03_mahagonnyWeill - Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny
Measha Brueggergosman; Jane Henschel; Michael König; Willard White; Teatro Real Madrid; Pablo Heras-Casado
BelAir BAC067

Kurt Weill’s music stands alone and needs no visuals to covey its brilliant, contemporary and relevant meaning. That said, his stage works always assault the senses when produced well – especially when accompanied by the words of his most famous collaborator, Bertold Brecht. Mahagonny, immortalized by the countless renditions of the “Alabama Song,” is so much more than the simple morality play that many perceive it as. It is a work, which especially in this brilliant production satirizes, troubles and challenges the viewer. In these years of market crashes and the disenfranchised “99%” its resonance is as fresh as it must have been in the Weimar Republic. The stunning sets, including a verdant golf course – surely as much of a power centre as one can imagine – create the backdrop to the all too human struggle with that “crime of crimes” – not having money in the materialistic world. Jane Henschel as the widow Begbick and Canada’s own Measha Brueggergosman as Jenny Smith form a powerful female axis of the performance, with Brueggergosman taking refreshing risks with the score. Michael König (Jim MacIntyre) and Willard White (Trinity Moses) in the meantime, complete the play’s – and music’s – symmetry. The orchestra delivers the score beautifully, with a strangely appropriate Spanish verve. This is truly an “edge of your seat” opera experience, even without the original German rhythms of speech. Bravo.

04_britten_warBritten - War Requiem
Edith Wiens; Nigel Robson; Håkan Hagegård; Prague Philharmonic Choir; Ankor Children’s Choir; Israel Philharmonic Orchestra; Kurt Masur
Heilicon Classics 02-9645

Ominous sounds issuing from the lower depths of the strings with the insistent tolling of bells and the tenor‘s desperate question “what passing bells for those who die as cattle?” – so begins the pacifist Benjamin Britten’s mass for the dead, a passionate antiwar statement written in 1962 for the opening of the newly rebuilt Coventry Cathedral. The ingenious idea to combine the Latin text, the basic underpinning structure of the mass, with poems of dark, terrifying imagery of the war in the trenches is what distinguishes Britten’s work from other requiems of the past. The poems of Wilfred Owen, an English foot soldier who was killed a week before the fighting ended in 1918 are what give this piece its unforgettable poignancy and impact.

Nothing but praise can be given to this spectacular new recording produced in Israel whose people have suffered and continue to suffer from the ravages of war. In the tradition begun by the composer himself, Kurt Masur, a former director of the Leipziger Gewandhaus, commands the massive ensemble of forces (full symphony orchestra, chamber orchestra, several choruses and three soloists) with precision, clear insight and passionate understanding. The deafening sounds of war in the “Dies Irae” section, martial trumpets and horns with rumbling bass drums emulating the roar of cannons and snare drums imitating the rattle of machine gun fire, sound frighteningly real.

But the soul of the piece is in the singing. The Latin text is carried by the mixed choruses and the boys’ choir as well as the female soloist, Canadian soprano of international repute Edith Wiens. Her wailing lament, for example in the “Lacrimosa” is heartbreaking. In stark contrast, Owen’s verses in the declamatory style of the English language are sung by the tenor Nigel Robson and baritone Håkan Hagegård. Their precise diction, annunciation of remarkable clarity and emotional involvement rival that legendary first recording by Peter Pears and Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau of 1963, under the composer’s baton.

05_britten_blakeBritten - Songs & Proverbs of William Blake
Gerald Finley; Julius Drake
Hyperion CDA67778

The songs of Britten naturally conjure up the memory of Peter Pears, Britten’s partner, muse and greatest influence. The celebrated tenor was also the poetry consultant to the composer and their shared tastes shaped Britten’s output. But there were other voices he composed for. One of the most significant ones was Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, the wonderful baritone. Just like in his operas, from Billy Budd to Death in Venice, Britten approaches the baritone voice in these songs with a lyricism usually reserved for the tenor. Given that and the special nature of Blake’s poetry, it isn’t any voice that can tackle this material. Fortunately, Gerald Finley possesses a baritone worthy of comparisons with Fischer-Dieskau. It may not sound like an insightful comment, but Finley’s baritone is simply elegant. His phrasing and understated ornamentation bring a fully engaged understanding to the texts. What makes this disc even more interesting is that it contains Britten’s settings spanning a lifetime – from the revised early compositions of a 14-year-old boy to late-in-life, mature compositions and finally some published posthumously. Whether you are familiar with Britten’s songs, or Blake’s poetry for that matter, you will appreciate the intelligent, focused reading of the material in the Finley-Drake collaboration. And you will love the sound that the two artists create – love it enough to come back to this record again and again.

