01_gounod_faureGounod & Fauré
Benoit Leblanc; Pierre McLean
XXI XXI-CD 2 1584

Fauré and Gounod, despite having been born almost 30 years apart, shared a great affinity during their lifetime. Fauré landed his first “music job” through Gounod’s intervention and both frequented the French salons where many of their songs received their premieres. Despite their differing styles (Fauré was called a “living metronome” for his precise phrasing, Gounod, in Fauré’s own words was “one of those rare composers who constantly introduces new elements in his music”), their songs frequently appear together in the lieder repertoire. They share equally romantic texts and the ability to showcase voice.

In this new recording, the voice being showcased is that of a young Montreal artist, Benoit Leblanc, accompanied beautifully by the acclaimed Montreal pianist and vocal coach, Pierre McLean. Leblanc’s baritone is a beautiful instrument of warm timbre and velvety texture. It occasionally and comfortably drifts toward the lower range of bass-baritone and sometimes strays, somewhat less comfortably, onto the tenor’s turf.

 

It never loses, however, the lyrical strength that permeates the melodies. Small wonder that - Leblanc possesses not only a Bachelor of Music Degree, but also a Masters Degree in interpretation. I for one look forward to hearing him sing some other gems of the lieder repertoire, especially Mahler and Schubert. If his command of German proves as irresistible as his knack for French songs, we can expect some major revelations in this seemingly crowded field. A must buy for lovers of the human voice.

 

02_faureFauré - Treize Motets; Messe Basse;
Cinq Cantiques
Ensemble de la chapelle du Quebec;
Bernard Labadie
XXI XXI-CD 2 1670

This disc is a re-release of La Chapelle de Québec’s very first recording from 1989, originally released on the ADES label. Founded in 1985 as the Ensemble vocal Bernard Labadie, it was this ensemble of young professional singers and graduating students that the famous Violons du Roy was originally created to accompany.

This collection features music written by Fauré during his 40 year career as a church musician and includes 13 motets, the Messe basse for women’s voices and five cantiques, including the beloved Cantique de Jean Racine as well as settings of traditional Noëls. Though prolific in the output of sacred vocal music, the composer wrote no music for solo organ. He obviously delighted in incorporating his own modern style into church music, continually creating variations in vocal groupings and innovation in harmonic sonorities. The ensemble handles these cleverly, providing great variety in the voices assigned to solos, duets and trios, proving Labadie to be quite generous in allowing a good number of the individual ensemble members to shine. And shine they do, as well with this relatively modern repertoire as with the Baroque and Classical fare that is their usual focus.

03_rheingoldWagner - Das Rheingold
Mario Hoff; Erin Caves;
Christine Hansmann; Tomas Möwes; Staatskapelle Weimar; Carl St. Clair
ArtHaus Musik 101353

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Ever since Patrice Chereau’s revolutionary Centennial Ring of 1979, televised around the world, Wagner’s monumental cycle has become a household name with new productions cropping up regularly at opera houses of Europe and America. Being an expensive proposition and risky investment, there is great pressure (and great opportunity) for directors and designers to come up with something new and valid to say to justify the expense. Judging by Das Rheingold only (I haven’t seen the rest of their cycle) I believe the Weimar team has succeeded with this different, interesting and entertaining new version.

Wagner’s connection to Weimar and his effort to gain Liszt’s support for the project is what gave the designers the idea to use Siegfrieds Tod, the very first drama Wagner wrote and dedicated to Liszt, as a framework for their cycle. The struggle for world domination between two powers, in this case Wotan and Alberich, is the central theme with both willing to take part in the stage action. Alberich is a powerful figure, by no means a dwarf, but puts on the dwarf costume deliberately to break through the “partition” that separates him from the action.

The gods are a bunch of half-drunk, decadent and stupid wasters sitting around the kitchen table waiting for the underprivileged but very clever demi-god Loge to help them out of the trouble Wotan got them into. As this most action packed opera unfolds, with Wagner’s powerful and compassionate dramatic music there is an uneasy triumph at the end, but signalling tragedy yet to come.

A small theatre working with local, but excellent singing artists - Möwes as Alberich and Caves as Loge are absolutely superb - this performance works on all levels and is very satisfying. The young conductor from Texas, Carl St. Clair breathes musical life into it and certainly sounds dynamic and passionate, truly Wagnerian.

03_don_giovanniMozart - Don Giovanni
Simon Keenlyside; Kyle Ketelsen; Eric Halfvarson; Marina Poplavskaya; Royal Opera; Charles Mackerras
OpusArte OA 1009 D

Francesca Zambello’s brilliant production of 2002 has stood the test of time and this eagerly anticipated film was well worth the wait.

