06 Malcolm ArnoldMalcolm Arnold – The Dancing Master
Vocal Soloists; BBC Concert Orchestra; John Andrews
Resonus Records RES10269 (resonusclassics.com)

London, 1952: Malcolm Arnold, Oscar-winner-to-be for The Bridge on the River Kwai, is rapidly churning out one film score after another; his friend, filmmaker Joe Mendoza, has written a screenplay based on a 1671 comedy, The Gentleman Dancing Master. For years, they’ve discussed collaborating on an opera; now, Mendoza turns the screenplay into a made-for-television opera libretto. Only two weeks after receiving Mendoza’s draft, Arnold completes the score for a one-act, 75-minute opera. Deemed “too bawdy for family audiences” by BBC executives, The Dancing Master languishes until an amateur concert performance with piano in 1962; it finally receives its first full production in 2015 in London. 

Miranda faces an unwanted marriage to her Frenchified cousin, “Monsieur” Nathaniel, arranged by her pompous father and puritanical aunt. Supported by her maid Prue, Miranda attempts to pass off her ardent but maladroit admirer Gerard as her dance instructor. Comic complications inevitably ensue.

Mendoza’s libretto (included in the booklet) boasts sharply drawn characters and abundant clever rhymes. It’s hardly “bawdy” – mildly risqué only when Prue tries to seduce Nathaniel. Arnold’s score is brightly orchestrated, poignant in Miranda’s lament, boisterous in the ensembles, unashamedly cinematic in the climax of Miranda and Gerard’s love duet, wickedly satiric in Nathaniel’s absurd serenade, clearly echoing Beckmesser’s hapless effort in Die Meistersinger’s song contest.

The Dancing Master is a melodic, laugh-inducing romp. While a more distinguished cast might have been desirable, this CD promises guaranteed operatic entertainment.

01 DistanceDistance
Choeur de l’Eglise St. Andrew and St. Paul; Jean-Sébastien Vallée
ATMA ACD2 2840 (atmaclassique.com/en) 

Recorded at the height of Montreal’s second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic under extremely specific and restrictive public health conditions, Distance could not be more appropriately titled. Despite these challenging times and conditions, this disc manages to distill an extraordinary amount of strength and beauty into its 69 minutes, a testament to the quality of the Choir of the Church of St. Andrew and St. Paul and its director, Jean-Sébastien Vallée.

Spanning nearly five centuries of music and a great range of styles, there is something for everyone here. Beginning with a stunning performance of Samuel Barber’s Agnus Dei (his own arrangement of the Adagio for Strings), Trevor Weston’s atmospheric Magnificat and Bach’s Komm, Jesu, Komm, the first three works are notable for the way in which the choir is able to modify their performance practice to meet the demands of each era.

The remainder of Distance is equally stimulating, with Elgar’s legendary Nimrod appearing in a vocal arrangement by John Cameron titled Lux aeterna, and works by Rachmaninoff, James MacMillan, and Uģis Prauliņš. In addition to these renowned composers, there are also appearances by contemporary composers Reena Esmail, Caroline Shaw and William Kraushaar, each born in the 1980s. 

There is little more to say about the performances on this disc, other than that they are extraordinary. The virtuosity present in the Barber is entirely different from that demanded by Bach, which is itself radically different from Prauliņš, and each is simply stunning in its own way. This reviewer is very rarely rendered speechless but, when something is done as well as the interpretations presented here, it is undoubtedly better to talk less and listen more.

Listen to 'Distance' Now in the Listening Room

02 Winterreise DiDonatoSchubert – Winterreise
Joyce DiDonato; Yannick Nézet-Séguin
Erato 0190295284245 (warnerclassics.com)

There is ample evidence, in their individual oeuvres, to suggest that luminous mezzo Joyce DiDonato and maestro Yannick Nézet-Séguin are artists of the first order; enough, it may be said, to have earned them the right to do whatever they may wish to. This recording of Winterreise, Franz Schubert’s iconic and desolate song cycle, is an altogether more challenging assignment, but one that’s pulled off with aplomb. 

