02 Chansons d amourChansons d’amour d’Acadie et de France
Choeur Louisbourg; Skye Consort; Monique Richard
ATMA ACD2 2776 (atmaclassique.com)

New Brunswick’s Louisbourg Choir celebrated its tenth anniversary in this collaboration with the Skye Consort, a gifted early music ensemble whose mandate is to craft their own contemporary arrangements of seldom-heard vocal and instrumental pieces. For the first section of this recording, cittern-player Seán Dagher has arranged a number of charming selections from the Chansons folkloriques d’Acadie-La fleur du rosier and Chansons d’Acadie collections. Songs of love, travel, adventure and everyday life are delightfully and unreservedly performed by this accomplished choir, interspersed with spirited instrumentals by the ensemble.

The second half of the recording features chansons by little-known composer Jacotin Le Bel (1495-1556), who served in the royal court of France during the reigns of François I and Henri II. Here, the choir shines as director Monique Richard deftly leads them through the complexities of vocal polyphony and luxuriant voicings reminiscent of Josquin des Prés. In these renderings, one appreciates the small size of the chorus. With four or five to each vocal part, the singers are better able to navigate the fluidity of long melismas and realize greater clarity of text. Again, the Skye Consort intersperses with enchanting interludes.

04 BeardsleeBethany Beardslee sings Schubert; Schumann; Brahms
Bethany Beardslee; Richard Goode; Lois Shapiro
Bridge Records 9504 (bridgerecords.com)

The American soprano Bethany Beardslee, perhaps best known for her work with many of the major figures of 20th-century composition – most notably her interpretations of the work of the Second Viennese school and the American composer Milton Babbitt – tackles a decidedly Romantic compositional set on this 2018 Bridge release of a set of mid-1980s recordings. Although Beardslee is on record eschewing music that is simply entertainment and for the masses (articulating a similar proclamation to the 19th-century French slogan “Art for Art’s Sake” with her 1961 declaration, “Music is for the musicians”), Beardslee reveals herself to be a sensitive and appropriate interpreter of these Romantic-era masters.

Well accompanied by the fine pianists Richard Goode and Lois Shapiro, modernism be damned, as Beardslee teases out the subtle nuances and effervescent rhythmic feeling of these composers, particularly so on Franz Schubert’s bridging work between the Classical and Romantic eras. Of note here is the beautiful minor lied Gretchen am Spinnrade, which reminds listeners of the fact that the Faust legend remains relevant fodder for interpretation and exploration. With able accompaniment and clarity of recording, these compositions are not presented as ossified period-piece repertoire, but rather joyful texts capable of lifting the spirit.

01 Bach pour LutherBach – Pour Luther: Cantatas 76; 79; 80
Brunet; Taylor; Gagné; Blumberg; Montréal Baroque; Eric Milnes
ATMA ACD2 2407 (atmaclassique.com)

A glorious capture from June 2016 at the Église Saint-Augustin, Mirabel in Québec, this new ATMA Classique recording features some of Johann Sebastian Bach’s most beloved religious work. Duke Ellington’s sacred output aside, this body of Bach’s work arguably presents the greatest blending of the artistic with the spiritual, wherein artistic intentions are done explicitly as an article of faith and a testament to devotion.

Bach’s music is simultaneously ornate with specific detail (representing his faith) and straightforward in its clarity of purpose and messaging. To translate these intentions with creativity and respect is no easy task, but Eric Milnes – period music scholar, performer and conductor – does that and so much more when bolstered by a supremely talented group of Canada’s early music performers (who often band together as part of Montréal Baroque for that city’s annual early music festival).

The decision to use four vocalists (Hélène Brunet, Michael Taylor, Philippe Gagné and Jesse Blumberg) to sing the chorus portions of these cantatas imbues a resonant tonal clarity to the recording, while representing an admirable blend of musicological scholarship and creative decision making. Well-conceived and creatively inspired, this disc is a valuable addition to ATMA’s goal of releasing Bach’s entire body of sacred cantatas – and one that maintains their high standard of recording.

02 Handel AcisHandel – Acis and Galatea
Lucy Crowe; Allan Clayton; Benjamin Hulett; Neal Davies; Jeremy Budd; Early Opera Company; Christian Curnyn
Chandos, Chaconne CHSA 0404 (2) (chandos.net)

Acis and Galatea is a masque in one act, first performed in 1718 at Cannons, the summer residence of James Brydges, the Earl of Carnarvon. The text is anonymous (it is generally thought to be by John Gay, Alexander Pope and John Hughes), but it is ultimately based on an episode in Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Brydges employed a number of musicians, including five singers: a soprano, three tenors and a baritone. That unusual formation fits Acis and Galatea (a second soprano is needed for the initial and concluding choruses).

