01 Bach MathausBach – Matthäus Passion
Berliner Philharmoniker; Sir Simon Rattle; Peter Sellars
Berliner Philharmoniker Recordings BPHR140021

“Everyone knows it’s the great piece of music in the Western tradition,” affirms Peter Sellars with chorus master Simon Halsey in their 51-minute illuminating discussion of the St. Matthew Passion incorporating Sellars’ staging. The two sat on the stage of the Berlin Philharmonie and talked about aspects of the music and this performance. Here are some of Sellars’ thoughtful musings:

“It’s not theatre, it’s a prayer, a meditation, and I invited them to dedicate the opening chorus to someone they care about, to one who is still with them or maybe someone who is not. Someone who’s leaving the world now or someone who needs their help or thoughts or some act of kindness and to make the performance itself to be the prayer that reaches that person whether they are here or gone. Bach wrote the music for us to place everything we hope and care about into the vessel of this music… . This music has been the property of the early music movement for the last 20 to 25 years and it has been hands-off. Now the actual sense of discovery of this group of musicians is quite amazing, it’s the first time they have held these scores… In this pentagonal, 360-degree hall we could do the St. Matthew Passion in Bach’s imaginary spacialization, two choruses face each other, two orchestras face each other in a communal cross where there is no proscenium. We are not standing back and admiring it but opening it and going inside, a communal event. People are not performing out but performing to each other and what you get is a community engaging with itself and working through issues together and talking it out and so equal time is spent playing and singing and listening and being receptive.”

The participants in this performance of April 11, 2010, are Mark Padmore (Evangelist) and Christian Gerhaher (Jesus), together with Camilla Tilling (soprano), Magdalena Kožená (contralto), Topi Lehtipuu (tenor) and Thomas Quasthoff (bass) in the recitatives and arias. Peter Sellars is the stage director and the conductor is Sir Simon Rattle, who has said that this is the best thing he has done.

In every way, this is music-making at the very highest level. It is no longer a matter of listening to and watching a group of singers before an orchestra but a depiction of the events behind the words, raising Bach’s great work to a new level of appreciation and understanding. We look forward to the Sellars, Rattle, Padmore, BPO St. John Passion that follows.

If you acquire a copy of this set, I most heartily suggest that you first absorb the complete conversation between chorus master Halsey and the charismatic Sellars, a bonus on these discs. Their appreciation of what you are about to see and hear, how it was achieved and so much more, sets up the performance. As I write this I am re-watching this conversation just for the pleasure of doing so.

02 Puccini TurandotPuccini – Turandot
Nina Stemme; Maria Agresta; Aleksandrs Antonenko; Coro e Orchestra del Teatro Alla Scala; Riccardo Chailly
Decca 071 3937

Review

Puccini’s regretfully unfinished Turandot was premiered at La Scala in 1926 under the baton of Toscanini. It was a likely choice to celebrate Milano Expo 2015, directed by Nikolaus Lehnhoff and conducted with passion and vehemence by La Scala’s new music director, Riccardo Chailly. It also features a new ending composed (in 2001) by modernist Luciano Berio that unfortunately does away with the jubilant and exuberant finale that served well for over 80 years and which one would expect after the cruel and terrifying mayhem of this fairy-tale opera.

The opulent and impressive monumental, symmetrical set suggests a timeless, universal rather than explicitly Chinese milieu with an ever-present bloodthirsty crowd of identical gloomy figures in dark gowns and face masks reminiscent of Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut. Gorgeous colours shift according to the mood of each scene and the central focus is the Emperor or the Princess elongated into divine proportions.

