03_il_pastor_fidoHandel – Il Pastor Fido
La Nuova Musica;
David Bates
Harmonia Mundi HMC 907585.86

Unlike many baroque composers, Handel thought in acts, not scenes, and was singular in his pursuit of dramatic balance and pace. He worked on three complete versions of Il Pastor Fido, the other two printed as “the second” and “the third edition.” This welcome recording is of the first setting which premiered on St. Cecilia’s Day, November 22, 1712. The plot derives from a famous pastoral play by Guarini, but the libretto (like many of Handel’s early operas for London) probably was adapted by Rossi from a French source: there is a scene with a garland not in Guarini, but occurring in contemporary French pastorals. The chopped three-act version (from Guarini’s five acts) needs some explanation. This was given in a page-long “Argument” only a third of which is given with this recording. Similarly the detailed stage directions are absent. Why? Add to this some bad translations. When the hunter Silvio cries out “Lancio il mio dardo” and wounds Dorinda, he is throwing his spear, not shooting an arrow. The boast is that this is a “world premiere recording.” It is not. That was done by Cetra with il Quartetto di Milano directed by Ennio Gerelli long ago and amazingly with all the voices at the right pitch!

The cast is excellent. They have chosen stylish ornaments for the da capos with real trills not just extended vibrato. Lucy Crowe is especially clear and moving as the long-suffering Amarilli and Anna Dennis as the lovesick self-sacrificing Mirtillo, revealed as the faithful shepherd of the title. Lisandro Abadie, a resonant bass-baritone makes an all too brief third act appearance as the priest Tirenio pronouncing Diana’s divine plan. Katherine Manley is lively and devious as the scheming Eurilla.

The tempi are uneven: surely the final chorus is not a dirge! Nonetheless, when he gets it right, David Bates can be magical. The box is worth having for an aria in Act 1 “Mi lasci, mi fuggi” for Dorinda (Madeleine Shaw) — a perfect example of Handel’s musical drama and his ability to probe human frailties. One final comment on the number of orchestral players: this is one of the few recordings that gets it about right but is still light on the strings.

04_schwanengesangSchubert – Schwanengesang
Matthias Goerne; Christoph Eschenbach
Harmonia Mundi HMC 902139.40

This posthumous collection of Schubert lieder is a favourite for singers who want the expressive variety that a cycle of themed poetic texts from a single pen might not offer. The creative outpouring of Schubert’s final year included numerous songs that his brother assembled for publication. Unlike Winterreise or Die schöne Müllerin whose texts by Müller are more focused around a specific story, Schwanengesang represents texts by three different poets on a richly diverse set of ideas.

The real surprise in this recording is not that baritone Matthias Goerne presents another flawless performance with pianist Christoph Eschenbach, or that he shows impeccable mastery over the emotive range of material, or that with his enormous voice he never over-sings the intimate requirements of the salon. The real surprise lies in the companion disc with Eschenbach’s performance of the Sonata D960.

Serious Schubertians love this work for its tenderness, harmonic depth and melodic simplicity. This sonata is free of studied complexity or artifice. The writing is direct and aims at some target deep within the soul. Was Schubert conscious of his end? Is the sweet melancholy the lingering pain over Beethoven’s death only months earlier? Eschenbach seems to know the answer, playing unashamedly with full conviction, drawing from these pages a unique statement unlike any you have heard before. He is interpretively wise to Schubert’s phrasing needs, his clever switchbacks over only partial restatements of his principle themes. He is no less clever and wise than the composer himself. This powerful combination creates a rare masterpiece performance you simply must own.

05_sicillian_vespersVerdi – Les Vêpres Siciliennes
Barbara Haveman; Burkhardt Fritz; Alejandro Marco-Burmester; Balint Szabo; Netherlands Philharmonic Orchestra and Choir; Paolo Carignani
Opus Arte OA 1060 D; OA BD7092D

This fine new release in digital splendour is a perfect example of how under the hand of a talented director an opera can be updated and even improved with a revolutionary concept. Revolutionary indeed. The opera is all about revolution, in this case the uprising of the Siciliani against French oppressors in 1282. How ironic and daring that Verdi prepared this French version for a Paris audience in 1855. But of course his mind was on Italy’s fight for freedom and unification.

The Grand Opera tradition that Verdi laid his hands on with variable success must include a ballet and so this version does, making the opera almost five hours long. What Christof Loy of Salzburg fame does with it is a re-enactment of the protagonists’ childhoods which enlightens the rather confusing plot and keeps the action moving. Minimalistic but strong sets, simple props like chairs scattered around, modern costumes used as a dramatic device (the French in dinner jackets, the natives in jeans and loose shirts, Hélène the heroine in a man’s suit and tie) and an overall grey colour scheme all form an artistically unified concept.

Add to this a group of dedicated, enthusiastic singers, Barbara Haveman’s glorious soprano, Burkhard Fritz  (the tenor’s vocal acrobatics stand out), a fine chorus always so important in Verdi’s operas and a young, formidably talented and dynamic conductor, Paolo Carignani, who brought the house down in COC’s Tosca this February. It’s a win-win situation with the immortal Verdi emerging as triumphant even with one of his less successful but, in this production, very soul-fulfilling operas.

06_i_saw_eternityI Saw Eternity
Elora Festival Singers; Noel Edison
Naxos 8.572812

The Elora Festival Singers continues its history of collaboration with Canadian composers in this strikingly beautiful recording. Four of the selections on this disc were composed expressly for this choir, and these, as well as the other selections, are well served by the choir’s pitch-perfect and artful delivery. In the title track by Leonard Enns, we are struck by the passages which incorporate a layering of voices that build and cascade in awe of a profound experience. Peter Tiefenbach’s Nunc Dimittis is peaceful in character, with a gentle, melodic interplay of voices with the piano, played with loving sensitivity by Leslie De’Ath, who also evokes the shimmering movement of water in the Agnus Dei from Glenn Buhr’s Richot Mass.

