01 Marianne LambertCanzone di Notte
Marianne Lambert; Valerie Milot
Fidelio FACD052 (mariannelambert.com)

The grand conception of this disc, intended to be in praise of bel canto, is instantly discernible. Why would it not be? Quebec soprano Marianne Lambert inhabits this repertoire, sliding into it as if into a second skin; musical secrets revealed from the tablet of her heart. 

The singer’s lustrous voice soars in melismatic and arpeggiated leaps, sometimes with sly, but glorious coloratura. She is an eminently graceful singer who can generate genuine pathos, as superbly captured on Vivaldi’s Sposa, son disprezzata or Rossini’s Giusto Ciel, in tal periglio!; conjure great hope as in Mozart’s Ridente la calma and Rossini’s La promessa; and unfettered joy on Donaudy’s Vaghissima sembianza

Lambert is an artist of the first order. She makes key phrases in these arias come alive and spring in balletic arcs, cutting through the still air of this room. She digs into the meaning of words and phrases and infuses their poetry with a sense of nostalgia and melancholy, painting the song’s fluid melodies with poignant candour.

With radiant chromaticisms and splendid sonorities the harpist Valérie Milot complements the plaintive soundworld of the characters played by the singer. Her notes are ideally weighed and measured, and fit perfectly onto Lambert’s vocals as if punctuating these songs with wistful and melancholy accents. Together Lambert and Milot create a grand edifice of song through this well-chosen repertoire.

03 Brian FieldBrian Field – Choral and Orchestral Works
Budapest Symphonic Orchestra and Choir; Lviv Philharmonic Society and Chorus; Composers’ Choir; Heelan Chorale
RMN Classical RMN70709 (brianfield.com)

I grew up in the Anglican tradition: high mass, chant choir in front, choir and organ in the loft behind, masses by Healey Willan, smells and bells, the lot. All this to say, “I get how American composer Brian Field can sound so English. His music is shamelessly ear-friendly, his instrumental writing idiomatic and choirs seem to revel in the beautiful sonorities he elicits from them.” I’m back as a bored altar boy dozing off amidst incense and anthems. Snapping awake to assure you this is a very enjoyable recording, I take issue with one reviewer’s pronouncement that Field “stretches tonality to and beyond its limits.” He seems quite content within tonality’s limits, whatever those are. 

Choral excellence from a variety of groups sets a standard not met by the instrumentalists of the Budapest Symphonic Orchestra. While the ensemble’s standards of rhythm and phrasing are acceptable, they seem casual regarding intonation; “stretched tonality” might have masked this, but Field’s tonal palette deserves more care. Carping aside, Shiva Tandava is a compelling concerto grosso and makes a nice change from the very fine choral writing. 

Perhaps more generous liner notes would explain how the Hindu god of destruction gets along with the reputedly benign Christian version, or at least what the title references. I’d appreciate knowing too, which choirs sing which of the various sacred (Christian) texts. His lovely setting of the Christina Rosetti poem In the Bleak Midwinter adds just a few pounds of tonal stretch to Gustav Holst’s version.

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04 Sharon AzrieliSecret Places – A Tribute to Michel Legrand
Sharon Azrieli; Tamir Hendelman
LML Music (sharonazrieli.com)

The brilliant composer and pianist Michel Legrand died in 2019, and yet his work continues to resonate – not only in the films in which his compositions were heard, but in the many fine versions of his body of work that have been lovingly interpreted by international artists, including Canadian Sharon Azrieli. The arrangements and orchestrations on this fine collection were created by pianist Tamir Hendelman and Azrieli, who also co-produced the disc with David Merrill. First up is If There Were No Dreams (with lyrics by Neil Diamond). Azrieli brings her well-seasoned, classically trained and sibilant voice to this gentle, lilting and rarely performed ballad, while Lori Bell’s elegant flute and Alex Frank’s sinuous bass lines intertwine with an unaffected loveliness. Another delight is Secret Places – with snappy lyrics from master wordsmith, Alan Jay Lerner, the well-chosen title track displays the irrepressible joy of Legrand’s musical sensibility with a stunner of a piano solo by Hendelman and fine bass work by Frank.

Arguably, Legrand’s most constant collaborators were luminous lyricists Marilyn and Alan Bergman, bringing us many memorable compositions written for an array of fine films, including Les Moulins de Mon Coeur (better known as The Windmills of Your Mind) from 1968’s The Thomas Crown Affair.  Azrieli renders this excellent interpretation in English, and also in flawless French, expertly capturing the romance and passion of the cinematic plot. Also with the Bergmans, in What Are You Doing For the Rest of Your Life? Azrieli evokes an aura of deep emotion and mystery here – just as Legrand intended.

Two additional stunners include Watch What Happens and I Will Wait For You – with English lyrics by Norman Gimbel. Both of these gorgeous songs appeared in the equally gorgeous 1964 film, The Umbrellas of Cherbourg and feature fine soloing from Ricky Woodard on sax and Dean Koba on drums with Frank on bass. A superlative tribute to an eternal international artist.

