10 Holman PassionDerek Holman – A Play of Passion
Colin Ainsworth; Stephen Ralls; Bruce Ubukata
Centrediscs CMCCD 23016 musiccentre.ca

This Centrediscs release offers a fine selection of works by distinguished Canadian composer Derek Holman (b.1931). British-born Holman’s vocal expertise shows here in well-chosen texts and effective settings with memorable moments. His musical style addresses emotionally difficult terrain with sensitivity and a sure touch, pensive yet not morbid. Canadian tenor Colin Ainsworth’s tone, diction and phrasing are praiseworthy throughout, as are the secure support and interpretative contributions of collaborative pianist Stephen Ralls.

A few song highlights: in the elegiac cycle A Lasting Spring (2004), I especially appreciate the setting of Robert Herrick’s To Music, including the repeated text “melt my pains” as the poet asks for a glimpse of heavenly light. In The Burning of the Leaves from A Play of Passion (2010), Ainsworth delivers a heartfelt warning of poet and composer against idle nostalgia in a thrilling passage capped by the disc’s highest note (C). From the same cycle, the setting and singing of Care-charmer Sleepe (Samuel Daniel) with its insomniac repeated treble line, are hypnotic and wonderful. Another subtlety: the final song of The Death of Orpheus (2005) has an insubstantial little arpeggiated downward figure, the ghost of Greek mythology’s most famous musician not rising, but here going down to Hades a second time (post-death) to meet Eurydice in the Elysian Fields. The disc also includes Bruce Ubukata with Ralls, ably playing the clever, often bi-tonal two-piano work Variations on a Melody by Doctor Arne (1999).

11Thread of Winter

Thread of Winter
Leslie Fagan; Lorin Shalanko
Canadian Art Song Series (canadianartsong.ca)

Review

When reviewing (in early 2004) the first solo album by Leslie Fagan, I stated that “she is in a class of her own.” What a pleasure to conclude, some 12 years later, that she remains just as original. Her career has taken her to the world’s most important concert stages, providing Fagan with opportunities to present both traditional (Handel, Mahler) and contemporary (Poulenc, Kulesha) repertoire. She is also active as a voice teacher, in schools ranging from Wilfrid Laurier to Juilliard. It is that latter school’s reverence for the American Songbook that prompted Fagan to record this first album of the Canadian Art Song Series.

Much to no one’s surprise, Canadian composers such as Gary Kulesha, James Gordon, Walter MacNutt, Imant Raminsh, Jeff Smallman and others, have been steadily amassing a repertoire of songs, set to the words of both Canadian and international poets. It is perhaps our ongoing doubt about the nature of Canadian identity that prevents us from recognizing and celebrating this treasure trove in the way the American Songbook is usually feted. I have a feeling that Prof. Fagan will soon change that, at least among her students.

In this first of hopefully many recordings, Fagan is in great form: clear, lyrical, playful (in Six Nursery Rhymes by Peter Tiefenbach) and pensive. She is showcasing not only her beautiful soprano (so reminiscent of her erstwhile teacher, Ileana Cortubas), but also an interpretive range to be envied. Lorin Shalanko’s accompaniment is superb – fully supportive and intelligent, bringing to mind some of Gerald Moore’s best recordings.

12 Winter Voces

Winter
Voces8
Decca 483 0968

Review

The cover art of Voces8’s Winter accurately represents this gorgeous, chill compilation of choral pieces written and arranged by composers from countries of Northern climes. There’s an ethereal quality to the recording that evokes the Aurora Borealis, such as in the first track, Arnalds and Arnarson’s For Now I Am Winter.

And while the season pervades the album’s themes, there’s a lot of variety. Es ist ein Ros entsprungen is like a slo-mo version of the Praetorius standard, and the Balulalow text, written by the three 16th-century brothers and poets, the Wedderburns, is nothing like Britten’s version: where the Ceremony of Carols setting swells like waves off the North Sea coast, this one glides along like cross-country skis. Of course, my hero Pärt’s Nunc Dimittis is divine, as is Rachmaninoff’s Vespers. There’s harp accompaniment with a touch of the medieval in the traditional The Snow It Melts the Soonest, and the countertenors in Rebecca Dale’s premiere, Winter, reminded me of those in the Talla Vocal Ensemble. Ola Gjeilo offers up a Holst-based In the Bleak Midwinter, and it’s not so Christmasy that you can’t enjoy it now.

Perhaps most interesting are the featured Vasks pieces: three Plainscapes movements and The Fruit of Silence, the text of which was penned by Mother Teresa. All four convey the Latvian composer’s concern for and focus on environmental issues. This is a simply lovely, contemplative mood-setting release, with pristine choral and instrumental blending.

