Beethoven - Fidelio

Kennedy; Sherratt; Coleman-Wright; Kampe; Milne; London Philharmonic Orchestra; Mark Elder

Glyndebourne GFOCD 004-06

At Grigorian.com



Debussy - Pelléas et Mélisande

Roux; Duval; Reynolds; Hoekman;

Wilbrink; Bredy; Shirley-Quirk;

Royal Philharmonic Orchestra; Vittoria Gui

Glyndebourne GFOCD 003-63

At Grigorian.com

This year the Glyndebourne Festival in Sussex, England celebrates its 75th year. This is no mean achievement considering its survival depends entirely on private funds and donations. For any artist it has always been a great honour to be invited to be the guest of the Christie family, the founders and owners of this event. There have been many improvements over the years not the least of which is the magnificent new auditorium built in 1994. Glyndebourne has always been in the forefront of recording opera. As early as the 1930’s they were doing Mozart operas on EMI like the famous Don Giovanni with Fritz Busch. This year they have begun issuing recordings under their own label and this month we are presented with two of these: an inspired Fidelio from 2006 and from the archives, a 1963 performance of Pelléas et Mélisande.

Beethoven’s only opera embodies his innermost philosophy of life, the triumph of good against evil and the journey from darkness to light. This is what the Leonore Overture #3 does by compressing the journey into perhaps the most glorious 15 minutes of music ever written. With an emphasis on the symphonic nature of the opera, Mark Elder and his London Philharmonic, with excellent pacing and throbbing energy propel the music forward and yet illuminate all the nuances. Similar to the 9th Symphony the finale is truly an explosion and a culmination of joy.

The almost faultless cast deserves much credit. Soprano Anja Kampe as the heroine sings with heartfelt passion and tenderness and occasional outbursts of sincere indignation; Tornsten Kerl, the wrongfully convicted Florestan, has a shorter but no less gruelling role and his strong heroic tenor overcomes all the difficulties. The Glyndebourne Choir also makes a tremendous contribution.

At the end of the 19th century French music was under the heavy influence of Wagner and Brahms. A fervent desire for change was in the air and the young Debussy was the right man at the right time to bring it about. With new harmonies and translucent textures he brought in a breath of fresh air with a completely new approach, l’impressionisme. His sole opera Pelléas et Mélisande is a sublime masterpiece and a pinnacle of French art. It is totally different from anything written before yet, to be honest, still owes homage to Tristan and Parsifal which Debussy admired. Its long score is delicate but of the highest inspiration and every phrase is meaningful. It moves in the atmosphere of shadows, in and out of silence, generally quiet, rarely reaching a fortissimo.

This performance from 1963 is an inspired one from the beautifully poetic impressionistic sets by Beni Montresor, through the incisive and sympathetic conducting of Vittorio Gui to the faultless, impressive cast. French soprano Denise Duval is exceptional as the fragile, semi wild creature Mélisande. Dutch baritone Hans Wilbrink with his slow awareness to love and ardent declaration is most memorable. A worthwhile listening experience.

Last but not least, an A+ for presentation of these discs: elegantly designed hardcover books, with complete quattro lingual libretto. They will be a treasure for any collector.

Janos Gardonyi


Wales - The Land of Song

Shannon Mercer; Skye Consort

Analekta AN 2 9965

At Grigorian.com

In her fourth CD for Analekta, once again the lovely soprano voice of Shannon Mercer rings clear and true, this time in a most warm and heartfelt performance of Welsh songs. As the daughter of a long-time member of the Ottawa Welsh Society, Mercer well understands music and language as the cultural glue that binds people of Welsh descent. And what fond melodies they are. In fact, Mercer attributes her choice of career to the influence Welsh song had in her young life. The imagery inherent in the poetic language along with the sweet lyrical melodies chosen for this recording have quite an emotive impact on the listener, despite the fact that no translations are provided in the liner notes. Best-known pieces on this album are the well-loved lullaby Suo Gan, as well as the poignant Dafydd a Gareg Wen (David of the White Rock) and the unrequited Bugeillo’r Gwenith Gwyn.

In arranging the accompaniments and instrumental pieces, Sean Dagher has done a marvellous job of preserving traditional elements while melding them to a more contemporary aesthetic. The Skye Consort which includes flute, violins, cello, bass, cittern, accordion and percussion adds a 17th-century Italian harp similar to the Welsh triple-harp. Beautifully played, beautifully sung.