This unique duo interprets this music from the despondent woman’s perspective and provides Schubert’s music and Wilhelm Müller’s verses with a new benchmark. This is no simple replacement of the male protagonist – the rejected lover on the verge of madness – with a female one. The lonely peregrinations of Schubert’s old character through the snowbound landscape have been given dramatically new meaning by DiDonato. Müller’s 24 verses speak to the mezzo in a very special way. She has, in turn, interiorized the bleak despondency of Die schöne Müllerin and recast the music’s unrelenting desolation in a breathtaking new landscape of personal pain. 

Meanwhile, from his vantage point in the shadows behind his piano, Nézet-Séguin conducts himself with impeccable decorum, occasionally emerging into the limelight if only to gently emphasize or provide poignant relief from the music’s bleak mood. His musicianship throughout is eloquent. His astute pianism – especially in Der Leiermann – highlights and embellishes the emotional veracity of Winterreise, combining with DiDonato’s darkly lustrous performance to take Schubert’s magnificent art song cycle to a rarefied realm.

03 Donizetti Lucrezia BorgiaDonizetti – Lucrezia Borgia
Marko Mimica; Carmela Remigio; Xabier Anduaga; Varduhi Abrahamyan; Orchestra Giovanile Luigi Cherubini; Coro del Teatro Municipale di Piacenza; Riccardo Frizza
Dynamic 37849 (naxosdirect.com/search/37849)

Nestled on the southern slopes of the Italian Alps is the lovely small town Bergamo, birthplace of one of the great masters of Italian bel canto, Gaetano Donizetti. Lucrezia Borgia, one of his early successes, premiered in 1833 at La Scala shortly after Anna Bolena, his first major breakthrough. It is rarely performed, as it requires soloists, especially the lead soprano, of the highest calibre. Over the last century the opera went through many revisions, but it never left the stage and attracted the likes of Caruso, Gigli, Caballé, Sills, Gruberova and Sutherland for the principal roles.

The opera centres around one of the most despicable characters of the Italian Renaissance, the daughter of Pope Alexander VI, Lucrezia Borgia who murdered three husbands and is presently on her fourth, Don Alfonso, ruler of Ferrara. The story that follows is a total mayhem of horror, jealousy, vendetta, poisoning, mass murder and suicide, but the music remains one of the composer’s most compelling and forward-looking scores. In fact, he is attempting to break the traditional rigid rules of bel canto by bringing the recitativo and aria closer together towards a more fluid style and expressive language, a step closer to Verdi.

The strongest feature of this memorable performance is Italian soprano Carmela Remigio in the title role. She truly carries the show with her dramatic persona, total emotional involvement, absorption into the role and a mesmerizing voice powerful in all registers. Gennaro, her illegitimate son, cause of much of her grief and anguish, is the sensational Spanish tenor Xabier Anduaga, winner of Operalia Competition 2019. Young Marko Mimica from Zagreb, Croatia, as Don Alfonso, is a powerful bass-baritone and the supporting cast is remarkable. Riccardo Frizza, master of Italian opera, conducts.

05 Visca LAmorVisca L’Amor – Catalan Arts Songs
Isaí Jess Muñoz; Oksana Glouchko
Bridge Records 9548 (bridgerecords.com/products/9548)

Six song cycles by Catalan composers, music and words brimming with urgency and passion, are illuminated by the fervent, vibrato-warmed singing of tenor Isaí Jess Muñoz, accompanied by pianist Oksana Glouchko.

In La rosa als llavis (The Rose on the Lips) by Eduard Toldrà (1895-1962), a lover burns with desire until the sixth and final song, Visca l’amor (Long Live Love), ending with the words “la volia, i l’he pres” (I wanted her, and I took her). Ricard Lamote de Grignon (1899-1962) set his three brief Cants homèrics (Homeric Hymns) to translations of ancient Greek prayers. Those to the Muses, Apollo and Zeus are declamatory in words and music; that for Aphrodite, gentle and caressing.

