03 StraviinskyStravinsky Choral Works – Mass; Cantata
Choir of St Mary’s Cathedral, Edinburgh; Duncan Ferguson
Delphian DCD34164

This CD comprises works Stravinsky wrote after he was Orthodoxically reborn in 1926. The discretely composed parts of the Mass run from celebratory to sparse, and even the two Credos are contradictory: one is stalwart and modern, the other urgent and sounding slightly more like traditional English church music. The Choir of St. Mary’s Cathedral is joined by youngsters from the dedicated choir school, as the composer had intended the Mass to be sung. The blend is wholesome.

The Cantata is based on Middle English songs on Christian themes but likely with secular origins. Soloists Ruby Hughes’ and Nicholas Mulroy’s voices complement each other and so in turn do the choral Versus refrains of A Lyke-Wake Dirge, which recount the voyage of the dead from Earth to purgatory. The setting of Tomorrow Shall Be My Dancing Day was new to me, as was the controversy of the inclusion by Stravinsky of the anti-Semitic middle verse, which is outlined in the liner notes.

The a cappella Tres Sacrae Cantiones, some of the partially lost pieces of late-Renaissance composer Carlo Gesualdo, were “finished off” by Stravinsky, at a safe remove of 300 years!

Duncan Ferguson deftly conducts Scottish Chamber Orchestra soloists so that the two larger pieces are accompanied in the truest sense of that word; they go alongside their singing companions rather than merely support them. This would be a lovely addition for collectors of Stravinsky, jack-of-all-eras.

04 BerkeleyStabat Mater – Sacred Choral Music by Lennox & Michael Berkeley
Marian Consort; Berkeley Ensemble; David Wordsworth
Delphian DCD34180

It is indeed a pleasure to witness the resurrection of a worthy, yet neglected English vocal work, particularly when performed so eloquently as by the Marian Consort. They deliver this 20th-century musical setting of the 13th-century text with all the precision, depth of feeling and intimacy required. Lennox Berkeley’s Stabat Mater was originally commissioned by Benjamin Britten who premiered the work in 1947 with his English Opera Group tour. The next known performance took place at the Aldeburgh Festival in 1953 and the BBC presented a broadcast performance in 1965. The intricate scoring calls for four-part chorus and 12 exceptional instrumentalists (flute, oboe, clarinet, bass clarinet, bassoon, trumpet, harp, percussion and string quartet) and conductor David Wordsworth, who serves as chairman of the Berkeley Society, leads the ensemble with great sensitivity and meticulous execution.

Berkeley’s exquisite Mass for Five Voices was composed for the choir of Westminster Cathedral in 1964. In this and another a capella work Judica me, the Marian Consort fully exploits their experience performing early music with perfect intonation and diction. The recording ends with Touch Light by Lennox’s son Michael Berkeley; a rapturous nod to Monteverdi with its sensuous dissonances and highly ornamented phrasing.

05 Schubert with guitarSchubert Sessions
Philippe Sly; John Charles Britton
Analekta AN 2 9999


Ah, it’s so easy to imagine the famous Schubertiades, the composer’s evenings of music with his friends in 19th-century Vienna. A beautifully appointed salon, fire roaring in the fireplace, Franz at the pianoforte, encircled by his friends accompanying and singing…except it never happened like that. For most of his brief life and career, Schubert lived in relative poverty and could not possibly have afforded a pianoforte. Most of his songs and song cycles were composed with a guitar, as presented here. That seems to solve the mystery of his Arpeggione Sonata, scored for that briefly popular guitar-like instrument and piano.

So what are Schubert’s songs like in their “authentic” version? Surprisingly different and beautiful. The absence of piano, so pivotal to our experience of Schubert’s music, is only felt in Erlkönig, where the piano’s lower register conveys horror with a greater force. Otherwise, the well-known pieces present a gentler, more delicate picture, with a beautiful nuance, inviting you to lean in and listen closely. A lot of credit for this goes to Philippe Sly and John Charles Britton. Sly, yet another talented alumnus of the Schulich School of Music at McGill University in Montreal is receiving well-deserved recognition for his operatic performances all over the globe. Britton is an accomplished guitar accompanist and transcriptions writer, who collaborates with artists of the calibre of Angela Gheorghiu and, of course, Sly.

A beautiful and memorable album.