True to the spirit of La Scala the singers are top quality. Famous Swedish soprano Nina Stemme (Turandot) has phenomenal presence in her black multi-dimensional costume, her voice impressive as it soars over the theatre in the showstopper In questa Reggia. The grand tradition of Pavarotti lives on in Aleksandrs Antonenko’s splendid Nessun Dorma. The riddle scene is a spectacular climax with both tenor and soprano in top form dramatically and vocally. Maria Agresta (Liu) was touching, beautifully singing Tanto amore, segreto with a gossamer-like ethereal vocal line. There is a commedia dell’arte quality in the comedy trio of the three Chinese ministers consistent with the surrealistic feel of this unorthodox but impressive and thought-provoking production.

04 Alma MahlerAlma Mahler – Lieder und Gesange
Catharina Kroeger; Monica Lonero
Brilliant Classics 95469

Alma Schindler was an aspiring composer who, in 1900, became a student of Alexander von Zemlinsky (who also became her lover). In December 1901 she became engaged to Gustav Mahler, who did not allow her to compose. He was the composer of the family; she was to be the loving companion and understanding partner of her husband. Such an attitude seems insensitive and draconian but it would not have been uncommon at the beginning of the 20th century. In 1910, at a time of great personal stress, Mahler relented and helped his wife revise five of her songs for publication. After his death two further publications followed: four songs in 1915, five in 1924.

The performance of the Alma Mahler songs is complemented with Patrizia Montanaro’s Canto di Penelope, in which the protagonist “rejects the role that has been assigned to her by the myth and lays claim to her own autonomy as a woman, a mother and a head of household.” The oblique relevance to the story of Alma is clear.

It is time to move past the notion of Alma Mahler as Gustav’s wife and to listen to the songs in their own right. Several of them are certainly arresting, with surprising harmonies. They are beautifully sung by the soprano Catharina Kroeger. The pianist Monica Lonero is especially fine. I note that in November soprano Barbara Hannigan and pianist Reinbert de Leeuw will perform in Koerner Hall works by members of the Second Viennese School and that the concert will include not only works by Alban Berg and Anton Webern but also songs by Hugo Wolf (a forerunner?) and Alma Mahler. It will be interesting to see how her work will stand up in that context.

05 Sibelius KullervoSibelius – Kullervo; Kortekangas – Migrations
Lilli Paasikivi; Tommi Hakala; YL Male Voice Choir; Minnesota Orchestra; Osmo Vanska
BIS BIS-9048 SACD

The early 1890s found Sibelius engrossed in the Kalevala and other verses of Finnish poetry that were to become the subject matter of so many of his most celebrated and memorable works. Kullervo, published in 1892, was Sibelius’ first grand symphonic opus. It was his first setting of stories from the Kalevala and is packed with new ideas, revealing first glimpses of many of the composer’s trademark orchestrations, his poetic spirit and his depiction of northern vistas. The work is a symphonic poem in five parts scored for symphony orchestra, male voice choir, mezzo-soprano and baritone. The story tells of a clan massacre, seduction, incest, revenge and suicide. This performance is instantly pleasing, particularly the male choir. Interestingly, between 1892 and the composition of the First Symphony in 1898-99 Sibelius wrote just about all of his mighty tone poems, Op.8 to 27. The first performance of Kullervo in Canada using Sibelius’ final revisions was in Roy Thomson Hall on May 3, 1986. The soloists were Ritva Auvinen, soprano, and Esa Ruuttunen, bass, with the Laulun Ystävät (from Turku, Finland), the Toronto Finnish Male Choir, the Toronto Estonian Male Choir and the CJRT Orchestra conducted by Paul Robinson. It was truly a gala event for the city and the who’s who, too.

Olli Kortekangas, born in 1955, studied music theory and composition at the Sibelius Academy in Helsinki under the direction of Einojuhani Rautavaara and continued his studies in Berlin with Dieter Schnebel. His music has been featured in concerts and at festivals around the world and he is currently working on several domestic and international commissions. Migrations, scored for orchestra, male choir and mezzo was commissioned by the Minnesota Orchestra. The English-language text was written by Sheila Packa, a Minnesotan poet of Finnish roots. “I believe that immigration affects families deeply, particularly in relation to borders, language and landscape…many believe that speaking a new language brings out different parts of the self.” Migrations is a narrative poem in seven parts: four sung movements, Two Worlds, Resurrection, The Man Who Lived in a Tree and Music That We Breathe, separated by three instrumental interludes. A suitable disc mate for the Sibelius. The brilliant YL Male Voice Choir was founded in Helsinki in 1883 is deservedly one of the most prominent male choirs in the world. The recorded sound is superb.

