03_great_canadian_hymnsGreat Canadian Hymns

Pax Christi Chorale

Independent (www.paxchristichorale.org)

In August 2009, Pax Christi Chorale invited both professional and amateur Canadian composers to enter their inaugural Great Canadian Hymn Competition. Chosen from sixty-eight entries, this recording, lovingly performed by the choir, features eleven hymns composed by the winners and finalists from all across Canada. Included is a nod to tradition with Healey Willan’s Eternal, Unchanging, We Sing to Your Praise thrown in for good measure. Most provinces are represented and there is a good mix of new settings of traditional texts and texts written for these new pieces. The First Prize winner, Henry Boon of Windsor, Ontario composed I Heard that God Was Power, the text for which was written by his wife Susan Boon. Second Prize was awarded to Judith Snowdon of Saint Joseph de Kent, New Brunswick for Do You Not Know, Have You Not Heard? Third Prize was awarded to Scott Bastien, also of Windsor, for his composition God of All Nations.

Thoughtfully included in this package is an easy-to-read book of scores; an excellent resource for organists and choirs who wish to introduce more contemporary Canadian compositions to their services. Although a few of the works might pose quite a challenge for congregational singing, they would, nonetheless, make fine choral anthems.

01_gabrielle_mclaughlinSwell, Burst and Dye

Gabrielle McLaughlin; Lucas Harris

Independent (www.cdbaby.com/cd/gabriellemclaughlin)

The celebration of melancholy is as prevalent in music for singer and lute in the early 17th Century as the double-entendre. And the well-chosen title of this recording makes ample use of both. This phrase, “Swell, burst and dye” ends each of the three parts of Griefe keep within, composed by John Danyel for a funeral in which he advises the grieving wife “Mrs. M.E.” to shun excessive displays of sorrow. He then presents music as both the vicarious expression and the cure. This central piece is a wonderful find along with many others chosen by soprano Gabrielle McLaughlin and lutenist Lucas Harris to take the listener on a life journey through “pubescent drama toward the resignation of adulthood and the sometime despondency of middle age.” Selections by Danyel and John Dowland start sweetly and progressively lean toward a darker side, turning first to Dowland’s characteristic melancholy in I saw my Ladye Weepe, Semper Dowland Semper Dolens, pavan for lute and culminating in Thomas Campion’s spooky When thou must home to Shades of Underground and The Sypres Curtaine of the Night.

Gabrielle McLaughlin has a wonderful pure, even, declamatory style equally perfect for portraying smitten youth, heartbroken lover or gamine sprite. Her emotive qualities shine forth particularly well in her excellent phrasing. And the interplay between the singer and lutenist meet in perfect synchronicity. Cover design by Martin Chochinov is suitably disturbing and worth mentioning also are the playfully authentic spellings in the liner notes.

02_archibald_haydnHaydn - Arias

Jane Archibald; Orchestre Symphonique Bienne; Thomas Rösner

ATMA ACD2 2661

Papa Haydn was an extremely successful musician - and not just by the standards of his era. He was, one could argue, the first musical entrepreneur. In the period of transition from “composer as a servant” to “composer as an artist” he took advantage of the circumstances to sell his works many times over and ended up a wealthy man. He also had a dramatic impact on the development of the Western European musical idiom and established his symphonies as ideals aspired to by many. It is however in the 20 years of service to the Duke Esterhazy when Haydn wrote over 20 operas. Most of them have disappeared from the standard repertoire, but like so many works of Papa Haydn, once brought back, they have a lot of staying power. I am talking here of the comedic Il Mondo della Luna, the classic Orlando Paladino and his last opera, yet another take on the story of Orfeo et Euridice, written in the year of Mozart’s death. Arias from these and other operas are brought to record by the Canadian coloratura soprano, Jane Archibald. Although a fair musical distance from her typical repertoire of Zebrinetta, Musetta, Olympia and Queen of the Night, they provide a showcase for her vocal agility and provide a foreshadowing of the COC performances of next season as Zebrinetta and Semele. An added bonus of the CD is the inclusion of overtures, played beautifully by the Swiss Bienne Symphony, presided over by Thomas Rösner, a very talented Viennese maestro.


