03_ballad_singerThe Ballad Singer

Gerald Finley; Julius Drake

Hyperion CDA67830

Singers crave novel material for their recordings: obscure works, cherished favourites… whatever it takes to create tempting new song packages. Baritone Gerald Finley’s recent release samples the Ballad repertoire and offers a wonderfully chosen program ranging from dark gothic musings of 19th century German and English composers to the devilishly clever writing of Cole Porter.

Finley lives up to his reputation for consistent and solid performance meeting the need of each ballad’s text with an impressive dramatic acuity that elevates the finest singers above the rest of their colleagues. Most notable is his amazing portrayal of the demon in Schubert’s Erlkönig where he assumes a strangely nasal vocal character and deliberately sings the Erlkönig’s extended passages just slightly flat to drive home the evil in the text. I’ve never heard this done before and it’s stunningly effective.

Similarly, Hugo Wolf’s Der Feuerreiter also offers some character vocal moments that most singers simply never attempt. Perhaps the biggest surprise is Finley’s multiple impersonations of narrator, mollusc and socialite in Cole Porter’s The Tale of The Oyster. Eating at a seafood restaurant will never be the same.

Long-time accompanist and artistic partner Julius Drake does so much more than just play the notes to back-up the voice. In Mahler’s Wo die schönen Trompeten blasen he crafts a remarkable orchestral colour palette from the keyboard. Drake knows how to be pianistically comedic as well as dramatic, romantic as well as impish. His artistic contribution is a significant reason for this disc’s success.

01_caldaraCaldara - La Conversione di Clodoveo, Re di Francia

Allyson McHardy; Nathalie Paulin; Suzie LeBlanc; Matthew White; Le Nouvel Opera; Alexander Weimann

ATMA ACD2 2505

Le Nouvel Opéra, a company directed by Suzie LeBlanc and Alexander Weimann, has contributed a stellar performance of a gem seldom heard. This oratorio by Antonio Caldara relates the story of the first Frankish king to convert to Christianity. It is characteristic of Caldara’s later Roman oratorios, set in the galant style for a small instrumental ensemble with singers chosen from the higher vocal ranges. Thus we have a cast of four: the pagan King Clovis sung by mezzo-soprano Allyson McHardy; his devoutly Christian wife Clotilde sung by soprano Nathalie Paulin; his captain Uberto sung by countertenor Matthew White and the bishop Remigus sung by soprano Suzie LeBlanc.

The artistry of the ensemble and the vocal beauty of these four voices and their marvellous interpretive skills in conveying dramatic changes (whilst somewhat confined to the da capo form) are remarkable. McHardy is a superb foil as the forceful warrior to Paulin’s tender charms as wife, LeBlanc’s patient and saintly monk and White’s steadfast captain. The small size of the ensemble and Weimann’s direction from the harpsichord and organ provides a masterful but sensitive accompaniment, allowing these superb voices to shine through brilliantly. Nowhere is this more evident than in the king and queen’s duet which takes place after the baptismal ritual, the two voices intertwining and signifying a true union of spirit.

02_rouleauHommage - Joseph Rouleau

Joseph Rouleau

Analekta AN 2 9874-6

This collection of songs and arias provides a splendid tribute to the Canadian bass Joseph Rouleau. It also serves as an introduction to a great singer whose voice is less familiar than it ought to be. Rouleau spent most of his career performing at Covent Garden or touring around the world, though he did return frequently to Canada. In Toronto he remains best-known for his role as Bishop Taché in the landmark 1967 Canadian Opera Company premiere of Harry Somers’ Louis Riel.

The sheer beauty of Rouleau’s voice on these three discs is enthralling. But what’s most striking in the excerpts from operas, like Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor with Joan Sutherland, and Boito’s Mefistofele, is how he dramatically shapes and colours his voice to create believable characters. In the songs, especially the complete cycles like Brahms Four Serious Songs, Mussorgsky’s Chants et danses de la morts, and Ravel’s Don Quichotte à Dulcinée, he achieves an exciting sense of emotional urgency, even in the most lyrical moments.

Two songs by Rodolphe Mathieu, the sultry L’automne and the adventurous L’hiver, are the only Canadian works here. But unfortunately, the booklet provides no information on them, or on any of the selections, all of which were chosen by Rouleau. Nor are the texts supplied. But there are archival photos, a short biography of Rouleau, and comments from the singer himself who, at eighty-two, remains active today as national president of Jeunesses Musicales.

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.

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