07_bridge_of_dreamsA Bridge of Dreams - A Cappella Music from the Pacific Rim
Ars Nova Copenhagen; Paul Hillier
Dacapo 6.220597

Curious and delightfully captivating, this recording by the 14-voice Ars Nova Copenhagen ensemble under Paul Hillier presents a programme by (mostly Western) composers of music from the Pacific Rim.

Hillier’s credentials rest largely on his years of work in early music. His ability to cope with challenging contemporary repertoire, however, leaves no doubt about his extraordinary musicianship. While his programme for this recording is well balanced – including works by New Zealander Jack Body, Australians Anne Boyd and Ross Edwards, American Lou Harrison and Lui Sola, a multi-disciplinary artist from China – two works really deserve special mention.

Harrison’s Mass for St. Cecilia’s Day is tinged strongly by his attraction to Chinese and Indonesian music. The Latin text, sung in an obvious plainsong style, is frequently embellished by modal phrasings and ornaments from the Oriental world. The effect of this fusion is surprisingly compelling. One is never quite sure if what’s being sung is ancient or modern. Harrison’s skilful writing moves effortlessly through an in-between realm where he creates something new from something ancient.

Edwards’ Sacred Kingfisher Psalms also combine otherwise unrelated material into a remarkable composition. Using portions of Latin psalm texts, Edwards pays homage to the aboriginal spirit of his homeland by weaving the native names of indigenous birds into his Latin text. The chanting evokes ancient aboriginal rituals as well medieval European polyphonies.

Harrison’s and Edwards’ works appear to practice some kind of musical alchemy and do so with the skilful formulation of Ars Nova’s choral ingredient.

01_liszt_liederLiszt - Lieder
Diana Damrau; Helmut Deutsch
Virgin Classics 50999 0709282 4

German Romanticism of the 19th century, in spite of much turbulence at the time, was a golden age for the arts, especially for music and poetry.  The greatest poets of the German language, Goethe, Schiller, Heine and Lenau lived in this period, so Liszt (and of course Schubert, Schumann, Mendelssohn and Brahms) had just to reach out to access a wealth poems of great inspiration longing to be set to music. There were lesser poets too. Who has ever heard of Ferdinand Freiligrath for example? Curiously enough he wrote the poem O lieb, so lang du lieben kannst (Oh love as long as you can!) that became Liszt’s divine inspiration for Liebestraum No.3 and one of his most beloved songs that is included on this disc.

Or think of the Petrarca Sonnets. These beautiful piano works originally started as songs written to his sweetheart Countess Marie d’Agoult in Bellagio on the shores of Lago di Como where the two lovers spent unforgettable times. These three songs now stand as a centerpiece of this new recording by Diana Damrau, one of today’s leading sopranos.

For Liszt, song writing was a sideline and he treated the voice much like he treated the piano, mercilessly. Recordings have been scarce probably because of the enormous demands imposed on the singer. Wide range of pitch (two octaves) and dynamics, sudden key changes, emotional outbursts and sensitive shadings pose a big challenge and will not tolerate lesser performers. Damrau’s strong but attractive high soprano voice may not have the richness and expressive power of a Fischer-Dieskau but her dedication, sincerity and valiant effort more than make up for it. Special credit must also be given to Helmut Deutsch whose virtuoso reading of Liszt’s incredibly difficult piano accompaniments contributes much to the success of this recording.

06_pavarottiLuciano Pavarotti
A Film by Esther Schapira
Euroarts 2058918

Legends is a series of films dedicated to exploring the lives of famous individuals. This time it is the story of the late Italian tenor Luciano Pavarotti. Adored around the world, the king of the High C’s led an exceptional life both on and off stage, and he knew it. This excellent biopic strips away the layers of intrigue and drama to provide the viewer a glimpse into the singer’s illustrious life.

From his hometown of Modena to the great opera cities of New York and Milan, the visual scenes provide an armchair traveller’s guide of his worldwide stomping grounds. Interspersed are brief segments of his most famous operatic feats such as the Three Tenors concert, the Central Park extravaganza and early on stage footage with childhood friend Mirella Freni.

Almost everyone acknowledges Pavarotti’s vocal prowess. Listen to his recordings for the music. It is the interviews with the people who knew him that make this film worth spending the time to watch. From his first wife Agua to his manager to his friends to rock superstar Bono, the public “Pav” image dissolves as those who knew him discuss their personal relationships with both love and pain. The effort to film “just the facts” makes this a moving and thought provoking exercise. Their insights open up a cornucopia of unanswered questions about his private life yet substantiate his larger than life musicality and love of singing.

01_venus_adonisJohn Blow - Venus and Adonis

Amanda Forsythe; Tyler Duncan; Mireille Lebel; Boston Early Music Festival; Paul O'Dette; Stephen Stubbs

CPO 777 614-2

The Boston Early Music Festival and the German Cpo label have successfully collaborated on five recording projects of early opera so far, including Conradi’s Ariadne, Charpentier’s Acteon, two by Lully - Thésée and Psyché - and this, John Blow’s little-performed masterpiece from the early 1680s, Venus and Adonis. It’s a powerful and economical piece, full of drama, humour, action and, ultimately, deep poignancy.