03_die_vogelWalter Braunfels - Die Vogel

Désirée Rancatore; Brandon Jovanovich; James Johnson; Martin Gantner; Los Angeles Opera; James Conlon

ArtHaus Musik 101 529

“Trust the text!” – this much repeated, often ignored theatrical incantation proves its wisdom in the Braunfels opera The Birds. Too frequently, composers, directors and producers think that the play’s strength is not nearly enough for its success. Hence, we are frequently left scratching our heads. Just a few seasons ago, the Stratford Festival staged the almost 2,500 year old play by Aristophanes in a truly bizarre fashion that led my seat companion to call it “Sesame Street on acid.” Fortunately, Walter Braunfels was a man of tradition. While the Viennese School was transforming music of the early 20th century with their atonal experiments, Braunfels fully embraced German Romanticism. When The Birds premiered in 1920, none other than Bruno Walter conducted and lavished extreme praise on the work and its author. Alas, Walter Braunfels, as one of Germany’s assimilated Jews, stood no chance against the regime that emerged in the 1930s. His brutal dismissal and almost complete purge of his works from the public realm, was not overturned in the composer’s lifetime and the first post WWII production of The Birds took place in 1971, seventeen years after his death.

In this production for the Los Angeles Opera, both conductor James Conlon and the stage director, Darko Tresnjak, treat Braunfels’ work with the same respect he had shown for Aristophanes. By playing up to its Romantic tradition and easy charm, the best of Braunfels the composer and Braunfels the author is on display. The strong cast, especially Désirée Rancatore as Nightingale and Brandon Jovanovich as Good Hope, only emphasize the reasons why Braunfels’ return to the stage, while long overdue, is much appreciated.

DIVAS’ DELIGHTS – Opera, Lieder, Art Song and the Contemporary Air

We enjoy a wide range of genre in recent offerings from those best known in the world of opera. This month, we salute those with more conventional releases and those who stray unexpectedly but delightfully from the fold, all manifesting as chanteuses extraordinaire.

01_bartoliSospiri (Decca 4782558), is a compilation of Cecilia Bartoli’s best recital selections and is comprised of opera arias and sacred songs recorded between 1994 and 2009. A singer famous for her thrilling and fast-paced virtuosic vocal runs, this collection’s name which translates as ‘sighs’ indicates a focus on her mastery of more relaxed and tender expressions. To this end, we have pieces like Handel’s Lascia la spina and Mozart’s Laudate dominum performed with exquisite beauty and sensitivity. It seems, however, they could not resist the inclusion of spectacular runs and dramatic showpieces such as Una voce poco fa and Geminiano Giacomelli’s Merope: Sposa non mi conosci. An enchanting mix of well-known favourites with obscure and precious gems.

02_dessayNatalie Dessay’s Cleopatra: Arias from Giulio Cesare (Virgin Classics 5099990 7872 2 5) showcases this soprano’s dramatic range in her newest role at the Paris Opéra as the Queen of the Nile’s arias demonstrate the “infinite variety” referred to by Shakespeare. Regal bearing forms one facet of the bejewelled monarch, jealousy and vindictiveness another and sensuality and tenderness yet another. Dessay handles the dramatic transitions flawlessly while the beauty and precision of her vocal work creates a superb pairing with the dynamic ensemble Le Concert d’Astrée. All are led by Emmanuelle Haim who Dessay says is the perfect stage director for her voice.

03_didonatoDiva Divo (Virgin Classics 50999 641986 0 6) is Joyce DiDonato’s tribute to the world of the mezzo-soprano who, à la Victor/Victoria, “has always been called upon to bend the genders, to convince equally in both pants and skirts… while hopefully retaining an individual and unique sound.” Featured ‘trouser roles’ such as Mozart’s Cherubino, Bellini’s Romeo and Massenet’s Prince Charming are set alongside female counterparts such as Mozart’s Susanna and Rossini’s Cinderella. Not only gender variations, but same themes and stories set by different composers are juxtaposed in this recording from the Opera de Lyon under Kazushi Ono’s direction, for example selections from both Mozart & Gluck’s La Clemenza di Tito, providing an interesting perspective on the versatility of the performer. Which, of course, Ms. Donato is (and a stellar one at that!).

04_damrauPoésie (Virgin Classics 5099962 8664 0 8), features the orchestral songs of Richard Strauss throughout which Diana Damrau’s flawless voice soars transcendently all the while sustaining enormous depth of emotion. She really makes the most of the atmospheric changes and seemingly infinite range of colour with which Strauss infuses his songs. It is breathtakingly expressive even when Damrau drops to a pianissimo passage. Strauss considered his temperamental wife Pauline the ideal interpreter of his songs and the only one to whom he would entrust the intimate raptures of songs like Morgen and Allerseelen. Perhaps he would reconsider if he were with us today to hear this singer who seems to understand the ever-shifting nuances of his work so well. Christian Thielemann is in top form leading the Munich Philharmonic

05_ricciWith Cirque (Sono Luminus DSL-92125 www.sonoluminus.com), Céline Ricci conjures up the carnival atmosphere of the streets of 1920s Paris with songs of the era weaving a smoky screen of mesmerizing inventions and illusions. Having been chosen by William Christie for Les Jardin des Voix and named one of opera’s promising young talents by Opernwelt, in her first solo recording Ricci tackles Henri Sauguet’s cycle Cirque with all the flair of a ringmaster, Milhaud’s Six Chansons de Théatre with the brash seductiveness of the cabaret singer and Poulenc’s Cocardes with fantastical whimsy. Pianist Daniel Lockert adds a dash of panache to the scene with Satie’s Rag-time Parade.

