so when non-traditional harmonies are used, and the Gloucester Cathedral Choir executes every such passage with precision and accuracy, breathing life into this mass for the dead. 

13 Voices of the PearlVoices of the Pearl Volume 3
Anne Harley; Stacey Fraser; James Hayden; Various artists
Voices of the Pearl (voicesofthepearl.org/albums)

The ambitious Voices of the Pearl project commissions, performs and records works by international living composers, who set texts by and about females from diverse traditions throughout history, illuminating their lives, struggles and beliefs. Volume Three features five works based on Buddhist, Chinese and other Asian texts, performed by Canadian/California-based sopranos Anne Harley (who is also artistic director) and Stacey Fraser, with American instrumentalists and singers.

Canadian composer Emilie Cecilia LeBel’s You Moving Stars (2017) is based on early Therīgāthā (Verses of the Elder Nuns) poetry collection by and about female disciples of the historical Buddha from about the fifth century BCE. Performed by Harley and electric guitarist Steve Thachuk, it is sparsely orchestrated yet attention-grabbing, from the opening long-held guitar drone, sudden high soprano entry, wide-interval-pitched melody, and brief almost unison vocal and guitar sections. The two performers create a sacred, thought provoking sound.  

Chinary Ung’s Still Life After Death (1995) follows a living Soul, sung by Fraser, on her ritualistic end-of-life journey. Scored for full ensemble and performed by the terrific Brightwork newmusic, the repeated detached notes, loud crashes and almost contrapuntal flute, violin and clarinet backdrops support the soprano’s emotional wide-ranging part until the deep-calming, short-Buddhist-phrase-chanting, bass-baritone, James Hayden, relaxes the Soul to echo him until her final fearless ending.

Works by Karola Obermüller, Yii Kah Hoe, and a second Chinary Ung composition complete this amazing recording, illuminating female artists throughout history.

Listen to 'Voices of the Pearl Volume 3' Now in the Listening Room

14 AnchoressThe Anchoress
Hyunah Yu; Mimi Stillman; PRISM (Saxophone) Quartet; Piffaro, The Renaissance Band
XAS Records XAS 110 (prismquartet.com/recordings)

The Anchoress is a song cycle in eight movements composed by David Serkin Ludwig with text by Katie Ford. Written for soprano, saxophone quartet, and a Renaissance band, The Anchoress explores the medieval mystic tradition of anchorism. As part of a devotional practice to Christian life, an anchoress withdrew from secular society in order to live in extreme deprivation in a bricked-up cell attached to a church (an anchorhold). From her “squint” (a tiny window) to the outside world, Ford imagines a narrative from the most inner thoughts of a medieval anchoress. From that tiny window we are privy to slices of conversations, with herself and others, where the anchoress experiences intense and extreme emotions that range from contemplation and doubt to terror and religious ecstasy.

Ludwig’s striking choice of orchestration in the mixing of ancient and modern instruments moves the listener efficiently through the various narratives by creating sonorities that are both unusual and unique. The solo recorder is particularly efficient as it converses and interrupts the voice, mirroring the meandering mind of the anchoress.

The Anchoress is an expansive monologue in which soprano Hyunah Yu makes use of several vocal techniques such as vocalises and Sprechstimme. She is expertly supported by Piffaro, the acclaimed Renaissance wind band and the PRISM Quartet. The Anchoress received its world premiere in October 2018 by the Philadelphia Chamber Music Society. The disc also features three instrumental settings, Three Anchoress Songs, featuring flutist Mimi Stillman and tenor saxophonist Matthew Levy.

Listen to 'The Anchoress' Now in the Listening Room

02 Dussek MesseJL Dussek –  Messe Solomnelle
Academy of Ancient Music; Richard Egarr
AAM Records AAM011 (aam.co.uk)

Jan Ladislav Dussek (1760-1812) is one of Western music’s most underrated yet influential personas, credited with guiding the expansion of the pianoforte’s range to six octaves and being the first performing pianist to sit with his profile to the audience, rather than facing them head-on. In addition to his work as a performer, Dussek was also a prolific and inspired composer, writing works which feature great lyricism and striking contrasts. Although once respected and highly regarded throughout Europe, Dussek fell out of popular favour after his death and performances of his works remain unjustly rare today.

Amidst this apparent neglect, the Academy of Ancient Music’s new recording of Dussek’s Messe Solemnelle shines a much-deserved light on this magnificent work and its creator. Discovered in the Conservatory Library in Florence in 2015, the manuscript score was transcribed by AAM director Richard Egarr and musicologist Reinhard Siegert, leading to its first modern performance in 2019. 

A late classical-era work, the mass is reminiscent of the works of Beethoven and Mozart, with Dussek’s own unique voice at the forefront. Throughout the Messe one is struck by the beautiful melodiousness and expert craft in each movement; nothing feels extraneous or unnecessary, but rather that every note is exactly where it needs to be, resulting in a sound that is effortless and streamlined. As we expect with Dussek, the dynamic contrasts are extraordinarily effective and contribute tremendous energy to the entire work, both within individual movements and between the larger sections of the mass itself. 