The performance, co-directed by the legendary lutenists Paul O’Dette and Stephen Stubbs, is as close to perfect as one could hope for. Tempos are well-chosen and the small baroque band and chorus are lively and colourful and really dive into the score with emotional intensity. BEMF has a strong Canadian connection and the two Canadian soloists – mezzo Mireille Lebel (Cupid) and baritone Tyler Duncan (Adonis) – both acquit themselves with a combination of beautiful sound and superb attention to text. The third soloist, American soprano Amanda Forsythe, is less appealing, not for lack of drama, but because her sound tends toward the relentlessly steely, not well-suited to the character of Venus. She more than redeems herself, however, in a stunning performance of Blow’s Welcome, ev’ry guest, one of three additional pieces at the end of the recording.

The accompanying booklet is packed full of interesting essays, biographies of everyone involved (even bassoonist Dominic Teresi, of Tafelmusik), full texts and translations. The photos of the original BEMF production of Venus and Adonis give some idea of what a special project this was. How lucky for us that it was recorded so exquisitely for posterity.

Concert Notes: Mireille Lebel can be heard with Tafelmusik in Koerner Hall performances of Handel’s Hercules January 19 to 22. Tyler Duncan performs in Mozart’s Requiem with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra January 18 to 22 and will give the premiere of Jeffrey Ryan’s The Whitening of the Ox with New Music Concerts at the Enwave Theatre on January 29.

02_gauvin_lemieuxHandel - Streams of Pleasure

Karina Gauvin; Marie-Nicole Lemieux; Il Complesso Barocco; Alan Curtis

Naïve V 5261

With the exception of Hercules, Alexander Balus and Theodora, the Handel oratorios on this disc clearly mark him as an Old Testament composer (in contrast with his contemporary, New Testament composer J.S. Bach). Handel composed oratorios almost exclusively in his later years and his choice of Old Testament historias such as Belshazzar, Susanna, Judas Maccabeus, Joseph and his Brethren, Joshua and Solomon offer every bit of dramatic variety as the operas he composed in his earlier career, albeit without the staging.

Just as in his operas, the oratorios offer many an opportunity to showcase both sopranos and contraltos through the use of stirring arias and duets. “Streams of Pleasure” indeed, with arias such as Crystal streams in murmurs flowing (Susanna) sung gorgeously by Karina Gauvin in all its sensuous beauty, contrasting brilliantly with the fiery Marie-Nicole Lemieux’s Fury with red sparkling eyes from Alexander Balus. Both sing with the warmest tenderness in the recording’s title love duet from Theodora and add a most regal tone in the more contrapuntal Welcome as the dawn (Solomon).

In the solo arias, both singers exploit the da capo form to the fullest with supremely virtuosic trills and ornamentations on the second round. Complesso Barocco’s superb ability to shine whilst still allowing the fullest expression of the singer is demonstrated best in the sighing pathos of violin and descending continuo parts that highlight the grief and resignation in My father (Hercules). An exquisite addition to one’s collection of Handel’s vocal music.

Concert Note: Karina Gauvin is featured in Toronto Symphony Orchestra performances of Britten’s Les Illuminations February 22 to 23 at Roy Thomson Hall.

03_Bach_TaylorBach

Daniel Taylor; Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra; Jeanne Lamon

Analekta AN 2 9878

Daniel Taylor joins Tafelmusik for two selections on their 78th recording, performing two of Bach’s four cantatas for solo alto voice. Both on texts by Darmstadt court poet, Georg Christian Lehms, BWV54, Widerstehe doch der Sünde, is from Bach’s Weimar period while the other, BWV170, Vergnügte Ruh, beliebte Seelenlust, was composed and performed in 1726 at the Thomaskirche in Leipzig. While in the exhortation to “resist sin” in Cantata 54 Bach provides a dramatic struggle complete with harmonic discord and a chromatic fugue, Cantata 170 focuses on the peace of a promised “delightful rest” in heaven. Rather than voice strictly accompanied by continuo, there is much interest in the interplay between voice, strings and particularly organ. Taylor maintains a reverential character throughout, even in the dramatic moments, focusing instead on the calm and steadfast reassurance of faith with superb tonal control that never sacrifices its sublime beauty.

The Tafelmusik orchestra is in fine form along with director Jeanne Lamon, violin and John Abberger, oboe, who are featured respectively in the Suite in A minor for violin and strings, BWV1067 and the Concerto for oboe and violin in C minor, BWV1060. The middle adagio cantabile movement in the latter allows the two soloists to engage in an exquisite musical exchange. All perform with deftness, poise and grace worthy of Bach’s enduring artistry.

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