01 Monteverdi UlisseMonteverdi – Il ritorno d’Ulisse in patria
Monteverdi Choir; English Baroque Soloists; John Eliot Gardiner
Soli Deo Gloria SDG730 (solideogloria.co.uk)

Few musicians have devoted themselves to the Baroque repertoire with the sustained passion of John Eliot Gardiner; and his relationship with Claudio Monteverdi’s music is unique. Gardiner launched the Monteverdi Choir in 1966 and the Monteverdi Orchestra in 1968, renaming it the English Baroque Soloists in 1976 with the switch to period instruments. This recording of one of Monteverdi’s three surviving operas was recorded in Wrocław during a 2017 tour celebrating the 450th anniversary of Monteverdi’s birth.

Il ritorno d’Ulisse in patria (1640), is based on the conclusion of Homer’s Odyssey, as Ulysses reaches home to find his wife Penelope and his lands besieged by suitors. It was composed more than 30 years after Orfeo, when the 73-year-old composer was convinced to write again for the stage at the end of a career devoted largely to composing for the church.

This is a masterful realization of the work, with Gardiner, his choir and orchestra attuned to its pageantry, drama and sheer beauty, as well as Monteverdi’s sudden shifts through a broad emotional range. In the first act, the orchestra caresses and supports the sorrowful Penelope; the second concludes with rising battle music; and in the third the choirs of Heaven and Sea are graced with the elemental clarity and grace of Monteverdi’s madrigals. Il ritorno is a key document in opera’s early history, with an increasing shift from intoned text to dramatic song: Gardiner and company’s performance is both vigorous and authentic.

03 Wagner Ring CycleWagner – Der Ring des Nibelungen
Soloists; Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra; Jaap van Zweden
Naxos 8.501403 (14 CDs + USB card; naxos.com/catalogue/item.asp?item_code=8.501403)

The conductor of this new audio recording, Jaap van Zweden, has now taken over the New York Philharmonic after being the music director of the Dallas Symphony since 2009. TV audiences recently saw him conducting the New Year’s Eve concert with the Philharmonic featuring Renée Fleming. He is also active in Europe and Asia, including Hong Kong where he has been their Philharmonic’s conductor since 2012.

This new Ring Cycle was recorded in concert performances in the Hong Kong Cultural Centre each January from 2015 to 2018. In Das Rheingold from 2015 we hear Matthias Goerne’s Wotan, Michelle DeYoung’s Fricka and Kim Begley as Loge. The 2016 Die Walküre adds Stuart Skelton as Siegmund, Heidi Melton is Sieglinde and Falk Struckmann is Hunding. The Brünnhilde is Petra Lang. Siegfried in 2017 has Simon O’Neill as Siegfried and David Cangelosi as Mime. Heidi Melton is now Brünnhilde and Falk Struckmann is Fafner and the Forest Bird is sung by Valentina Farcas. Götterdämmerung, from 2018, adds choruses of the Bamberg Symphony, the Latvian State and the HK Philharmonic with Brünnhilde now sung by Gun-Brit Barkmin, Siegfried is Daniel Brenna, Michelle DeYoung is Waltraute, Gunther is Shenyang and Hagen, who gets the very last words, is Eric Halfvarson.

For these performances, Van Zweden maintains very steady tempi and does not bury the usually unheard pulse in the music. This strengthens the continuity of events and goes far in holding our attention to the unfolding epic involving the foibles of the driven principals. The recording engineers have achieved a superb job with a wide dynamic range, no spotlighting of any instruments and maintaining a firm bass line, seating us in the concert hall for these live concert performances. The casting couldn’t be better, with impeccable, secure soloists before the Hong Kong Philharmonic that, by Götterdämmerung, has become a first class Wagner orchestra. Not quite the Vienna Philharmonic but they have only been professional since 1974.

There are many spellbinding occasions on these performances that come readily to mind. Here are just a few: The last scene of Die Walküre from Wotan’s heartbreaking farewell to Brünnhilde and then his calling upon Loge to surround his sleeping daughter in an impassable ring of fire, the ethereal Magic Fire Music; in Siegfried, the Forest Bird telling Siegfried about a beautiful sleeping woman surrounded by a circle of flames and then leading him to her; the conversation between the sleeping Hagen and his dead father, Alberich in the second act of Götterdämmerung; the Immolation scene and the redeeming, all-is-well, short epilogue that follows a momentary pause. Altogether a brilliant achievement.

