04 ClytemnestraClytemnestra
Ruby Hughes; BBC National Orchestra of Wales; Jac van Steen
BIS BIS-2408 SACD (naxosdirect.com)

The maverick Welsh soprano Ruby Hughes is the star of this alluring collection of song cycles which opens with five songs by Gustav Mahler based on the poetry of Friedrich Rückert, sung with admirable sensitivity and a clear, light voice. There are of course landmark recordings of these lieder that are richer in tone and emotionally more compelling, by the likes of Janet Baker, Christa Ludwig and Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau; nevertheless Hughes offers a youthful and well-considered take on these intimate songs.

The Viennese premiere of Alban Berg’s Altenberg Lieder in March 1913 was the cause of a legendary riot. Though only two of the five songs of the cycle were programmed, a member of the audience soon bellowed out that both the composer and poet (the whimsical picture-postcard texts were authored by Peter Altenberg) should be sent to the insane asylum. In fact, the poet was already there! Fisticuffs ensued and the remainder of the concert was abandoned. The effect on Berg was devastating. A complete performance of this astounding composition, which presages advances in chromaticism (including some proto-serial elements) that foreshadow those of his mentor Schoenberg, would not take place until 1952, long after his death. This is a most worthy contribution to the limited roster of recordings of this great work.

Clytemnestra, a 25-minute song cycle by the Welsh composer Rhian Samuel, is a vivid, blood-curdling setting of Aeschylus’s tale of the murder of Agamemnon by his wife. Commissioned by the BBC Wales Orchestra in 1994, Samuel’s libretto is constructed solely from Clytemnestra’s point of view. This is a garish, unabashedly cinematic work, massively orchestrated and incorporating some provocative electric bass guitar solos, compellingly brought to life in a riveting performance from both soloist and orchestra under the direction of their principal guest conductor Jac van Steen.

05 Agata ZubelApparition
Agata Zubel; Krzysztof Książek
CD accord ACD 263-2 (naxos.com)

The 20th century was a time of immense creativity, with the fundamental building blocks of musical composition and interpretation disassembled and reconstructed by some of Western music’s most legendary figures. Apparition explores a number of lesser-known and underappreciated composers from this period, including Barber, Crumb and Szymanowski.

This disc opens with Maurice Ravel’s Shéhérazade, an art song triptych based on the renowned Arabic folk tales of One Thousand and One Nights, most famously set to music by Rimsky-Korsakov. Ravel’s songs feature characteristic exoticism, combining “oriental” material with impressionistic harmonies and long vocal lines, expertly interpreted by Zubel and Książek. These traditional, almost Debussian works are sharply contrasted with George Crumb’s Apparition, a set of songs which combine the familiar with the avant-garde. Within this cycle, Crumb gives the singer her expected role, singing texts set to tunes, with a few exceptions such as the three Vocalises, which utilize the timbral aspect of the voice independent of textual tethers. The piano part, however, is a demanding essay in extended techniques throughout the cycle, as the pianist is required to utilize every part of the piano to produce percussive, shimmering, and rattling effects.

The remainder of this disc’s contents fall between these two stylistic extremes: Szymanowski’s Songs of a Fairy Tale Princess, Barber’s Opus 13 songs, and Fernando Obradors’ Canciones all align themselves more closely with Ravel than Crumb, bringing the 19th-century tradition of art song forward into the 20th. As a whole, Apparition is a well-thought-out and equally well-performed survey of piano-voice repertoire from the last century and well worth a listen, especially for those who appreciate the radical genius of George Crumb.  

06 Lang The LoserDavid Lang – The Loser
Rod Gilfry; Conrad Tao; Bang on a Can Opera Ensemble; Lesley Leighton
Cantaloupe Music CA21155 (cantaloupemusic.com)

When I hear a line like, “Strangely enough I met Glenn on Monk’s Mountain, my childhood mountain, which is also called Suicide Mountain, since it is especially suited for suicide and every week at least three or four people throw themselves off it into the void,” and find myself, despite myself, laughing, I know I’m experiencing the misanthropic comedy of Thomas Bernhard. In this case I’m listening to the nameless narrator of Bernhard’s novel, The Loser, who, as many Canadian readers know, is obsessed with the Glenn mentioned above, last name Gould. Aside from pianistic virtuosity, though, this “Glenn” is ultimately fictional, serving as a paragon of perfection against which Bernhard’s frustrated narrator measures his own failures.

David Lang’s opera adaptation of the novel, sung by baritone Rod Gilfry, offers an outstanding musical correlative to Bernhard’s centri-fugal prose. The melodies, deceptively simple, gain complexity through gradual repetition and subtle layering over time, much like Bernhard’s text itself, and the minimalist accompaniment from the note-perfect Bang on a Can Opera Ensemble captures the inner echoes of the narrator’s solipsistic musings. 

