04_Measha-BGI’ve Got A Crush On You
Measha Brueggergosman
Kelp Records 333

Measha Brueggergosman is one of those vexing creatures — the unpredictable artist. Just when you think you know where to place her, out comes Measha — the host of Canada’s Got Talent; Measha — the CBC’s celebrity panellist; Measha — live in concert in the Maritimes. Her recent DVD appearance in The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny welcomed with considerable critical acclaim for both singing and acting, opened the possibility of Measha, the credible Weill and cabaret performer … Well, not so fast. I’ve Got a Crush on You throws yet another spanner in the works. If you expect a solid, even and predictable collection of standards old and new, forget about it. The range of this album is enormous — from a cringe-inducing Secret Heart to a brilliant and jazzy Both Sides Now, to a hilarious send-up of Misty (with whom else but Martin Short) to the greatly nuanced title song and Embraceable You. Brueggergosman is at her best when she trusts her innate sense of rhythm, her sultry voice and the considerable talent of the accompanying musicians. The low points come when she tries to force the non-operatic works into an operatic idiom. So yet again, she confounds expectations, surprises, and at times delights — come to think about it, something that every artist should strive for. A must for her fans, and a worthy detour for the curious. I wonder what she will come up with next …

Concert Notes: “An Evening with Measha Brueggergosman” includes selections from I’ve Got a Crush on You at the Grand Theatre in Kingston on May 4 and at the Showplace in Peterborough on May 17.

01_Dowland_in_DublinDowland in Dublin
Michael Slattery; La Nef
ATMA ACD2 2650

Was Dowland Irish or English? We will probably never know but it has not stopped tenor Michael Slattery from working with La Nef in giving some of Dowland’s compositions “a simple, Celtic flavour.” Slattery in turn looked for a drone sound to accompany himself. He found it in the shruti box associated with Indian prayers …

The contrasts in this selection emerge early; the second track, Now, O Now, a stalwart of Elizabethan farewells, is sung unchanged but its musical accompaniment is composed by Slattery and La Nef! Behold a Wonder Here is slightly altered — slowed down — but again the accompaniment is far from the courts of Europe.

This is no conventional recital of Dowland. Some of his songs are performed as purely instrumental pieces — but effectively. Fine Knacks for Ladies is one such; its setting would grace any Elizabethan ball. And then there are those thoughtful, introspective and melancholy songs for which Dowland is most often remembered which are included despite the artists’ aim of “lightening up” his music. Come Heavy Sleep is performed by Slattery with the dignity its words deserve, equally respectfully accompanied by flute, lute, cittern and viol da gamba — there are some songs (His Golden Locks is another) that can never be changed.

Tenors are often the unsung heroes of Dowland’s music, overshadowed by bass, soprano or countertenor parts. Whether or not listeners approve of the arrangements here, Michael Slattery’s tenor voice excels.

Philippe Jaroussky; Max Emanuel Cencic; Les Arts Florissants; William Christie
Virgin Classics 5099907094323

Les Arts Florissants date from 1979. Founder William Christie has identified two of the finest younger countertenors, Philippe Jaroussky and Max Emanuel Cencic, and devoted a whole CD to 24 duetti from the Italian Baroque. It is encouraging that many of the composers included are being rediscovered. There is, for example, a magnificent stately quality to the opening piece, Pietoso nume arcier, a duet by Giovanni Bononcini.

Longest of the tracks is the eight-minute duet Quando veggo un’usignolo by Francesco Bartolomeo Conti. Demonstrating the countertenors’ skills at their most testing, its dialogue is a clever “echoing” of the two sets of lyrics, in turn accompanied by the baroque ensemble at its most expressive.

Two further composers, Nicola Porpora and Benedetto Marcello, supply five and eight more duets, respectively. While relatively short in duration, they combine cheerfulness and interpretative difficulty and are, perhaps, a fine introduction to the Italian baroque countertenor. The informative notes describing the importance of each composer reinforce this.

Sometimes the tracks feature one singer only, but there is accompaniment in various combinations of violin, cello, lute, theorbo, harpsichord and organ. This is demonstrated clearly in Philippe Jaroussky’s performance of Francesco Mancini’s Quanto mai saria piu bello.

Full credit to William Christie for researching the composers, realising the talent of both countertenors and selecting pieces that so amply display their skills.

Guelph Chamber Choir; Gerald Neufeld
Independent GCC2011-6

In this fifth recording by the Guelph Chamber Choir, we are invited to remember loved ones and pay homage to our country and the roots of those who built it through choral arrangements of favorite folk songs, spirituals and art songs. As director Gerald Neufeld writes in the informative and well-researched liner notes, “Music is a potent medium for remembering our past, our joys and sorrows, and those we love. Songs marry poetry to music’s passion, thus conjuring a strong potion that takes us back in time to where we feel the thoughts of a bygone era.”