The four operas are available separately but the boxed set contains the four plus a USB stick with the complete librettos in German alongside English translations, together with talks about the project with photos and interviews.

This is the second Ring Cycle from Naxos, the first consisting of live performances of New York’s Metropolitan Opera productions from 1936 to 1941 (8.501106, 11 CDs). Luminaries of the era include Schorr, Varnay, Traubel, Melchior, Flagstad and Marjorie Lawrence who rides off on Grane on January 11, 1936. A collector’s collection. Noisy.

04 Britten Death in VeniceBritten – Death in Venice
Soloists; Teatro Real Chorus and Orchestra; Alejo Pérez
Naxos 2.110577 (naxos.com)

Adapted from Thomas Mann’s 1912 novella, Death in Venice (1973) was 20th-century English composer, conductor and pianist Benjamin Britten’s final opera. Its libretto has a stark, dark plotline: Gustav von Aschenbach, a famous but failing German novelist, travels to Venice for invigorating inspiration only to find disturbing mystery, a troubling infatuation with a boy called Tadzio, internal vacillation and melancholy, cholera – and as the title states, death.

The spare narrative, however, allows librettist Myfanwy Piper and composer Britten room to meditate on a rich tapestry of grand themes, primarily through the voice of Aschenbach. These include reflections on dichotomous Apollonian vs Dionysian philosophies rooted in Nietzsche’s writing, Greek mythology and ideals, and the perilous dignity accorded even an acclaimed artist (as Britten was by this time in his career).

Propelling the drama however is the doomed homoerotic May-December longing at the core of the story. It’s lent poignant authenticity by Mann and Britten’s own biographies, underscored by Britten’s dedication of the score to Peter Pears, his longtime professional and life partner, who premiered the role of Aschenbach.

Musically, Britten’s score is a study in brilliant orchestration of refreshing invention, vigour and chamber music delicacy. Characters are deftly rendered in contrasting musical styles and genres. Italian opera buffa is parodied and Aschenbach’s vocals are supported by orchestral strings and winds. By way of contrast a five-piece percussion section provides a very adroit evocation of the timbre and texture of Balinese gamelan music – representing the “other” – underpinning all of the boy Tadzio’s stage appearances.

John Daszak is exemplary as Aschenbach, and Willy Decker’s 2014 Teatro Real, Madrid production brilliantly supports the cumulative impact of the final tragic scene of Britten’s last, emotionally resonant, opera.

05 Golijov AyreGolijov – Ayre: Live
Against the Grain Theatre; Miriam Khalil
Against the Grain Records ATG001CD (againstthegraintheatre.com)

After I heard Ayre: Live for the first time, I knew this recording was going to be one of my favourite albums of 2018. The immediacy of the live recording is always exciting and Osvaldo Golijov’s song cycle for soprano and a small chamber ensemble is beyond gorgeous – it is intimate yet powerful, piercing with emotion and mesmerizing in its tonal expression. Like the air we breathe (the album’s title means air in medieval Spanish), it transcends the boundaries between music traditions, languages and cultures.

Based on the interweaving melodies, rhythms and poetry of Arab, Christian and Sephardic Jewish culture in Spain, Golijov also weaves in his own compositional language thus making Ayre an elaborate historical and emotional narrative. Eleven songs flow inherently from one to another while the energy rises and falls effortlessly with each one. Una madre comió asado and Nani are heavenly sounding, tranquil lullabies (though the texts are implying more complex emotions). Combinations of electronica and traditional melodies in Wa Habibi makes this song surprisingly fresh and captivating. Tancas serradas a muru, with its bewitching vocals and tribal rhythms, is a whirl of primal energies and, in contrast, Kun li-guitari wataran ayyuha al-maa’, a poem spoken in Arabic, creates a wonderful aural sparseness.

The superb chamber ensemble of Toronto’s Against the Grain Theatre has a wonderful synergy with the company’s co-founder, soprano Miriam Khalil, a true star of this recording. Her immense range of colours and fascinating vocal transformations made her performance on this album both spectacular and touching.

