05_Rethink_foreverPeter Hannan - Rethink Forever
Musica Intima; Vancouver Cantata Singers
Artifact Music ART040 (www.artifactmusic.ca)

Happiness, love and the inequities of life drive the creative juices of composer Peter Hannan in the four vocal works (two with tape) here. This is not your standard choral fare – featuring Musica Intima on two tracks, the Vancouver Cantata Singers on another, and soprano Siri Olesen on the last, “Rethink Forever” will challenge the listener to rethink the nature of contemporary choral music forever.

Hannan uses his formidable skills in vocal scoring and tape development to set his self-penned, witty yet at times very troubling, lyrics to music. Musically, he draws on diverse influences, from ethereal harmonies, to traditional African music to the beats of pop. His words are drawn from his experiences living in Africa to Christopher Columbus to the happy gal at the checkout counter. What amazes is his ability to develop and superimpose these ideas seamlessly.

The performances are world class. This is tough material to perform, yet both choirs are solid in their technique and musicality. Soprano Siri Olesen’s distinct voice is especially suitable to Hannan's compositional style – her haunting take on the equally haunting work for soprano and tape entitled No Brighter Sun: No Darker Night is a sudden reminder that “art” at its very best is simple and clear.

The liner notes are a great support in aiding one through the material. Artifact’s superb production values are impressive too. Hannan need not search for “happiness” anymore. He’s got it right on his own CD!

01_emma_kirkbyOrpheus in England - Dowland & Purcell
Emma Kirkby & Jakob Lindberg
BIS CD-1725

Orpheus is famed in classical mythology for his music which charmed and soothed all those who heard: be they gods, demons, humans, animals, elements, vegetation or even rocks and stones. The two English composers featured on this recording shared this ability. Recognized as “the English Orpheus” by his patron, John Dowland was sought in the European courts as both composer and performer of the finest songs for voice and lute. Performing this music with all its bittersweet tenderness requires a purity of tone from the singer combined with a deft and light touch from the lutenist. And whose sensibilities are better to deliver this more expertly than Emma Kirkby and Jacob Lindberg handling the gamut from bright pastoral delights like By a fountain where I lay to the melancholic despair of In darkness let me dwell? Interspersed are solo lute offerings such as The Earl of Essex, his galliard and Lacrimae.

While the second Orpheus Britannicus featured generally made use of larger musical forces, many of Henry Purcell’s tunes lend themselves well to Lindberg’s own transcriptions for solo lute, such as the Echo dance of the furies from Dido & Aeneas and Lillibulero. Kirkby’s diction and pacing add superb dramatic content to From Silent Shades as well as her brilliant emotive vocal ebbs and swells in Music for a while. The listener is indeed transported to a time of grace and beauty through music’s true power.

02_baroque_tenorsThree Baroque Tenors
Ian Bostridge; The English Concert; Bernard Labadie
EMI Classics 6 26864 2

Castrati were some of early opera’s superstars; they eventually found their supremacy challenged by the rise of the tenor, often showcased by composers such as Handel. This CD features Ian Bostridge interpreting music for three star tenors of Handel’s day – John Beard, Francesco Borosini and Annabile Po Fabri. The pieces selected reflect this showcasing, not least with Handel’s Where congeal’d the northern streams and Vivaldi’s La tiranna e avversa sorte, the latter’s musical score combining with its lyrics to drive home the determination of Tamese to rule.

Ian Bostridge chooses two consecutive pieces to show how Gasparini and Handel each depict the torment of the defeated Bajazet. Gasparini exploits the tenor register to full effect; Handel is more contemplative – contrast Bajazet’s resignation with the immediately following piece, Arne’s militaristic Rise, Glory, rise, where even loud drums can not extinguish Ian Bostridge’s inspired interpretation.

Even Handel’s frenetic D’un barbaro scortese receives Bostridge’s attention, demonstrating just how much energy could be generated by a leading baroque tenor. It should not, however, be thought that this collection is only about classical dignitaries laying down commands for mere subjects. William Boyce’s Solomon depicts plaintive scenes of love drawn from the Song of Solomon. In short, every known emotion features in the baroque tenor’s repertoire. And in Ian Bostridge’s.

03_schubert_goerneSchubert - Nacht und Traume
Matthias Goerne; Alexander Schmalcz
Harmonia Mundi HMC 902063

It’s a joy to have a recording capture your attention in its opening measures and hold it effortlessly for an hour. These Schubert Lieder sung by baritone Matthias Goerne with pianist Alexander Schmalcz do so because the performers know the seductive power of Romantic lyricism and how to use it.

While death is the subject of most of these poems, Schubert has written melodic lines that are anything but relentlessly bleak portrayals of this spectre. There are a couple of wonderfully grim items on the program to be sure, but most are surprisingly lovely and accurately reflect the poets’ emotional intentions.

