02 WinterreiseSchubert – Winterreise
Randall Scarlata; Gilbert Kalish
Bridge Records 9494 (bridgerecords.com)

It was the great lieder exponent and baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, who put possibly the most indelible stamp on one of Schubert’s most famous song cycles. Over the course of Wilhelm Müller’s 24 poems Winterreise describes grief over lost love which progressively gives way to more general existential despair and resignation. The beloved is directly mentioned only halfway into the work and the literal winter’s journey is arguably in part allegorical for this psychological and spiritual one. Wintry imagery of cold, darkness and barrenness consistently serve to mirror the feelings of the isolated wanderer.

With wonderful control, Randall Scarlata’s big dramatic voice clearly grasps every subtlety of the various shades of gray and black described by Müller’s dark poetry. Scarlata breathes life into the rejected lover on the verge of madness, as we follow his lonely peregrinations through the snowbound landscape. Several tenors have played the role, and some believe the contrast between vocal tone and meaning has enhanced the drama. But Scarlata’s dark-chocolate-like baritone epitomizes the darkness in the work perfectly.

Pianist Gilbert Kalish is no shrinking violet either. Although one does not have to wait very long to experience his fulsome participation in the cycle, the Einsamkeit vignette is a superb example of the perfect partnership he strikes with Scarlata as Kalish emerges from the shadows cast by the baritone to dramatize the cruel and unsympathetic fate with forceful emotional veracity.

03 Caroline GelinasConfidences
Caroline Gélinas; Olivier Godin
ATMA ACD2 2781 (atmaclassique.com)

Mezzo-soprano Caroline Gélinas, having recently received the honour of Révélation Radio-Canada in the classical category, is, as an alumna of Atelier Lyrique de l’Opéra de Montréal, already known for her “magnetic stage presence, rich timbre and authentic and moving interpretations.” And listening to the emotively complex repertoire chosen for this debut solo recording, one couldn’t agree more. Having chosen to sing the roles of strong women acting ingeniously in difficult situations and tragic circumstances, Gélinas demonstrates an enormous dramatic range whilst maintaining exquisite vocal tone. As the three songs of Ravel’s Shéhérazade progress, the singer increases the intensity to portray the storyteller’s ingenious effort to prolong her life. For Debussy’s Trois Chansons de Bilitis, her voice floats freely as if in a dream over a more structured accompaniment, beautifully executed by pianist Olivier Godin. Gedichte der Königin Maria Stuart by Robert Schumann is a song cycle which spans 26 years of Mary Stuart’s life, from young girl to mother to imprisoned queen. Gélinas demonstrates a poignantly exquisite tenderness in the last movement as Mary prays while awaiting execution.

As a final offering on this recording, Gélinas tackles, and does great justice to, one of Maureen Forrester’s favourite cycles, The Confession Stone by Robert Fleming, based on poems by playwright and teacher Owen Dobson. Gélinas deftly changes character with each segment, portraying Mary, Joseph, Mary Magdalene, Jesus, Judas and God.

04 the SixteenSacred and Profane: Benjamin Britten; William Cornysh
The Sixteen; Harry Christophers
CORO COR16159 (thesixteen.com)

The music on this disc by The Sixteen, the United Kingdom-based choir and period instrument orchestra founded by Harry Christophers, includes work from various recordings that date back to 1991. Guided by Christophers, The Sixteen displays a technical command of polyphony and counterpoint matched only by the eloquence of their singers, memorably arrayed in this sacred and secular music from William Cornysh and Benjamin Britten.

Sacred and Profane is a sublime exaltation of the human voice in formal and more adventurous settings. The work of Cornysh (father and son) and Britten takes flight in these voices. Christophers and The Sixteen bring new renown to the Cornysh music marked by their more old-fashioned florid melodic style and Christophers and The Sixteen bring new renown to the Cornysh music, marked by their more old-fashioned melodic style and proto-madrigalian manner, as revealed in lucid and dynamic performances of Salve Regina and the celebrated Ave Regina, Mater Dei.

Britten’s choral music – the dark elements are rarely far from the surface, especially in the Sacred and Profane sequence – is superbly cast and performed. The Hymn to St Cecilia is quintessential Britten, with text by W.H. Auden and a setting that emphasizes not just the emotional and aesthetic power of music, but its eroticism as well. Britten’s music, like Auden’s poem, combines a classical tightness of form with a complexity of ideas about the role of the artist in the face of a disintegrating civilization. The Sixteen’s voices are clear and pure, and this acoustic gives the music the right amount of bloom.

