07 Peter EotvosPéter Eötvös – Senza Sangue
Viktória Vizin; Jordan Shanahan; Hungarian National Philharmonic Orchestra; Péter Eötvös
BMC Records BMC CD 278 (bmcrecords.hu)

Senior postmodern Hungarian composer-conductor Péter Eötvös (b.1944) is among today’s most active opera composers. His 12th stage work, Senza Sangue (2015), is an opera in one act with libretto by Mari Mezei after a novel by Alessandro Baricco. 

Eötvös’ first large-scale compositions were for film and his feel for drama and pregnant atmosphere is amply reflected in the premiere live 2018 recording of Senza Sangue starring mezzo Viktória Vizin and baritone Jordan Shanahan. The composer conducts the Hungarian National Philharmonic Orchestra in his colourful score for an orchestra and cast very similar to the one in Béla Bartók’s weighty and difficult to program single-act opera, Bluebeard’s Castle. It’s no coincidence; according to Eötvös, he expressly composed Senza Sangue as a concert companion to Bluebeard

The resemblances extend to their librettos. As in the Bartók opus, love, sex and death go hand in hand in the Eötvös opera, except that multiple deaths precede the narrative unfolding in Eötvös’ 45-minute work. Entwined themes of war-fuelled cruelty, violence, compassion, trauma and above all revenge, transform into a kind of parable of reconciliation as the last mysterious low chord dies out. 

As for the musical language, it is expressionistic, with splashes of bold emotion, though Eötvös insists that “there are no avant-garde endeavours whatsoever [in it]. I’d like my work to be performable in 50 years too.” Judging from the performance on this album chances are very good that it will.

Eötvös’ subsequent opera, Sleepless, composed in 2020, is scheduled to premiere in Berlin later this year, with additional performances slated for Geneva in 2022.

08 Chaya CzernowinChaya Czernowin – Heart Chamber
Patrizia Ciofi; Noa Frenkel; Dietrich Henschel; Terry Wey; Ensemble Nikel; SWR Experimentalstudio; Deutsche Oper Berlin; Johannes Kalitzke
Naxos 2.110673 (naxosdirect.com/search/2110673)

A woman drops a jar of honey on a busy stairway. A stranger picks it up and gives it to her. Their hands touch. From that chance encounter results the complicated love affair that the much-performed Israeli-American composer Chaya Czernowin explores in her brilliant new opera, Heart Chamber.  

With tangible immediacy, she tightly interweaves her music with her own libretto. It feels organic, pertinent and real – like life itself. Past traumas and present dreams drive the two unnamed characters to ask each other tough questions like “Will you open up my life?” and “Will you always stay?” Layers of gorgeous sonic textures suggest the possibility of happiness for them. But there’s a lot of pain as well, reflected in angular, primal episodes. 

I can’t imagine these characters portrayed with more conviction and poignancy – and technical dazzle – than by soprano Patrizia Ciofi and baritone Dietrich Henschel. Ciofi wears her apprehensions with playfulness and, in spite of her unfortunate costuming, allure. Henschel shows how charismatic vulnerability can be. 

As the woman’s internal voice, contralto Noa Frenkel eloquently exposes her most intimate subconscious feelings. The man’s internal voice, powerfully sung by countertenor Terry Wey, is as candid as his female counterpart. But he’s less demanding, so causes less trouble for his character.  

This is the third opera by Czernowin that Claus Guth has directed. Like his production of Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro seen at the Canadian Opera Company in 2016, it’s set on a stairway. But here, unlike the controversial Mozart production, the relationship between Guth’s concept and the work itself is seamless. 

Conductor Johannes Kalitzke deftly commands the large assemblage of remarkable musicians, with the orchestra of the Deutsche Oper Berlin and Czernowin’s frequent collaborators, the new music group Ensemble Nikel, enhanced by vibrant electronics from SWR Experimentalstudio.

09 Songs by Black ComposersDreams of a New Day – Songs by Black Composers
Will Liverman; Paul Sánchez
Cedille CDR 90000 200 (cedillerecords.org)

Dreams of a New Day – Songs by Black Composers is an album that features art songs by eight composers. From Henry Burleigh (1866-1949) to Shawn E. Okpebholo (b.1981), the album showcases several generations of composers and a repertoire that offers an honest, and, at times, devastating, account of life for African Americans in the United States. Composers set music to texts of raw poetry by American poets and artists such as Paul Laurence Dunbar, Langston Hughes and Adela Florence Nicolson. 

Paul Sánchez captures our attention with a breadth of pianistic sonorities and timbres while baritone Will Liverman’s skilled and beautiful singing elicits all of the nuances of challenging topics that include the Middle Passage, Civil Rights, past and present injustices, and Black pride. Most poignant are Okpebholo’s Two Black Churches songs (Ballad of Birmingham and The Rain, commissioned for the album) and Birmingham Sunday (Richard Fariña 1937-1966). Whereas the first pair combines several tragic events and deals with race-based violence, the last song reminds us that while dreaming of a new day, the road to equality for all is still ahead of us. 