Such a pleasure to see a modern production of the complete score without the current trend of Euro-trash modernization, updating and inserting outrageous “new ideas” that pass for inventiveness. This performance is traditional in a sense, but full of imagination and inspiration. A revolving stage is simple and versatile with a curved wall that acts as a trompe l’oeil forming a false perspective of a magnificent renaissance hall for the first act finale. Generally the stage direction aims to clarify the sometimes confusing story and to show the hero in an unsympathetic light while the women are treated with compassion.

Apart from being a visual triumph it is also a wonderful musical performance. This opera requires eight soloists of the highest order, not always possible but here pretty well achieved. Simon Keenlyside is an outrageous and irreverent Don in fine voice and with his sidekick Kyle Ketelsen (Leporello) accentuates the comedy with an excellent vocal and dramatic performance. Among the ladies, all of them memorable, perhaps Joyce DiDonato (Donna Elvira), a highly accomplished singer, stands out the most. Ramon Vargas here is tested as Don Ottavio with splendid results. Robert Gleadow of the COC makes an effective Masetto with his fine deep baritone voice.

But the real success is Sir Charles Mackerras. Now in his 80’s, he is a great conductor and scholar whose achievements are too many to mention, an advocate of period instruments and Mozart specialist (how can we forget his series of Mozart symphonies on Telarc). We can only admire how he springs his orchestra into life with a beautifully detailed, well paced and crisp sounding performance.

Janos Gardonyi

02_elektra_gardenfixElektra’s Garden
Elektra Women’s Choir;

Morna Edmundson & Diane Loomer

Independent EWC0901 (www.elektra.ca)

 

 

 

03_victoria_scholars

Distant Voices
Victoria Scholars
Independent VSR 1002

(www.victoriascholars.ca)

Two Canadian choral releases arrive on the scene at the same time as natural companions: one, an ensemble of all men’s voices, the other, all women’s. The Victoria Scholars are an all-male Toronto group led by Jerzy Cichocki. Their new CD features works by Canadian composers, both secular and sacred. The Elektra Women’s Choir, is based in Vancouver and co-conducted on this recording by Morna Edmundson and Diane Loomer. Their new recording features secular songs from around the world with largely Canadian arrangements.

`Elektra’s tone is light and playful, featuring arrangements of English, Hebrew, Finnish, Spanish, and French selections with some interesting settings of folksongs and poetry. The choir sings with an airy and child-like tone very suitable to the chosen repertoire.

`“Distant Voices” finds its sweetness in Srul Irving Glick’s settings of The Song of Songs, gorgeously enhanced by David Hetherington’s cello. The choir shines in introducing its dark and mystical element with the dramatic title piece by Tomas Dusatko, a 14-minute journey from chaos to reverence. Commissioned by the choir, the skilful execution of this piece is no mean feat. Although also admirably performed, I felt that Imant Raminsh’s Ave verum corpus loses some of its natural shimmer without the full range of male and female voices, though interesting to note is that Elektra has performed this work in its SSAA version.

Dianne Wells

01_fleurs_du_malLes Fleurs du Mal - De Fauré à Ferre
Marc Boucher; Olivier Godin
XXI XXI-CD 2 1590

“Les Fleurs du Mal” (Flowers of Evil), the seminal collection of poems by the French poet Baudelaire, is over 150 years old and it remains an almost inexhaustible source for French song composers. In fact, no less than 30 composers, ranging from Fauré to Debussy to Duparc to Ferre used this poetry as a basis for song cycles and individual masterpieces. All of them were no doubt fascinated by the groundbreaking nature of Baudelaire’s poetry but also to the phrasing lending itself so naturally to musical interpretations. Montreal–based collaborators Marc Boucher and Olivier Godin have undertaken the task of sifting through the mountain of possible options, to come up with 18 songs that are quintessential French Fleurs du mal.

Boucher’s baritone, a resonant and beautiful instrument, tackles Baudelaire’s lyrics with the required romanticism and intensity. His history of collaborating with Godin results in a seamless, almost telepathic connection, where the piano and voice mesh perfectly, embracing the Baudelairian idiom. This may well be the reference recording of “Les Fleurs du Mal”, however eclectic the selections might be.

