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.

02_nobil_donnaNobil Donna

Suzie LeBlanc; La Nef; Alexander Weimann

ATMA ACD2 2605

Maffeo Barberini (1568-1644) is better known as Pope Urban VIII, who reigned from 1623-1644. His family crest was changed to incorporate bees, a symbol of industrious behaviour, and under his patronage composers flocked to him like bees to a honey-pot.

Seventeen of their compositions are collected here. This is not just the conventional baroque string ensemble; Giovanni Kapsberger’s Corrente Quinta is embellished by Matthew Jennejohn’s cornetto playing, while there is a virtuoso harpsichord solo as La Nef’s conductor Alexander Weimann plays a ciaccona by Bernardo Storace.

As for Suzie LeBlanc, her soprano voice is thoroughly tested from the spirited Amarillide, deh! Vieni to the far more profound Nobil Donna in rozzo manto by Marco Marazzoli with its tragic classical narration, and then to the jocularity of Amanti, io vi so dire as it pokes fun at the tribulations of young lovers.

The legend of Orpheus features often on the CD and one must mention Suzie LeBlanc’s rendition of Lasciate Averno with its account of tragic events, this time perhaps reflecting in its intensity Luigi Rossi’s then-still-recent loss of his wife.

With nine instrumental and eight vocal pieces, it is difficult to say which is the more moving or inspiring genre but then it is difficult to imagine a finer introduction to seventeenth-century Italian courtly music.

03_britten_divine_musickBritten - Divine Music: Late Works for Tenor and Harp

Lawrence Wiliford; Jennifer Swartz

ATMA ACD2 2623

The works of this collection date from the final years of Benjamin Britten’s life (1913-1976), a period marked by recurring heart problems which surfaced in 1968. It was not until 1973 however that radical surgery was attempted, the composer having in the meantime devoted most of his energies to the completion of his final opera, Death in Venice (1971-73). The operation proved ineffective and led to a stroke that compromised his ability to play the piano, threatening an end to the numerous recitals he enjoyed presenting with his life partner, tenor Peter Pears. Britten subsequently passed on his accompanist’s role to the trusted Welsh harpist Osian Ellis, with whom he had collaborated since 1959, and composed and re-arranged material for Pears and Ellis to perform in concert.

The fruits of this creative partnership are lovingly recreated in this striking album on the ATMA label. It features a selection of Britten’s celebrated folk song settings re-cast for voice and harp and the world premiere recording of the Five Songs from Harmonia Sacra from 1975-76. Tenor Lawrence Wiliford exhibits a wide range of colours as the occasion demands, sensitive and intimate in the sacred songs, more forceful in the folk-derived arrangements and fully at ease with the quaint Scots dialect of A Birthday Hansel composed for the Queen Mother’s 75th birthday. His brilliant partner Jennifer Swartz shines in the solo Suite for Harp composed for Ellis in 1969. The balance between voice and harp is superbly recorded and full texts and translations are provided.

Concert Notes: Lawrence Wiliford is featured in Opera Atelia’s production of Acis and Galatea October 30 to November 7 and Tafelmusik’s Handel: Dixit Dominus November 11 to 14. The COC’s production of Britten’s Death in Venice continues to November 6.

01_scarlatti_vespersAlessandro Scarlatti - Vespro della Beata Vergine

Nederlands Kamerkoor; Harry van der Kamp

ATMA ACD2 2533

Whether or not younger composers in Scarlatti’s day described his music as boring or old-fashioned, Scarlatti’s abilities were acknowledged by no less than Pope Clement XI and Queen Christina of Sweden. For many years, Scarlatti was not well-paid and he moved from city to city before returning to Naples. This moving around is reflected in the selection of vespers on this CD; they were dispersed in several European cities and are also difficult to date. They can roughly be dated from 1703-1708 and 1714-1720 when Scarlatti’s age ranged from 43 to 60.


In the opening track, Dixit Dominum, soloists Barbara Borden and Margrit Stok add a celestial quality to Scarlatti’s setting. Barbara Borden’s name features throughout – she is a mainstay of this recording. Even the shortest and, dare one say it, hurried settings such as Laetatus sum and Nisi Dominus (Psalms 121 and 126) are infused with joy; the combined voices of the Nederlands Kammerkoor are given free rein. Perhaps most uplifting, however, is Ave Maria Stella, its verses with their intimate pleas interpreted clearly and intensely by smaller groups of singers.


All in all, this is an attractive and varied collection of Scarlatti’s settings of vespers. The criticisms made against him by his contemporaries are answered here, whether or not he is a fashionable composer nowadays or he preferred not to change his style.

