02 Respighi SongsOttorino Respighi – Crepuscolo
Timothy Fallon; Ammiel Bushakevitz
BIS BIS-2632 SACD (bis.se)

Respighi’s remarkably wide-ranging stylistic eclecticism in these 26 songs turns this CD into a bountiful sonic buffet offering a delectable array of variegated flavourful delicacies.

The neo-Renaissance Cinque canti all’antiqua (Five Songs in Ancient Style) includes an aria from his opera Re Enzo and four plaintive love songs, three with texts by Boccaccio. The five extravagantly expressive songs of Deità Silvane (Woodland Deities) recall music by Debussy and Ravel, who also evoked sylvan myths, here replete with fauns and nymphs, cymbals and pipes, and mysterious dances. In the fifth song, Crepuscolo (Twilight), “Pan falls asleep… a joyful song quivers.” Inspired by a visit to Scotland, Respighi arranged his beguiling Quattro arie scozzeti (Four Scottish Songs) – the nostalgic When the Kye Come Home, Within a Mile of Edinburgh and My Heart’s in the Highlands, ending with the jaunty The Piper of Dundee, all sung in Scottish English.

There are many beauties to be found within the other 12 songs, each steeped in the hyper emotionality of Late Romanticism, whether expressing sweet tenderness, passionate yearning or agonized desperation. American tenor Timothy Fallon invigorates these unfairly neglected, fervent songs with operatic ardour and a firm, shining tone, while Ammiel Bushakevitz sparkles and surges at the piano. One caveat – due to the very over-reverberant acoustic, the bass response must be minimized in order to maximize the enjoyment of this most enjoyable CD. Texts and translations are included.

03 Silvestrov RequiemSilvestrov – Requiem für Larissa
Solists; Chor des Bayerischen Rundfunks; Münchner Rundfunkorcheste; Andres Mustonen
BR Klassik BRK900344 (naxos.com/CatalogueDetail/?id=900344)

Valentin Silvestrov, Ukraine’s best-known living composer, wrote Requiem for Larissa in 1999 in response to the sudden death of his wife, Larissa Bondarenko. It’s a work of devastating beauty. 

Musical references to Silvestrov’s life with Bondarenko, a musicologist, reveal how deeply personal this work is. Yet it pulls us into the sweep of historical events. This new release, still just its second recording, was made in 2011. Today, with the attacks on the 85-year-old composer’s beloved homeland by Russia, Silvestrov’s Requiem resonates even more deeply. And the significance of this recording grows.

The searing fourth movement, Goodbye, O World, O Earth, Farewell directly recalls the fifth song from Silvestrov’s mesmerizing cycle for baritone and piano, Silent Songs. Here it’s a tenor who sings the poignant lament, set to an excerpt from The Dream by Ukraine’s national bard, 19th-century poet Taras Shevchenko. Andreas Hirtreiter communicates the composer’s pain and longing while heeding his constraints on interpretive flourishes.

The remaining six movements are set to sacred texts from the Latin Mass for the Dead. But Silvestrov has extracted fragments and jumbled them up. In the Agnus Dei, he revisits one of his strangest and most wonderful piano pieces, The Messenger. Invoking Mozart in style and spirit, it arrives mysteriously, an enigmatic dispatch bringing consolations from another world.  

A stirring performance by the Bavarian Radio Choir and the Munich Radio Orchestra under the adventurous Estonian conductor Andres Mustonen puts Silvestrov’s evocative harmonic shifts and uncanny colours into urgent focus.

04 BornEdie Hill; Michael Gilbertson – Born
The Crossing; Donald Nally
Navona Records nv6449 (navonarecords.com/catalog/nv6449)

When classical radio stations seem agog with a cappella choral music who can fault them? After all, listening to human voices singing in multi-layered harmony sans instrūmentum is, indeed, irresistible. But when you are led to believe that the world of a cappella music is Voces 8 and, seemingly, no one else, surely something is amiss? I mean what about The Crossing directed by the masterful Donald Nally? What indeed…! 

Consider the album titled Born featuring the work of the same name bookended by Returning – both by Michael Gilbertson – with a revenant interpretation of Edie Hill’s Spectral Spirits nestling in between. The two latter works have been commissioned specially for The Crossing, who return the favour with a magical performance from start to finish.

Gilbertson’s work is a mystical and transcendent fit for this mighty vocal ensemble. Nally and the singers navigate both works with absolute mastery. Born is an appropriately meditative unravelling of the evanescence of life. The gossamer-like Returning weaves epic narratives inspired by David and Jonathan. Hill’s Spectral Spirits dwell in light and dark. Perhaps they even summon the spectral shadow of Gérard Grisey.

Nally lets this music unfold with sumptuous expansiveness throughout. The polyphonic lines gracefully reveal themselves in this opulent recording. The singers of The Crossing produce a rich and wonderfully balanced sound, marvellous depth in the basses and a delectable fluidity in the sopranos. Truly this is a choir of great distinction.