Robert Tomas

01_il_pianto_di_mariaIl pianto di Maria - The Virgin's Lament

Bernarda Fink; Il Giardino Armonico; Giovanni Antonini

Editions de l'Oiseau-Lyre 478 1466

Bernarda Fink is a singer of extraordinary measure and a brilliant match for two rare settings of the Virgin Mary's lament: one originally attributed to Handel, but later discovered to be by Giovanni Battista Ferrandini, a composer in the court at Munich; the other by Monteverdi who took the music from his famous Lamento d'Arianna and inserted a sacred text. Rather than matching the impulsive fire of Il Giardino Armonico, Fink holds steady her natural grace and maturity, allowing the orchestra to express the undercurrents of torment and anger while she declares her sorrow with dignified acceptance. The effect is not diminished in any way, in fact, by maintaining her poise she resists all temptation to resort to showy hysterics; but at the same time there is an edge to her delivery that clearly informs us of the depth of her grief. Il Giardino Armonico performs with all the passion and vigour for which they are known, making for an exciting performance that keeps listeners on the edge of their seats during instrumental works by Vivaldi, Marini and Pisandel. In a world premiere recording of Francesco Bartolomeo Conti's Il martirio di San Lorenzo, Fink and the ensemble join together for a deeply moving aria that features a rarely-heard ancestor of the modern clarinet, the soprano chalumeau, which adds a most tender and plaintive note.

Dianne Wells

02_verdi_requiemVerdi - Messa da Requiem

Fantini; Smirnova; Meli; Siwek; Coro del Maggio Musicale Fiorentino; Symphonica Toscanini; Lorin Maazel

Medici arts 2072438

In 2007 for the commemoration of the 50th anniversary of Toscanini's death Lorin Maazel, his erstwhile protégé, gave a series of concerts in Italy. The former child prodigy who at the age of 11 conducted Toscanini's own NBC Symphony and was blessed by the ‘gran Maestro' with a kiss on the forehead is now in his 70s and is himself a gran maestro and one of the foremost conductors of the latter half of the 20th century.

The highlight of these concerts was this memorable performance, captured on DVD, of Verdi's Requiem from the San Marco Basilica where it was first performed in 1874 under the baton of the composer. Under the golden domes, half domes and pendentives of the 1500 year old Byzantine masterpiece was gathered Maazel's own orchestra that he organized for this occasion, with a magnificent choir and soloists of the highest order. Maazel is like a wise owl with hooded eyes, almost immobile, but with the merest flicker of his finger he unleashes these forces into a tremendous whirlwind of sound while another slight flicker silences it in a split second. Without much visible effort he achieves a beautifully detailed, heartfelt, thoroughly understood and perfectly paced performance.

The quartet of soloists, upon which many a performance has crumbled, is a tremendous asset here. Norma Fantini is a highly accomplished soprano with a wide range and great emotional involvement in the final Libera me section. Young Russian mezzo Anna Smirnova is very impressive in her lower registers and her heartfelt solos and Francesco Meli is a strong tenor who shines in the Offertorium prayers. Rafal Siwek, a stentorian basso-profundo, has a perfect voice for Mors stupebit and Confutatis, some of the most impressive moments in the performance.

Janos Gardonyi

03_cunning_vixenJanáček - The Cunning Little Vixen

Tsallagova; Rasilainen; Lagrange; Minutillo; Kuebler; Bracht; Gay; Opera National de Paris; Dennis Russell Davies

Medici arts 3078388

A mere 30 years ago Leos Janáček's operas were virtually unknown in the West, but today there is hardly a reputable opera company that hasn't performed some of them. The Canadian Opera Company, for one, can be proud of having performed five of the operas here in Toronto. Although Paris is just beginning to discover his greatness, this live performance certainly makes up for any lack of appreciation in the past. Apart from an interesting, novel concept, there is abundant talent and wit in the stage direction, sets, colour and costume design, not to mention singers and musical direction.

According to director André Engel, the stage is set as a bright sunflower field, representing nature, but bisected by a railway that shows mankind's brutality. Where the two meet is where things are happening, where indeed anything can happen. There is tragedy, but in Janáček's optimistic outlook it is followed by rebirth and the cycle of nature continues indefinitely.

One of Janáček's most beautiful scores, the story was undoubtedly inspired by his love for a much younger woman at the age of 70. The opera simply throbs with love and affection towards his young female protagonist, the vixen, in this case the ebullient Russian high soprano Elena Tsailagova, who simply radiates and dominates the performance. The three rather pathetic male figures are all well characterized and sung by Jukka Rasilainen (forester), David Kubler (schoolmaster) and Roland Bracht (parson). There is also a charming choir of children dressed in hilarious costumes representing the little animals.

Music Director Dennis Russell Davies' flawless and beautifully flowing conducting brings out the beauty and lyricism of the score and deserves much of the credit for this delightful performance.