Listen to 'Golijov – Ayre: Live' Now in the Listening Room

01 Lorelei EnsembleImpermanence
Lorelei Ensemble
Sono Luminus DSL-92226 (sonoluminus.nativedsd.com)

Impermanence is an album on a mission. The liner notes offer a lengthy essay by Beth Willer, artistic director of the nine-voice Boston-based women’s vocal group, Lorelei Ensemble. She mentions the migration of peoples, pilgrimage, the essential impermanence of existence, and the function of music “as a container of meaning,” among other topics.

Examining the old-juxtaposed-with-the-new-repertoire approach of this album, it can be grouped into four categories, beginning with the 12th-century song Portum in ultimo. Among the earliest of works in polyphonic notation, it’s preserved in a book meant for pilgrims travelling along the Camino de Santiago de Compostela.

The much larger second group consists of 15th-century motets by Guillaume Du Fay, the renowned Franco-Flemish composer, plus motets from the contested “anonymous” Turin Codex J.II.9 of Cypriot-French origin. The J.II.9 songs with their polyphonic freedom and piquant resultant harmonies reflect the remarkable fluidity of the people and cultures between the European mainland and the 15th-century French court in Cyprus.

In a third group falls the choral work Tsukimi (Moon Viewing 2013) by American composer Peter Gilbert, eliciting the Japanese celebration of the full moon in ancient Heian era poems. Eight individual songs, evocatively rendered by Gilbert, are interspersed among the motets and two Toru Takemitsu (1930-1996) Vocalises. Constituting the fourth group, these songs are from Takemitsu’s larger composition Windhorse, depicting Tibetan nomads.

The album closes with Takemitsu’s Vocalise II. It offers a satisfying tonal closing, the core of which is a quote from a Bantu lullaby, resolving the bracing modernist harmonies heard just beforehand. To my ear Lorelei Ensemble’s ambitious concept album works superbly.

02 QuartomRenaissance
ATMA ACD2 2769 (atmaclassique.com/En/Albums/AlbumInfo.aspx?AlbumID=1613)

Recorded at St. Esprit Church in Montreal, this CD celebrates Quartom’s tenth anniversary, bittersweet perhaps, with the replacement of founding tenor Gaétan Sauvageau by the accomplished Antonio Figueroa. I was interested to see that the three other members, baritones Benoit Le Blanc, Julien Patenaude, and bass-baritone Philippe Martel, were all members of children’s choirs in their earlier years, two with Les Petits Chanteurs du Mont-Royal and the other, an alumnus of La Maitrise des petits chanteurs de Québec. It is clear that something in the musical education of these singers taught them exceptional phrasing technique in performance. For this is exactly what makes this recording of pure Gregorian chant alternating with Palestrina’s polyphonic settings remarkable.

Palestrina composed in what Monteverdi referred to as “prima prattica,” a “stile antico” of pure counterpoint in deference to an earlier era. Palestrina’s elegant curves of sound and long-breathed melody never detract from the original character of Gregorian chant on which his compositions are based. He imbued the melodies with vitality by incorporating rhythmic irregularities and clean sonorities with a few well-prepared dissonances to reflect textual nuance. He was the master of creating polyphonic textures that have distinct clarity. Therefore, his a cappella motets have a similar requirement of singers performing Gregorian chant: precision intonation and sensitivity to textual phrasing throughout – both of which are evident in Quartom’s performance, in addition to their exquisitely beautiful tone.

03 Nicandro e FilinoPaolo Lorenzani – Nicandro e Fileno
Le Nouvel Opéra; Les Boreades; Francis Colpron
ATMA ACD2 2770 (atmaclassique.com/En/Albums/AlbumInfo.aspx?AlbumID=1610)

Le Nouvel Opéra and Les Boréades de Montréal are Montreal-based companies dedicated to musicologically and performatively reviving, remounting and reimagining music of the Baroque era (1600 to 1750). Clearly committed to the authenticity, accuracy and specificity of this intricate music (along with its detailed performance practices), historical musicology and creative performance coalesce here on this 2018 recording to shine a light on music that otherwise would run the risk of being relegated to the footnotes of music history.