The booklets included with the album provide both context and the rich history behind the repertoire with a 15-page song booklet and a 20-page extensive program note booklet written by Dr. Louise Toppin, a specialist of African American composers’ concert repertoire.

10 Scott OrdwayScott Ordway – Girl in the Snow
Julia Dawson; Anna Naretto
Acis APL85820 (acisproductions.com)

Composed by Scott Ordway, Girl in the Snow is a song cycle featuring Canadian mezzo-soprano Julia Dawson and Italian pianist Anna Naretto. Inspired by Saint Augustine’s Confessions, a deeply personal and philosophical narrative, Ordway creates allusive metaphors to describe both the imaginary landscapes of the mind and the places where we store memory. The girl in the snow is initially portrayed as a young girl wandering a snow-covered dreamland and remembering parts of her relationship with nature. The eight songs of the cycle total approximately 37 minutes of music and as the cycle progresses we understand the girl to be a woman reminiscing about her life, the events that have shaped her since, the love she experienced, ultimately, coming back to the present and “awakening” to the end of her life. 

Dawson and Naretto act as narrators and bring the audience on an intimate, philosophical journey. Their connected interpretations give life and meaning to poetry that needs a touch of decoding but music that is rich in sounds and colours. Naretto’s playing is nuanced and deliberate while Dawson’s tone quality and colour, distinctively mezzo-soprano, are written in a range more closely aligned with a higher soprano. This, along with the solemn and ethereal nature of the work, especially in the Memory Play sections, leaves the listener feeling unsettled, perhaps intentionally, about the sometimes intangibleness of remembrance.

Leaf Music (leaf-music.ca)

The ethereal polyphony of the Sirens Choir is absolutely bewitching on Boundless. You would be forgiven for falling prey to the charms of the women of this Prince Edward Island-based choir as they wax eloquent with their celestial 11-voice harmonies on this disc. So perfect is this programming that it is surprising to note that this debut didn’t happen much earlier. 

This is a quietly potent recording. Its feminism is whispered rather than broadcast, with all the singers conveying a sense of strength, joy and spontaneity. Ensemble director Kelsea McLean guides, with a firm hand, the often delicate musicality of the group. Together with the rest of Sirens, she is able to inspire a performance where balanced rhythm, soaring harmonies and subtle dynamics are both flexible and dramatic. The overall sound is highly translucent, made more memorable in the meditative atmosphere of St. Bonaventure’s Church, where the recording took place.

The music of Selene’s Boat and of Boundless is utterly captivating. Turlutte acadienne montréalaise may be the disc’s apogee. By the time you get here, however, you may wish that you had a booklet of lyrics with which to follow the vocalists; it’s a small price to pay for listening to this outstanding music. Odysseus may have resisted the mesmerism of the Sirens of the Aegean Sea, but you will not be able to resist the charms of these Canadian singers.

Listen to 'Boundless' Now in the Listening Room

12a Crossing Tower GardenThe Tower and the Garden
The Crossing; Donald Nally
Navona Records NV6303 (crossingchoir.org)

Gavin Bryars – A Native Hill
The Crossing; Donald Nally
Navona Records NV6347 (crossingchoir.org)

American professional chamber choir The Crossing, conducted by Donald Nally, is a multi-Grammy-winning ensemble dedicated to new music, collaboration and modern day social, spiritual, environmental and cultural issues. In these two recordings, they perform recent works with in-depth understanding of the music and issues the composers explore. 

The Crossing commissioned three composers on The Tower and the Garden. Estonian Toivo Tulev set Walt Whitman’s words in the slow new music-flavoured, haunting A child said, what is the grass? (2015). Almost shrill attention-grabbing opening vocals lead to contrasting high female and low men’s interval patterns and drones in fluctuating tonal/atonal segments to the final hopeful long note. The Tower and the Garden (2018) for choir and string quartet by Gregory Spears, is a more tonal four-movement setting of poems by Keith Garebian, Denise Levertov and Thomas Merton exploring religion, technology and conservation. Highlight is the tonal third movement Dungeness Documentary. Set to Garebian’s text which pays homage to the late filmmaker Derek Jarman’s final days, its slower, slight dissonant strings opening, and subsequent emotional tight choral vocalizations with strings, is breathtaking listening. Composer Joel Puckett’s I enter the earth (2015) sets words, spoken by shaman Kxao =Oah of northwestern Botswana in 1971, in a meditative work connecting body and soul with vocal swells, wide-pitched lead lines and static reflective held notes.  

12b Crossing A Native HillA Native Hill (first complete performance 2019) is a 12-movement work for 24-member a cappella choir with minimal keyboard parts, composed by Gavin Bryars as a gift to The Crossing. A follow-up to his Grammy Award-winning work composed for them, it is based on the 1968 essay of the same name by American author and activist/environmentalist Wendell Berry about his rural life existence. 

Bryars’ understanding of The Crossing’s talents makes this over-one-hour monumental composition amazing in content, musicality and choral sounds. Mostly tonal, each movement has a nature-based name. Highlights include Sea Level where the wave motion can be heard in longer, full harmonic notes and dynamic swells. More water music in The Music of Streams with slower occasional sudden swells and subtle atonalities. The shorter The Hill has answering between vocal groups and a suspenseful drone. Clever use of choral whistles and hums in Animals and Birds. At Peace is a dramatic change in sonic pace with the opening featuring each choir member singing their own note to create a 24-voice cluster followed by touches of romanticism, atonalities and tonal harmonies building dramatically to close the work.    