02_rossini_italianaRossini - L'Italiana in Algeri

Jennifer Larmore; Bruce Ford; Simone Alaimo; Alessandro Corbelli; Orchestra and Choirs of the Opera National de Paris; Bruno Campanella

ArtHaus Musik 107 127

Rossini’s first major success in 1813, in Venice, an opera the 21 year old composer dashed off in a month, is now available in at least 3 video performances. Although the one from the Met in 1983 with Marilyn Horne is still a strong contender, this production in 1998 by Andrei Serban from the resplendent Palais Garnier opera house must take precedence with its imaginative new stage production and high musical values.


How to describe it? Certainly not ‘operatic’ in the traditional sense and perhaps influenced by Broadway with constant, sometimes acrobatic movement, dazzling primary colours and grotesque, oversize, cartoonish features that may overwhelm the audience at first, but will become hugely entertaining as the performance unfolds.


A comic masterwork through and through, it is in this opera that Rossini first devised one of his unique Act 1 finales “Pria di dividerci da voi, signore” where 7 different voices mix and create total pandemonium.


The superb cast includes the protagonist American mezzo Jennifer Larmore who truly inherits the role from Marilyn Horne with comic, spontaneous acting, a wonderful voice and a stunning stage presence. I am not saying she steals the show because bass buffo Simone Alaimo as the Bey of Algiers hopelessly pining for her is even more hilarious and the pair of them with a strong chemistry simply take the bit and run with it. Necessary to complete the triangle the tenor Bruce Ford looks refreshingly different from the typical insipid Rossini tenor with his bushy hair, a beard and build that makes him believable as a lover to the likes of Ms Larmore. Being a famous Rossini tenor he copes magnificently with the florid, high tessituras of his part. Italian conductor Bruno Campanella has the perfect feel for Rossini with ideal tempi and a light, sensitive touch. He outshines James Levine of the competing set.

03_verdi_radvanovskyVerdi - Arias

Sondra Radvanovsky; Philharmonia of Russia; Constantine Orbelian

Delos DE 3404

There is always a raging debate in the operatic circles, whether some voices are “composer-specific”. Well, according to credible sources, Ms. Radvanovsky is “a true Verdian, with a big, juicy, vibrato-rich sound” (The Times). While I am not sure one would want the singer to limit her repertoire to Verdi alone, it is true that her renditions of Leonora’s lament from La Forza del Destino or Elena’s Bolero from I Vespri Sicilaini sound spot-on.


Her career so far has made her a popular choice for the home stage of The Metropolitan Opera, but Covent Garden, Paris Opera, La Scala, Vienna State Opera and Lyric Opera in Chicago come knocking frequently. It is a daunting field of Verdi heroines that Ms. Radvanovsky has entered, but she manages to sound both impressive and entirely original. This is to say, while getting enraptured by her nuanced and powerful performances, one never thinks “She sounds just like…” The best news is that we will get to judge for ourselves, when Ms. Radvanovsky makes her COC debut this fall in Aida! In this upcoming test, of sorts, we stand a chance to cheer not only a great soprano, but also one of “Toronto’s own”, as Ms. Radvanovsky and her husband reside in the T dot. The CD made in the Mosfilm Studios betrays a bit of typical Delos “over-ambianced” recording, but this minor quibble should not deter opera lovers from picking it up – it may in come handy during the autograph-signing session at the COC.

Concert note: The COC’s Aida runs October 2 – November 5 at the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts.

04a_mahler_songs_mttMahler - Songs with Orchestra

Susan Graham; Thomas Hampson; San Francisco Symphony; Michael Tilson Thomas

SFS 821936-0036-2 (SACD)


Mahler - Lieder auf “Des Knaben Wunderhorn”

Christiane Oelze; Michael Volle; Gürzenich-Orchester Köln; Markus Stenz

OEHMS Classics OC 657 (SACD)

Michael Tilson Thomas brings the San Francisco Symphony’s decade long self-produced Mahler cycle to a close with a curiously low-key album of orchestral songs featuring baritone Thomas Hampson and mezzo-soprano Susan Graham. Hampson, widely regarded as the leading Mahler singer of his generation, holds the lion’s share of this disc in concert performances of Mahler’s Songs of a Wayfarer and five selections from The Youth’s Magic Horn, while the equally eminent Graham (though less familiar in this repertoire) contributes five of Mahler’s settings of the poems of Friedrich Rückert. Hampson has recorded Mahler many times before and has not particularity outshone himself in these performances, which strike me as conspicuously mannered – one might even say hammy – and not entirely accurate. Graham’s luxuriant interpretation of the Rückert songs makes a much stronger impression, save for a few nervous moments when she is forced into her upper register. Tilson Thomas and his engineers skillfully balance the orchestra in deference to the voices and, quite unlike earlier installments in this cycle, his tempos are leisurely and relatively rigid. Those looking for mere beauty in singing may be safely assured of a comfortable evening with the superstars.