06_von_otterTeaming up with jazz pianist Brad Mehldau for Love Songs (Naïve 2CD V5421), Anne Sofie von Otter demonstrates great artistic versatility. In doing so she neither sacrifices her pure and dulcet tones nor delivers any measure of artifice inappropriate to the character of the music. Or, as Mehldau comments, she is never overly dramatic. Take, for example, her rendition of Lennon & McCartney’s Blackbird which is as sweet and simple as it ever should be juxtaposed with the subtle nuance of Jacque Brel’s Chanson des vieux amants and the wistful fun of Walking My Baby Back Home sung in Swedish. Mehldau’s own Love Songs cycle, commissioned by Carnegie Hall and written for von Otter, offers a lovely and eloquent vehicle for these two artists. 

01_tristan_und_isoldeWagner - Tristan und Isolde
Waltraub Meier; Ian Story; Michelle DeYoung; Gerd Groehowski; Matti Salminen; Teatro alla Scala; Daniel Barenboim
Virgin Classics 51931599

On December 7, 2007 an event that reverberated throughout Milan took place at La Scala with the greatest artists gathered to breathe new life into Wagner’s immortal masterpiece.

The main reason for the celebration was the re-emergence of director Patrice Chereau who as a young firebrand created the centennial Ring in Bayreuth in 1976, a revolutionary concept that started a chain of new productions all over the world. Now 30 years later and no longer young he was persuaded to do a much more difficult task, Tristan. There is nothing revolutionary here, however. His production is almost traditional. The sets are unobtrusive, neutral in colour, quasi abstract and echo timeless reality, the stage movements are relaxed, exquisitely handled almost like a ballet. The action erupts only when the music calls for it, like the finale of the first act or the fighting in the third. In this framework Chereau allows his singers to act naturally and so optimize their talents.

Waltraud Meier (Isolde) is a wonderful singer-actress who has sung the role many times and simply lives in it. She is the crown of the production. Her interpretation is so convincing, so spontaneous that it’s near perfection in itself. Ian Storey as Tristan, a relative new-comer, is steady and a ‘tidal wave of power and passion’ - especially in the third act where he abandons himself totally as the suffering hero. The other three principals, Michelle deYoung (Brangaene), Greg Grochowsky (Kurwenal) and Matti Salminen are theatrically and musically all on the same level as the protagonists.

The musical triumph however belongs to Daniel Barenboim who proudly steps into the formidable tradition established by Böhm, Furtwangler, Kleiber and Karajan. He forms his own style with well thought out tempi and details, making the Scala Orchestra sound glorious and exciting. This is production that will go down in history.

02_verdi_don_carloVerdi - Don Carlo
Rolando Villazon; Marina Poplavskaya; Simon Keenlyside; Ferruccio Furlanetto; Sonia Ganassi; Royal Opera House; Antonio Pappano
Royal Opera House/EMI 6 31609 9

Verdi’s Don Carlo is an opera of star crossed lovers, forbidden love, marital infidelity and other miseries, one of his greatest masterworks, certainly the most monumental, though flawed. It exists in many versions, French, Italian, five and four acts, some revised several times. Nowadays there is a recording for each and hence there are over 10 versions available on DVD, not to mention CDs. In my opinion the 5 act version, such as this one in Italian is the most satisfying for completeness of the music and the beauty of the language. After all Verdi should rightly be enjoyed in Italian.

Coproduced with the Metropolitan Opera, this production was the highlight of the 2008 season of the Royal Opera House. It heralded the return of Rolando Villazon as its principal tenor. Although his voice has had problems, he seems to have recovered sufficiently to cope with the title role. He looks the part, attractive and passionate, though sometimes he sounds strained. Marina Poplavskaya as the young Queen provides a wonderful portrayal, in excellent soprano voice and sympathetic personality. As the anguished King Philip, certainly one of Verdi’s most memorable creations, Ferruccio Furlanetto is a veteran of the role. He sang it under Karajan and follows the great tradition established by the legends, Boris Christoff and Nicolai Ghiarov. The pinnacle of the opera is the 4th act chamber scene where nearly all of the principals come together with intense drama and superb music beautifully integrated in the Quartet, very moving indeed.

