05_musica_intimaInto Light
Musica Intima
ATMA ACD2 2613

The outstanding vocal ensemble Musica Intima is based in Vancouver, a city with a rich tradition of exploration in choral music. Musica Intima’s innovations are many. It is a youthful chorus of 12 outstanding professional musicians who perform without a conductor; instead, members have developed their own signals for musical intercommunication. They sing with pure, vibrato-less tone, and “Into Light” demonstrates their ability to sound effortless in the most difficult music.

There is much talk today of “spirituality in music” but do we know what we are talking about? For me, spirituality lies as much as anything in the way things happen musically, the processes in the work and how we experience them. At least, “Into Light” is to me a spiritual collection both in texts, religious or otherwise, and in musical settings by familiar and lesser-known Canadian composers. There is the sense of discovery, of seeing-beyond, in Three Hymns from R. Murray Schafer’s The Fall Into Light. And in the mystery of deep, dark, complex textures in Jocelyn Morlock’s Exaudi. Claude Vivier’s pleading, dissonant Jesus erbarme dich seems to come from a startlingly-evoked wilderness, while Imant Raminsh’s tonal, harmonically-subtle Ave Verum Corpus keeps settling in an uncanny way on the “right” added-note chords, inversions, and spacings as it builds to an ecstatic climax.

“Into Light” was recorded beautifully by the team of producer Liz Hamel, engineer Don Harder, and digital editor Jonathan Quick. A must-buy for fans of choral music and of all-around musical excellence.

04_wachnerJulian Wachner -
Complete Choral Music Vol.1
Elora Festival Singers; Noel Edison
Naxos 8.559607

Not quite a household name, American composer/conductor Julian Wachner is now in his early 40s and has built himself a stylistic reputation for eclecticism. This recording by the Elora Festival Singers is an example of just how broad Wachner’s stylistic embrace can be. It is also another example of the artistically tenacious style that has become the hallmark of the EFS.

Because we most often associate a composer with an identifiable vocabulary or language, it’s a bit odd to find someone so stylistically diverse yet so secure in his writing. Wachner’s command of choral techniques and effects is solid and polished. The EFS’s ability to meet the exacting demands of this music makes this recording altogether remarkable.
Wachner describes his choral writing as “text-driven”. How important and effective this is becomes evident as one plays through the 19 tracks of sacred and secular works. Poetic texts by E.E. Cummings and Rilke deliver fanciful, sensitive and experimental moments always linked to a detectably romantic undercurrent.

Wachner’s sacred music, by contrast, may appeal more to the structured expectations of its audience but is no less inventive than his art song. Perhaps the most colourful work on this recording is his Missa Brevis. Each of its four sections is clearly cast in a unique form with considerable variation in ensemble colour and tempo. Most importantly, Wachner never loses touch with the “other-worldliness” that needs to be at the heart of all sacred music.

Naxos has produced a fine recording with the EFS, which bodes well for their projected “complete choral music” series. ATMA plans a release in the fall of more Wachner music – for organ and orchestra.
Alex Baran

03_orff_antigoneCarl Orff - Antigonae
Martha Mödl; Marianne Radev;
William Dooley; Carlos Alexander;
Bavarian Radio Chorus and Orchestra; Wolfgang Sawallisch
Profil PH09066

There’s a lot more to the Bavarian composer Carl Orff than the Gothic chorus of ‘O Fortuna’ that launched this refractory composer’s career in Nazi Germany in 1937 and has since reduced his reputation to a 15 second pop culture icon. The rowdy monks and easy virtues of Carmina Burana pale in comparison to Orff’s later, more demanding works which find their voice in the pre-Christian era.

Following his compromised war years Orff began a trilogy of tragedies with this setting of Sophocles’ Antigonae in the German translation by the Romantic poet Friederich Hölderlin. Much of the vocal writing is highly declamatory and unaccompanied, evoking the austere dramatic practice of ancient Greece. The drama is scored for a strikingly exotic ensemble of six each of trumpets, oboes, flutes and double basses, four harps, six pianos played by a dozen pianists and a panoply of percussion. Orff keeps these forces in reserve much of the time but when they weigh in the results are spectacular. In hindsight, the ritualistic character of this 1949 work presages the music theatre of contemporary minimalism.

The present recording features the commanding presence of contralto Martha Mödl as Antigonae and a stellar cast of male voices led by the great Wolfgang Sawallisch in a Bavarian Radio live broadcast from 1958. The early stereo tape, only recently obtained from the Mödl estate, is astoundingly well preserved and vivid and the performance, closely supervised by the composer, is consistently riveting. Sadly, no libretto is provided and the synopsis is quite useless.