Organist Michael Bloss both supports and enlivens Paul Halley’s Bring us, O Lord God. In Ruth Watson Henderson’s unaccompanied Missa Brevis, upper voices maintain a consistently pure, even tone, resulting in a treble-like quality reminiscent of that in a traditional men and boys choir. The excellent control of soprano voices is also evident in Craig Galbraith’s setting of Let all Mortal Flesh Keep Silence with the dolce and pianissimo delivery of top notes. On a text by Rabindranath Tagore, Marjan Mozetich’s Flying Swans is written with a wonderfully mystic accompaniment of cello and clarinet, which features drone, ostinato and solo passages, some of which evoke the flapping of wings and trumpeting of the swans, all executed brilliantly by John Marshman and Stephen Pierre.

07_schnittkeSchnittke – Zwölf Bussverse; Stimmen der Natur
SWR Vokalensemble, Stuttgart; Marcus Creed
Hänssler Classic 93.281

The Vocal Ensemble Stuttgart is a highly intelligent (musically and textually) group of singers who take on a great number of difficult historical and contemporary scores, not the least of which is represented by these works by Alfred Schnittke. In addition to being a highly innovative composer, Schnittke also trained as a choir conductor. For his Psalms of Repentance, premiered in Moscow in 1988 during the thousand-year anniversary of the Christianization of Russia, he selected texts from a collection of 16th-century writings on subjects such as arrogance, hypocrisy, greed, original sin and fratricide. Musically, he began with Russian Orthodox chant, Gregorian chant and organum which he then filtered through his modernistic style. The effect is soulfully dark and archaic, and Schnittke himself admitted that he could not explain the technique but that the music was dominated by its linguistic origin. Contrasting this, the last movement finishes the work with no text at all, a vocalise sung bocca chiusa [with closed mouth]. Similarly, at the end of the recording is Schnittke’s mesmerizing, hauntingly beautiful Voices of Nature for female voices and vibraphone, in a style described as “structured simplicity,” with consonant sounds evoking the natural world through the creation of tone clusters that sporadically appear and disappear. Again, the choir produces a gorgeous soundscape with absolute, perfect precision.

01a_Bach_Brilliant01b_Bach_AnalektaBach – St. John Passion
Choir of King’s College,Cambridge; Stephen Cleobury
Brilliant Classics 94316

Bach – St. John Passion
Bach Choir of Bethlehem; Bach Festival Orchestra; Greg Funfgeld
Analekta AN 2 9890-1

J.S. Bach’s sacred works for soloists, choir and orchestra are all mind-bogglingly wonderful, so to be appointed the task of considering these two excellent performances of his St. John Passion was a true Easter treat. The first is a new release from the Bach Choir of Bethlehem (Pennsylvania), the second a re-issue of a 1995 release featuring the Choir of King’s College, Cambridge. Both choirs have a venerable history: the Bethlehem group was the first Bach Choir founded in the USA (in 1891) and gave that country’s premiere performance of Bach’s B Minor Mass in 1900; and the Choir of King’s College, Cambridge, has been one of England’s premiere choral groups for eons. The BCB is partnered in this recording project by their own Bach Festival Orchestra, playing on modern instruments, while the CKCC is accompanied by the Brandenburg Consort on period instruments.

The soloists on both recordings are all outstanding. Though all the wonderful singers in the CKCC reissue are now no longer on the regular soloist “circuit,” the combined cast listings read like a partial “Who’s Who” of the baroque scene. Of special note in the BCB performance is Charles Daniels who, as always, bestows his consummate clarity, intelligence and expressiveness upon the role of the Evangelist. The other soloists are also excellent, particularly soprano Julia Doyle who imbues “Ich forge Dir gleichfalls” with the perfect blend of delight and innocence. With the CKCC, John Mark Ainsley also sings a very fine Evangelist, and hearing the voices of Paul Agnew, Stephen Varco and Catherine Bott makes for a cheerful trip down memory lane.

Both choirs sing with impeccable ensemble and depth of expression; the Bethlehem group in particular sounds truly congregational in the chorales, a very welcome quality. The orchestral playing in both is first-class, with refined expressiveness, clarity and attention to detail, and the continuo group players in both are equally top-notch. While the thoughtful playing of the Brandenburg Consort on period instruments is a little more to my own taste, the Bach Festival Orchestra players play elegantly, adopting “historically informed” influence with skill and flexibility. Kudos to all involved in these two excellent recordings.

03_Ottawa_Bach_ChoirCantate Domino
Ottawa Bach Choir; Lisette Canton
Independent 2011

The Ottawa Bach Choir celebrates its tenth anniversary with the release of this recording which includes the choir’s favourite repertoire. Bach, of course, is given pride of place with first and last selections; first being the wedding cantata, Der Herr denket an uns BWV196, and lastly the motet Der Geist hilft unsrer Schwachheit BWV226. A small baroque ensemble led by violinist Hélène Plouffe serving as orchestra shines brilliantly in the opening Sinfonia and director Lisette Canton coaxes excellent work from the choir throughout. The choir’s namesake appears again in a later setting; Knut Nystedt’s Immortal Bach, in which the theme taken from Komm süsser Tod BWV478, with layered notes from the original, is sung in different time intervals. Rather than the expected fugal effect, a unique and ethereal mass voice emerges alternating between consonance and dissonance.

Soloists shine in Monteverdi’s Beatus vir, and Messiaen’s O sacrum convivium! shows off the choir’s warm and unified responsiveness. One can only wish the Ottawa Bach Choir continues to delight their audience for (at least) another ten years.

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.

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