The title track is delivered by the choir with all the heartfelt sentiment and sensitivity Christina Rossetti’s famous verse and Steven Chatman’s setting deserves. Similarly, Kurt Besner’s Prayer of the Children is deeply moving in its portrayal of war’s innocent victims. A Canadian landscape is evoked beautifully through Eleanor Daly’s Paradise (Song of Georgian Bay) and we experience all the thrilling sounds of the railway in Jeff Smallman’s setting of E. Pauline Johnson’s Prairie Greyhounds. Ian Tyson’s Four Strong Winds and James Gordon’s Frobisher Bay work especially well in choral arrangement.

The men’s chorus demonstrates its a cappella strength and range admirably in Stan Rogers’ Northwest Passage. A nod to the underground railroad is given with the inclusion of escape song Wade in the Water followed by Worthy to be Praised which (though some of the syncopations and hemiolas could benefit from a more natural delivery) provides a rousing finale to a well-crafted program.

03_Jenkins_PeacemakersKarl Jenkins – The Peacemakers
Various Artists
EMI Classics 0 84378 2

While this disc was recorded in studio, it is of note that over 300 musicians and a full house gathered this past January at Carnegie Hall to participate in the live premiere of The Peacemakers by Karl Jenkins, offered as part of Martin Luther King Day celebrations.

The 17-movement work includes texts by Shelley, Gandhi, the Dalai Lama, Terry Waite, Mother Teresa, Albert Schweitzer, St. Francis of Assisi, Sir Thomas Malory, Rumi, Nelson Mandela, Bahá’u’lláh and Anne Frank. As witnessed in previous works (Adiemus comes to mind), Jenkins has always proved masterful at enhancing the western orchestra/chorus with ethnic instrumentation. In many movements of this work, birthplaces of these messengers of peace are evoked by use of, for example, the bansuri and tabla for Gandhi, shakuhachi and temple bells with the Dalai Lama, African percussion in the Mandela and a jazzy blues accompaniment to Martin Luther King. Uilleann pipes and bodhrán drums complete “A Celtic prayer.”

While a profound sense of devotion and meditative reverence is felt throughout the musical settings, this is offset by moments of playful lightness (somewhat like the “In paradisum” movement of Jenkins’ Requiem). Jenkins’ music is full of hope, reminding and inspiring the listener to once again, against all odds, embrace the spirit of peace.

Concert Note: On April 28 the Oakham House Choir of Ryerson University and Toronto Sinfonietta present “Better Is Peace Than Always War” which includes Karl Jenkins’ The Armed Man – A Mass for Peace and works by Penderecki, Bacewicz, Zielinski and Zebrowski.

01_Marie-Josee_LordMarie-Josée Lord
Marie-Josée Lord; Orchestre Métropolitain; Giuseppe Pietraroia
ATMA ACD2 2649

“A star is born” should be the headline in The WholeNote on the occasion of the announcement of the 2012 JUNO nominees. I speak in particular of one contender for Classical Record of the Year, Vocal and Choral Category, the self-titled Marie-Josée Lord. Alas, it takes a long time to become an overnight success. Lord has been charming Quebec audiences with her magnificent voice since her debut in the fall of 2003. Be it Liu, Mimi, Nedda, Suor Angelica or Carmen – passionate, dispossessed or heartbroken heroines are her royal domain. But there is also Gershwin’s Bess and Marie-Jeanne of Plamondon’s super-hit Starmania. Each of these roles gets transformed by Lord’s smoky, fascinating voice. Soft and velvety in the lower registers, it has a lovely, robust and crystalline quality in the upper range. To call her “a soprano” is like describing Mozart as “a composer.” Her voice has the power to send shivers down your spine, make you grip the armrest and lean forward in your seat. This artist is all her own, not emulating anybody else’s style, rendering her instantly recognizable and unforgettable. With all this attention on the vocals, one barely notices the competent, if sometimes ham-fisted playing by the Orchestre Métropolitain under Giuseppe Pietraroia.

These selections are well known, but you have never heard them sung like this. I have yet to see Lord sing on stage, but if this recording is anything to go by, it will be a memorable occasion.

02_Faure_RequiemFauré - Requiem; Cantique de Jean Racine
Philippe Jaroussky; Matthias Goerne; Choeur et Orchestre de Paris; Paavo Järvi
Virgin Classics 50999 070921 2

Fauré once described his requiem mass as “gentle in temperament, as I am myself.” He believed that a funeral service should provide comfort and solace to those in mourning, and therefore chose the liturgical texts “which are prayer-like, which plead for something and which look towards the heavens rather than towards hell.” For example, Fauré abandoned the fiery “Dies Irae” except for a fleeting appearance in the “Libera me” and conductor Paavo Järvi, despite large forces at his disposal, respects Fauré’s intention, bringing forth the transcendent beauty of the piece by using a light touch throughout. At the start, the orchestra and chorus are barely perceptible with the subsequent crescendo sublimely subtle and gradual. It is within the harmonic framework that the composer imbues this work with emotion and Järvi ensures a warm and lush delivery through the subtle metamorphoses. Warm, rich and deep tones from baritone Matthias Goerne mirror the orchestration perfectly, while a delightfully unconventional twist is provided by engaging the pure, yet mature timbre of countertenor Philippe Jaroussky for the “Pie Jesu.”