05 Between WorldsBetween Worlds
Donna Brown; Margaret Maria
Centrediscs CMCCD 30522 (cmccanada.org/shop/cd-cmccd-30522)

Between Worlds is a collaboration between composer-cellist Margaret Maria and soprano-poet Donna Brown. With poems set specifically to music and others adapted into music to fit a theme, the creators tell us that this project “uses words and music to explore the tension between Thanatos and Eros via a symbolic journey from Sunset to Sunrise.” 

In a series of eight movements set for soprano and cello orchestra, Sunrise, Fall, Lady Moon, Snakes and Demons, Caught Between Worlds, To Grasp Time, Sunset and One, aim to awaken listeners to their inner and higher states of consciousness, make sense of the world, and, ultimately, search for light and peace with an open heart. 

The movements each display styles and techniques that vary greatly, the voice moves from spoken (Sunset) and declamatory to complex extended vocals, while the cello(s) are at times thin, scattered and sparse (Sunrise, Sunset) or veer into more complex extended instrumental techniques (Snakes and Demons) and playing ponticello (Fall). The cello orchestra is created by Maria who overdubs the different cello parts.

Donna Brown teaches voice at the Conservatoire de Musique de Montréal and her recordings have won several awards. Margaret Maria is a graduate of the Curtis Institute of Music and has played on numerous Canadian and international stages. Between Worlds received its world premiere in 2019 by the Ottawa Chamber Orchestra with a full complement of strings.

Listen to 'Between Worlds' Now in the Listening Room

06 Romances InciertoRomances Inciertos – Un autre Orlando
Nino Laisné; François Chaignaud
Alborada editions ALB002 (alborada-editions.com)

In 2020, choreographer/dancer/singer François Chaignaud and stage/musical director/arranger Nino Laisné, along with their four virtuoso instrumentalists, recorded this high-quality in-studio release based on their show Romances inciertos, which they have toured internationally since 2017. The three-act dance stage show has Chaignaud and instrumentalists perform on stage together. Un autre Orlando is in three Acts, each featuring a popular traditional Spanish figure respectively – warrior maiden, archangel, and gypsy – set to centuries spanning Spanish musical traditions.  

The band is a tight musical unit. Opening Act I is Laisné’s arrangement of Astor Piazzolla’s tango/pasacalle Tristeza de un doble A (1973) featuring bandoneonist Jean-Baptiste Henry’s calm rendition leading to intensity building of fast virtuosic lyrical lines above the other instruments. Act II’s Nana de Sevilla is a popular cradle song, with Romantic-flavoured instrumental improvisations using rubatos, held strings and fast lines, followed by the popular Baroque Folias, an improvisation driven by Pere Olivé’s percussion beats. Chaignaud also sings falsetto, and normal voice, in select songs like his well-placed lower-pitched vocals-to-strings backdrop by Daniel Zapico (guitar and theorbo) and François Joubert-Caillet (viola da gamba) in the Act III opening 1936 zambra, La farsa monea. Laisné’s arrangement of the popular coplas, La Tarara, closes the show featuring Chaignaud’s emotional higher-pitched vocals.

Other Spanish musical styles on display include processional marches to Sephardic laments, folk music to zarzuela, all arranged and performed to perfection. This is a successful, timeless leap from theatre stage to a 16-track audio recording!

01 Found FrozenCanadian Art Song Project: Jeffrey Ryan – Found Frozen
Danika Lorèn; Krisztina Szabó; Dion Mazerolle; Steven Philcox
Centrediscs CMCCD 30222 (cmccanada.org/shop/cd-cmccd-30222)

Canadian Art Song Project (CASP) – a national treasure of an organization that perennially commissions, performs and records the art song canon of our country – has just released a consummate record of Jeffrey Ryan’s music. Ryan has come to be regarded as an important compositional voice in Canada and here, his unassuming, sensitive lyricism and narrative panache make for a first-rate audio survey of songs.

This new album casts a cyclic triptych featuring eminent voices framed by the superlative pianism of Steven Philcox: the urgent, theatrical soprano of Danika Lorèn; the silken, magnetic mezzo of Krisztina Szabó and the lush, brazen baritone of Dion Mazerolle (whose sensual performance of Ryan’s earliest cycle is amorously candid).

The two youthful cycles on this disc – Of Passion’s Tide and Found Frozen – date from 1991 and 1997, respectively. Here we note Ryan’s vernal approach to the genre, flattering both singer and pianist alike with full-blooded melody and neo-Romantic gesture. (The marked song style of American composer Ned Rorem comes to mind.) There is a quality in Ryan’s musical language that feels familiar, shaped – perhaps involuntarily – by folk traditions: a Canadian lingua franca, earnestly cultivated and sung from the heart.