One of the world’s finest period instrument orchestras, the Academy of Ancient Music does not disappoint. From beginning to end, the care and attention they give to every musical subtlety and nuance breathes life into this newly discovered work, inviting listeners to embark on a journey of their own to discover Dussek and his Messe Solemnelle for themselves.

03 Das Lied de LeeuwMahler – Das Lied von der Erde
Lucile Richardot; Yves Saelens; Het Collectief; Reinbert de Leeuw
Alpha ALPHA633 (naxosdirect.com/items/das-lied-von-der-erde-543432)

The project to create a chamber version of Mahler’s 1908 orchestral song cycle Das Lied von der Erde was an initiative of Arnold Schoenberg, who intended to perform this reduction for 13 players for his Society for Private Musical Performances, an exclusive concert series devoted to new music which ran for three years from 1919 to 1921. Schoenberg indicated roughly how this might be achieved by annotating the full score, leaving the details to be worked out by an acolyte (likely Anton Webern). Ultimately, however, the project was abandoned as the Society went bankrupt due to the hyper-inflation that ravaged post-war Austria. In 1980 Universal Edition commissioned Rainer Riehn to make a performing edition of the score, which has proved compelling enough to have received over a dozen recordings to date. 

In 2019, the Belgian Het Collectief ensemble invited the esteemed Dutch maestro Reinbert de Leeuw, well known for his passionate advocacy for the music of Messiaen, Ligeti, Kagel, Kurtág, Vivier, Gubaidulina and Ustvolskaya, to create and perform his own interpretation of this autumnal masterpiece at the Saintes Festival in France in July of that year; sadly, this would prove to be his last public performance. Subsequently, an ailing de Leeuw implored Thomas Dieltjens, the artistic director of the ensemble, to record his arrangement as soon as possible. In February 2020, following the completion of the recording sessions in Amsterdam, de Leeuw died at the age of 81. 

De Leeuw’s version of the work for the most part follows the broad outlines of the Riehn version but amplifies it with the addition of a second clarinet, assigns the bassoon to double on the contrabassoon (its cavernous low C is an indispensable element in the finale) and, most tellingly, adds a harp part to the ensemble while curtailing the incongruous piano part to the bare essentials. Add to this the outstanding sonic alchemy of the recording team and de Leeuw’s finely balanced direction and the result is a performance that for the first time didn’t leave me feeling short-changed by the reduced ensemble. The stunning interpretation by the French mezzo-soprano Lucile Richardot is notable for its intimacy and finely nuanced word painting while the Belgian tenor Yves Saelens lends an appropriate swagger to his alternating extroverted numbers. In the closing movement of the finale, Der Abschied (The Farewell) de Leeuw provides a touching detail: while the voice gradually recedes into darkness on the word “ewig” (forever) the ensemble maintains an inexorable clockwork indifference, ignoring the indicated diminuendo. The earth alone survives, “the horizon is ever blue.” Farewell, Reinbert! You will be greatly missed.

04 Bruckner Mass MotetsBruckner – Mass in E Minor; Motets
Choir of King’s College, Cambridge; Academy of St Martin in the Fields; Sir Stephen Cleobury
King’s College Cambridge KGS0035 (kingscollegerecordings.com)

Described as “half simpleton, half god” by Gustav Mahler, Anton Bruckner remains a divisive figure in musical history. As a composer of immense symphonic structures at a time of fissure between followers of Brahms and Wagner, Bruckner was subject to severe criticism from both friend and foe, and these symphonies continue to divide listeners into pro- and anti-Bruckner factions, though less antagonistically than in the late 19th century.

In addition to his love of art, Bruckner was a devout Catholic, and it is in his smaller-scale religious works that we find a level of universally praised beauty and genius unlike any other of his contemporaries, a point reinforced by this recording of the Mass in E Minor and motets by the Choir of King’s College, Cambridge. Recorded shortly before the death of conductor Stephen Cleobury, this striking survey of Bruckner’s religiosity and skill is also a testament to the devotion and dedication of the man who led the King’s College choir for so many years.

While Bruckner’s music is often grouped with the massed-choir works of Brahms, Mahler and Schoenberg, this disc demonstrates that Bruckner, particularly in his smaller-scale material, can be ably taken on by chamber-sized groups, including choirs of men and boys. The timbral compromises suggested by this vocal disposition are, in fact, not compromises at all, for the purity of sound that is produced is essential to the transparent and acoustic-driven nature of these pieces. In a building with such reverberance as the St. Florian monastery, where Bruckner composed and worked for many years, or King’s College Chapel, it is the attack, decay and intonation that are of paramount importance, rather than the characteristically late-Romantic power and vibrato, a point reinforced by this stellar recording.

The music of Bruckner no longer needs apologists – it is breathtaking in its entirety and deserving of its place in music history. This recording once again demonstrates why this is so, revelling in the genius of that man who was once described as “half simpleton, half god.” This is music to soothe the soul in troubled times such as our own.

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