The other choral works included on this CD are the deeply inspirational and gorgeously performed Cantique de Jean Racine, the playfully quirky Pavane and the recording debut of a youthful (and hence more volatile) work, Super flumina Babylonis (By the rivers of Babylon). There is one instrumental work, the magnificent Elégie for cello and orchestra, featuring Orchestre de Paris’ superb principal, Eric Picard.

Concert Notes: The Hart House Singers present Fauré’s Requiem and Tavener’s Three Songs with soloists and orchestra under David Arnot-Johnston, in the Great Hall, Hart House, on March 24. The Choir of the Church of St. Nicholas Birchcliffe features Fauré’s Requiem and Messe Bass in a programme of music for Lent on March 30 at 7:30pm. The Amadeus Choir will perform Fauré’s Requiem at All Saints Kingsway Anglican Church at 4pm on April 1.

03_GiocondaPonchielli - La Gioconda
Deborah Voigt; Elisabeth Fiorillo; Ewa Podles; Richard Margison; Carlo Guelli; Carlo Colmbara; Gran Teatre del Liceu; Daniele Callegari
ArtHaus Musik 107 291

This latest video production of La Gioconda from 2005 is most notable for its staging and sets by architect and theatre designer Pier Luigi Pizzi. The stylized set of interconnecting stairways and a colour scheme dominated by greys with accents of deep blue, scarlet and orange creates an all-pervasive sense of approaching death in decaying Venice during the terror of the dreaded Council of Ten. The effect is so dazzling that one is reminded of frescoes of the 16th century Paolo Veronese.

It is an extremely difficult and expensive opera to produce mainly for its demand of top singers, six in all, in all vocal ranges. In today’s world there are no more Callases, Tebaldis, Bergonzis and Pavarottis (even Domingo is now a baritone), the great stars of the late 20th century who brought their glory to this formidably demanding opera. Today we have Deborah Voigt, one of the few remaining dramatic sopranos with stamina and power to cope with the gruelling title role. Her voice and characterization have what it takes and it’s a great thrill to hear her carry over the top of the choruses and the orchestra. In terms of power Canadian tenor Richard Margison surely belts out the murderous high notes, but the Italianate inflection and charm of the likes of a Pavarotti is unfortunately missing. Still … the beautiful aria “Cielo e il mar” is very successful and warmly applauded. Another great credit to the performance is Ewa Podles, familiar to Toronto audiences, whose sympathetic portrayal and mellifluous alto voice of the abused blind mother is simply heartbreaking. Neither Carlo Guelfi as the evil Barnaba nor Elisabetta Fiorillo as Laura measures up to the historic legends in these major roles, but the conducting of Daniele Callegari is outstanding especially in the exquisitely choreographed, beautifully executed “Dance of the Hours.”

04_Mahler_LiederMahler - Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen; Kindertotenlieder
Julie Boulianne; Ensemble Orford; Jean-Francois Rivest
ATMA ACD2 2665

The emerging Canadian mezzo-soprano Julie Boulianne makes her debut solo recording on the ATMA label with an exquisitely sung pair of orchestral song cycles by Gustav Mahler, in relatively unfamiliar chamber versions, along with five lieder by Mahler’s wife/muse and notorious Viennese femme-fatale Alma Schindler-Mahler-Gropius-Werfel.

The arrangement of the first of the song cycles, the formative Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen (Songs of a Wayfarer, 1884-5), was prepared by Arnold Schoenberg in 1920 for his short-lived concert series, the ultra-exclusive Society for Private Musical Performances. Though the glowing canvas of the symphonic original has been reduced to a monochrome ensemble of ten instruments (including the rarely-heard harmonium, uncharacteristically perfectly in tune and unobtrusive in this recording) the integrity of the composition still shines through. The same can be said for conductor Reinbert de Leeuw’s masterful reduction for Amsterdam’s Schoenberg Ensemble of the Kindertotenlieder cycle (1901-4), Mahler’s settings of the elegies poet Friedrich Rückert wrote commemorating the tragic deaths of his two children.

Boulianne’s voice, precise and well balanced with a voluptuous lower register, is ideally suited for this repertoire. Jean-François Rivest conducts a well-balanced though emotionally reticent ensemble. The album closes with five very attractive songs by Alma Mahler which her husband, upon the advice of Sigmund Freud, edited and arranged to have published in 1910 as recompense for his ill-considered ban on her own composing career upon their marriage in 1902. Accompanied by pianist Marc Bourdeau, Boulianne brings to life the captivating charm of these scarce remnants of Alma’s youthful dreams.

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