01 PalestrinaPalestrina – Missa Papae Marcelli; Motets
Sistine Chapel Choir; Massimo Palombella
Deutsche Grammophon 4796131

Review

David Olds’ notes in the November Editor’s Corner set the historical backdrop for Palestrina’s Missa Papae Marcelli. This particular recording looks back to original Renaissance sources rather than existing editions. What is more, its authenticity is enhanced as it was recorded within the Sistine Chapel, the result being a more intimate sound.

So it is, with the initial Kyrie eleison and Credo, as the young boys of the Chapel bring a human, almost relaxed interpretation. Incidentally, the recording notes include some enchanting photographs of the choir off-duty and clearly happy in their choral responsibilities.

More solemn is the two-part Tu Es Pastor Ovium, taken from Matthew 16:19 and composed for the coronation of Pope Sixtus V in 1585. This motet has a dominant element of mercy, especially appropriate in the Holy Year of Mercy decreed by Pope Francis for 2016. The plea for mercy is reflected in Ad Te Levavi Oculos Meos, its second part expressing that plea at its most direct.

Palestrina’s works do not have to be long or complex: O Bone Iesu, at under two minutes, conveys an intensely spiritual message in a simple structure. Equally uplifting is the Sistine Chapel’s interpretation of Benedixisti, Domine, with its theme of God’s forgiveness for His people’s iniquities.

Last of the longer pieces in this selection is Jubilate Deo. This tests the abilities of the Sistine Chapel Choir – and its chief chorus master Massimo Palombella – more than any other piece on the CD. It goes without saying that its rendition of the Gloria Patri will revive even the most jaded of listeners.

02 Capella IntimaCanzonette Spirituali, e Morali
Capella Intima; Bud Roach
Musica Omnia mo0701 (musicaomnia.org)

Capella Intima is a Canadian vocal ensemble led by tenor/baroque guitarist Bud Roach and includes singers Sheila Dietrich, Jennifer Enns Modolo and David Roth. Flawless intonation, excellent diction and infectious enthusiasm (including strummed guitar) mark the group as a major contributor to the Baroque music scene. As explained in Roach’s excellent program notes, Canzonette Spirituali, e Morali (published 1657) includes canzonettas (here, spiritual songs in a popular vein), solo arias with recitative, and dialogues. Intended for the oratory rather than church worship, these musical exhortations for personal piety previously designated as anonymous are now attributed to the priest Francesco Ratis.

Variety in the 22 works on this CD chosen from the Canzonette is demonstrated by some of my favourites. The opening Poverello, che farai? (Poor thing, what will you do?) is a simple strophic song warning us to change our ways. Capella Intima’s virtuosity shows in fast-tempoed Fuggi, fuggi, fuggi (“O run, run away [from this deceitful world]”). To La mala compagnia – “Bad company will lead you to the tavern, and if you don’t want to go, you’ll get a good beating” – Capella Intima adds slaps and moans! Other numbers are tender: Spera Anima (Place your hope, my soul) is emotionally affecting while Angiol del Ciel (O Heavenly Angel) lives up to its title. The accompanying booklet contains English translations but original Italian texts must be downloaded. I suggest listening to only a few pieces at a time as the texts’ meanings are crucial.

Roger Knox

03 Chor LeoniWandering Heart
Chor Leoni
Independent CLR 1611 (chorleoni.org)

Review

In the wake of a much-loved Canadian icon’s recent passing, it seems uncannily prophetic to have chosen settings of Leonard Cohen’s poetry for the centrepiece of this recording. Wandering Heart, by Latvian composer Ēriks Ešenvalds, begins with Twelve O’Clock Chant, a selection from The Spice-Box of Earth, the 1961 publication which established Cohen’s reputation as a lyric poet. This is followed by I Lost My Way from the poet’s Book of Mercy, and the third, The Road Is Too Long, is from Cohen’s Book of Longing.

Wandering Heart is also the first composition to be commissioned from the fund named in honour of Chor Leoni’s founding director, the late Diane Loomer. The choir does honour to the memories of these artists, with the melodic clarity and honesty of expression this group of men are known for. In addition to Wandering Heart and two other pieces by Ešenvalds, the album also features music by Mendelssohn, Paul Mealor, Robert Moran, Kim André Arnesen and Morten Lauridsen. Artistic director Erick Lichte describes a common theme, with the selections representative of distances physical, spiritual and emotional, especially focusing on those “separated by the vast distance of death and how love can bridge this expanse.” Very timely indeed.

04 BelliniBellini – I Capuleti e i Montecchi
Christof Loy; Joyce DiDonato; Olga Kulchynska; Opernhaus Zurich; Fabio Luisi
Accentus Music ACC20353

I Capuleti e i Montecchi gives us the story that we know as Romeo and Juliet. The libretto was written by Felice Romani for a musical setting by Nicola Vaccai in 1825. Bellini took over that libretto for his opera in 1830. There are a number of points where Romani’s libretto differs from Shakespeare’s play. Tybalt (Tebaldo) is not Juliet’s cousin but her would-be lover. This has useful implications for the opera since it needs a tenor. That cannot be Romeo, since his part is sung by a mezzo. Romani also linked the family feuds in Verona to the historical warfare between the Guelfs (the Capulets) and the Ghibellines (the Montagues). The Zürich production adds a social dimension: the Capulets are posh in their dinner jackets; the Montagues are working-class yobs with cloth caps.