Achingly beautiful melismas make Haidé, three miniature love poems set by Narcís Bonet (b.1933), my particular favourite among this admirable collection. Combat del somni (Struggle in the Dream) by Frederic Mompou (1893-1987) is filled with intense yearning for an absent lover. (I first heard these three plaintive songs, infused with extravagant poetic imagery, on a still-treasured LP from the 1950s.) 

The four songs of Imitació del foe (Imitation of Fire) by Elisenda Fábregas (b.1955), commissioned by Muñoz and Glouchko for this CD, dramatically deal with “delirium,” “blood waves,” long-haired winged men,” “racing suns” and “sharpened flames.” The devotional Ave Maria, Benedictus and three Alleluias of Les Paraules sagrades (Sacred Words) by Joan Comellas (1913-2000) provide a richly satisfying conclusion to this richly satisfying CD.

06 Coleridge Taylor SongsSamuel Coleridge-Taylor – Heart & Hereafter
Elizabeth Llewellyn; Simon Lepper
Orchid Classics ORC100164 (naxosdirect.com/search/orc100164)

The neglect that Samuel Coleridge-Taylor (1875-1923) seems to have suffered in his lifetime (and after) could rival that of Franz Schubert and Gustav Mahler. Moreover, like Schubert and Mahler, Coleridge-Taylor’s reputation as a composer of exceptional breadth and scope is also being illuminated by the ceaseless proselytizing of a few performers – the latest being the breathtakingly agile lyric soprano Elizabeth Llewellyn together with pianist Simon Lepper. 

On Heart & Hereafter Coleridge-Taylor’s skill unfolds through a breathtaking array of work, from musical settings of Christina Rossetti’s poetry to selections from his other songbooks, all of which constitute profound meditations in music brought to life by Llewellyn and Lepper.

Coleridge-Taylor’s limitless creativity in art song is evident in the range of expression displayed in this collection. It’s clear from the sweep of this music that the composer found inspiration to illuminate each subject with emotional depth and luminosity.

Throughout, Llewellyn does Coleridge-Taylor’s work poetic justice. Her instrument is lustrous, precise and feather-light. Melodies are ideally weighed and measured as Llewellyn digs fiercely into the meaning of each gesture, bringing ceaseless variety, fluid dynamics and – not infrequently – a quite magical quality to her phrasing. Lepper’s fingerwork is exceptional and he exhibits a gleamingly blended tonal quality in his pianism. It’s hard to imagine a duo better suited to this repertoire, with both musicians bringing distinct and deeply interiorized readings to complement each other’s execution of these utterly beautiful songs.

07 dwb driving while blackSusan Kander – dwb (driving while black)
Roberta Gumbel; New Morse Code
Albany Records TROY1858 (albanyrecords.com)

Near the end of dwb (driving while black), a woman is teaching her son to drive. “Is this car a ticket to freedom or a time bomb?” she asks herself. It’s not a car crash she worries about. It’s a police stop – will her son be assaulted, even murdered, because he is driving while Black? 

In Roberta Gumbel’s poetic libretto, scenes created from her own experiences as a Black mother alternate with hard-hitting news bulletins. The racially charged incidents these bulletins announce, from dramatically shifting perspectives, escalate from creepy encounters to vicious attacks. 

Composer Susan Kander has scored this chamber opera for one singer, a cellist and a percussionist. Her imaginative exploration of this unusual combination resonates with the intensity of a full-scale opera’s worth of colourful sonorities and textures. dwb (driving while black) is just 46 minutes long, and it moves quickly. But the emotional impact resonates long after it’s over. 