06 Sibelius FinleyIn the Stream of Life – Songs by Sibelius
Gerald Finley; Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra, Edward Gardner
Chandos SA-CD CHSA 5178

Jean Sibelius, the long-lived national Finnish composer, was in fact brought up in a Swedish-speaking home, studied in Berlin and Vienna and the bulk of his song output was set to Swedish and German poems. Despite that, he came to symbolize Finnish music the same way Edvard Grieg did the Norwegian national school. Incidentally, Grieg was for many years the artistic director of the Bergen Philharmonic heard here, one of the oldest orchestras in the world, ringing in 250 years of continuous existence.

Which brings us to Gerald Finley, everybody’s favourite baritone. This Montreal-born, Ottawa-raised artist, currently living in the UK, received particular attention from the sadly departed (in 2016) Einojuhani Rautavaara, another great Finnish composer. It was Finley for whom Rautavaara composed his brilliant Rubaiyat and orchestrated seven of Sibelius’ songs – In the Stream of Life – originally composed for voice and piano. In fact, these orchestrations turned out to be Rautavaara’s swan song and this world premiere recording was only concluded in the week of his funeral. Finley navigates the complex harmonies of Sibelius’ (and Rautavaara’s) music and the treacherous linguistic ground with mastery and elegance that we have come to expect from him.

The Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra’s playing deserves kudos as well, especially in the tone poem Pohjola’s Daughter. It may be of interest that the current principal conductor in Bergen, Edward Gardner, led the English National Opera in the artistically rich, financially disastrous period from 2007 to 2015. Five stars.

07 Patrick HawesPatrick Hawes – Revelation; Beatitudes; Qaunta Qualia
Elora Singers; Noel Edison
Naxos 8.573720

Patrick Hawes is a modern British composer and organist living on the Norfolk coast, whose compositions are inspired by nature, literature and his deep Christian faith. His approach to choral music, at least in this recording, is sublimely gentle and tonal. Even with a subject matter such as the Book of Revelation, he eschews such fiery terrors as the “four horseman of the apocalypse” and the “gnashing of teeth,” instead selecting verses that convey anticipation, awe and reverence. Although there are flashes of drama in the antiphonal section Coming with the Clouds and flashes of lightning and thunder appear in From the Throne, the overall impression conveyed in the scoring of this lovely a cappella setting inspires rather than terrorizes. The voicings in Epilogue: The Alpha and the Omega are both mystical and jubilant.

Following this work is Hawes’ setting of The Beatitudes, transcendently peaceful with music that provides a soothing balm equal to the text. The piano accompaniment performed by Leslie De’Ath is beautifully subtle in its support of the voices. Another notable accompaniment is John Johnson’s alto sax on one of the five stand-alone choral works, Quanta Qualia. This time, the instrumental part is written as a blissful voice to enhance and highlight some ecstatic soprano passages. The Elora Singers deliver a pure and flawless performance in this collection of heavenly works.

01 Ensemble ScholasticaArs elaboratio
Ensemble Scholastica
ATMA ACD2 2755

These days, the kids call them remixes, but in the hands of musicologist Rebecca Bain, the music on Ars elaboratio is the product of taking plainchant and adding tropes from other sources to create new versions. This was not unheard of in the millennium that was not litigious about intellectual property and it was common because of a more flexible and oral, rather than notated, tradition of handing music down. Think of this as more serious Mediæval Babes repertoire with scholastically informed liberties, which in that era were called elaborations.