Considering Bernhard once wrote that “a prize is invariably only awarded by incompetent people who want to piss on your head,” it somehow feels wrong to apprise The Loser, but Lang, Gilfry and company’s interpretation is brilliant, deserving full praise. Can someone please convince them to perform it in Toronto, maybe at, say, Glenn Gould Studio…?

07 Sarah SleanSarah Slean
Sarah Slean; Symphony Nova Scotia; Bernhard Gueller
Centrediscs CMCCD27820 (cmccanada.org)

Tonal/atonal classical, popular and musical theatre genres meet amicably in this ambitious Canadian collaboration by vocalist/actress/poet/composer Sarah Slean, Symphony Nova Scotia and composer Christos Hatzis.

Hatzis’ three-song/movement Lamento was written for a Symphony Nova Scotia/Slean concert in April 2012. Based on Purcell’s aria When I am Laid in Earth from Dido and Aeneas, his self-described exploration of the Baroque stepwise descending “lamento bass” creates grief-stricken sounds of loss of loved ones, mental illness and suicide. The opening When This is Over features heartbeat-reminiscent drum beats, Slean’s lower vocals with clarinet contrasts, huge orchestral sound, a cappella sections, and modern/pop/dance grooves shifts. My Song nicely uses flute-played daybreak bird songs, waltz feel, singalong vocal melody and loud closing musical theatre-like finale build. The complex yet accessible Despair is wrought with heart-wrenching atonal wide-pitched vocals/instruments, contrasting dynamics, instrumental interludes, eerie squeaks, Baroque/Purcell effects and gloomy repeated vocal “remember me” finale.

In his final season, Bernhard Gueller conducted SNS in Ecstasy (2018) by Hatzsis (music) and Slean (text), a three-movement musical portrayal of the intellectual and mystical human mind. Slean’s clearly articulated higher vocals drive Love, and likewise Logos, with its contrasting calm and intense dance sections. Bhakti is a calmer atonal/tonal work with unexpected orchestra member whispers, held notes and Slean’s a cappella vocal finale.

Performers, compositions and CBC live performance recordings are exquisite. Dramatic music fans definitely will love this. And everyone else, take a listen! Magical!

01 Schumann MythenSchumann – Myrthen
Camilla Tilling; Christian Gerhaher; Gerold Huber
Sony Classical 19075945362 (sonyclassical.de)

“To my beloved Clara on the eve of our wedding from her Robert.” So wrote Robert Schumann on a specially bound set of 26 recently composed songs dedicated to Clara, collectively titled Myrthen for the myrtle branches and flowers that traditionally adorned bridal wreaths.

In it, Schumann drew from nine poets, with Rückert, Goethe, Heine and Robert Burns (in translation) accounting for 19 of the songs. Schumann specified those to be sung by a woman or a man, suggesting a young couple’s ongoing relationship. Here, the appropriately light-and-bright voices of soprano Camilla Tilling and baritone Christian Gerhaher are ably supported by pianist Gerold Huber.

Myrthen begins with the well-known Widmung (my favourite among Schumann’s 250-plus songs); others in the set that will be familiar to many are Der Nussbaum, Die Lotosblume and Du bist wie eine Blume. Of those less-often encountered, the tender Lieder der Braut and Hochländisches Wiegenlied, the sprightly Räthsel and Niemand, and the plaintive Aus den hebräischen Gesängen are particularly gratifying. The wistful, concluding Zum Schluss promises, almost prophetically, that only in heaven will the couple receive “a perfect wreath.”

Robert and Clara married in 1840, after years of obstruction from Clara’s father. Sadly, their marriage ended in 1856 with Robert’s early death in a mental asylum. Myrthen, Robert’s wedding gift to Clara, thus represents an enduring, significant, poignant testament to what is surely classical music’s most enduring, significant and poignant love story. Texts and translations are included.

02 A Voice of Her OwnA Voice of Her Own – Musical Women Who Persisted 1098-1896
Toronto Chamber Choir; Lucas Harris
Independent n/a (torontochamberchoir.ca)

Sacred and secular music require two wholly different mindsets and the singers of the Toronto Chamber Choir, with Lucas Harris as artistic director, have the wherewithal to do both in spades. Both genres demand an immersion of sorts into the music itself. The performance by this choir does more than simply tick all the boxes; it soars impossibly high, taking the music to another realm altogether. Another challenge – admirably handled by the choir – is the fact that the music spans almost 800 years of evolved tradition.

The program itself is an inspired one and is quite representative of women composers who, as the title suggests, emerged with high honours in a world dominated, at every level of art and its commerce, by men. This recording gets off to a glorious start with music by the ecstatic mystic, Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179). In the extract from Ordo Virtutum, where the monastic nun adapted the language of visions and of religious poetry, the choir’s interpretation is resonant and retains the exquisite purity of the music.

