01a_duparcHenri Duparc - Intégrale des Melodies

Marc Boucher; Olivier Godin

XXI XXI-CD 2 1705


01b_duboisTheodore Dubois - Chansons de Marjolie

Anne Saint-Denis; Olivier Godin

XXI XXI-CD 2 1704

Henri Duparc, despite having been one of the first and possibly most talented pupils of César Franck, despite having been one of the founders of Société Nationale de Musique Moderne (with Saint-Saëns), despite having lived to the age of 85, left a legacy of fewer than 40 works. The shocking explanation is that Duparc, who stopped composing at 37 due to what was then diagnosed as “neurasthenia” (a type of mental exhaustion with elements of depression, anxiety and pain), destroyed most of his works, including his only opera. In a letter to Jean Cras, Duparc wrote: “Having lived 25 years in a splendid dream, the whole idea of [musical] representation has become – I repeat to you – repugnant. The other reason for this destruction, which I do not regret, was the complete moral transformation that God imposed on me 20 years ago and which, in a single minute, obliterated all of my past life. Since then, [my opera] Roussalka, not having any connection with my new life, should no longer exist.”

This album’s 17 songs have been called a perfect blend of poetry and music, in no small part because Duparc was inspired by the words of Gauthier, Sully-Prud’homme, Baudelaire and Cazalis. Marc Boucher and Olivier Godin, frequent collaborators on stage and on record, are delightfully matched and attuned to each other’s musical sensibilities. These eminently able Quebec musicians have successfully rendered songs requiring not just musical skill, but also a love of these texts. A great introduction to Duparc’s tragically small repertoire.

François-Clément Théodore Dubois was an almost-contemporary to Henri Duparc, their lives intersecting at many junctures, though his composing life was a much more fulfilled and happy one. Receiving the prestigious Prix de Rome in 1861, he also took over from César Franck as choirmaster at the Basilica of Sainte-Clotilde and, in 1877, succeeded Camille Saint-Saëns as organist at the Church of the Madeleine. He served as director of the Paris Conservatoire from 1896 to 1905.

The true surprise is that his song cycles remain virtually unknown and numerous operas and ballets either have never been performed or have fallen into oblivion. The only work attaining some popularity is his oratorio Les Sept Paroles de Christ. In this recording, Dubois’ compositions prove a true epitome of French Romanticism. Though rarely indicating the type of voice that should sing them, they nevertheless follow faithfully the overall theme, using contemporary poetry and reaching for inspiration from the Renaissance and Middle Ages. Anne Saint-Denis is a revelation here: her voice is not really what one would call “beautiful,” with a somewhat over-pronounced vibrato and shallow tessitura, and yet it seems perfectly suited. This rare, perfect match of music and instrument deliver a true delight to the listener of this (most likely) unfamiliar music. The unfamiliarity passes quickly, as one feels compelled to listen again and again, soon humming along to the tracks.

François-Clément Théodore Dubois, vilified after his retirement from the Conservatoire for his part in the Ravel/Prix de Rome scandal, deserves a revival. This disc is a wonderful first step in that direction.

02a_gardens_of_spainGardens of Spain

Lyne Fortin; Esther Gonthier

Analekta AN 2 9972



02b_hugo_wolfWolf - Italienisches Liederbuch

Catherine Robbin; Daniel Lichti; Leslie De'Ath

Analekta AN 2 9956

Two recent Analekta releases feature the music of Hugo Wolf, the late 19th-century life-long composer of lieder. One recording focuses exclusively on one cycle by Wolf, while the other includes him in a collection of Spanish and Spanish-inspired pieces. While both song cycles are named for the countries the poetry originates from, Wolf's music itself is decidedly Germanic.

