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.


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.

04_Gluck_EzioGluck - Ezio

Max Emanuel Cencic; Ann Hallenberg; Sonia Prina; Il Complesso Barocco; Alan Curtis

Virgin Classics 50999 07092923

Gluck is often styled an operatic reformer, but he composed many successful examples in the earlier opera seria style in which virtuosic da capo arias alternated with simple recitatives. In the year 1750 he selected texts by Pietro Metastasio of Rome, partly because Metastasio specialized in classical themes and partly because his librettos were admired by composers and performers alike.

Ezio is set in Rome after the title character, a Roman general, has defeated Attila the Hun, promptly arousing the jealousy of Emperor Valentiniano III. An intense romantic intrigue is grafted by Metastasio onto the historical background.

From the start, Metastasio’s words vary between heart-felt and lengthy arias and quick-fire exchanges during the recitatives. This is apparent in Act One, Scene Two when Ezio, Massimo and Fulvia reveal the initial romantic intrigue within the plot in a very short space of time before Ezio devotes an aria to pleading with Fulvia to be loyal to him.

Metastasio has created characters who are contradictory and flawed: Valentiniano is virtuous but at the same time he is cowardly and credulous, while Ezio is courageous but lacks a sense of caution. This is the backdrop against which Gluck composed his opera while Gluck had not yet himself settled in Vienna.

For all these problems and challenges, the opera lover can settle down to a complex but rewarding work, aided by Bruce Alan Brown’s comprehensive and explanatory notes.

05_anna-nicoleMark-Anthony Turnage - Anna Nicole
Eva-Marie Westbroek; Gerald Finley; Royal Opera House; Antonio Pappano
Opus Arte OA 1054 D

Opera is probably the most democratic art form, contrary to its “elitist” reputation. Centuries ago, the librettists and composers figured out that lives of courtesans, prostitutes and comfort women are as worthy of being immortalized as the kings and nobles whose pleasure they serve. Enter “Anna Nicole.” The story of a rather Rubenesque woman famous… well, for being famous and for her enhanced chest, is pure tabloid fodder, sordid and vulgar. It is also tragic, not the least because of its final outcome.

Richard Thomas (who also created “Jerry Springer – the Opera”) seizes upon all the tabloid angles, but never loses sight of our tragic heroine. The choir, on-stage from the overture on, initially is just a Greek chorus. It quickly becomes a flock of media vultures, ready to report on the slightest non-event and to destroy Anna Nicole’s camera-seeking life in the process. You cannot help feeling as sorry for the fame obsessed small–town girl as you would for Cio Cio San. Large credit goes to Eva-Maria Westbroek’s sensational performance; Gerald Finley, who is clearly Covent Garden’s audience favourite, lends his beautiful baritone to the role of the sleazy lawyer Stern and Susan Bickley, is forced to be a modern-day Cassandra, predicting the gloom.

Turnage’s music, never very easy, gains on second hearing and is ably assisted by a rhythm section including John Paul Jones (of Led Zeppelin, I kid you not!). Should you see it? Yes! Besides, where else can you hear a soprano aria “Get me the f**k out of here!”?

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