Gumbel, a soprano, sings the part she created with engaging expressiveness. In the detailed vignettes showing her loving relationship with her son, we feel the joys as vividly as the fears – through the jazzy vocalises, the tender lullabies and the theatrical monologues. Her impassioned commitment is matched by that of the versatile musicians of New Morse Code, cellist Hannah Collins and percussionist Michael Compitello. 

Together they reinforce the deep sense of urgency driving this powerful work, shining some light on our fraught times.

01 Eccles SemeleJohn Eccles – Semele
Academy of Ancient Music; Cambridge Handel Opera
AAM Records AAM012 (aam.co.uk)

What looks like Handel, sounds like Purcell and is a world premiere recording? If you guessed the answer to be the latest release from the Academy of Ancient Music, you win! Any mention of the words “opera” and “Semele” together immediately turns minds to Handel’s frequently performed 1744 masterwork, but there is another older, lesser-known Semele living in the operatic world, written in 1707 by the English composer John Eccles.

Eccles’ Semele provides fascinating insight into how opera in England might have developed after Henry Purcell’s death had Handel not moved to London in 1712, for this Semele’s musical vocabulary is indeed a slightly more advanced and refined adaptation of Purcell’s own lexicon; if one were to select a pinnacle of the English Baroque, they would be hard-pressed to find a more representative example than this. Despite his indebtedness to Purcell, Eccles achieves even greater depths of expression and extremes of emotion than his predecessor, utilizing similar forms and expanding their structure, so that Semele ends up being more than double the length of Dido and Aeneas, for example, but without once feeling overspun.

What is most remarkable about Semele is the way in which music and text receive equal attention. The delivery of William Congreve’s libretto and forward motion of the drama is never interrupted, suspended or usurped by over-composition. Director Julian Perkins and the Academy of Ancient Music in turn keep the opera moving forward, selecting tempi that lend the necessary affect to these dance-based arias and overtures while keeping the text constantly intelligible.

With world premiere recordings being issued with ever-greater frequency, it can be challenging to find those works that contribute something worthwhile to the canon, much less provide an eye-opening exploration of something revelatory, but Semele does just that. The saying “just because you can, doesn’t mean you should” is correct more often than not, but in this case, we are grateful that those behind this recording could, and did.

02 Lhomme armeL’homme armé – La Cour de Bourgogne et la musique
Studio de musique ancienne de Montréal; Andrew McAnerney
ATMA ACD2 2807 (atmaclassique.com/en)

The Court of Burgundy’s powers extended well beyond the borders of the modern French region. Its musical brilliance obviously affected the Studio de musique ancienne de Montréal: with eight composers on one CD, it is difficult to think of a major Burgundian composer not included here.

At the heart of the CD is the Missa L’homme armé, itself set 40 times from roughly 1460 to 1560. Track one is the Anonymous/Morton interpretation, featuring not only the original words to L’homme armé but also a contemporary twist willing on a crushing defeat (in three passionate and imploring voices) for those fearsome Ottoman Turks on their way to destroy Christendom.

Not everything, though, is so belligerent. Listen to the ethereal Kyrie Eleison from Antoine Busnois’ own Missa L’homme armé, uplifted by the sackbut playing of the Studio. Then be inspired by the delicate performance of Gilles Binchois’ Motet Asperges me. It may have been Binchois who taught and inspired Johannes Ockeghem, who in turn did teach Josquin des PrésThis comes out in this CD: in addition to the pieces by Binchois, the Studio performs Ockeghem’s Sanctus, a full-blooded performance combining sometimes stark singing with the Studio’s sackbuts.

As for Josquin, he is remembered by two compositions. First, Agnus Dei is performed admirably, notably in its soprano part. Then there are the five parts of Ave verum corpus. Josquin relished the more complex structure: the Studio rises to the challenge with its appropriately celestial singing. 

Josquin was a contemporary of the revolution in music printing. His sheer musical genius and the printing press ensured his influence on composers for at least a century.

Listen to 'L’homme armé – La Cour de Bourgogne et la musique' Now in the Listening Room

Back to top