Dianne Wells




bach_jesuBach - Jesu, Meine Freude

Agnes Zsigovics; Daniel Taylor; Benjamin Butterfield; Daniel Lichti; Ottawa Bach Choir and Baroque Orchestra;

Lisette Canton

Ottawa Bach Choir OBC2009CD


For this CD, which finds our column just in time for Easter, the Ottawa Bach Choir's conductor and founder, Lisette Canton, has chosen three works by Bach which focus on the theme of salvation through death and resurrection and which represent three distinct periods in Bach’s output. The first Cantata, BWV 4, Christ lag in Todes Banden is famous for its exquisite descending semitones. The ensemble artfully resigns itself to the recurring sighing motif and cascading counterpoint. Sandwiched between the two cantatas on this disc is one of Bach’s most famous motets, BWV 227, Jesu, meine freude.

The choir does a brilliant job with the starts and stops that represent the type of hesitant, breathless, yet joyful declaration reminiscent of someone recovering from long periods of weeping. Lastly is the Cantata, BWV 78, Jesu, der du meine Seele, the highlight of which is the soprano/alto duet sung with great agility and energy by Agnes Zsigovics and Daniel Taylor. Benjamin Butterfield and Daniel Lichti execute the dramatic recitatives and arias of this cantata beautifully. True to its name, this choir appears to make an annual pilgrimage to perform at Bach’s Thomaskirche in Leipzig. I’m sure Bach would be pleased.

Dianne Wells

Concert note: On April 25th at St. Matthew’s Anglican Church in Ottawa the Ottawa Bach Choir presents “Prelude - Europe 2009”, a concert to launch the choir's third European tour to London, Paris and Leipzig.

The Ice Age and Beyond: Songs by Canadian Women Composers

Patricia Green; Midori Koga

Blue Griffin Records BGR173

At Grigorian.com



green_unsleepingUnsleeping: Songs by Living Composers

Patricia Green; John Hess

Blue Griffin Records BGR177


The songs on these two discs were all written in the last fifty years. Patricia Green, a Canadian mezzo known especially for interpreting modern music, does full justice to these always interesting, frequently moving songs.

The Ice Age and Beyond: Songs by Canadian Women Composers” presents new and rarely heard art songs by women composers. Why just women composers? To call a disc “Songs by Canadian Men Composers” would be laughable. But it would also be unnecessary, because almost all recordings - Canadian or otherwise - contain just male composers.

In the booklet notes Green writes that Barbara Pentland “laid the path for young women composers across Canada”. Pentland’s searing, gorgeous works are visionary, and she remains one of Canada’s most important, if under-appreciated, composers. What I like best about Green’s performances of her songs is that they capture Pentland’s fierce passion. In Ice Age, Green is especially sensitive to the mood of desperation summed up in poet Dorothy Livesay’s concluding question, “Who among us dares to be righteous?”

Shifting rhythms enliven Emily Doolittle’s charming Airs of Men Long Dead. The shimmering lyricism of Isabelle Panneton’s Echo reflects the colourful imagery of the text. In City Night, Alice Ping Yee Ho explores the more percussive qualities of voice and piano. Kati Agócs uses clarinet, violin and cello accompaniment to set the medieval texts of Imagination of Their Hearts so eloquently. This is the only work described in the booklet notes, but for every work there are song texts and biographies of all involved, including the versatile pianist Midori Koga.

Unsleeping” takes its title from Jonathan Harvey’s moving Lullaby for the Unsleeping. The highlight for me is R. Murray Schafer’s Kinderlieder, written to texts by Bertold Brecht as well as two German nursery poems. Green is terrific at colouring her voice to capture the irony in Brecht's lyrics. Each image takes on symbolic meaning, like the tree that survives war-time destruction in The Poplar in Karlsplatz. Pianist John Hess is an expert accompanist throughout.

In both collections, Green approaches each text with conviction, uncovering layers of meaning. She sings convincingly in French, Spanish, Italian, German, Hungarian, and even Latin, along with English. There is a great deal of beauty in her lower and middle ranges. Too often as she goes higher she gets louder – and shriller. But even then what stands out so effectively is her dramatic power.

Pamela Margles


by Seth Estrin

Six new recital discs from a variety of great operatic singers offer opportunities to hear them in a new light – in new repertoire, with different partners, or for the first time on a recital disc.