The work begins with a celebration of the pastoral life. The sea nymph Galatea loves the shepherd Acis. Their happiness comes to an abrupt end when the Cyclops Polyphemus, after a disastrous attempt to woo Galatea, kills Acis. After lamenting that death Galatea celebrates the transformation of the dead Acis into the living river flowing from Mount Etna to the sea. That of course represents the metamorphosis that completes the shape of the work.

There have been some successful earlier recordings. My own favourite has always been the Arkiv disc under John Eliot Gardiner, in which Norma Burrowes sings an absolutely luminous Galatea. On this new recording, Lucy Crowe is also very fine in the part. Orchestral accompaniment is excellent and special mention should be made of the sopranino recorder part (Ian Wilson) in Hush, ye pretty warbling choir!

03 Lili BoulangerLili Boulanger – Hymne au Soleil: Choral Works
Orpheus Vokalensemble; Michael Alber
Carus 83.489 (carus-verlag.com)

Although largely eclipsed by her older sister, the influential pedagogue, Nadia, composer Lili Boulanger produced a small body of astonishingly brilliant work in her tragically all-too-short life comparable to virtually anything written in 20th-century France. Such was the impact of her oeuvre that had she lived even a little longer than her 24 years, it’s almost certain that she would have become one of the century’s greatest composers.

The short choral works collected together on Hymne au Soleil present Boulanger – a devout Catholic – in a meditative and spiritual state, pouring a deeply religious intensity into this music. The crowning glory of this selection of 15 works is Psaume XXIV (Psalm 24), a declamatory cry of jubilation for multi-part chorus and tenor soloist (Davide Fior), in which powerful brass-like writing and modal harmonies provide a raw, primordial edge. Just as fine a piece is Soir sur la plaine, in which soprano Sonja Bűhler, tenor Joachim Steckfuß and baritone Christos Pelekanos solo as the chorus joins in this highly personal creation of great solemnity that resembles Fauré in its harmonies, if not in its music.

An overwhelming sense of mystery pervades this music – there are hints of plainsong – suggesting a deeply felt awe at the power of God’s presence. The Orpheus Vokalensemble, directed by Michael Alber – with pianist Antonii Baryshevskyi – create a dramatic atmosphere bringing out the richly varied sonorities of each piece with subtlety and restraint.

04 Faure IntegralGabriel Fauré – Intégrale des mélodies pour voix et piano
Hélène Guilmette; Julie Boulianne; Antonio Figueroa; Marc Boucher; Olivier Godin
ATMA ACD2 2741 (atmaclassique.com)

ATMA’s new set of Gabriel Fauré’s mélodies offers a fresh approach to one of the most glorious collections of songs by a single composer. These songs are – not surprisingly – frequently recorded. But this complete set is the first to pay particular attention to their historical circumstances. The results are illuminating – and gorgeous.

Each of these 108 songs has been recorded in its original key, by a singer with the voice type Fauré specifically had in mind. To hear the songs with the colour and pitch Fauré intended is, for me, revelatory. The piano is French, an Érard made in 1859, just two years before Fauré wrote his first song. The pitch has been lowered to A435, which was then standard. What’s more, the songs are presented in the order Fauré wrote them. This chronological pathway through these songs, following the lead of the still-wonderful landmark Ameling-Souzay-Baldwin set from 44 years ago, remains the most effective way to approach them. More recent collections tend to group the songs by theme, relinquishing an invaluable opportunity to show how Fauré’s music evolved throughout his long, groundbreaking career.

The five musicians here – all Canadians, all from Québec – capture Fauré’s idiomatic style in truly memorable performances. Mezzo-soprano Julie Boulianne gives such a sumptuously nuanced performance of the early Au bord de l’eau (At the water’s edge) that when she sings “to feel love in the face of all that passes away,” you experience the lovers’ doubts just as forcefully as their longings. In Clair de Lune (Moonlight), the first of Fauré’s magnificent settings of Verlaine, tenor Antonio Figueroa finds just the right balance between ardour and serenity to evoke fountains sobbing with ecstasy in the calm moonlight. Pianist Olivier Godin elicits sublime colours from Fauré’s unsettling piano part.

Baritone Marc Boucher, artistic director of this mammoth project, suffuses the dreamy melodic lines of En Sourdine (Muted) with profound care for the text and elegant phrasing. His tenderness is utterly moving, even when his voice shows some unsteadiness. It takes a singer as expressive as soprano Hélène Guilmette to penetrate the recitative-like rhythmic patterns and distilled chromatic harmonies of Reflets dans l’eau (Reflections in the water) and reveal the enthralling melodic arc of this late masterpiece.