06 Brahms LiebesliederBrahms – Chants d’Amour
Kimy McLaren; Michèle Losier; Pascal Charbonneau; Alexandre Sylvestre; Myriam Farid; Olivier Godin
ATMA ACD2 2710 (atmaclassique.com)


The 18 charming, sweet and sentimental love songs that populate Brahms’ first Op.52 Liebeslieder Waltzes were completed in 1859. With four-handed piano accompaniment debuted by himself and his secret (albeit unrequited) love Clara Schumann, they pay homage to the city of Vienna, incorporating the Ländler style throughout. Due to the popularity of such amusements for “house music” he followed with another set, the Op.65 Neue Liebeslieder in 1874. The majority of the texts come from Polydora, Georg Friedrich Daumer’s collection of folksongs and poems. They explore infatuation, longing and the many joys and disappointments that go along with them. They are both a pleasure and a challenge to sing, with soft heartfelt passages punctuated by some rapid-gunfire tongue twisters.

Though sometimes performed by choirs, the songs are most expressive when sung by a quartet of soloists. Soprano Kimy McLaren, mezzo Michèle Losier, tenor Pascal Charbonneau and bass-baritone Alexandre Sylvestre all deliver superb and emotionally dynamic performances as the lovestruck foursome with pianists Myriam Farid and Olivier Godin beautifully augmenting the undercurrents of their turbulent emotional states.

07 Netrebko VerisimoVerismo
Anna Netrebko; Orchestra dell’Academia Nazionale de Santa Cecilia; Antonio Pappano
Deutsche Grammophon 4795015


One of the most glorious moments in Turandot is when the ice princess warns Prince Calaf: “Gli enigmi sono tre, la morte una!” (The riddles are three, death is one!”), to which the prince answers “No, no, gli enigmi sono tre, una e la vita!” and the orchestra soars to a tremendous climax. Such a moment is captured in DG’s latest CD of La Diva Assoluta, Anna Netrebko, singing with her husband, tenor Yusif Eyvazov, adding real-life chemistry to this unforgettable moment. Puccini is of course generously represented here being the greatest exponent of Italian verismo, another golden age of Italian opera immediately following Verdi.

The divine Netrebko, whose stellar career has been closely followed in these pages, is stepping into new territory again as she hasn’t yet sung any of the great verismo soprano roles on stage, except Manon Lescaut in Rome in 2014 under Sir Antonio Pappano and this gave her the impetus for this new disc. Much of it is taken up with the entire fourth act, an epitome of despair and human suffering and a great vehicle for both the tenor and the soprano.

The 16 selections survey almost all composers of the period (with the glaring omission of Mascagni): Ponchielli, Giordano, Cilea, Boïto, Leoncavallo, Catalani each with one aria familiar to all opera lovers. Netrebko conquers them all with her wide vocal and emotional range, solid foundation of honey-coloured low register and spectacular high notes. And in this dazzling technical display what impresses most is her sincere, unassuming personality of a young woman who emerged from nothing and in a few years became a shining star and worthy successor of the immortals, like Callas and Sutherland.

08 Puccini RondinePuccini – La Rondine
Dinara Alieva; Charles Castronovo; Orchestra and Chorus of the Deutsche Oper Berlin; Roberto Rizzi Brignoli
Delos DV 7010

In Puccini’s unfairly neglected La Rondine two souls are desperately in love, but predestined to fail due to societal forces and pressures that destroy their happiness. La Traviata comes immediately to mind, and this became one of the problems hampering its success, but the comparison is wrong. In Verdi, Violetta’s love never falters, while here the heroine is simply unable to break with her past and choose freedom (like a swallow), arbitrarily ending the relationship.

Rolando Villazón whom the Deutsche Oper Berlin picked to direct the opera saw the problem very clearly and very differently from average past productions. He embedded the tragic conclusion from the very start into the frothy superficial fun-and-games party atmosphere. Three masked men always surround the beautiful heroine representing former rejected lovers, soberly reminding us of her past, and at the end her true love Ruggero also gets a mask and joins the group much like in Bluebeard’s Castle where the three murdered wives are joined by Judith in oblivion.

Deutsche Oper’s new production finally vindicates and reinstates this opera into the repertoire sumptuously presented and resplendent in rich colours. The action moves with an irresistible forward momentum and is directed with virtuoso skill. The second act’s complex crowd scenes are especially memorable. Puccini’s score is harmonically adventurous, full of irresistible melodies and conducted with romantic abandon by Roberto Rizzi Brignoli. The fine, young and talented cast is headed by Dinara Alieva, soprano sensation from Azerbaijan, whose voice is “a gift from heaven” (Montserrat Caballé) absolutely perfect for the role of Magda. French tenor Charles Castronovo, her unfortunate lover, is radiantly expressive, especially in the last act – guaranteed to break your heart. The other couple (Alexandra Hutton and Alvaro Zambrano) reminds us of Marcel/Musette of La Bohème and provides a delightful contrast and comic relief.