From the soaring intensity of the anonymous 17th-century composition Veni, sancte Spiritus by the nuns of Monastère des Ursulines de Québec through songs from Gartenlieder by the prodigiously gifted Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel (1805-1847) to the deep melancholia of Clara Schumann’s (1819-1896) work, the musicians and choristers achieve unmatched levels of elegance and refinement.

03 Whither Must I WanderWhither Must I Wander
Will Liverman; Jonathan King
Odradek ODRCD389 (odradek-records.com)

Wanderlust – both literal and figurative – lies dormant in the human genetic makeup. It is often awakened, especially among artists, and takes flight into both real and imagined landscapes often with breathtaking results. From Wandrers Nachtlied, Goethe’s poetry set to song by Nikolai Medtner, to lieder from Mondnacht penned by Robert Schumann; from Songs of Travel by Ralph Vaughan Williams to King David by Herbert Howells and At the River by Aaron Copland, Whither Must I Wander captures the timeless beauty of man’s propensity for real and imagined travel.

The music is interpreted by Will Liverman, an outstanding lieder singer blessed with a warm-toned baritone. Liverman shows himself to be an artist of the first order. His performance here eschews melodrama and his interpretations are understated yet powerfully convincing. Howells’ King David is typical. Although Liverman is still young, and will surely mature, his singing already combines an authoritative vocal sound with accomplished interpretative insights into the music.

Liverman has an outstanding relationship with pianist Jonathan King. Together the two parley with the familiarity of old friends. The singer is aware of when to recede from the spotlight, making way for King to embellish melodies. The pianist, for his part, always rises to the occasion; his playing is full of adventurous handling of harmony and tone. Together with Liverman’s vivid storytelling, this makes for a profoundly dramatic and characterful performance

04 EkmelesA Howl, That Was also a Prayer
New Focus Recordings FCR245 (newfocusrecordings.com)

New York-based contemporary new music vocal ensemble Ekmeles is spectacular in their first solo release. Featuring commissions by Christopher Trapani and Canadian Taylor Brook, and a third work by Erin Gee, the six singers perform these innovative 21st-century works with precision and understanding.

Brooks’ nine-part microtonal a cappella Motorman Sextet is based on David Ohle’s 1972 cult novel. The opening party-like vocal chatter sets the stage. The clear-spoken narrative by different voices features atmospheric backdrops like multi-voice unison spoken words, dynamic swells, held notes, high voice staccatos and atonal harmonic touches.

Gee sound-paints new dimensions to my favourite pastime in Three Scenes from Sleep, taken from a larger piece. No words here; just voice-created clicks, pops, rustles, held notes, rhythms, high-pitched intervals and the final closing more-song-like held-low note which musically illustrate the unconscious sleep state.

Trapani’s End Words features live voices with prerecorded vocal fragments and electronics. The three movements, based on texts by Anis Mojgani, Ciara Shuttleworth and John Ashbery respectively, are driven by tight ensemble performance. The first movement electronics add another voice to the clear ensemble articulations and swells with low drum-like thunder manipulations, squeaky electronic birds and plucked string effects. The closing third movement is unique with the opening electronic bell sounds leading to a strong electronic “duet” with the almost spoken vocals.

Director/baritone Jeffrey Gavett leads Ekmeles in an exciting futuristic musical direction.

Listen to 'A Howl, That Was also a Prayer' Now in the Listening Room

05 OgloudoglouOgloudoglou – Vocal masterpieces of the Experimental Generation 1960-1990
Sara Stowe
metier msv 28593 (divineartrecords.com)

English soprano Sara Stowe is a versatile and inventive musician with repertoire ranging from contemporary concert music to medieval song. A prize-winning harpsichordist and pianist at the start of her career, she then decided to learn 20th-century vocal music in Italy. One of her specialties is the songs of the outsider composer, Giacinto Scelsi (1905-1988), whose reputation leapt to international prominence only at the end of his life.

Ogloudoglou, titled after the song by the same name by Scelsi, is a skillfully curated album focused tightly on 11 art songs from 1960 to 1990 by what Stowe calls “the experimental generation.” She renders boundary-stretching songs by Italian composers Scelsi, Luciano Berio, Luigi Nono, Niccoló Castiglioni and Sylvano Bussotti, as well as one each by the Argentine-German Mauricio Kagel and Americans John Cage and Morton Feldman. And experiment they did.

Outstanding tracks for me are Nono’s cinematic, epic La Fabbrica Illuminata for voice and tape, and the more concise, though perhaps even more musically compelling, Sequenza III by Berio. The latter is beautifully rendered by Stowe – and I’ve heard Cathy Berberian, for whom it was composed, perform it live.

Breathtakingly iconoclastic, perhaps even shocking when brand new, this tough song repertoire is little programmed today, at least in Canada. Stowe thus does us a favour, presenting her recital of songs by seminal later-generation high modernists with virtuoso verve. She committedly follows their demanding performance instructions and groundbreaking aesthetics, by the end winning over those who care to listen with her exhilarating musicality.

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