In each of the excerpts from Spanishes Liederbuch performed by Lyne Fortin, she certainly has the dramatic presence to handle the “Sturm und Drang” required by the constantly changing emotional content. In selections by Richard Strauss a garden flower is passionately compared to a girl or a woman whose nature reflects that of the blossom. Bizet and Delibes truly embrace the flavour of Spanish music with a dizzying flirtatiousness that Fortin delivers beautifully. Fortin conveys a fiery persona especially in the truly Spanish repertoire on this recoding. The cantos by Cuban composer Joaquin Nin start with an excitement and flourish that keep quite a pace until the third selection which slows but maintains the emotive momentum. In fact, throughout the CD, this singer sings as though always on edge, with smouldering moments juxtaposed with shrill peaks of high anxiety, keeping the listener thrilled with uncertainty. Pianist Esther Gonthier keeps the tension high throughout and especially shines in the Torroba, where her piano takes on the persona of a strumming guitar.

Hugo Wolf's Italienische Liederbuch is rarely performed in its entirety, consisting as it does of no less than forty-six vignettes. Having performed a few of them in a recent concert tour entitled “Songs of Venus and Mars”, mezzo-soprano Catherine Robbin and bass-baritone Daniel Lichti were inspired to record the complete cycle since the lieder neatly fall into categories suitable for both male and female singers. Again, in paying homage to the Tuscan folk poems and Venetian vilote, Wolf's music reflects his own nationality, but the translations into German still make for quite the range of emotion, from passion to reverence and playfulness to despair. Both Robbin and Lichti along with pianist Leslie De'Ath add a certain elevation to sentiments of romantic exploration in the same way that Wolf transforms the simplicity of the lyric to a more classical standard of high art. The singers, well known for their expertise in this repertoire, imbue the performance with superb tonal quality, warmth and grace.

01_gounod_faustGounod - Faust

Angela Gheorghiu; Roberto Alagna; Bryn Terfel; Simon Keenlyside; Royal Opera; Antonio Pappano

Royal Opera House/EMI 6 31611 9

The story of Faust, an old man who trades his immortal soul for a second chance at youth, has fascinated artists for centuries. The opera composers were particularly impressed by it: there are at least a dozen works based on it, amongst them Louis Spohr's Faust (1816), Hector Berlioz's La Damnation de Faust (1846), Charles Gounod's Faust (1859), Arrigo Boito's Mefistofele (1868), Ferruccio Busoni's Doktor Faust (1916–25), Sergei Prokofiev's The Fiery Angel (1927; first performed 1954), Konrad Boehmer's Doktor Faustus (1983), Alfred Schnittke's Historia von D. Johann Fausten (1994) and Igor Stravinsky's The Rake's Progress (1951).


Gounod’s Faust is the most familiar work and this production features a stellar ensemble. As Faust, Alagna is in fine form, though his once–celebrated high end shows signs of strain. Gheorghiu shines as Margueritte, as does Keenlyside as her brother Valentin. Terfel infuses the role of Mephistopheles with the necessary malice. Finally, the orchestra under the skillful baton of Pappano does the score full justice. The production itself is another story. Messy and too literal (the drinking and carousing takes place under a giant neon Club l’Enfer, as if we did not get the connection), it does not help the principals either. Beautiful Gheorghiu here, for some inexplicable reason, labours under a mousy-blonde wig. The camera follows the singers too closely, revealing what we already knew – save for Keenlyside, they are not great actors. All in all, a wonderful DVD to enjoy with your ears (and heart) wide open and your eyes firmly closed.


02_verdi_rigolettoVerdi - Rigoletto

Diana Damrau; Juan Diego Florez; Željko Lučić; Sachsische Staatskapelle Dresden; Fabio Luisi

Virgin Classics 5099964186894

Verdi was a revolutionary figure himself, often fighting authorities and even having a difficult time getting his Rigoletto performed. The original play by Victor Hugo caused such an uproar in Paris that it disappeared after opening night. Defiantly Verdi chose it as a perfect vehicle for his new opera but it was forcibly transferred to an obscure Italian principality to placate the Venetian censors. Revolutionary, avant-garde German director Nicolaus Lehnhoff was therefore an apt choice to create a new look for Dresden. His concept is good versus evil or tormentors versus victims merged into a surreal nightmarish dream, a dark void, sometimes stained in blood red, populated by scary weird creatures, like the duke’s courtiers all in black with devilish masks. Inside this void for contrast appears Gilda’s pure white bedroom, decorated with stars on its walls that come to shine at night to be backdrop for Gilda’s magnificent reverie “Caro Nome”. Worth going to Dresden for this moment alone.