The result is litanies, antiphons, poetry and scripture that are often mesmerizing and calming, especially with the addition of symphonia or, in the instrumental version of Claris vocibus, of organetto, a portable precursor to the pipe organ, played with one hand on the keyboard and the other working the bellows. The medieval pronunciation charmed this Latinist, although I may have heard some elision, as in spoken Latin poetry recitation, which may throw some listeners. And there are spots in the CD booklet that omit the original liturgical text that is discussed (e.g. the melisma on “mulierum” in Velox impulit) so that only the tropes can be followed, if that is your wont.

The fascinating background to some of the elaborations contains some ballsy feminist stuff (praise of the chastity of innocent virgins aside), such as the one in Dilexisti iustitiam, in which St. Catherine of Alexandria kicks some male philosophical-debate butt. The approachable narrative in Sancti baptiste of “amice Christi Johannes” ([O] John, friend of Christ) reflects the presumed (relative) egalitarianism of the coeducational abbey of St. Martial de Limoges in the 1100s.

The acoustics of the Chapelle Notre-Dame-de-Bon-Secours in Old Montreal lend themselves to a lovely presentation of the organic nine-voice Ensemble Scholastica. Hildegard of Bingen must be pumping her fist in coelis.

02 Opus 8Melancholy & Mirth
Opus 8
Independent OPUS001 (opus8choir.com)

Review

Opus 8 is a new Toronto ensemble. This is their first disc. The ensemble consists of eight singers and it is directed by Robert Busiakiewicz, who also sings tenor. Busiakiewicz is the director of the choir of St. James Cathedral in Toronto and a number of the singers in Opus 8 are members of the cathedral choir.

Great care has been taken on this disc to provide songs from different periods. The oldest is Josquin des Prez’s great elegy on the death of Johannes Ockeghem; the most recent is a folk-song arrangement by Keith Roberts, who was born in 1971 (when I myself was in my early 30s). In between we have Renaissance madrigals (Thomas Weelkes and John Ward), part-songs by Delius and Parry and 20th-century works by Ravel and Schoenberg, Stockhausen and Maconchy. There is also variation in the number of singers employed: the three Ravel songs take the form of a duet between mezzo and tenor; the Stockhausen sets a soprano soloist against the choir.

Different listeners will like different things. I myself could do without the Martinů with which the disc opens. On the other hand, I was very moved by How are the mighty fallen by Robert Ramsey, an early 17th-century work, perhaps an elegy written on the death of Prince Henry, the British Crown Prince. I was also much taken by Elizabeth Maconchy’s piece on the burial of a dead cat, sad and skittish at the same time.

The performances are very fine in terms of rhythmic precision and purity of intonation. I look forward to the group’s next concert and their next CD.

03 Julie BoulianneAlma Oppressa – Vivaldi; Handel – Arias
Julie Boulianne; Clavecin en Concert; Luc Beauséjour
Analekta AN 2 8780

Review

There are on this recital disc six arias by Handel and three by Vivaldi; there are also several instrumental interludes by both. Care has been taken to pair the very well-known Lascia ch’io pianga from Handel’s Rinaldo as well as the relatively well-known arias from his Giulio Cesare and Ariodante with the less familiar arias from Imeneo and from Arianna in Creta. Of the Vivaldi arias I was especially moved by the extract from Andromeda liberata. This serenata was apparently composed by a number of composers but Luc Beauséjour assures us that Vivaldi “almost certainly” wrote this particular aria. What I think this means is that there is no real evidence who wrote it but that it is so fine that it has to be Vivaldi. I don’t think that argument would stand up in a court of law but the aria is indeed so good that it would be hard to contradict it.

Julie Boulianne, the mezzo-soprano soloist, is moving in the slow arias and very impressive in the technically demanding fast items. Clavecin en Concert is a crack ensemble of 13 players. There is especially fine work from the cellist Amanda Keesmaat and the lutenist Sylvain Bergeron.

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