Janos Gardonyi

 

02_schumann_lemieuxSchumann

Marie-Nicole Lemieux; Daniel Blumenthal

Naïve V5159

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What a treat to listen to a goodly measure of Schumann’s vocal music sung in full, rich and womanly contralto. Marie-Nicole Lemieux, though still in her early thirties, displays the maturity of tone and dramatic sensitivity demanded by this quintessential Romantic genre. Whether playing the young betrothed made breathless by the excitement of her approaching nuptials or evoking the first stirrings of motherly instinct or the grief of widowhood, Lemieux delivers a stunning and credible execution. And accompaniment by Daniel Blumenthal is most expressive whilst never overreaching the support role and yet is quite unique in its tone and pacing compared with other performances of this repertoire. In addition to Frauenliebe und-Leben, Lemieux and Blumenthal perform another of Schumann’s song cycles, Liederkreis, as well as five other Schumann lieder: Die Löwenbraut, Der Nussbaum, Er Ist’s, Lorelei, and Widmung. While Frauenliebe und-Leben and Die Löwenbraut work within a narrative framework, Liederkreis and other selections simply evoke the atmospheric qualities of Romanticism: nature, sentimentality and longing, alongside a most seductive fear of the dark and the unknown. The obsessive spirit of Schumann’s total immersion in lieder in 1840 along with his idealized perception of womanhood which drove his pursuit of Clara is well realized by these two exceptional performers.

Dianne Wells

03_handel_semeleHandel - Semele

Cecilia Bartoli; Orchestra La Scintilla; William Christie

Decca 074 3323

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Suspension of disbelief is one of the most important elements to possess when watching opera. You know what I mean - the middle-aged soprano singing of celebrating her 16th birthday (Madama Butterfly); the less-than youthful and not so slender Ophelia in Hamlet; the numerous “in trousers” roles…. That is the primary reason why for centuries now there is a tension between singers gifted with an incredible voice and not looking the part and those who only look, but don’t sound the part. Some of the greatest operatic careers were built mostly on the looks (Renée Fleming, take a bow!). Then there is Cecilia Bartoli. Years ago, her beautiful, but not very powerful voice was upstaged by her stunning looks. But as her voice has matured, no suspension of disbelief is necessary. Her performance as Semele is a case in point. The grasping, foolish Semele instead has a problem not of her own making - the minimalist production by Robert Carsen. The modern, Royal House of Belgium-like set and costumes do not convince as a dwelling of Jupiter and his favourite mortal. And yet, in the third act, both Bartoli and Charles Workman as Jupiter deliver a gripping, powerful interplay of love and misunderstanding. The human and divine emotions shine in their voices as they do in the voices of the other principals and the precise, if not very period-inspired playing of the familiar music of Handel. Although not a complete triumph, this is one DVD worth keeping – if you can suspend disbelief

Robert Tomas

04_puccini_butterflyPuccini - Madama Butterfly
Angela Gheorghiu; Jonas Kaufmann;
Orchestra e Coro dell’Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia; Antonio Pappano
EMI Classics 2 64187 2 8

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In the DVD era it comes as quite a surprise that EMI is investing in a brand new CD set of Puccini’s Madama Butterfly. Especially Butterfly, an opera recorded umpteen times and favoured by some of the greatest conductors, most notably Karajan who probed the depths and unearthed so much beauty in this score much to the chagrin of its detractors who ridiculed it as shallow and sentimental. Favoured also by the great sopranos, Callas, Tebaldi, the unforgettable Scotto, Freni etc. who made the principal role their own over the years.

Yet it is still important to hear new artists tackling the score and this handsomely presented new set with demonstration sound does just that. From the first bar onwards we are instantly aware of the excitement and electricity of Antonio Pappano’s brilliant, empathetic conducting, turning the orchestra into a major dramatic role in an almost Wagnerian fashion. His feeling for detail is uncanny. Feel how he creates an almost unbearable and horrifying near silence just before final tragedy.

Jonas Kaufmann as Pinkerton is a strong ‘heldentenor’, singing out the notes, but I am missing the Italianate charm that I am sure Puccini intended. In the supporting roles, Fabio Capitanucci (Sharpless) and Enkelejda Shkosa (Suzuki) are not comparable to such past greats as Christa Ludwig and Giuseppe de Luca. However, the second major factor that makes this recording so extraordinary is famed Puccini heroine Angela Gheorghiu in the title role. It requires a singer-actress of the highest caliber to portray the development of a 15 year old geisha into a lover, a proud mother and later a tragic heroine. She accomplishes this daunting task beautifully with a memorable performance.