Here, the first ever recording of Nicandro e Fileno, Paolo Lorenzani’s (1640-1713) pastoral opera for six singers that was initially performed, in Italian, in 1681 before Louis XIV at the palace of Fontainebleau, is brought to life by an aggregation of thoughtful scholars, practitioners and performers. And while there is no doubt that the ensemble, under the skillful direction of conductor and Boréades founder Francis Colpron, is dedicated to the period piece accuracy of this music, these sides are not fusty and this music is not ossified. Rather, new life has been imbued across all three acts, and the once-forgotten Italian-style opera comes alive on this beautifully captured and rendered ATMA Classique recording. The music, along with its unpacking of the still-relevant and universal themes of love, along with its trials and tribulations, brings escapist joy to general music fans and early music enthusiasts alike in these troubled times. A detailed accompanying booklet capturing extensive historical notes and the opera’s libretto is a welcome addition.

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04 Mahler Das LiedMahler – Das Lied von der Erde
Magdalena Kožená; Stuart Skelton; Bayerischen RSO; Sir Simon Rattle
BR Klassik 900172 (br-klassik.de/orchester-und-chor/br-klassik-cds/symphonieorchester/br-klassik-cd-symphonieorchester-mahler-lied-simon-rattle-100.html)

Gustav Mahler began work on his “Symphony for Tenor, Alto (or Baritone) and Orchestra” in 1907, a year marked by a series of personal and professional tragedies. Around that time he was given an anthology of Chinese Tang dynasty poetry transliterated from French to German by Hans Bethge. Captivated by the melancholy tone of these poems that so well captured his sense of resignation, he sought out early recordings on wax cylinders of authentic Chinese music and, philosophical by nature, also immersed himself in Buddhist literature. Choosing several poems from this volume he created what he covertly regarded as his ninth symphony the following summer.

The present recording is assembled from live performances conducted by Sir Simon Rattle in January of 2018, his second and unquestionably his finest recording of this work. I normally prefer a darker-voiced contralto (or baritone) in this song cycle, however Magdalena Kožená’s beautiful mezzo-soprano upper register and sensitive tonal inflections eventually won me over. Even more impressive to my mind is the heroic tenor of the Australian Stuart Skelton, whose powerful voice rides effortlessly over the massive orchestration of the opening movement, yet is capable of an agile suppleness in the lighter movements that follow. The excellent Bavarian Radio orchestra once again demonstrate their stellar reputation as a Mahler orchestra dating back to the days of Rafael Kubelík’s superb box set of the symphonies from the 1960s.

The recording is clear and close-miked with negligible extraneous noises, and text and translations are included. Of the 60 or so recordings of this work that have seen the light of day this one surely belongs among the top ten.

05 Faure Duruffle RequiemFauré; Duruflé – Requiem
Julie Bouliane; Philippe Sly; Choeur de l’Eglise St. Andrew and St. Paul; Jean-Sebastien Vallée
ATMA ACD2 2779 (atmaclassique.com/En/Albums/AlbumInfo.aspx?AlbumID=1615)

The Requiem Masses by Fauré and Duruflé prove a nice pairing on this CD. Each composed three different versions of the choral Requiem, scored for chamber or full orchestra, or with organ accompaniment as chosen and lovingly performed by Jean-Sébastian Vallée on this recording. Both composers, eschewing the operatic 19th-century Requiem settings of Berlioz and Verdi, chose instead to focus on images of rest and peace. In both masses, the highly dramatic sections of Dies irae are omitted while the uplifting Pie Jesu is retained. Both composed Libera me for baritone soloist, and in this performance, Philippe Sly so beautifully intones the humble plea, never once diminishing the powerful timbre of his voice.

Fauré composed his melodies using the Hellenic principles of clarity, balance and serenity and Duruflé, writing 60 years later, based his on the Gregorian melodies for the Mass of the Dead, imbuing them with rhythmic variation and harmonic enhancement. The pace with which the Choir of the Church of St. Andrew and St. Paul is directed on this album allows for a deeply reverent quality throughout. In the Duruflé Pie Jesu, the interweaving of mezzo-soprano Julie Boulianne with Elinor Frey’s ad libitum cello results in a beautifully warm and inviting entreaty, while it is interesting to hear Les Petits Chanteurs du Mont-Royal sing Fauré’s Pie Jesu in perfect unison, rather than performed by the traditional solo treble.

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