07 Rising The CrossingRising w/The Crossing
The Crossing; Donald Nally
New Focus Recordings FCR281 (newfocusrecordings.com/catalogue/?artist=11549)

Living in the throes of a raging global pandemic we all experience our “new normal” differently. If ever we could imagine a soundtrack that unites us through the silent roar of isolation it would be one that reflects both the hopelessness of it all as well as the uplifting energy of hope itself. With its soul-stirring music, Rising w/ The Crossing certainly qualifies to provide powerful anthems for our self-isolating sensibilities. 

The choral ensemble conducted by Donald Nally brings uniquely thoughtful and penetrating insight to music by Joby Talbot, Ēriks Ešenvalds, Dieterich Buxtehude, Paul Fowler, Alex Berko, Ted Hearne and Santa Ratniece; works that follow in the wake of David Lang’s powerfully prescient protect yourself from infection, the text of which was inspired by instructions that rose out of the last pandemic: the Spanish flu. 

The sense of awe and wonder which hovers over this entire recital is particularly close-focused in Lang’s work. It is echoed in the ever-shifting heartbeat of the wonderfully supple voices of the singers who make up The Crossing; voices that ceaselessly and eloquently trace the melodies of other stellar miniatures too. 

Much of the music is performed a cappella and this gives the works in question a wonderfully spectral quality. This is certainly true of Hearne’s 2016 work What it might say. But equally, it is Buxtehude’s Baroque-period works featuring the Quicksilver ensemble that enliven the elusive moments of this ethereal music’s whispered breath.

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08 Ruders 13 ChildPoul Ruders – The Thirteenth Child
Soloists; Odense Symfoniorkester; Bridge Academy Singers; David Starobin; Benjamin Shwartz
Bridge Records 9527 (bridgerecords.com)

The Thirteenth Child is an opera in two acts by Danish composer Poul Ruders (The Handmaid’s Tale) with a libretto by Becky and David Starobin. Performed by a large cast of excellent soloist singers, the Odense Symfoniorkester and the Bridge Academy Singers, the opera is based on the Brothers Grimm fairy tale, The Twelve Brothers.

The Thirteenth Child follows Princess Lyra’s quest to find her 12 exiled brothers and bring them home to save the kingdom. The singers are all excellent and their vocal abilities are displayed throughout the opera via the modern and challenging parts written for them, often covering extreme tessitura on both sides of their vocal range. This is especially evident in the several falsetto effects sung by the two bass-baritones. 

The opera is fast paced and action packed with spells and adventures of good versus evil mixed in with tragedy and triumph. The cast of principals is large and the opera runs a short 77 minutes. As a result, the characters are not as developed as they could be and this makes meaningful audience engagement challenging. It may be that adding a third act could not only resolve this but would also allow for the story to be modernized and for Ruders to showcase more of his capable writing as he does for Princess Lyra and her suitor Frederic.

Commissioned by the Santa Fe Opera and the Odense Symfoniorkester, The Thirteenth Child was recorded in Denmark and New York. It was premiered in Santa Fe, July 2019.

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09 CooperstownCooperstown – Jazz Opera in Nine Innings
Daniel Montenegro; Carin Gilfry; Rod Gilfry; Daniel Favela; Julie Adams; Band; Sasha Matson
Albany Records TROY1848 (albanyrecords.com)

Cooperstown: Jazz Opera in Nine Innings, is scored for a 1950s-style jazz quintet and five singers. The composer is Sasha Matson with libretto by Mark Miller, inspired by A. Bartlett Giamatti’s essay The Green Fields of the Mind. Although this story takes place at the ballpark, it features all of the elements of a great opera: Angel, from impoverished Santo Domingo and newly raised to the majors as a pitcher, falls in love with Lilly from the Upper East Side. Undermining their romance is Marvin, the aging pro catcher and Jan, the jealous sports agent in love with Angel. The dual love of baseball and romantic love stories unfolds as the team manager, Dutch, attempts to manage the relationship struggles to focus on winning games. 

In the liner notes Matson describes in detail the recording process that allowed his team to capture sounds reminiscent of the original Blue Note recordings (microphone choices, specific recording and mixing equipment). The result is an outstanding listening experience: the sounds are rich and full but the music is as close and detailed as it would be in an intimate luscious jazz lounge. The classically trained voices are gorgeous and skillfully blend in with the jazz quintet. Each scene (inning) is bookended by a short and seamless transition in the form of an instrumental jazz chart played with impressive skills by musicians of the jazz quintet. Cooperstown might perhaps be more at home on a theatrical stage than at the opera house but it is a top-shelf musical experience.