01 Echo WomenOne Voice – Greatest Hits Vol.2
Echo Women’s Choir
Independent (echowomenschoir.ca)

Echo is a choir of women based in Toronto, cultivating in its own words “the beautiful, rich and powerful sound of adult women’s voices.” Co-directed by community music-maker (and past music director at Holy Trinity Anglican Church, the home of Echo) Becca Whitla and singer and choral conductor Alan Gasser, the 27-year-old choir has grown to 80 voices while committed to inclusivity and diversity in membership and repertoire.

Echo’s second album One Voice: Greatest Hits Volume 2 provides vivid live concert recordings of 25 favourite songs from its past 16 years. The choir’s commitment to social justice rings true in several selections. Just two examples: the anti-war anthem Last Night I Had the Strangest Dream penned by Ed McCurdy in 1950, and You Will Be Free, set by Gasser with words by South African religious leader and human rights activist Desmond Tutu.

Among the things that attract me to Echo’s repertoire is its warm-hearted global embrace. In addition to original Canadian compositions – I’d like to mention Echo’s premiere of the choral version of my own North of Java in its formative years – it also covers traditional folk song arrangements from several regions of Europe, Africa and the Americas.

The album’s global journey ends with the stirring gospel song Everything Will Be Alright by the Grammy Award-winning Rev. Dr. James Cleveland. It’s a passionate downtown Toronto rendition of the African-American Baptist original, its positive message echoing through my speakers.

Listen to 'One Voice: Greatest Hits, Vol. 2' Now in the Listening Room

02 Handel Prima DonnaHandel’s Last Prima Donna: Giulia Frasi in London
Ruby Hughes; Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment; Laurence Cummings
Chaconne CHSA 0403 (chandos.net)

There have in recent years been many CDs consisting of solos or duets taken from the operas and oratorios of Handel. Such recordings always carry the danger of becoming merely a heterogeneous collection of extracts. A number of CDs have rectified this by concentrating on those roles created by particular performers. The CD reviewed here carries that strategy further by giving us a portrait of the soprano Giulia Frasi, who created several roles in Handel’s late oratorios but also sang in works by Vincenzo Ciampi, Thomas Arne, John Christopher Smith and Philip Hayes (extracts from works by these composers are included here). Many of these works were composed after Handel’s death in 1759 and, as David Vickers points out in an informative accompanying essay, they show how music moved from the high Baroque to the style of J.C. Bach and Haydn.

We don’t know much about what kind of singer Frasi was. My sense is that she had a bigger voice than Ruby Hughes, who is a lovely lyrical soprano. Most of the arias are slow and are designed to evoke pathos. This no doubt reflects the kind of parts that Frasi was asked to sing. The only aria which allows the singer to show her virtuosity is from Arne’s Alfred. It was written for Frasi as part of the 1753 revival of the work and is given the marking allegrissimo.

The singing and orchestral playing are both very fine on this disc. The members of the orchestra are not listed; if they had been, I would have singled out the splendid first oboist.

04 Rossini RicciardoRossini – Ricciardo e Zoraide
Marianelli; Mironov; Bills; Di Pierro; Beltrami; Camerata Bach Choir, Poznan; Virtuosi Brunensis; José Miguel Pérez-Sierra

Naxos 8.660419-21 (naxos.com)

By the year 1818, the 26-year-old Rossini was well on his way to becoming the most successful composer of opera in the Appenine Peninsula (i.e. today’s Italy). He left Venice in 1815 with a dozen operas written, including two masterpieces, and – via Milan, Rome and a few more masterpieces – he arrived in Naples with a lucrative contract from Teatro San Carlo, Naples’ resplendent opera house that rivalled Milan’s La Scala. He was a busy man, working furiously and fast, composing three operas per year plus looking after productions of his earlier works in Rome, Milan and Venice. He was already a rich man and he also married his leading lady Isabella Colbran, a smart move in more ways than one.

Of Rossini’s 39 operas, Ricciardo e Zoraide is the 25th now being recorded by Naxos. A heroic opera based on legends attached to Ariosto’s epic poems about Orlando and the Paladin knights of Charlemagne, it is quite long. The plot is unwieldy and unremarkable, but the music is forward-looking, “with dark-light contrasts, sophisticated melodic invention and the deployment of physical stage,” like the use of off-stage orchestras for spatial effects for the first time. This top-quality recording has some spectacular voices, mainly tenors (of whom Rossini had an abundant supply), with the two rival lovers Maxim Mironov (Ricciardo) and Randall Bills (Agorante) outdoing each other in vocal acrobatics. Of the ladies, Alessandra Marianelli has the Colbran role as Zoriade, the damsel in distress, and Silvia Beltrami (mezzo-soprano) is the jealous queen; both gorgeous voices. When the four appear together expressing their conflicting emotions, Rossini exercises his heavenly powers in ensemble writing – later inherited and made immortal by (at the time) a certain five-year-old boy, Giuseppe Verdi.