09 Bellini NormaBellini – Norma
Radvanovsky; Kunde; Gubanova; Aceto; Vas; Puche; Symphony Orchestra and Choir of the Gran Teatre del Liceu; Renato Palumbo
C Major 737208

On October 6, I attended the opening night of Norma at the COC, a co-production with the opera companies of Barcelona, San Francisco and Chicago, featuring Sondra Radvanovsky in the title role. With this four-city run – she’d already sung it at the Met – Radvanovsky lays claim as today’s pre-eminent Norma. Her thrilling, stentorian top notes, hairpin pianissimi and an edgy, tenebrous timbre reminiscent of Callas, makes this DVD from Barcelona’s Liceu merit comparison with the classic recordings of Callas, Sutherland and Caballé.

Sometimes, however, I’ve found Radvanovsky’s singing overly studied. In Barcelona and Toronto, her Casta Diva seemed too carefully sung, as if she were coolly calculating the placement of every note, rather than being transported in rapturous prayer. She sounded more emotionally involved in her duets with Adalgisa – in Barcelona, a fervent Ekaterina Gubanova – and her love/hate exchanges with Pollione – in Barcelona, the brawny, brassy Gregory Kunde. (She had different co-stars in Toronto.)

A big plus for this production: no Eurotrash-updating! The set and costumes drew inspiration from Game of Thrones, the single set representing the interior of a Druidic fortress-temple, with a severed sacred tree-branch magically suspended in mid-air. Unlike the plodding conducting of Stephen Lord at the COC, Liceu conductor Renato Palumbo kept things moving, generating real tension and excitement.

This DVD provides a splendid showcase for Sondra Radvanovsky, documenting a signature role of this Caledon resident, the GTA’s international operatic superstar.

10 Dorian GrayThomas Agerfeldt Olesen – The Picture of Dorian Gray
Radley; Best; Bobby; Thiele; Hansen; Vinther; Skarby Riddell; Chorus of the Danish National Opera; Aarhus Symphony Orchestra; Joachim Gustafsson
Dacapo 2.110415

The ideas behind this DVD made me curious because, as a longtime operagoer, I wondered how you could have an opera choreographed and with the singers offstage. The Picture of Dorian Gray succeeds on both counts and throws in more appealing aspects to boot.

The Oscar Wilde story is rife with juicy themes around secrets, corruption, the role of art and, of course, the Mephistophelian premise of Dorian Gray selling his soul in exchange for eternal beauty and youth. The production of Thomas Agerfeldt Olesen’s opera has plenty of eye and ear candy that doesn’t discombobulate the viewer with unstaged singers as much as highlight them. Cutaways to singers in the orchestra pit are as intriguing as Met in HD backstage entr’actes. The transformation of the picture of Dorian Gray is effectively conveyed with video art, replacing the need for extensive set use, and the costumes range from modified period pieces to something out of Cirque du Soleil.

Although I don’t have much knowledge of dance, I could appreciate this non-literal interpretation of the tale, which shared the dual role of representing the characters’ sung parts, which was stage director/choreographer Marie Brolin-Tani’s goal. Surprisingly, spoken lines and frequent Broadway-musical-like interludes did not make me protest that this was not opera. The entire production somehow coalesces into a new multi-art genre, and whether that is due to the direction, choreography, score, artists or all of those, it was the type of offering CanStage might co-present. Hmm – must text Matthew Jocelyn…

11 Nyman Man whoMichael Nyman – The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat
Trevino; Sjowall; MacPherson; Nashville Opera; Dean Williamson
Naxos 8.660398

Michael Nyman is a composer particularly suited to opera writing. His understanding of drama has been honed through an impressive number of film soundtracks, ranging from Drowning by Numbers and several more of Peter Greenaway’s movies, including The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover, to a brand new score for Sergei Eisenstein’s silent masterpiece Battleship Potemkin. It is a shame then, that he has attempted the operatic idiom only seven and a half times (the “half” is an unfinished opera based on Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy). Furthermore, unlike his film music, Nyman’s operas are not easily available commercially. So it was with a sense of excitement that I approached this disc. Based on a famous case study by the celebrated neurologist, Oliver Sacks, this is a story of a patient with visual agnosia, or object-word confusion. He does indeed call his wife “a hat,” that famous line being used by Sacks’s critics to highlight his less-than-ethical approach to patients’ consent: “The doctor, who mistook his patients for a literary career.”

Nyman, the musician, does not disappoint here – the taut, short score is indeed minimalist (Nyman is credited with inventing this musical term in 1968) and punctuates the dramatic arc perfectly. The only disappointment is the soprano voice of Rebecca Sjöwall as the wife of the title, whose blunt instrument is in a different category from the other principals. Still, this is a rare recording of an important work.

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