06 Boris GodunovMussorgsky – Boris Godunov
Tsymbalyuk; Paster; Kares; Skorokhodov; Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra; Kent Nagano
BIS BIS-2320 SACD (bis.se)

Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov with its grandeur, epic sweep and forward-looking music is possibly the greatest Russian opera, but it had a difficult time. The original “dark and raw” 1869 score had to be revised drastically to be acceptable for the Imperial Theatre in St. Petersburg; later Rimsky-Korsakov (and Shostakovich) changed the orchestration to suit Western ears. It was Rimsky-Korsakov’s version that became successful outside of Russia. Now there is a trend towards authenticity so Kent Nagano, music director of the Bavarian State Opera, chose the original score for the opera’s visionary avant-garde and very successful revival in 2013, in Munich. He later performed it in Stockholm in concert form which is the basis of this recording.

The original version is brutal, concise and dark-hued and concentrates mainly on the Tsar Boris – who came to the throne by murdering the legitimate heir – his ascent, his struggle with a guilty conscience and a final decline into madness.

Nagano’s selection of Alexander Tsymbalyuk, relatively young and a voice more lyrical than that of the legendary Chaliapin (who owned the role for decades), was ideal for the vulnerable and tormented Boris. Of the other bass voices, young Finnish basso Mika Kares (Pimen) and Alexey Tikhomirov (Varlaam) with his iconic song Once upon a time in the city of Kazan, stand out. The tenor Grigory, the false pretender who causes Boris’ downfall but curiously disappears from the plot after a short appearance, is Sergei Skorokhodov. Another protagonist, the Chorus, “the voice of Russia” ,has tremendous power, but the real star is Nagano who is by now one the greatest conductors of our time. His superb control and total immersion into the score remind me of Abbado a generation before him.

07 Bartok BluebeardBartók – Bluebeard’s Castle
John Relyea; Michelle DeYoung; Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra; Edward Gardner
Chandos CHSA 5237 (naxosdirect.com)

There are many fine recordings of Bartók’s gothic, two-character psychodrama; this one is special because both singers have made this opera their own, performing it around the world. As a tandem, American mezzo Michelle DeYoung and Toronto native, bass John Relyea, have sung these signature roles on many stages from Carnegie Hall to the Sydney Opera House.

It’s essential that Judith and Bluebeard be, as here, evenly matched vocally and dramatically, in their life-or-death battle of wills. (I’ve attended performances featuring very unequal pairings.) DeYoung’s impassioned singing convinces us of Judith’s love for Bluebeard and her determination to bring light into his gloomy abode, demanding to see what lies behind his castle’s seven locked doors. Relyea’s firm, resonant bass, plumbing the emotional depths of Bluebeard’s ghastly secrets, makes him today’s definitive Bluebeard.

Conductor Edward Gardner relishes the phantasmagoric colours and textures of the largest orchestra Bartók ever used, creating vivid sonic imagery of the grim, blood-soaked scenes behind the opened doors. The fortissimo tutti when the fifth door opens to reveal the magnificence of Bluebeard’s realm and Judith’s ecstatic, sustained high-C reaction, is truly one of the most thrilling moments in all opera.

The Hungarian-sung text is included along with an English translation. Librettist Béla Balázs’ two-minute spoken Prologue, not always performed, is also heard here, asking (in Hungarian) “Where did this happen? Outside or within? Ancient fable, what does it mean…? Observe carefully.”

Listen to this CD carefully, too.

08 Mahler Orchestral Songs organMahler – Orchestral Songs: The Organ Transcriptions
David John Pike; David Briggs
Analekta AN 2 9180 (analekta.com/en)

The English organist David Briggs, a student of the renowned Jean Langlais, is no stranger to these parts, having served as artist-in-residence at the Cathedral Church of St. James in Toronto from 2012 to 2017 before moving on to his current post at the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine in New York City. Briggs is also a composer, a stalwart transcriber of the improvisations of the legendary Pierre Cochereau, and an arranger with a particular interest in the symphonies of Mahler, five of which he has refashioned for the organ. He is joined on this recording by the excellent young Canadian baritone David John Pike (now based in Luxembourg) in commanding performances of Mahler’s Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen, Kindertotenlieder and Rückert-Lieder orchestral song cycles.

One might think it a bit of a stretch to re-imagine these works in this unusual context, but in truth Mahler rarely ventures beyond three-part writing even at his most gargantuan moments and these works are routinely performed in the composer’s own piano versions. Briggs’ thoughtful choice of timbres reflect Mahler’s own instrumentations quite convincingly. The recording venue is quite an interesting one: The Basilica of Constantine (Konstantin-Basilika) at Trier, Germany dates from the beginning of the fourth century. Burned in an air raid in 1944, subsequent repairs exposed the original inner brick walls; at the back of this spartan edifice hangs a newly built organ from 2014 designed by the firm of Hermann Eule. Though Eule normally specializes in neo-Baroque Silbermann-era designs, this particular installation is symphonically arranged with 87 stops (over 6000 pipes) on four manual works and pedal, making it the largest organ in Trier and offering a vast palette of exceptionally beautiful tones to choose from.