Goerne’s voice is smooth, pleasantly dark for the range and of medium heft. He’s generally light for the mid and upper registers, which is exactly how these Lieder should be sung. His lower range opens a powerhouse where we hear his opera stage voice several times as in Totengräberweise, D. 869 and especially in Totengräbers Heimweh, D. 842.

Goerne and Schmalcz, moreover, present an artistic collaboration that raises the piano to a status of lyrical partnership. Schmalcz is a wonderfully sensitive accompanist. He knows when Schubert hands off a melodic line by sending the voice in an unexpected direction. Through some masterful touch of the keyboard he somehow produces a near tonal match to Goerne’s baritone voice and creates a wonderful aural effect.

True fans of Schubert lieder who still hold Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau as torch-bearer for the genre will recognize some of his vocal and interpretive technique in Goerne’s performance and so they should… Goerne was one of his students.

04_kozena_lettereLettere Amorose
Magdalena Kozenà; Private Musicke; Pierre Pitzl
Deutsche Grammophon 477 8764

Magdalena Kozenà is one of those increasingly rare artists, who are not afraid of their own instrument. Many singers very quickly define a niche for themselves, where their voice sounds at its best – be it bel canto, romantic repertoire, modern music or music of the Baroque. They make sure there is no chance to trip up, no danger… but also no passion. Having heard Kozenà recently at the stage of the MET as a romantic and withdrawn Mélisande, I had to adjust my ears to this recording. In a splendid collection of the early 17th century Italian songs, Kozenà just opens her mouth and lets the sound emerge, fearlessly. Maybe it’s because she has nothing to fear: her voice sounds rich, gorgeous, exciting. Kozenà herself makes a few groan-inducing statements for the liner notes: she claims it’s easy to sing these songs, as they are technically undemanding. Well, many quite accomplished artists would not be so lucky with this repertoire.

Private Musicke adds to the charm of this disc with their quirky, joyful playing. One is somewhat reminded of Custer LaRue and the Baltimore Consort, but Kozenà is simply a superior vocalist. In nothing but a goose-bump inducing tour de force, she takes us through the works of Monteverdi, D’India, Merula, Marini, Caccini and Strozzi as if it were her daily vocal exercise. If you know her as an artist, I don’t have to encourage you to buy this disc. If, for whatever reason, you have not discovered her yet, you owe it to yourself to explore it!

05_fete_gauvinFête Galante
Karina Gauvin; Marc-Andre Hamelin
ATMA ACD2 2642

Though a reissue of a recital given in 1999 in the Montreal Radio-Canada studio, this recording is well worth a second run. The original received the 2000 Opus award for Best Vocal Recording and was selected as Chamber Music America’s Recording of the Year. Fêtes galantes, or garden parties, refers to a collection of poems by Paul Verlaine inspiring some of the best loved songs of fin de siècle composers and their successors. Karina Gauvin’s voice is magical, with a depth of tone and timbre one rarely finds but which suits the emotive quality of this repertoire so well. Fauré’s Mandoline and Clair de Lune are a lovely starting point for the ever-evolving repertoire. Gauvin navigates expertly through the dizzying atmospheric nuances of Debussy, she and pianist Marc-André Hamelin ever intertwining in a mesmerizing dance of tonal spectres. The singer’s depth of expression truly transcends in Poulenc’s Metamorphosis and both singer and pianist’s precision shine in Deux poèmes de Louis Aragon and Trois poèmes de Louise Lalanne which include some lively and tongue-twisting lyrics. In Honegger’s Saluste du Bartas she manages a perfect blend of regal bearing and human frailty. And finally, in charming settings of folk music by Ravel and Vuillermoz, the garden is made complete through the inclusion of the pastorale.

06_gurreliederSchoenberg - Gurrelieder
Deborah Voigt; Mihoko Fujimura; Stig Andersen; Herwig Pecoraro; Michael Volle; Bavarian RSO & Choirs; Maris Jansons
BR KLASSIK 900110 1 DVD, 117 minutes.

I read recently that Gurrelieder is Schoenberg’s most popular work. I doubt that. The logistics of mounting a performance are daunting and quite beyond what’s possible for most orchestras or their boards or their venues. The work is scored for a larger, much larger than large, orchestra including 10 horns, eight flutes, seven clarinets, four harps, an immense array of percussion instruments including three sets of timpani and other species of drums, iron chains (I listen for them in every recording without success... they must be drowned out) and just about everything that must be shaken or struck. The complement of choruses (better: the exultation of choruses) requires three four-part male choirs, an eight-part mixed chorus plus five soloists and finally, a Sprechstimme to tie it all off.

Record companies do not finance recording sessions of Gurrelieder but arrange to bring their equipment to a live event. The first recording was issued by RCA on 28 78rpm sides of a performance on 11 April 1932 with Leopold Stokowski and the Philadelphia Orchestra and distinguished soloists, including Rose Bampton. At the same time RCA recorded Stokowski discussing the piece for the edification of the listener. Since then, every LP and CD documents a live performance.