Janos Gardonyi

 

 

 

01a_fidelio

 

01b_pelleas

 

Beethoven - Fidelio

Kennedy; Sherratt; Coleman-Wright; Kampe; Milne; London Philharmonic Orchestra; Mark Elder

Glyndebourne GFOCD 004-06

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Debussy - Pelléas et Mélisande

Roux; Duval; Reynolds; Hoekman;

Wilbrink; Bredy; Shirley-Quirk;

Royal Philharmonic Orchestra; Vittoria Gui

Glyndebourne GFOCD 003-63

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This year the Glyndebourne Festival in Sussex, England celebrates its 75th year. This is no mean achievement considering its survival depends entirely on private funds and donations. For any artist it has always been a great honour to be invited to be the guest of the Christie family, the founders and owners of this event. There have been many improvements over the years not the least of which is the magnificent new auditorium built in 1994. Glyndebourne has always been in the forefront of recording opera. As early as the 1930’s they were doing Mozart operas on EMI like the famous Don Giovanni with Fritz Busch. This year they have begun issuing recordings under their own label and this month we are presented with two of these: an inspired Fidelio from 2006 and from the archives, a 1963 performance of Pelléas et Mélisande.

Beethoven’s only opera embodies his innermost philosophy of life, the triumph of good against evil and the journey from darkness to light. This is what the Leonore Overture #3 does by compressing the journey into perhaps the most glorious 15 minutes of music ever written. With an emphasis on the symphonic nature of the opera, Mark Elder and his London Philharmonic, with excellent pacing and throbbing energy propel the music forward and yet illuminate all the nuances. Similar to the 9th Symphony the finale is truly an explosion and a culmination of joy.

The almost faultless cast deserves much credit. Soprano Anja Kampe as the heroine sings with heartfelt passion and tenderness and occasional outbursts of sincere indignation; Tornsten Kerl, the wrongfully convicted Florestan, has a shorter but no less gruelling role and his strong heroic tenor overcomes all the difficulties. The Glyndebourne Choir also makes a tremendous contribution.

At the end of the 19th century French music was under the heavy influence of Wagner and Brahms. A fervent desire for change was in the air and the young Debussy was the right man at the right time to bring it about. With new harmonies and translucent textures he brought in a breath of fresh air with a completely new approach, l’impressionisme. His sole opera Pelléas et Mélisande is a sublime masterpiece and a pinnacle of French art. It is totally different from anything written before yet, to be honest, still owes homage to Tristan and Parsifal which Debussy admired. Its long score is delicate but of the highest inspiration and every phrase is meaningful. It moves in the atmosphere of shadows, in and out of silence, generally quiet, rarely reaching a fortissimo.

This performance from 1963 is an inspired one from the beautifully poetic impressionistic sets by Beni Montresor, through the incisive and sympathetic conducting of Vittorio Gui to the faultless, impressive cast. French soprano Denise Duval is exceptional as the fragile, semi wild creature Mélisande. Dutch baritone Hans Wilbrink with his slow awareness to love and ardent declaration is most memorable. A worthwhile listening experience.

Last but not least, an A+ for presentation of these discs: elegantly designed hardcover books, with complete quattro lingual libretto. They will be a treasure for any collector.

Janos Gardonyi

 

Wales - The Land of Song

Shannon Mercer; Skye Consort

Analekta AN 2 9965

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In her fourth CD for Analekta, once again the lovely soprano voice of Shannon Mercer rings clear and true, this time in a most warm and heartfelt performance of Welsh songs. As the daughter of a long-time member of the Ottawa Welsh Society, Mercer well understands music and language as the cultural glue that binds people of Welsh descent. And what fond melodies they are. In fact, Mercer attributes her choice of career to the influence Welsh song had in her young life. The imagery inherent in the poetic language along with the sweet lyrical melodies chosen for this recording have quite an emotive impact on the listener, despite the fact that no translations are provided in the liner notes. Best-known pieces on this album are the well-loved lullaby Suo Gan, as well as the poignant Dafydd a Gareg Wen (David of the White Rock) and the unrequited Bugeillo’r Gwenith Gwyn.

In arranging the accompaniments and instrumental pieces, Sean Dagher has done a marvellous job of preserving traditional elements while melding them to a more contemporary aesthetic. The Skye Consort which includes flute, violins, cello, bass, cittern, accordion and percussion adds a 17th-century Italian harp similar to the Welsh triple-harp. Beautifully played, beautifully sung.

Dianne Wells

02_wales

 

 

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