02_meyerbeer_crocaitoMeyerbeer - Il crociato in Egitto
Teatro La Fenice; Emmanuel Villaume
Naxos 8.660245-47

A great deal of what is known as “French Grand Opera” has Italian (Verdi’s “Don Carlos”) or German roots. Case in point for the latter – the output of Giacomo Meyerbeer (born Jakob Beer near Berlin). Known to today’s opera goers from a handful of showcase arias (“Shadow Song” from Dinorah, “O Paradis” from L’Africaine), Meyerbeer was in mid-nineteenth century the king of the genre. A direct musical descendant of Rossini, an inspiration to Bellini and Verdi, Meyerbeer’s operas were extraordinary triumphs.

Much of the credit for the present-day obscurity of his work goes to the relentless campaign waged against him by Wagner. Motivated in equal parts by professional jealousy and anti-Semitism, Wagner derided and undermined Meyerbeer at every turn. It is then great to see the Master’s operas produced again. “The Crusader in Egypt” previous to its 2007 production at la Fenice was not staged for over 100 years. That alone would make this disc set worth owning, but then there are the performances. Even though Patricia Ciofi is a darling of the Venetian crowd, having heard her live in La Traviata, I have to admit I am not a fan. Her wobbly and frequently shrill soprano does warm up as the opera progresses, but the true revelation in this recording is Michael Maniaci. The role of Armano, once sung by the legendary Giuditta Pasta, offers him a great opportunity to showcase his unusual, beautiful voice. With a solid cast and great choral scenes, this disc set is highly recommended.

01_pollySamuel Arnold - Polly
Aradia; Kevin Mallon
Naxos 8.660241

This is a thorough and charming recording of the 50 rather slight musical numbers written and arranged for the little-known sequel to John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera. The newly-published edition of the score is a labour of love by Robert Hoskins, a musicologist on faculty at the New Zealand School of Music in Wellington. The opera follows Polly Peachum to the West Indies as she seeks out MacHeath and the score follows a similar “ballad opera” blueprint, offering famous tunes of the day paired with literal and sometimes clumsy lyrics describing the characters’ predicaments.

Polly is boldly subtitled “an Opera”, written by a learned English composer/scholar who was known for his mastery of providing incidental music for plays in the latter half of the 18th century. In the end, what makes opera interesting and compelling is thematic development and poetic imagery, both in text and music, and both are missing in this piece to a great degree.

In the latest addition to its extensive Naxos discography, the Toronto-based Aradia Ensemble, directed by Irish violinist Kevin Mallon, sounds warm and tidy in their accompaniments of the short songs, while in the instrumental numbers – the overture and dance suites of Pirates and Indians – they are given a little more opportunity to shine. The local singers turn in spirited and lyrical performances, notably soprano Eve Rachel McLeod, mezzo Marion Newman, tenor Lawrence Wiliford and baritone Jason Nedecky, all of whose diction paves the way to a greater understanding of the story.

05_norgard_wolfliPer Nørgård – Der gottliche Tivoli
Stadttheater Bern; Dorian Keilhack
Dacapo 6.220572-73

Composer Per Nørgård wrote in February 2007 how his visit to an exhibition with works of Adolf Wölfli marked a turning point in his own compositional sensibilities “...I experienced the encounter of Wölfli’s chaotic art as a mental dive into a different, dark world – eerie, unpredictable, but fascinating and above all highly specific”. The opera Der gottliche Tivoli (The Divine Circus) is best described in this same manner – the operatic rendition of Wölfli’s life is mind-boggling in its musicality.

This is not easy listening – there are no clear cut operatic arias where the singers can showcase their virtuosity. In fact, the real operatic diva here is the percussion-heavy orchestration. The opening prelude (performed brilliantly by Hans-Kristian Kjos Sørensen) is identical to the fourth movement of Nørgård’s solo percussion work, “I Ching”. Throughout the opera, the six percussionists in the orchestral ensemble are key players. There are atonal melodies to support Nørgård’s libretto (which is based on Wölfli’s own writings) but the rhythms best describe Wölfli’s schizophrenic descent and the calmer artistic periods of his life. Touching is Nørgård’s choral arrangement of Wölfli’s own folksong melody at the end of opera.

The vocal soloists, under the direction of conductor Dorian Keilhack, are superb in this high quality live 2008 performance from Stadttheater Bern. Der gottliche Tivoli is a difficult yet intriguing adventure in the life of a troubled artist and the curious composer who was moved by his artistry.