The production is traditional, in good taste. The sets are imaginative and architecturally interesting and very well coordinated with the action. Antonio Pappano, a favourite conductor of Italian operas these days, conducts with vigour and great authority, making this set outstanding, probably the best currently available.

03_Glass_OrpheeGlass - Orphée
Portland Opera; Anne Manson
Orange Mountain Music OMM 0068 (www.orangemountainmusic.com)

As I was all but indifferent to the music of Philip Glass, I was not eagerly looking forward to a performance of Orphée at the 2007 Glimmerglass Opera Summer Series. That year the theme for the season was the Orpheus legend and the company staged operas by Offenbach, Gluck, Glass, Monteverdi and Haydn. As expected, every performance was outstanding but Orphée was the surprise hit, unexpectedly making a provocative first impression and a lasting wish to hear it again.

For his libretto Glass lifted the script from Jean Cocteau’s 1950 film Orphée and moved the setting to a stage-wide, modern studio-apartment. As we might expect from Cocteau’s fascination with mirrors, when the characters move back and forth to “The Zone” they simply step through a mirror. It’s all true to the love story of mythology but the mise-en-scène brings the action comfortably into the present, or at least to the mid 20th century.

The Portland Opera production, recorded live in November 2009, employs the scenery and costumes created for the 2007 Glimmerglass Opera presentation, has the same conductor, Anne Manson and the Glimmerglass Orphée, Philip Cutlip. The productions also share Lisa Saffer as La Princesse. The Portland Eurydice is Georgia Jarman. The production is well cast and I don’t hear a single weak voice.

It is a given that watching an opera in the house or elsewhere is a different experience from only hearing it. Nevertheless on the CD, without the visuals to animate this performance of Orphée, Glass’s music impresses with an uncomplicated, attractive, melodic, often hypnotic score... very listener friendly. It is sung in French with enclosed line-by-line English translations.

I would not have acquired this recording had I not attended the Glimmerglass performance. Over the years we have seen many new or rarely performed operas there. This year, from July 2nd to August 23rd, they will mount productions of Carmen, Medea and Annie Get Your Gun (with Deborah Voigt as Annie Oakley). Also a double bill: the premier of A Blizzard at Marblehead Neck by Broadway composer Jeanine Tesori together with Later the Same Evening by John Musto. Glimmerglass is just before Cooperstown in New York State, only six hours from Toronto. Take the New York Thruway (I-90) and hang a right at Herkimer. Go for the weekend, visit the Baseball Museum and luxuriate over the Sunday buffet brunch at the Otesaga Hotel overlooking the lake.

04_BinibonElliott Sharp - Binibon
Elliott Sharp; Jack Womack
Henceforth Records 110 (www.henceforthrecords.com)

Theatrically gripping and sonically sophisticated, this modern opera by composer Elliott Sharp and librettist/narrator Jack Womack reflects the events surrounding a 1981 killing in New York’s East Village. That flashpoint was the genesis for a musical meditation on Manhattan, where “everyone has a favorite murder.”

Through studio wizardry Sharp creates all the instrumental sounds on reeds, guitars, bass, percussion, synthesizer and programmed samples. With the score providing leitmotifs for the story, Sharp’s instincts are note-perfect, whether backing the narrator’s hard-boiled sardonic drawl with overblown saxophone vibrato à la Harlem Nocturne or using menacing guitar flanges to underline Jedediah Schultz’s dialogue as protagonist Jack Henry Abbott boasting how he can gut a victim while knifing him. Later echoing industrial sound accelerates to synthesizer and drum-beat disco-funk, when waitress Susie (sung by Queen Esther) defiantly describes her street smarts, then in funky R&B mode, vocalizes her view of the tragedy.

A 24-hour Bohemian hang-out, the Binibon restaurant was where manager/actor Richie Aden (sung by Cy Fore) was murdered by Abbott, a writer and psychopathic criminal. While the libretto makes clear that the brutal murder presaged the city’s gentrifying, to become “Ground Zero Disneyland” as Womack states deadpan while samples of ecclesiastical organ music pump in the background, Sharp’s music evocatively recreates the 1980s sound milieu.

Whether it’s the jerky pulsating electronics that backs Ryan Quinn’s campy rap as drag queen and eyewitness Fabuluscious or the hard-C&W styled guitar twangs that frame the showdown and eventual murder – escalating to motor-driven grinds and scrapes during the act itself – the music is appropriately illustrative. Binibon is a momentous achievement, because Sharp and Womack have not only recreated a particular time and place, but also recast it in the form of top-flight musical drama.

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