01 Schubert WinterreiseSchubert – Winterreise
Nathaniel Watson; Michael McMahon
Leaf Music LM253 (leaf-music.ca)

Having been recorded well over 500 times, Winterreise remains one of the most beloved compositions by Schubert. Set to 24 poems by Wilhelm Müller, a poet, soldier and Imperial Librarian, this song cycle follows the journey of a heartbroken wanderer through the countryside. Narratively nothing much happens here, everything unfolds inside the protagonist. This music requires a high level of maturity and insight from both performers and listeners. From the darkness of Good Night, to the beautiful torment of On the Stream and the turbulence of The Stormy Morning, the intensity of Schubert’s music never lessens.

Nathaniel Watson, baritone, and Michael McMahon, piano, convey a world that is bleak and lonely, profound in its vulnerability yet, on the other end, almost exhilarated in its core. These two artists are well attuned to Schubert’s music, their phrasing impeccable and their synergy unmistakable. Originally written for tenor, Winterreise is frequently transposed to other voices. Baritone works particularly well, with its range of colours and a degree of masculinity. Watson’s voice is dark and expressive, adding a layer of intensity to the words. The piano, having an equal role to the voice, paints the winter imagery of the harsh natural elements such as storms and wind, and McMahon does it exuberantly. On the other hand, he parallels the emotional unrest expressed in the voice with a wonderful restraint.

Not for the faint of heart, this album is a heartfelt addition to the music libraries of contemplative listeners.

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02 Amour et FantasieAmour et Fantaisie – Melodies de Lionel Daunais
Dominique Côté; Esther Gonthier
ATMA ACD2 2839 (atmaclassique.com/en)

Canadian baritone Dominique Côté is world renowned for his opera and concert performances. Here Côté demonstrates his talented musicianship by singing his favourite songs by multi-talented Quebecer Lionel Daunais (1901-1982). Côté’s illustrious singing is accompanied with passion by Quebec pianist Esther Gonthier. 

Daunais’ popular, accessible songs are as wide-ranging as his career as a composer, singer/songwriter, performer, author, artistic director and radio host. Daunais sets his own lyrics brilliantly. Highlights include the opening track L’amour de moi with slightly atonal short piano intro, low-range-touching vocals, faster mid-section and “très” dramatic build to piano flourish and held note vocal closing. Four humourous Folklore songs include folksy, happy À Montréal, a city tribute with rhythms, a slower alternating section and entertaining spelling out of the letters Montréal closing. What Montreal food to eat drives Les patates, with operatic rhythmical lyrics mentioning potatoes, chips and even a federal election! Famous La tourtière is about its flavourful wonders, highlighted by back-and-forth answering of Côté’s clear lead vocals by Ensemble Vocal Charlevoix, under musical director Julie Desmeules. Daunais’ songs with texts by writers including Paul Fort, Paul Eluard and Éloi De Grandmont are equally entertaining.

Côté writes in his liner notes, “his music speaks to me and moves me,” which comes across in his Daunais homage, understandable even with my working knowledge of French. He loves these songs, and so should listeners!

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03 Lux AeternaLux Aeterna – Choral works by György Ligeti and Zoltán Kodály
Danish National Vocal Ensemble; Marcus Creed
Our Recordings 6.220676 (naxosdirect.com/search/6220676)

At first glance, the pairing of Kodály and Ligeti might seem strange, given the disparate nature of their musical works. While Kodály composed in a largely conventional yet extended tonal idiom, Ligeti is a renowned master of the avant-garde, famous for his introduction of micropolyphony and the use of his atmospheric music in the films of Stanley Kubrick. Despite this musical disconnect, both composers share close personal connections, including their Hungarian nationality. Four decades older than Ligeti, Kodály appointed his younger countryman as a teacher of theory and counterpoint at the Liszt Academy in Budapest before Soviet troops entered Hungary in 1956 and Ligeti fled to Vienna.

One of the fundamental elements underpinning this disc is the importance of folk music in Hungarian musical traditions, which was the basis of their institutional training methodologies. Indeed, it was Kodály’s study and use of folksong in his compositions, which formed a new basis for musical life in Hungary. It is no surprise, then, to find that much of the material on Lux Aeterna is arrangements and adaptations of folk songs.

While Ligeti’s music is often synonymous with the avant-garde, many of his folk songs are surprisingly conventional, particularly the 1955 collections written while he was still in Hungary. These songs pair exceedingly well with Kodály’s more traditional fare, while the inclusion of Lux Aeterna consists of the 1982 Drei Phantasien nach Friedrich Hölderlin give listeners seeking the modernistic Ligeti repertoire something to look forward to.

The Danish National Vocal Ensemble is in fine form on this disc, embracing and showcasing the extraordinary complexity of Ligeti’s modern works, the brilliant word-painting of his earlier folk songs and the late-Romantic sumptuousness of Kodály’s musical settings.