 Until she recently gave up the role, the German soprano Diana Damrau was known as the most thrilling Queen of the Night on stage today. She has descended from the stratosphere into other Mozart roles, as heard on Mozart - Opera and Concert Arias (Virgin Classics 2 12023 2), and we are the luckier for it. Her sparkling high notes and effervescent coloratura is still heard to excellent effect on several tracks, but what is new here is the darkness and depth of her voice. It is rare that a single singer can sound so convincing in such a variety of Mozart parts – from Donna Anna to Donna Elvira to Blonde to Kostanze – but Damrau’s remarkable versatility makes her sound at home in each role. The period orchestra Le Cercle de l’Harmonie under Jérémie Rhorer provide expert support.

At Grigorian.com





 American mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato has emerged as one of the most exciting Rossini singers in recent years, but on the recital disc Furore: Opera Arias (Virgin Classics 5 19038 2) she presents an all-Handel program. DiDonato is a sensitive stylist of baroque music, and uses her rich but clear voice to great effect. For an essentially light mezzo voice, she has unusual darkness in her lower register, and is not afraid to dip into her chest voice. She gives rich, impassioned readings of the music without romanticizing it, and she ornaments de capos elaborately but with taste. Christophe Rousset and Les Talens Lyriques help make this one of the best Handel recitals in recent years.

At Grigorian.com



 Juan Diego Florez may be one of the most celebrated tenors of his generation, but with the great bulk his repertoire coming from the work of only three composers – Rossini, Donizetti and Bellini – it must be difficult for him to come up with new arias to record. So on the disc Bel Canto Spectacular (Decca 478 0515) sampling works from those same three composers we get to once again hear his nine high C’s in the famous aria from Donizetti’s Daughter of the Regiment – but this time in Italian instead of French. We also get five wonderful bel canto duets, which pair him with five fantastic singers, including Placido Domingo. With a balance of usual and the unusual repertoire, this makes a charming disc that, with the variety of singers, never gets monotonous.

At Grigorian.com






 Baritone Thomas Quastoff’s operatic recital Italian Arias (Deutsche Grammophon 4777469) is unusual because it contains only arias by Joseph Haydn – a composer famous for almost everything except his operas. But several of Haydn’s many operas have been staged in recent years, and Quasthoff makes an excellent case for continuing this trend. The disc covers selections from the dramatic operas, such as Armida, perhaps the best known of Haydn’s operas, to buffo roles in comic operas such as The World on the Moon. Quasthoff, one of the finest lieder singers of his generation, is a supremely intelligent singer, but he shows himself an excellent comedian as well. With top-rate support from the Reiburger Barockorchester, this disc provides an excellent overview of Haydn’s operas – from a baritone’s perspective, at least.

At Grigorian.com




 Everything René Pape offers on Gods, Kings and Demons (Deutsche Grammophon 477 6408) will be new to listeners, since this is his debut solo recording. But Pape has for some years been considered the outstanding operatic bass of his generation, with a burnished, warm sound that is commanding without being simply a wall of dark sound. This disc showcases his versatility as an artist – the Wagner, Verdi, and Gounod tracks stand out in particular. Sometimes extended scenes can sound out of place on recital discs, but Sebastian Weigle, conducting the superb Staatskapelle Dreden, gives both the longer and shorter selections unusual shape and dimension.

At Grigorian.com








 Whether we really need another recital disc from Russian soprano Anna Netrebko is perhaps not a fair question, but her latest disc Souvenirs (Deutsche Grammophon 4777639), in what by now must be the most substantial discography of any soprano of her generation, fails to make a convincing case for itself. Netrebko presents this disc as a selection of her favourite songs and light arias from operas and operettas. It is, for the most part, a lovely if somewhat insubstantial selection. Netrebko’s dark, plangent voice is skillfully deployed to create several beautiful moments. But the voice sounds slightly looser than on earlier discs, and her diction is poorer than ever. Besides the eclectic repertoire, there is nothing here that cannot be heard to better effect on Netrebko’s earlier discs.