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10 Amanda TosoffEarth Voices
Amanda Tosoff
Empress Music EMG702 (amandatosoff.com)

Toronto-based piano player and composer, Amanda Tosoff, has just released a stunning new collection of songs that blurs the lines between jazz and art song. Cleverly marrying texts by classic poets such as Pablo Neruda and Rumi, with her own and others’ compositions, plus drawing on the talents of seven different singers, a string quartet, two sax players and a jazz trio, Tosoff has given us a very rich body of work.

Opening with the powerful combination of Tosoff’s composition, Edgar Alan Poe’s words and Emilie-Claire Barlow’s singing, A Dream Within a Dream is one of the jazzier pieces on the album. With sax by Kelly Jefferson and Allison Au, and Jon Maharaj (bass) and Morgan Childs (drums) filling out the rhythm section, it’s lively, complex and thought-provoking. The middle part of the album is more in the art song vein and I found myself especially drawn to these songs with their interplay of piano and strings and voice. Birdwings, based on a Rumi poem and beautifully sung by Alex Samaras, also has Tosoff stretching out a bit with a lyrical piano solo. Oh, Life (written by Mike Ross), featuring cello (Beth Silver) and violin (Aline Homzy) plus Laila Biali’s and Samaras’ beautifully blended voices add to the poignancy of the lyrics. To a Stranger, written by Tosoff and based on a Walt Whitman poem, is spare and gorgeous with just a string quartet and Felicity Williams’ ethereal singing. A Canadian album devoted to poetry wouldn’t seem complete without a Joni Mitchell tune and her early anti-war song, Fiddle and the Drum gets a strong reworking centred around Lydia Persaud’s solid vocals.

11 Lara SolnickiThe One and the Other
Lara Solnicki
Outside In Music OiM 2013 (larasolnicki.com)

Multi-gifted vocalist, composer and poet, Lara Solnicki, has just released a compelling and kinesthetic recording project, utilizing her considerable gifts to manifest a cinematically framed collection of original post-modern art songs. Solnicki has said, “I call these songs ‘tone poems,’ because they are governed and held together by a ‘poetic logic.’” Produced by eminent multi-instrumentalist and film composer Jonathan Goldsmith, the CD also features performances by skilled musicians Peter Lutek (alto sax/electro-acoustic clarinet and bassoon); Hugh Marsh (electric violin); Rob Piltch (electric and acoustic guitar); Scott Peterson (acoustic and electric bass); Rich Brown (electric bass); and Davide DiRenzo on drums.

Well recorded by Jeff Wolpert, the first offing is Bit Her Sweet Christopher Street, where Solnicki’s poetic lyrics and her gorgeous, sonorous vocal tone evoke stark images that speak to diverse emotional reactions in a physical space of contrasts. This song seems to address the dense, urban zones where many of us live our lives, and that there can still be beauty, mystery and the deep presence of nature. Goldsmith’s acoustic piano work here is mesmerizing, as is Piltch’s masterful contribution on both electric and acoustic guitar. The Embrace is a composition of incredible beauty and Solnicki brings to mind the incomparable Norma Winstone as she wraps her warm voice around each intriguing musical nuance and syllable.

This inspired song cycle concludes with the three-movement The One and The Other, described as an allegory and tragic story in which a man ironically drowns in the image of love. 1) Pass a Glass, is a free-form tour-de-force for both Marsh and DiRenzo. 2) Awe of the Sea effectively incorporates pizzicato strings and the entire ensemble to evoke waves, motions, seagulls and unfathomable depths. 3) Hollow the Need, leaves the listener washed up on a paradisiacal shore, having passed through a vortex of emotions, images and the sublime glory of words and music.

01 MachautMachaut – The Lion of Nobility
Orlando Consort
Hyperion CDA68318 (hyperion-records.co.uk/dc.asp?dc=D_CDA68318)

Guillaume de Machaut’s status as the 14th century’s greatest composer is borne out by the respect in which he was held by his contemporary musicians as well as by the list of aristocratic patrons who supported him. One such patron, King John II of France, must surely have been the Lion of Nobility alluded to in the title of this CD; his capture at the battle of Poitiers in 1356 personified the massive English victory.

So it is that En demantant et lamentant comprises the longest track on this CD. (At a whisker under 18 minutes, it is an eternity by early music standards!) There are no choruses in this composition, as Machaut commences his powerful lament for King John’s fate. He sums up his own distress as he recounts his sad task, going on to describe the King’s bravery: “A lion of nobility in good times, leopard of ferocity in adversity...” Listen to the Orlando Consort as they unravel Machaut’s text, the countertenor part adding its own ethereal quality.