Three great names in the forefront of opera today came together in Dresden in 2008 to bring this concept alive and throbbing with music of the highest quality. Diana Damrau caused a sensation not only with her thrilling radiant high soprano, but her exceptional portrayal of an innocent young girl who falls victim to the hatred and voraciousness of wicked and thoughtless people. The role of Rigoletto in which Verdi created a hero of heretofore unknown complexity is sung by Željko Lučić, now principal Verdi baritone for our time. Juan Diego Florez lends his exquisite bel-canto tenor voice to the hit studded role of the Duke of Mantua. Music Director Fabio Luisi’s direction has great rhythmic and dynamic drive and clarity, altogether a very sympathetic reading of the complete score. Not a note is missing.


03_marie_nicole_lemieuxNe Me Refuse Pas

Marie-Nicole Lemieux; Orchestre National de France; Fabien Gabel

Naïve V 5201

There are no surprises here. Contralto Marie-Nicole Lemieux sings a number of famous and well loved French opera arias with passion, musicality, technique and a pitch to die for.


She is accompanied by the fabulous Orchestra national de France under the superb guidance of Fabien Gabel. The relationship between the singer and the “accompanist” is so intimate that the recording sounds like it took place in my living room! Unfortunately her performance (with the Jeune choeur de Paris) of Bizet's “L'amour est un oiseau rebelle” (aka “Habanera”) from the opera Carmen lacks the feminine vitality that makes the aria so intriguing. This is the only lapse however, and a listen to her ascending vocal line at the beginning of Massenet”s “Qui m'aurait dit la place” from the opera Werther is to witness a vocal genius at work – a spine-tingling example of Lemieux's artistry.


Alexandre Dratwicki's liner notes titled “the voice of romanticism” is a superlative exposé on the French art of singing during the Romantic era. Thankfully, Lemieux does not engage in the “French screaming” that the author amusingly refers to, but it really is an individual taste to either love or abhor the dramatics of the music and lyrics from this period. I greatly enjoyed this release – the music may not be completely to my liking, but Lemieux's brilliant performance sells me on its credibility.


04_duo_freyaDiamonds of the North - Songs from Scandanavia

Duo Freya

Independent (www.aspasiabooks.com)

This recording of Finnish, Swedish and Norwegian music for voice and piano is truly full of little musical diamonds – and a rich introduction to the world of Nordic art song.


Jean Sibelius and Edvard Grieg are the two most familiar composers represented here. Sibelius’s four dramatic songs with broad dynamic shifts and big piano parts are very impressive, but the transparent melancholy of the fifth, Hiljainen kaupunki (The Silent Town), makes it my personal fave. The composer’s own piano transcription of Finlandia receives an extraordinary performance by Saario, and to which Koistinen joins in for the national song – a much more intimate experience than the symphonic version! The seven Norwegian songs by Grieg are perhaps the most varied in mood, despite their relative simplicity and reserve; the little gems here are To Brune Øyne (Two Brown Eyes), En Svane (A Swan) and the hauntingly beautiful (and famous) Solveig’s Song.


Perhaps the most ostentatious compositions on this CD are two songs by Oskar Merikanto (1868-1924), which almost burst with drama and pride - no hint of Nordic understatement here. The one song by Finland’s Yrjö Kilpinen (1892-1959) is an appealing and beautifully crafted piece that makes clear why Kilpinen enjoyed great public popularity. Two of my personal favourites, with their broad palette of colour and texture, were the songs by Toivo Kuula (1883-1918), and Swedish composer Hugo Alfvén (1872-1960) is showcased in four very charming songs.


Duo Freya offers this music up with obvious affection and thoughtful musicality. Though I wish the CD notes included some information on the lesser-known composers, Duo Freya’s spirited and expressive performance is an elegantly convincing introduction to what is, after all, the most important thing.