Conductor Donald Nally is brilliant leading The Crossing from musical subtleties to complexities. The Crossing’s performances illuminate their expansive musical artistry. Production is clear and detailed. Both these discs are highly recommended!

01 Michelangelos MadrigalMichelangelo’s Madrigal
Kate Macoboy; Robert Meunier
Etcetera KTC 1623 (etcetera-records.com)

Through this CD, Australian Kate Macoboy and Canadian Robert Meunier, who now reside in London, England attempt to restore Italian madrigal composers to their true position as some of the leading exponents of the medium. They even find time for some sensuous lute solos from the same group of composers.

In a CD of 19 tracks, it is difficult to single out the most emotive compositions, but Macoboy’s interpretation of Pesenti’s Aime, ch’io moro has a languorous, almost haunting, quality to it which is reminiscent of the greatest Italian madrigalists of the later stages of the Renaissance. It is difficult from this CD to imagine that these Italian composers were somehow overshadowed by their colleagues elsewhere in Europe. Poignantly, Ben mi credea passar mio tempo homai is not only pensive and moving because of its music but it benefits from the poetry of a certain Petrarch – and was still overlooked by contemporary audiences!

Then there is the lute playing. While it is once again difficult to select a personal favourite from these pieces, Da Milano’s Fantasia 42 has a soothing and intricate quality ably brought out by Meunier. But this CD is really about its soprano. For the full range and power of Macoboy’s singing skills, listen to Bartolomeo Tromboncino’s Per dolor me bagno il viso, with its plaintive demands on both singer and instrumentalist.

Listen to 'Michelangelo’s Madrigal' Now in the Listening Room

02 Beethoven LeonoreBeethoven – Leonore (original 1805 version)
Nathalie Paulin; Jean-Michel Richer; Opera Lafayette; Ryan Brown
Naxos 2.110674 (naxosdirect.com/search/2110674)

Staging the very first (1805) version of Beethoven’s only opera, then still referred to as Leonore, begs some questions: Why now, in its three-act format, when the maestro himself revised it and reduced it to two-acts, when Leonore failed twice before finally getting the recognition it deserved in 1814 and that as a considerably revamped Fidelio?

You will find several answers in the meticulously detailed booklet notes by Nizam Kettaneh, co-executive producer of this performance. A more compelling historical reason comes from Beethoven himself who, while forever wrestling with a political-philosophical credo, quite fittingly continued to refer to the opera using its full, preferred, name: Leonore, oder Der Triumph der ehelichen Liebe. The original production may also have been shortened for political and commercial rather than purely artistic reasons; after all, it first played to a French audience which reportedly didn’t care much for German opera. Thus Beethoven may have reacted by making the 19th-century version of what composers today might call a “radio-friendly edit.” 

And then there’s this compelling performance itself. At the hands of Opera Lafayette, Leonore flares to life as if for the first time. Ryan Brown conducts the opera with a muscular fervour to proclaim the youthfulness of Beethoven’s masterpiece. Jean-Michel Richer’s Florestan is splendid and Nathalie Paulin’s Leonore/Fidelio is breathtaking. The prisoner’s chorus is soul-stirring. Best of all, the themes of unselfish love, loyalty, courage, sacrifice and heroic endurance all shine brilliantly throughout.

03 Schuberts WomenSchubert’s Women
Klaudia Tandl; Gabriele Jacoby; Niall Kinsella
Gramola 99223 (gramola.at)

In his songs, Schubert reveals uncanny empathy for women – not just for the Romantic ideal of the eternal feminine, but for authentic, individual women. Irish pianist Niall Kinsella has put together this program of songs to feature some of those complex women Schubert was drawn to, from Goethe’s Gretchen and Mignon to Kosegarten’s Louisa and Schiller’s Thekla.  Austrian mezzo-soprano Klaudia Tandl voices their thoughts and feelings with both tenderness and drama. Austrian actor Gabriele Jacoby’s recitations of texts are rich with colour and insight, though it can be jarring to encounter them interspersed among the songs.

In the narrative songs, Tandl uses her considerable expressive powers to convey the vivid atmosphere Schubert evokes. Goethe’s ballad Der Fischer tells of a seductive water nymph who lures a fisherman into her deadly waters. Tandl captures the jaunty but chilling atmosphere, while Kinsella delves into Schubert’s endlessly inventive images of swelling, surging water.

But Tandl is at her most moving when Schubert is directly describing the characters’ own suffering and joys in the first person. In Die junge Nonne, a young nun describes the turbulent longings which lead her to rapturous visions of the divine. Kinsella conjures up storms and church bells, while Tandl achieves sublimity with the closing repeated “Alleluia.”

Tandl and Kinsella’s perspective is so fresh and fruitful; I’m looking forward to hearing more of Schubert’s women-focused songs from them – especially the 12 songs he set to texts by women poets.

Back to top