Schoenberg began Gurrelieder in January 1900 in response to a song writing competition. What started as some songs with piano accompaniment soon got out of hand and he began sketching on specially ordered, 28 stave manuscript paper, a three part oratorio based on poems by Danish poet Peter Jacobsen telling of the doomed, Tristanesque affair between King Waldemar and Tove, a maiden who lived in Gurre. He laid it all out and worked on orchestrating it until 1903 when he abandoned the project. He began again years later, finishing the work in November of 1911. The great triumph of his life was Gurrelieder’s first performance on February 23, 1913.

CDs, SACDs or any audio-only medium cannot convey the enormity of the work and at times the lieder-like settings reminiscent of the Old Vienna School. Jansons’ soloists do not merely sing their parts, they live them! Heldentenor Stig Andersen is a powerful and sympathetic Waldemar. Deborah Voigt, in superb voice, is perfectly cast as Tove while mezzo Mihoko Fujimura is the Wood Dove who brings the news of the death of Tove... a powerful and moving performance. Herwig Pecoraro is Klaus-Narr, the jester and Michael Volle is the peasant and the speaker, the Sprechstimme, who announces the end of the tragic story and the glory of a new day concluding with the most glorious sunrise in all music. All this is held together by Mariss Jansons who is beyond criticism, who conducts with great authority and a complete understanding of the work.

It would have been a disappointment if this, Gurrelieder’s only performance on DVD, live from the Philharmonie am Gasteig in Munich were less than the most exciting, passionate, glorious performance imaginable. Filmed in wide screen high definition video and exemplary five channel audio (with a 2 channel option) and Brian Large’s direction for TV, this production is unlikely to be equalled, let alone surpassed. Full texts enclosed, however no subtitles.

07_bridges_across_seaBridge Across the Seas
Vilma Indra Vitols; Dzintra Erliha
Duplium (www.vilmavitols.com)

The joyous spirit of music-making shows no bounds as mezzo-soprano Vilma Indra Vitols and pianist Dzintra Erliha soar and dazzle in this collection commemorating the 90th anniversary of the late Latvian Canadian composer Talivaldis Kenins.

Vitols is a familiar voice on the Toronto music scene, especially for her work with urbanvessel in SLIP and Voice-Box. She has incredible clarity of diction that only her diverse vocal colour can outshine. Latvian Erliha is brilliant especially when the programmatic nature of the works require her to draw on strength of technique and subtle musicianship to create the appropriate backdrop of mood to the vocal lines.

There is a little of bit everything in the contemporary Canadian and Latvian works performed. The songs by Erik Ross, John Hawkins and Imant Raminsh are strong. Latvian Peteris Vasks’ piano solo is a tour de force in programmatic music while his settings of Latvian folk songs (with additional flute and cello) are brief yet cunning. The real star however is Talivaldis Kenins himself. His settings of two Latvian folksongs are colourful yet deeply rooted in traditional song. Melodies for Amanda (1984) comprise five bubbly songs written for the birth of the composer’s first granddaughter. Lots of characteristic Kenins wit is apparent in the performance of these light-hearted and loving works.

“Bridge Across the Seas” is a glorious release. What a wonderful tribute!

08_schaferImagining Incense - The Choral Music of R. Murray Schafer Vol.3
Vancouver Chamber Choir; Jon Washburn
Grouse 106 (www.vancouverchamberchoir.com)

This excellent recording features several major a cappella choral works by Schafer, all written over the past 20 years. These include Magic Songs (1990), Three Hymns (from Schafer’s massive Fall into Light from 2004), Imagining Incense (2001) and Three Songs from the Enchanted Forest (1996). Musically, each piece, in its own way, demonstrates Schafer’s remarkable ability to blend sophisticated vocal techniques with an eternal sense of the voice as an essential vehicle of expression; an expression that gives more meaning than mere words can convey. There is a deep spirituality to each of these pieces, but it is a spirituality unencumbered by dogma or liturgy. These are works that attempt to explore what is holy in nature, in human existence, and in social and cultural ceremonies.

The Magic Songs and the shorter Rain Chant (a piece on a theme drawn from And Wolf Shall Inherit the Moon) are ingenious original chants and the choral effects that Schafer creates in these pieces are mesmerizing and form a kind bridge between the human voice and nature in a creative way. Imagining Incense, with its description of the effects of different woods used for incense, and the hymns from Fall into Light, with their Gnostic and Hermetic texts, attempt to connect the listener with ancient ritual and devotion. All of the music on this disc confirms Schafer’s brilliant originality, craft and command of musical language.

Under Jon Washburn’s able direction, the Vancouver Chamber Choir is in top form. Their committed and energetic performances of these important pieces are a great gift.

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