09 Magdalena KozenaSoirée
Magdalena Kozena & Friends
Pentatone PTC 5186 671 (pentatonemusic.com)

How nice it is that a singer would take some time out of her crazy, busy life, sit down with friends and a few drinks and sing her favourite songs. And that’s exactly what by-now-world-famous-Czech mezzo, award-winning recitalist, recording artist and opera star, Magdalena Kožená, does here. This is her debut issue on the Pentatone label. The “friends” include a string quartet, a clarinet, a flute and a piano, the latter played by her husband, Sir Simon Rattle. Each combination of these instruments creates different tonal effects and colouring for an idiomatic and unique accompaniment.

Her choice of program gives a cross section of lieder literature from the late Romantics (Chausson, Dvořák, Brahms and R. Strauss) through French Impressionism (Ravel) and some Moderns (Stravinsky and Janáček). In fact we can follow the development of the art song with a fascinating variety and style where the golden thread of Kožená’s imagination, wonderfully expressive voice, beautiful intonation and some lovely inflections are evident throughout. Just listen to her inflection on “Vögelein” in Gestillte Sehnsucht, by Brahms!

Naturally she is strongest in her native Czech and Moravian idiom. She sings with youthful freshness and confidence. Especially impressive and unique are the Nursery Rhymes by Janáček; some are outrageously funny. And I am happy she included one of my all-time favourite songs by Dvořák, When my mother taught me.

A lovely, relaxed musical evening you will cherish.

10 RencontreRencontre – Debussy; Delage; Poulenc; Ravel
Raquel Camarinha; Yoan Héreau
Naïve V 5454 (naxosdirect.com)

Despite competition in this repertoire from other discs, I think that readers partial to the mélodie (art song) will find much to appreciate in this first recording by the young French duo of Raquel Camarinha, soprano, and Yoan Héreau, piano. Already these artists have busy European careers as recitalists, chamber musicians and opera professionals.

On this disc Camarinha’s tone stays rich and consistent through the top register, while Héreau rises to the works’ colouristic challenges whether playing rapid figuration or subtle sonorities. In Ravel’s three-song Schéhérazade, Asia’s imagined voyage receives evocative treatment. The Enchanted Flute, a favourite of mine, is concise and flowing. Turning to well-known Debussy settings of two groups of symbolist Paul Verlaine’s poems, the combination of langour and sadness in Ariettes oubliées is conveyed effectively; the wonderful Fairground Horses breaks those moods with brio and virtuosic pianism from Héreau. In Fêtes galantes I was struck by soft floating high tones from Camarinha at the close of Clair de lune (incidentally, this music is completely different from Debussy’s identically titled piano piece).

Quatre poèmes hindous by Maurice Delage (1879-1961) adds the influence of Eastern scales and melody to idioms of Debussy and Ravel. Lahore is especially worth hearing for Camarinha’s vocal flexibility and sensitivity in a gorgeous extended vocalise. Finally, a generous selection of songs with exquisite syllabic text settings by Poulenc demonstrates her wonderfully clear diction – including the adept execution of the rapid tongue-twisters Fêtes galantes and He steals!

11 Canadian Chamber ChoirSeasons of Life and Landscape
Canadian Chamber Choir
Independent CCCCD003 (canadianchamberchoir.ca)

A truly national ensemble, the Canadian Chamber Choir draws its membership from across the country, gathering for seven to ten-day projects in different regions in order to actualize a mandate to bring Canadian choral music to every corner of the land. This particular project is meant to guide the listener, as if walking through an art exhibit that draws on different media but is built around a common theme; in this case, the ever-changing seasons.

At the beginning of the recording, a gorgeous Intro featuring Jeff Reilly on bass clarinet, Keith Hamm, viola, and Beverley Johnston, vibraphone, sets a high bar for the rest of the program. The forces of nature and its effect on the human spirit are then conjured through pieces like Laura Hawley’s undulating Le Rideau and effervescent Singing Summer’s Praises while mystic elements shine forth in Imant Raminsh’s In the Night We Shall Go In and Cree composer Andrew Balfour’s Vision Chant, as well as Antiphon by Peter Togni and Jeff Reilly. Reminiscences shape shift like clouds in Levasseur-Ouimet’s Parlez-moi and composer-in-residence Jeff Enns’ Le pont Mirabeau. Throughout these offerings, members of the choir execute a myriad of styles soulfully, meticulously and with remarkable quality of tone. They also do a fine job with arrangements of Joni Mitchell’s River and Gordon Lightfoot’s Song for a Winter’s Night.

