05 RusalkaDvořák – Rusalka
Soloists; Glyndebourne Chorus; London Philharmonic Orchestra; Robin Ticciati
Opus Arte OA13020 (naxosdirect.com/search/809478013020)

Although Antonín Dvořák wrote ten operas, the fairytale Rusalka, written at the end of his life, was the only lasting triumph for the internationally renowned Czech composer. The reason was that most of Dvořák’s operas were felt to be dramatically weak, as a result of which he failed in his lifelong ambition to be recognized as Smetana’s heir.

Rusalka is a dreamily melodic opera set to Jaroslav Kvapil’s libretto, (which also included some Slavonic features), which was based on the tale Undine by Friedrich de la Motte Fouqué; also used by Hans Christian Andersen as well as by Pushkin. Dvořák’s beautiful score occasionally evokes both Wagner and Debussy, but it also has earthier passages which underline its Czech identity. As a love story, it remains unusual. Since Rusalka is rendered mute by a charmed spell and potion given to her by the witch Ježibaba she cannot speak to her beloved prince and so there is no conventional love duet. Yet, magically, the opera’s finest arias – including the famous Song of the Moon – belong to Rusalka. 

Sally Matthews plays the heroine with tragic majesty. Patricia Bardon’s Ježibaba is dark and beguiling while Evan Leroy Johnson plays the Prince with great eloquence. Rae Smith’s set design is breathtaking and Melly Still’s direction has an epic quality to it. All of this is superbly assisted by the Glyndebourne Chorus and the London Symphony Orchestra which are expertly conducted by Robin Ticciati.

06 Stamford and HowellsStanford and Howells Remembered
The Cambridge Singers; John Rutter; Wayne Marshall
Collegium Records CSCD 524 (johnrutter.com/music)

This 2-CD set of choral music honours composers Charles Villiers Stanford (1852-1924) and his student and colleague Herbert Howells (1892-1983), each with a full disc of highly accomplished music wonderfully sung. It is a version remastered in 2020 from tracks originally recorded in 1992, with three added tracks of which Stanford’s exquisite Latin Magnificat is especially welcome. John Rutter’s Cambridge Singers excel in this music, and are complemented by the fine acoustics of Ely Cathedral. The above-mentioned Magnificat for double choir really surprised me with its unusual harmonies and variety of textures, while the more straightforward English Magnificats in G and B-flat, also on the disc, offer interesting comparisons. In the G-major work, soprano Caroline Ashton shines with her clear vibrato-less tone. Of other Stanford works I was especially taken with O for a closer walk, an intimate and moving setting of William Cowper’s poem.

Turning to Howells, the Cambridge Singers handle his works’ Eastern scales, impressionistic harmonies and complex textures effortlessly. On this disc, the Howells Requiem (1938) seems both expressive and mystical; perhaps Rutter’s own association with the composer gave him insights into the extraordinary moods of each section. The compelling, late anthem, The fear of the Lord (1976), which Howells composed for Rutter’s choir at Cambridge, is here. So is another favourite anthem, Like as the hart (1941), which actually strikes me as bluesy! And there is much more to be discovered.

08 Britten Peter GrimesBritten – Peter Grimes
Stuart Skelton; Erin Wall; Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra and Choirs; Edward Gardner
Chandos CHSA 5250(2) (naxosdirect.com/search/095115525029)

What an extraordinary thing Benjamin Britten’s Peter Grimes is. After 75 years in existence, this work has become a centrepiece of the English operatic canon. Did Britten ever imagine it would become so celebrated when he first conceived of it? In an infamous flash of prophetic purpose, upon reading George Crabbe’s The Borough in a book shop in California ca. 1942, Britten “realized two things: that [he] must write an opera, and where [he] belonged.”

The newest recording of this seminal opus features star singers such as tenor Stuart Skelton, (in the lead role) and soprano Erin Wall (as Ellen Orford). Edward Gardner helms the Bergen Philharmonic Choir and Orchestra, amongst other choruses. From the outset of this record, we perceive laser-precise execution, resulting in a thoroughly energetic and inspired interpretation of this opera. Every last note of the score has been carefully considered by every musician involved. 

Three-quarters of a century on, performance practice now exist for Grimes. Gardner is aware of such traditions and works admirably within them, reimagining aspects of the opera while adhering to the performative lineage. Orchestral solos rival those of the singers themselves, with brilliant colours and edgy textures erupting from both choral and orchestral ensembles. Gardner still manages to surprise and provoke us, prompted by the nature of the libretto itself.

Skelton is the consummate Grimes, a role that has shaped his career in many ways. Canadian soprano Erin Wall is characteristically stunning in her performance of Ellen Orford, poignant and wistful. The music world has been deeply saddened by Wall’s recent death from cancer this October; she was but 44 years old. A shining light and a rare national treasure, Wall has departed from us far too soon, long before any of her last songs should have been sung.

 

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

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