05_let_beauty_awakeLet Beauty Awake (Vaughan Williams; Glick; Bowles; Barber)

Joshua Hopkins; Jerad Mosbey

ATMA ACD2 2615

Themes of travel evoke the feelings of longing and at times, despair, and are well-loved devices of many poets. The song cycle embraced the idea of travel most famously with the works of Schubert and Mahler, but on this recording we get a wonderful, if at times tenously connected assembly of four contemporary cycles. The works of Vaughan Williams, Srul Irving Glick, Paul Bowles (yes, the Sheltering Sky Paul Bowles!) and Samuel Barber reach for the texts of great poets, including Nobel laureats. Robert Louis Stevenson, Richard Outram, Tennessee Williams, Czeslaw Milosz and James Joyce prove beyond reasonable doubt that a great song cycle does not have to be sung in German.


The young baritone Joshua Hopkins, a “product” of the Houston Grand Opera Studio, must have quite a trophy case at home: he is the winner of 2006 Borletti-Buitoni Trust Award, the Verbier Festival Academy’s 2008 Prix d’Honneur, Placido Domingo Operalia Competition, ARD Musikwettbeverb and the Julian Gayarre Singing competition. His baritone is of a powerful, virile, yet smooth variety, although some will quibble about the unexpected vibrato. The interpretation of at times difficult repertoire (try singing “during the artistic milking suddenly they lie down like cows” and make it convincing!) is flawless and well assisted by Jerad Mosbey’s intelligent piano playing. An interesting CD and a great addition to ATMA Classique’s winning streak.


06_alleluiaAlleluia - Sacred Choral Works by Stephanie Martin

Choirs of Saint Mary Magdalene; Stephanie Martin

Independent SJM 008 (www.cdbaby.com/cd/martinstephanie)

The Church of St. Mary Magdalene in Toronto has long been renowned for the music gracing its services and beyond since the time of famed composer, organist and choirmaster Healey Willan who served at the church from 1921-1968. The latest musician to occupy the Director of Music chair once again offers a repertoire uniquely suited to this most excellent sanctuary of faith, inspiration and artistry. Indeed, suiting the history of this church, much of Stephanie Martin’s music is reminiscent of her predecessor in style and colour, with its free-flowing textures and atmospheric harmonization combined with liberal measures of plainchant. The anthems and mass settings are largely unaccompanied but there are a couple of exceptions such as the lovely arrangements for winds in God so loved the world and the organ taking its rightful place in In Magdelene nomine. Rather than exuberant, the title track Alleluia is soft and sweet with voicings beautiful, serene and sublime. The choir under Martin’s direction performs as a unified and interconnected whole, with the clarity and tonal perfection required for these sensitive and graceful forms. Listening to this recording will inspire many to attend a live service at St. Mary Magdalene while providing an excellent glimpse for those who may never have the opportunity.


01_orlando_di_lassoOrlando di Lasso - Lagrime de San Pietro

Studio de musique ancienne de Montréal; Christopher Jackson

ATMA ACD2 2509

Orlando di Lasso (c.1530–1594) was highly respected by the courts of Europe, not least by his main employer, Duke Albrecht V of Bavaria. William, Albrecht’s successor, continued to employ him for fifteen years despite ongoing disagreements, a testimony to di Lasso’s expertise.

Those last years saw di Lasso suffer what are now believed to be manic depression, a stroke and acute fear of death. They also saw him compose 20 Italian spiritual madrigals and one Latin motet, all for seven voices. The pieces constitute the Lagrime di San Pietro, poems that describe Peter’s torment after he denied Christ.

Di Lasso identifies himself with Peter in the latter’s grief. From the start there is a celestial quality to the singing, soothing as the painful sequence of Biblical events is played out. No detail of Peter’s ordeal or Christ’s reaction is spared. Perhaps most poignant of all is the last track, the one in Latin, where mankind is rebuked by Christ for its ingratitude towards him.


It would have been good to attribute each of the sung parts to the individual performers but there is no indication as to which of the eleven singers are performing on any given track. Which is a shame considering their passionate interpretation of this composition.

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