Of course, there are other compositions. Dame, se nous m’estes lointeinne is a rarity, a monophonic composition, since Machaut is famous for his highly profound polyphonic pieces. Even stranger is his Moult sui de bonne heure nee – written from a woman’s perspective. And, yes, the lady is as passionate and romantic in her love for her lover as the male nobles are for their ladies. 

Overall, however, Machaut’s tribute to King John dominates this CD. Much as Machaut dominated 14th-century music.

02 Strozzi Vaso DesioVago Desio – Barbara Strozzi Opus 8, Part 1
Elissa Edwards; Richard Kolb
Acis APL90277 (acisproductions.com)

Venetian singer and composer Barbara Strozzi (1619-1677) is perhaps one of the most prolific composers of secular music of her time. With Vago Desio, musicologist and theorbo player Richard Kolb and soprano Elissa Edwards offer Strozzi’s eighth and last known opus, performing from an edition edited by Kolb himself (Complete Works of Barbara Strozzi, Cor Donato Editions, 2019).

Vago Desio’s five arias and two cantatas are set to poetry about the intricacies of love and it is highly likely that Strozzi wrote them for herself to sing. Strozzi’s maturity as a composer is displayed throughout the opus with her powerful vocal writing style, which is lyrical, expressive, dramatic and always guided by text. Most notable is the show piece L’Astratto. The light-hearted parody cantata is sung by a distressed lover who sets out to choose an appropriate style of aria to express the pains of love. The ten-minute piece mixes aria-like phrases, short bursts of recitatives and sarcastic commentary which interrupts each of her short unsuitable attempts before finding an acceptable formula which leads to the complete aria. 

Vago Desio shows Kolb as a sensitive and audacious theorbo player while Edwards shines in interpretations that are gorgeously nuanced with engaging and passionate vocals. Edwards is also a specialist of expressive melodic gestures, which were essential to Strozzi’s style. As such, a concert version of Vago Desio would be welcome. The album also includes two sets of Correntes by Venetian composer Bernardo Gianoncelli with Kolb on the archlute.

03 Vivaldi TamerlanoVivaldi – Il Tamerlano
Soloists; Accademia Bizantina; Ottavio Dantone
naïve Vivaldi Edition OP 7080 (accademiabizantina.it/en/tamerlano)

Vivaldi Edition, an inspiring and noble project dedicated to the recording of nearly 450 works by Vivaldi (as found in the collection at the Biblioteca Nazionale in Turin) has introduced many previously unknown vocal and operatic works by this prolific composer, including Il Tamerlano. Based on the popular libretto by Agostino Piovene, and including several arias by other prominent composers of that time, Il Tamerlano (Il Bajazet) is full of vitality and lyricism and, of course, drama. 

Accademia Bizantina is simply superb. Under the dynamic leadership of Ottavio Dantone, the ensemble grabs the listener’s attention at the very beginning of the gorgeous three-movement instrumental Sinfonia and never lets go. Their nuanced phrasing and marvellous sound underscore every single aria on this album. The recording features a talented cast of singers who bring in the passion, the struggle and the vulnerability of their characters, often in the same breath. Sophie Rennert is delightful in the role of Irene; and Bruno Taddia, in the lead role of Bajazet, showcases both the vigour and the mastery of an artist who is in his prime.

Enthralling music, theatrical story, stellar ensemble and cast, sophisticated performance – this recording pulls out all the stops. You will love this album for the touch of elegance and class it brings into the world of today.

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04 Vivaldi LuceVivaldi – Luce e Ombra
Myriam Leblanc; Ensemble Mirabilia
Analekta AN 2 9137 (analekta.com/en/albums)

Light and shade. One of those many contrasts brought out by Vivaldi in his exceptionally thorough output. For this CD soprano Myriam Leblanc and the Ensemble Mirabilia have paired two apparently conflicting emotions. From the start Leblanc displays a real range of emotions. There is a jarring interpretation of Gelido in ogni vena reflecting the coldness identified in its title. This is supported by the ensemble’s flute, Baroque triple harp and cello. No one can be in doubt of the icy quality of Vivaldi’s score.

Exactly personifying Vivaldi’s contrasts is the chirpiness of Ercole Sul Termodonte. This draws on the flute-playing of Grégoire Jeay, which in turn forms an excellent and equally challenging accompaniment to the soprano. The musicians have made a balanced selection from the Red Priest’s works. Arsilda, regina di Ponto continues the lively tones of light (rather than shade) around which this CD is formed. Again, the Baroque flute is prominent, but it should not disguise the intensity of the other parts.  

This CD shows how deeply the musicians have looked into Vivaldi’s repertoire. The Ombra aspect of Luce e Ombra is brought to our attention by the very appropriately named All’ombra di sospetto. Listen to the intensity of Leblanc’s performance. This reviewer congratulates her on her first recording and wishes her many more.

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