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04 Martins VilumsMartins Vilums
Latvian Radio Choir; Kaspars Putnins
LMIC SKANI 131 (skani.lv)

The musical heritage of the Baltic countries is rich and unique, offering a wide range of composers and works which are unlike those of any other tradition. This disc features the music of Martins Vilums (b.1974), a Latvian composer and accordionist whose material is characterized by fascinating titles and rich textures, all expertly performed by the Latvian Radio Choir and their director Kaspar Putnins.

Perhaps the most traditional piece on this disc is Vilums’ Lux Aeterna, inspired by the traditional requiem text and portrayed through a wide range of timbres and layers. The use of melodies resembling Gregorian chant and Eastern Orthodox psalmodic declamation which emerge through luminescent choral textures make this work immediately appealing, especially for those familiar with Ligeti’s setting of the same text.

Other works range greatly in instrumentation and theme, from the Zoroastrian cosmological text On the conflict waged with the primeval ox which features extended vocal techniques including overtones and micro-intervals, to the expansive Aalomgon for percussion, trombone, horn and 12 voices. This latter piece is perhaps the most fascinating, a mini-oratorio over 30 minutes in length and comprised of a “libretto” of syllables, arranged in a particular system by the composer, intended to resemble words of demonic conjuring and godly cursing. Aalomgon is a dense yet utterly fascinating experience, and a unique sonic expression of deeply spiritual themes.

If there is one word to best describe this disc, it may well be “abstract.” While Vilums’ music can certainly be experienced without guidance, the composer’s words and insights are vital to achieving complete comprehension of many of these pieces. From the systemically syllabic Aalomgon to the overarching spirituality of Lux Aeterna and On the conflict waged with the primeval ox, there is much on this disc worthy of appreciation, not least of which is the monumental effort put forth by the Latvian Radio Choir.

05 Heidi BreyerHeidi Breyer – Amor Aeternus: A Requiem for the Common Man
Various Artists
Winterhall Records WRC006 (heidibreyer.com)

Composer/pianist Heidi Breyer composed this ten-movement contemporary Requiem for chorus, vocal soloists, piano, strings, harp and horn over almost a decade. As Breyer writes, “Amor is a musical anthology of our times…” It is another musical pandemic project for the listener, this one recorded during the first year of COVID lockdowns.  

Sung in Latin, Breyer composes with moving vocal and instrumental combinations. Introit opens with low-pitched strings, followed by slow choir entry. Love its haunting dark strings under the high female voices and accessible contrapuntal tonality. Breyer’s virtuosic piano solo opening in Kyrie Eleison leads to a solo baritone and then full choir sorrowful lament. Another piano introduction starts Domine Jesu Christe with emotional full choral singing and colourful strings, which also are featured in the slightly faster Sanctus. Lacrimosa is especially unique with a dramatic piano part now in the forefront throughout from the opening solo introduction, orchestral lower pitch support entry, sudden faster tempo with vocals, and return to slower closing with higher vocals supporting the piano. Calming, reflective and beautiful Lux Aeterna, with its angelic vocal legato melody, piano ostinato sections and mellow instrumentals, could stand as a fully independent top-ten piece all on its own! The closing faster movement, In Paradisum, has a jubilant vocal chorus creating a hopeful closing to the entire work.

This masterpiece is surprisingly Breyers’ first large-scale choral work. It is powerful, musical and brilliantly composed, performed and produced.

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01 Schutz David et SalomonHeinrich Schütz – David & Salomon
Les Cris de Paris; Geoffroy Jourdain
Harmonia Mundi HMM905346 (store.harmoniamundi.com) 

One of the great German Baroque composers, Heinrich Schütz’s output of sacred music is remarkable for both its quantity and quality. By incorporating Italian techniques and methods and applying them to German-language religious texts, Schütz influenced the future of German music in the sacred and secular realms and is often regarded as the most important German composer before Johann Sebastian Bach.

Schütz lived until the age of 87 and, with over 500 surviving works, any recording of his material needs a specific focus or organizing principle. For the program featured on David & Salomon, Schütz’s two trips to Italy – taken 16 years apart from each other – serve as bookends, with every piece of music on this disc composed between 1612 and 1628. 

From 1609 to1612 Schütz studied with Giovanni Gabrieli in Venice, and it is this influence that is most clearly apparent on David & Salomon, as the tremendously vital and energetic nature of Italianate polychoral writing is synthesized so effectively with Luther-translated scriptural excerpts throughout. With the first notes of Alleluja! Lobet den Herren, we quickly understand that both the composer and performers are masters of their craft, as the rhythmically demanding score is executed with precision, thoughtfulness and joy.

Not everything on this disc is unending exaltation, but Schütz’s expressions of grief, angst and solemnity are as successfully executed, if not more so, than their exuberant counterparts. Vulnerasti cor meum, a setting of text from the Song of Solomon, is a masterful display of chromatic part-writing, while An den Wassern zu Babel uses polychoral techniques to great effect, made even more so through the antiphonal panning present in the audio itself.

A magnificent ensemble with an equally gifted director, Les Cris de Paris and Geoffroy Jourdain are in fine form on David & Salomon, which is highly recommended to Schütz aficionados everywhere.

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