04_Keenlyside_schubertLive at Wigmore Hall – Songs by Schubert, Wolf, Fauré and Ravel Simon Keenlyside; Malcolm Martineau;

Wigmore Hall WHLive 0031

The operatic baritone, as a rule, gets upstaged. It is the voice of villains, fathers, and older brothers. The tenor usually ends up in the spotlight and even in operas where the baritone is the central character, it is as an anti-hero (Hamlet, Robert Oppenheimer in “Dr. Atomic”). We are fortunate to live in times when there are several world-class baritones around who, aside from making appearances on stages around the planet also record their voices for our enjoyment. I have shared with the readers my feelings about the brilliant Thomas Quasthoff and Gerald Finley, so it’s time to wholeheartedly recommend Simon Keenlyside.

During recent performances of Ambroise Thomas’ Hamlet at the MET, Keenlyside in the title role overcame the insipid set and not fully cooked production and with the power of his voice transformed the opera into an intimate recital. Here, on record from Wigmore Hall, he offers the Keenlyside treatment to a sampling of lieder. His voice, aside from power and projection, possesses the agreeable timbre that’s impossible to describe, yet instantly recognizable. The singing is effortless, as if it were to him the most natural thing, like breathing. Keenlyside works very well with accompaniment, be it a piano or a full orchestra. Here, Malcolm Martineau deserves a special mention of his own. And to think, that at one time this gifted singer was considering a career in zoology, which he studied at Cambridge – the animals’ loss is most definitely our gain!


Marianne Fiset; Marie-Eve Scarfone;
Orchestre Radio-Canada Musique;
Jean-Philippe Tremblay
Analekta AN 2 9962

Ophélie – Lieder et Melodies
Marianne Fiset; Louis-Philippe Marsolais;

Michael Mahon
ATMA ACD2 2628


The province of Quebec has had of late its disproportionate share of great young vocalists. It could be argued that the commitment to culture and classical music is much stronger there and a greater number of competitions and musical festivals allow the young new stars to shine brighter. It is not just a funding issue, however. The artistic sensibility of both the artists and the audiences there is different. Frequently, European artists make Montreal or Lanaudière their first foray into North America. You can call it a certain je ne sais quoi, but it seems to be working. Case in point – Marianne Fiset. To say that the young soprano burst onto the scene is to understate it. Four awards in a young vocalist category and a Juno nomination for her first record “Melodiya”, a collection of Russian songs and operatic excerpts on the Analekta label, speak for themselves.

On her ATMA disc, “Ophélie”, Fiset lets her voice shine – literally. Juxtaposed against the brilliantly played horn of Louis-Philippe Marsolais, the young Quebecer’s beautiful instrument dialogues through a thoughtful selection of music by Berlioz, Donizetti, Strauss, Schubert and Lachner. The interpretations are engaged, full of understanding and delicacy and the rare combination of horn and voice delights the ear. Much as her Juno nomination is well deserved for “Melodiya”, “Ophélie” (recorded 6 months later) showcases a young artist whose craft is getting better with each outing. Bravo!

02_carissimi_oratoriosCarissimi – Oratorios
Les Voix Baroques
ATMA ACD2 2622

Charles Darwin wouldn’t be the least surprised by the evolution of early music performance practice. After emerging from the post-romantic brine with proto feet and oh-so-strict ideas about how things must sound, the species now displays an elegance of balance and sensibility that may have brought us to the pinnacle of the art form.

Les Voix Baroques is an ensemble of young voices with a remarkable ability to create startling colours in ensemble passages. Only artful listening can make this happen – obviously something the members of Les Voix do extremely well. These four Carissimi oratorios have far less chorus than solo material, so the shift in texture from solo passages to harmonically rich part singing is dramatic and highly effective.

The singers’ solo work also merits comment. We’ve placed much value on straight tone (vibrato-free) singing for early music repertoire, and there’s certainly plenty of it in this recording. Unusual, however, is the freedom for individual singers to move into a vibrato at specific points in phrases. This contrast between vocal styles gives emphasis to key moments in a text or musical line. It’s a wonderful effect and feels quite natural.

Particularly lovely is Suzie Leblanc’s “Plorate filii Israel”. Her vocal style is immediately recognizable and exquisitely captures the anguish of the plaintive text.

The eight member instrumental ensemble is superb in its supportive role and relishes its several orchestral moments. They are remarkably consistent in their early music tuning (temperament) teasing us with harmonic intervals placed just slightly askew of where our modern ear expects them to be.

A very satisfying disc… Viva Les Voix Baroques!

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