A departure from the early essays, Miss Carr in Seven Scenes (2017) employs austere accompaniments and dark, wistful lines. Conversational and at times monodic, Ryan’s new set is expertly realized by Szabo, whose refined acting and characterful musicality blazons on full display.

02 Samuel AdlerSamuel Adler – To Speak To Our TIme
Gloriae Dei Cantores; Richard K. Pugsley
Gloriae Die Cantores GDCD 066 (gdcrecordings.com/new-release-samuel-adler)

With over 400 published works to his name, Samuel Adler is a composer who is difficult to fit into a single category or niche. This recording focuses specifically on Adler’s religious choral music and how the composer’s versatility and wide-ranging style take us on a journey blending contemporary musical techniques with the influence of his Jewish heritage.

Adler was born in Mannheim, Germany, where his father was a highly respected synagogue cantor and liturgical composer. Within a year after the nationally orchestrated pogrom known as Kristallnacht, the Adler family emigrated to America, where the elder Adler obtained a position as a cantor in Massachusetts and Samuel began demonstrating his musical talents. He became his father’s choir director when he was only 13 and remained at that post until he began his university studies. During that early period, he began composing liturgical settings, at first under his father’s influence and soon developing his own style.

From the very beginning of this recording, the opening A Hymn of Praise demonstrates this Jewish influence, setting the text to a traditional Yigdal melody commonly known as the hymn tune LEONI. The remaining texts, taken from the Psalms and Old Testament, recount God’s goodness on the journey of life and through the hills, valleys and mountaintop, and every emotion from pain to joy, disappointment to elation and sorrow to hope. The musical settings of these texts are a delight to the ears, wonderfully rich and robust, and brought to life with energy and joy by Gloriae Dei Cantores and their director Richard K. Pugsley.

03 XeniaeJuris Ābols – Xeniae 
Latvian Radio Choir; Sigvards Klava
LMIC SKANI 140 (skani.lv)

When encountering a piece of music for the first time, the brain begins searching for general thematic similarities: is this like Bach or Black Sabbath; Monteverdi or Miles Davis? While this “compare and contrast” method works well for most music, occasionally a listener is confronted by a single work that contains such a vast synthesis of styles that it is both disorienting and astonishing; such is the case with Juris Ābols’ opera Xeniae.

From the very first movement of this opera, we are introduced to a staggering tapestry of eras and references, including early-Baroque recitative accompanied by guitar and smooth jazz. As improbable as this may seem, the effect is both successful and addictive, for as we make our way through this staggering work, we can never guess what comes next, and this propels us forward with eager anticipation. There is, perhaps, no parallel to Xeniae in the world of classical music, for the breadth of material is simply too diverse, and it is rather similar in a number of ways to Pink Floyd’s The Wall

What cannot be overstated is just how impressive the performance of the Latvian Radio Choir and its director Sigvards Kļava is on this recording, especially considering that the entire opera was recorded in the basement of Kļava’s home. Although an unknown name to many, Ābols makes a tremendous impact with Xeniae, and proves that he is one of the 21st century’s most eclectic and exciting composers. This disc is highly recommended, not only to those who favour classical music, but to those who appreciate any music, for there truly is something here for everyone.

05 Kallembach AntigoneJames Kallembach – Antigone
Lorelei Ensemble; Beth Willer
New Focus Recordings FCR331 (newfocusrecordings.com)

James Kallembach’s Antigone relocates Sophocles’ seminal Athenian tragedy to the landscape of Nazi Germany. His libretto draws inspiration from the tragic poetry found in Sophie Scholl’s diary. Scholl, a member of the non-violent student White Rose Movement was arrested and later guillotined – along with her brother Hans – by the Nazis in 1943.      

Kallembach’s Antigone unfolds in the impassioned struggle of the title character, a woman determined to fight for the truth amid tyranny. The struggle features Antigone and Ismene locking proverbial horns with their dictatorial uncle Creon. Kallembach’s narrative seamlessly weaves the characters’ lives in and out of Athens into the warp and weft of Nazi Germany. Members of the Lorelei Ensemble create a shimmering luminosity as they delicately vocalize the sisters and the powerful voice of Creon. In particular, Christina English, Sarah Brailey and Rebecca Myers Hoke sing with enormous sensitivity, superbly characterizing everyone from the sensitive Ismene to the powerful Creon and the tragic Antigone who is none other than Scholl. 

The Ensemble delivers this outstanding libretto, directed by the sensitive yet firm hand of Beth Willer. In particular the encounters between Scholl and Lisa Remppis, with words from the former’s diary entries, have a pared-down style, particularly effective in the vignettes from late March, 1942. The reading of Scholl’s pamphlets is expertly melded into the disturbing backdrop created by moaning cellos. Something elegant and different emerges after each hearing of this disc.

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