The informative booklet notes by Jacques Bonnaire are given in French and English. But the texts, unfortunately, appear only in the original French (or English in the case of the rarely heard Mélisande’s Song), without translations.

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05 Cradle Will RockMarc Blitzstein – The Cradle Will Rock
Opera Saratoga; John Mauceri
Bridge Records (bridgerecords.com)

On June 16, 1937, the evening of the scheduled premiere of Marc Blitzstein’s The Cradle Will Rock, Blitzstein, the producers, director Orson Welles, singers, musicians and ticketholders found the theatre padlocked, a reaction to Blitzstein’s anti-capitalist opera. Welles was undeterred: an unoccupied theatre and piano were rented and the opera, minus orchestra, sets and costumes, was performed with Blitzstein at the piano, the cast singing from the audience.

This, the first complete recording of Blitzstein’s original score, is from 2017 performances by Opera Saratoga in Saratoga Springs, New York. Blitzstein’s music for his self-written libretto, a bitter satire on America’s corruption by capitalism, was clearly influenced by Kurt Weill’s acerbic scores for The Threepenny Opera and The Rise and Fall of the city of Mahagonny.

Set in “Steeltown, USA,” the arrest and court appearance of anti-union protestors, mistaken by police for pro-union activists, provides the frame for flashbacks revealing how Mr. Mister, the steel factory’s owner, controls all the city’s institutions, while ordering the fatal bombing of union headquarters. Union leader Larry Foreman, arrested for making a speech, sings that when organized labour’s “wind blows…the lords and their lackeys…in the nice big cradle” will find that “the cradle will rock.”

Conductor John Mauceri elicits exuberant, 1930s-style performances from the large cast and orchestra. The 2-CD set also includes an archival recording of Blitzstein (who died in 1964) recounting the events of that now-legendary opening night, adding significantly to the documentation of this iconic 20th-century opera.

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06 Notorious RBGNotorious RBG in Song
Patrice Michaels; Juang-Hao Huang
Cedille CDR 90000 178 (cedillerecords.org)

Marking the 25th anniversary of Ruth Bader Ginsberg’s appointment to the US Supreme Court, this recording honours an 85-year old champion of equal rights who continues to vigorously oppose injustice in an environment of increasingly reactionary conservatism. The title, Notorious RBG, a famous meme (and play on the late rapper Notorious B.I.G.), stuck to Ginsberg after her 2013 dissent in response to a rollback of voting-rights protections.

This recording features works by five American composers celebrating Ginsberg’s family and professional life. Family is, after all, at the heart of this project. Cedille Records is Ginsberg’s son James’ label. Soprano and daughter-in-law Patrice Michaels is the ardent album performer and composer of the nine-part cycle The Long View, which gives us a deeply personal glimpse into Ginsberg’s life as daughter, wife, mother, lawyer, academic and public figure. Composer Lori Laitman’s setting of Wider Than the Sky by Emily Dickinson, was performed as a tribute to Ginsberg on her 80th birthday. Canadian composer Vivian Fung’s Pot Roast à la RBG is a lighthearted play on the judge’s domestic life, while Stacy Garrop’s My Dearest Ruth poignantly recalls the farewell letter written by Ginsberg’s late husband. The final piece, You are Searching in Vain for a Bright Solution, is an aria from Derrick Wang’s comic opera Scalia/Ginsberg, celebrating the unlikely friendship of two colleagues able to find common ground despite oppositional viewpoints. A tribute to the intelligence and humanity of this phenomenal woman.

01 Beethoven MissaBeethoven – Missa Solemnis
Ann-Helen Moen; Roxana Constantinescu; James Gilchrist; Benjamin Bevan; Bach Collegium Japan; Masaaki Suzuki
Bis BIS-2321 SACD (bis.se)

Masaaki Suzuki has made a large number of recordings, both as a keyboard player and as the conductor of the Bach Collegium Japan. Many of these are of works by J.S. Bach (they include a complete set of the cantatas) but Suzuki has ranged further and has recorded Handel’s Messiah, Monteverdi’s Vespers and, more recently, Mozart’s Mass in C Minor.

Beethoven wrote two masses: the Missa Solemnis Op.123 and the Mass in C, Opus 86. In the past I have much preferred the latter since the Missa Solemnis seemed to me pompous and overblown. Well, one of the advantages of being a CD reviewer is that it forces one to re-examine what is often no more than a prejudice. This is a passionate, full-blooded performance leading up to a beautiful Agnus Dei.

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