At Grigorian.com







 Be Thou My Vision

Oriana Women’s Choir; William Brown

Independent WRC8-8072

While this fifth recording by Oriana consists of popular hymns, anthems and psalm settings, it is a treat to hear them set for women’s voices with six new arrangements commissioned by the choir by John Beckwith, Eleanor Daley, Derek Holman, Leonard Enns, Jon Washburn and Ruth Watson Henderson. Added to the stellar list of Canadian composers represented on this CD are psalm settings by Srul Irving Glick, two of which are sung in Hebrew. The women’s voices blend superbly and this repertoire is performed with skilful beauty thanks to the direction of William Brown, with expert accompaniment by James Bourne on piano or Michael Bloss on organ. Two absolute gems stand out on this recording: Fairest Lord Jesus arranged by Leonard Enns and All Things Bright and Beautiful in an arrangement by Mack Wilberg. Both employ the services of Leslie Newman, flute and Clare Scholtz, oboe with parts creatively interwoven through the fabric of these well-known melodies. Add to that the light-hearted There’s a Little Wheel A-Turnin’ in my Heart (arr. Robert A. Harris) and a heartfelt Kumbaya (arr. Paul Sjolund) at the end of the recording; this is an offering sure to inspire the spirit.

Dianne Wells


 Bellini - La Sonnambula

Bartoli; Flórez; D’Arcangelo; Orchestra La Scintilla; Alessandro De Marchi

Decca 478 1084

The raison d’être of any recording of Bellini’s La Sonnambula, one of the most charming bel canto operas, is a great coloratura soprano. This recording offers something different – a great coloratura mezzo. Cecilia Bartoli is a remarkable singer, commanding a huge range, stunning agility, and overwhelming dramatic inclinations. But her idiosyncratic mannerisms – excessive breathiness, quiet cooing noises, heavily aspirated coloratura – are cloying, especially when she is allowed to indulge in them as often as here. While she makes great efforts to lighten and soften her voice, her rich mezzo with its tightly-wound vibrato is the wrong colour for the sleepwalking Amina. And transposing three scenes down to accommodate her lower range makes the recording more about Bartoli than Bellini.

No transpositions are needed for tenor Juan Diego Flórez, who gives one of the finest performances of Elvino on record. Flórez sails through this difficult part with accuracy and élan, confirming his reputation as the finest bel canto tenor on stage today. Ildebrando D’Arcangelo gives a warm, commanding performance as Rodolfo, though the smaller roles are taken by singers of lesser talents. The Orchestra La Scintilla of the Zurich Opera House provides authentic period instrument accompaniment, and is beautifully conducted by Alessandro De Marchi. Though there is much here to enjoy, those looking for a recording of the opera in modern sound would be better off with Natalie Dessay in the title role on a recent Virgin Records release.

Seth Estrin

Concert Note: Orchestra La Scintilla accompanies Cecilia Bartoli in a program celebrating the life and art of the great 19th century opera singer Maria Malibran, a superstar of her era and inspiration for such composers as Rossini and Donizetti, at Roy Thomson Hall on March 1.




 Harrison Birtwistle - The Minotaur

Tomlinson; Reuter; Rice; Watts; Langridge; Royal Opera House Orchestra and Chorus; Antonio Pappano

OpusArte OA 1000 D

Harrison Birtwistle’s most recent opera created a sensation when it was premiered at London’s Royal Opera House last spring. This DVD, recorded during the run, shows why – and why Birtwistle is generally considered the leading composer of his generation in England.

In this telling of the ancient Greek myth, the Minotaur - half human, half beast – develops a soul. By the end, he comes to realize that he must die unloved because his actions are so vile. As John Tomlinson sang the Minotaur’s dying aria, I actually felt sympathy for this lonely guy just looking for love – Tomlinson’s acting is as riveting as his singing.

Ariadne is not merely devious here. She is complicit in her half-brother’s murderous rampages. She does help Theseus into the labyrinth to kill the Minotaur, but only after the beast has dispatched the twelve young Innocents sent from Athens as annual tribute. And not without bargaining with Theseus – the robust Johan Reuter – to take her away with him. Christine Rice’s nuanced performance justifies the composer keeping Ariadne on stage for the whole opera.

Birtwistle’s pacing is expert. His angular but lyrical vocal lines have a natural flow, and he sets David Harsent’s poetic libretto so that the voices can project over the colourful, often violent orchestrations. The staging is powerful, although during the graphic on-stage rape and slaughter of the youths I did wish I was seeing this opera from a seat in the Royal Opera House instead of up close on this DVD.

It is heartening – and rare – to be able to watch a composer and librettist come on stage to accept cheering curtain calls. When Theseus claims that only the shedding of blood can stop bloodshed, little does he understand how futile that is. This landmark production reminds us how opera can so effectively provide searing commentary on our times.

Pamela Margles







Back to top