01 Marie Josee LordFemmes (Verdi; Puccini; Massenet)
Marie-Josée Lord; Orchestre symphonique de Laval; Alain Trudel
ATMA ACD2 2758 (atmaclassique.com)

Canada is a frustratingly large place. Despite having sung professionally since the early 2000s, Marie-Josée Lord did not conquer the country until 2012, when her first recording (from 2010) was nominated for the JUNO award in the best classical vocal album category. Personal disclosure here: I was one of the judges, voting, albeit unsuccessfully, for that album. To say that Lord’s voice stunned me would be an understatement. She has proved to be an elusive singer – appearing mostly in Quebec, and not gracing operatic stages frequently enough. In addition, Lord holds a deep conviction that she must be a popular singer – in her concerts and on record – mixing Quebec chanson, spirituals and classical pieces. That is why her new album is such a rare gift: a full CD of operatic performance. And what a performance it is! As her voice matures, she relies more on vibrato. What may have been lost in agility is more than compensated for in power and range. She can easily become one of Verdi’s heroines – I would give my proverbial eye tooth to see her on stage as Violetta! The music of Massenet and Puccini, especially as gracefully presented here by Maestro Trudel, suits her well too.

Her self-titled debut CD became a bestseller – over 30,000 copies sold, which in the world of classical music is massive. This one has a potential of beating that record – and bringing an extraordinary performer to full triumph over the Great White North.

02 Schnittke PartSchnittke – Psalms of Repentance; Pärt – Magnificat & Nunc Dimittis
Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir; Kaspars Putnins
Bis BIS-2292 (bis.se)

In the final years of his life Alfred Schnittke became increasingly interested in religious music and in the relationship between his music and the Russian orthodox tradition, both religious and musical. The Psalms of Repentance, which date from 1988, consist of 11 penitential psalms followed by a final wordless humming movement. Some movements are intensely dramatic; others are more lyrical. It is to the latter kind that I found myself especially drawn. The Russian poems which Schnittke set are anonymous; they date from the 16th century. The central narrative event to which the work alludes is the murder of the youngest sons of Grand Prince Vladimir by their brother in 1015, but many of the psalms are penitential in a more general way.

The Schnittke work is complemented by two shorter works by Arvo Pärt, both in Latin: the Magnificat (1989) and the Nunc Dimittis (2003). Both are very moving. The very fine Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir has performed in Toronto several times and many readers will have heard the choir in concert. The choir was founded in 1981 by its first conductor Tönu Kaljuste and has, since 2014, been led by Latvian conductor Kaspars Putnins.

03 ArnesenKim André Arnesen – Infinity: Choral Works
Kantorei; Joel Rinsema
Naxos 8.573788 (naxos.com)

Kantorei, a greatly admired ensemble with international tours, workshops and major commissions to its credit, is an elite choir based in Denver, Colorado and led by artistic director Joel Rinsema. This recording of compositions from the past eight years by Norwegian composer Kim André Arnesen (b.1980) places it in the front ranks. Rich, clear tone, balance and expressiveness characterize recordings of these religious and meditative pieces, four of which are commissions by Kantorei and Rinsema. Some Arnesen works show the influence of composers like Morten Lauridsen and Eric Whitacre, with long-sustained tones, division of the chorus’ sections and high clusters of soprano voices that produce radiant effects. Of these, I found the adventurous title work Infinity and the Holocaust-inspired Even When He is Silent especially moving. The lullabies Dormi Jesu and Cradle Hymn (the latter of which was sung for President Obama in the White House) are among the more appealing simpler works. Here babies and parents could perhaps provide the most authoritative reviews! When simplicity ventures into harmonic cliché, though, my inner music theory cop is triggered, as in The Gift I’ll Leave You.

In its mastery of textures and vocal registers, Arnesen’s compositional craft is remarkable. The choice of works and the disc’s overall smooth sound also suggest its potential for meditation; in any case I found myself taking long, even breaths. This serene and attractive disc is recommended for both secular and religious listeners.

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