I have nothing but praise for the latest Mahler recording by Markus Stenz and Cologne’s venerable Gürzenich orchestra. The third entry in the Oehms Classics projected Mahler cycle follows estimable performances of the Fourth and Fifth symphonies with Mahler’s orchestral settings of 14 songs from the 1808 folk poetry collection The Youth’s Magic Horn. Soprano Christiane Oelze’s laser-sharp pitch and purity of tone conveys the down-home sentiments of these rustic texts with a beguiling freshness, while Michael Volle is an admirable foil with his forceful yet flexible baritone in the recurring soldier’s laments such as Reveille and The Little Drummer Boy. While Stenz is rarely histrionic in the Bernstein manner, he has a way of gently molding a phrase or timing a silence that is equally effective. Stenz’s approach is in many ways reminiscent of George Szell’s classic 1968 recording, including the fact that both singers perform in dialogue in certain selections, an idea that evidently never occurred to Mahler himself. The sound of the orchestra, recorded in studio, is outstanding in both execution and recording, with the horns in particular sounding both youthful and magical.

05_in_good_companyIn Good Company

Canadian Chamber Choir

Independent CCCCD001


The Canadian Chamber Choir, under Artistic Director Julia Davids, have aptly named their first release “In Good Company”. Why? Really only a respectful musical environment can create the cohesive singing, beautiful tone, and intelligent musicality evident on this release. Even more remarkable is that this is even humanly possible considering that the members are spread across the Canada, and the group only gets together to rehearse in intense short duration workshops a few of times a year.

This all-Canadian ten composer release encompasses a variety of styles and vocal configurations. Especially glorious is Tawnie Olson's Chantez à l'Eternel for its ethereal quality. Allan Rae's Mvt #5 Allegro from Keltic Suite is a rhythmic departure from the usual lush choral sound. The hilarious Figures de danse by Lionel Daunais has the choir kicking up its heels. The choir's commission, At Sunset by composer and choir bass Jeff Enns is a tad lengthy but does utilize CCC's vocal ensemble strengths, while highlighting special guest soloist mezzo-soprano Christianne Rushton. The other special guests on the release, cellist Sehee Kim and pianist Joel Tranquilla, are also excellent on their respective tracks.

I was really surprised at the superb quality of the Canadian Chamber Choir. This group can sing lush harmonics and independent contrapuntal lines with equal expertise. Anyone even remotely interested in choral music will find “In Good Company” a welcome guest in their musical homes.

06_whitacreEric Whitacre - Choral Music

Elora Festival Singers; Noel Edison

Naxos 8.559677

This recording will appeal to admirers of well-crafted choral music that judiciously incorporates contemporary musical techniques. American composer Eric Whitacre (b. 1970) has cultivated a style where added notes and tone clusters are the norm in higher registers. With careful attention to pitch content, texture, register, and dynamics, seldom is an unattractive sound heard. Though based in innovations by other composers great and small, Whitacre’s music shows special artistry in focusing technique to ends. In Her Sacred Spirit Soars, simply thickening and thinning sonorities as pitches rise and fall conveys the sacred spirit of the music’s long-breathed motion. I particularly like the mystical sense in Lux aurumque (Light of Gold), about which the composer aptly speaks of spiritual processes: “blossoming” and “surrendering” to light.


There are effective piano-accompanied settings, of E.E. Cummings’ little tree with its ecstatic ending, and of Octavio Paz’s Little Birds which includes whistling, repeated consonants and quasi-aleatoric (random) singing. I prefer the sensitivity to mood in the short lyrical works; When David Heard and percussion-enhanced Leonardo Dreams of his Flying Machine have longer minimalist passages I find less convincing.


Noel Edison’s splendid Elora Festival Singers are up to Eric Whitacre’s every challenge. Perfectly pitched, vibrato-less sopranos in multiple parts produce sounds of wonderful life. All sections contribute to the tour-de-force with well-balanced sonorous blocks and long-decaying tones evoking reverberant space. Which brings me to close by noting the fine production and engineering by Bonnie Silver and Norbert Kraft of this important recording.

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