But the most striking difference lies in the sequence of events in the final scenes of the two works. In Shakespeare’s play, Romeo travels back from Mantua to Verona, gains access to Juliet’s tomb where she lies in a drugged sleep and, thinking that she is dead, takes poison and dies. Juliet wakes up and finds Romeo dead besides her. But in the Romani libretto Romeo is dying but not yet dead when Juliet wakes up. This allowed Bellini to compose a heart-rending duet, surely the finest part of the opera.

Joyce DiDonato is spectacular as Romeo and there are fine performances from the young Ukrainian soprano Olga Kulchynska as Giulietta and the French tenor Benjamin Bernheim as Tebaldo.

05 Wagner ParcifalWagner – Parsifal
Schager; Kampa; Pape; Koch; Tómasson; Staatskapelle Berlin; Staatsopernchor; Daniel Barenboim
BelAir Classics BAC128

Dmitri Tcherniakov is one of the most original, phenomenally gifted directors of our time. His collaboration with Daniel Barenboim in Berlin has already produced happy results and this is his latest and his first effort in Wagner. The composer is at his most elusive, complex and spiritual here in a work that Liszt referred to as “a revelation in music drama” transcending everything written before. Harry Kupfer’s previous incarnation of Parsifal in Berlin was a post-apocalyptic, stunningly beautiful staging, but Tcherniakov moves on an entirely different level.

Briefly: The setting is a deserted, Gulag-like cold and forlorn place, wooden barracks lit by bare lightbulbs giving it an incandescent glow. The knights look like prisoners, sick and frustrated. Then suddenly the young Parsifal arrives like a hippie, in gym shorts, running shoes and a hood, with a backpack as the holy fool (fal parsi) who will undergo a spiritual transformation withstanding the temptation of Kundry, the eternal woman, and thereby able to retrieve the Holy Spear and cure the suffering Amfortas, redeem Kundry and restore the Order of the Holy Grail.

Barenboim conducts the over-five-hours long monumental work completely from memory (Gatti did it too in New York!) and he certainly achieves the revelation Liszt was talking about. In the third act, time seems to stand still giving a meaning to the text of “here time turns into space” proven by Einstein some 50 years later. Add to this the glorious singing performances of Andreas Schager (Parsifal), unlikely looking but with a total empathy to the role and a powerful, flexible heldentenor voice; of soprano Anja Kampe, similarly endowed with a voice of subtlety and a most sympathetic, compassionate portrayal of the accursed Kundry. Wolfgang Koch (Amfortas), René Pape (Gurnemanz) and Tomas Tómasson (Klingsor) establish a world standard that will be hard to surpass for years to come.

06 Arvo PartArvo Pärt – The Deer’s Cry
Vox Clamantis; Jaan-Elk Tulve
ECM New Series ECM 2466

A mixture of the new and old recorded here by Estonian choir Vox Clamantis, this CD includes the world-recording premiere of Habitare fratres in unum and the largely plainchant And One of the Pharisees, which had its world premiere in California in 1992. There is a variety of Pärt’s music here: from the innocence-evoking Drei Hirtenkinder aus Fátima to the ode to a gittern, Sei gelobt, du Baum. (Google the latter via leones.de!).

Serendipitously, I started my day reading St. Patrick’s fourth-century prayer, The Deer’s Cry, and the title track contains a purity I would compare to David Lang’s I Lie. The Alleluia-Tropus is different than my recording by Vox Clamantis with Sinfonietta Riga: at a decade’s distance, this a cappella version is 25 seconds longer and less dance-like, perhaps the liturgical pace being more fitting for the intercession of St. Nicholas of Myra. Most notable to me, however, was Summa, a tintinnabulous piece containing the Apostle’s Creed in Latin. While it is recorded here a cappella, as originally written, I only have the string versions of it, which convey swells of movement (indeed, I made a little film with it accompanying a murmuration); the choral is more plodding and deliberate in its affirmation of belief – I could picture Joan of Arc reciting it defiantly, atop the pyre as she awaits the lighting of the wood. The CD ends with Gebet nach dem Kanon, a fitting closing prayer to the collection.The liner notes are Pärtesque: sparse, multilingual and presuming knowledge of his work and liturgical music history. But if you enjoy looking up information (e.g. the Russian scriptures have different versification at times: Drei Hirtenkinder is about the West’s Psalm 8:2), there’s a wealth of enlightenment available. Artistic director Jaan-Eik Tulve has applied the 81-year-old composer’s personal tutelage faithfully, and Pärt devotees will be enraptured, the faithful and secularists alike.

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