Listen to 'Seasons of Life and Landscape' Now in the Listening Room

01 When There Is PeaceZachary Wadsworth – When There is Peace: An Armistice Oratorio
Chor Leoni Men’s Choir; Erick Lichte
Independent CLR 1909 (chorleoni.org)

One year ago (November 10 and 11), the 100th anniversary of the end of World War I, this work was premiered and recorded in Vancouver, where Zachary Wadsworth (b.1983) is the Chor Leoni Men’s Choir composer-in-residence. Wadsworth says his goal was “to honour the experiences” of those who served and “to celebrate those who gave their lives in search of peace.”

The 58-minute oratorio draws from 17 different writers, including many soldiers’ wartime descriptions and poetry by Robert Service, Siegfried Sassoon, Sara Teasdale and others. Soprano Arwen Myers, tenor Lawrence Wiliford and five readers add to the sonic mix led by the chorus, Borealis String Quartet and percussionists Martin Fisk and Robin Reid, all conducted by the choir’s artistic director, Erick Lichte.

The prevailing mood, as expected, is sombre, with the chorus suggesting (to me) the haunted voices of the dead, ghostly laments from beyond the grave. A recurring motif relates to birds – representing life in contrast to the carnage below. Musically, there’s a repeated ascending violin melody (shades of Vaughan Williams!) while the text (included) mentions “larks,” “thrush,” “brave birds,” “bird songs,” “swallows,” “robins” and Sassoon’s description of the armistice: “Everyone burst out singing… with such delight as prisoned birds must find in freedom.”

The well-crafted music of this worthy addition to the choral memorial repertoire provides a platform for the powerful words of war and peace, century-old words still relevant, not only on Remembrance Day, but on all days.

02 Gounod Nonne SanglantCharles Gounod – La Nonne Sanglante
Michael Spyres; Vannina Santoni; Marion Lebègue; Accentus; Insula Orchestra; Laurence Equilbey
Naxos 2.110632 (naxos.com)

In 2018, the bicentennial of Gounod’s birth, the Paris Opéra Comique revived this opera, unstaged until 2008 in Germany following its brief, 11-performance run in 1854. Whatever the reasons for its initial failure, this production, with highly dramatic scenes, brilliantly sung by an outstanding cast, makes a persuasive case for its future survival.

During the dark, nervous Overture we witness the Nun’s murder and slo-mo start of a battle between two warring clans in 11th-century Bohemia. (Today’s opera directors abhor closed curtains during overtures.) The libretto involves two lovers from the rival clans, the ghost of “the Bleeding Nun” seeking vengeance against her murderer, mistaken identity, ghostly gatherings and a murder plot, ending with the lovers, Agnès and Rodolphe, finally reunited.

Befitting the supernatural goings-on, the semi-abstract sets and projections are all grey and black, as are most of the cast’s costumes, a mix of medieval and modern. The Nun wears a white, bloodstained shroud; the other ghosts appear in grey military garb or shrouded in white.

Tenor Michael Spyres (Rodolphe) dominates the action – his arias presage Gounod’s great tenor arias for Faust and Roméo – and with his sweet yet powerful voice he sings them all magnificently! Paralleling Spyres’ intense, thrilling vocalism are sopranos Vannina Santoni (Agnès) and Jodie Devos (Arthur, Rodolphe’s page), and mezzo Marion Lebègue (Nun). Conductor Laurence Equilbey’s minor cuts, mostly in the ballet, help propel the excitement throughout.

Enthusiastically recommended to all lovers of great singing!

03 Winterreise BostridgeWinterreise
Ian Bostridge; Thomas Adès
Pentatone PTC5186 764 (naxosdirect.com)

Ian Bostridge reaffirms the case for Franz Schubert’s Winterreise being the greatest of song cycles; it’s also famous for the number of times it has been recorded – including seven times by the great lyric baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau. This Pentatone recording is Bostridge’s third and that makes ten recordings by two of the finest exponents of lieder the world has ever seen.

In Winterreise Schubert takes the despondency which closed Die schöne Müllerin and pushes it to extremes creating a desolate landscape (both inner and outer) of unrelenting pessimism. Even Schubert’s friends, who understood the pain from where it sprung, were reportedly dismayed by the bleakness of the song cycle.

Bostridge brilliantly cloaks himself in Schubert‘s rejected lover, driven to the verge of madness as we follow his lonely peregrinations through a snowbound landscape. Thomas Adès’ pianism highlights the emotional veracity of the performance.

As the lover’s journey progresses, his vision becomes more inward and the subjectivity of the songs more pronounced. The final song, Der Leiermann, is a masterstroke: the traveller meets a destitute hurdy-gurdy player, whose rustic song Schubert mimics with a quirky piano figure. The wanderer wonders whether he should go with him but his question is left hanging in the air as the song drifts away. If Fischer-Dieskau’s baritone voice heightened the gloom, Bostridge’s tenor enhances the cycle’s drama through contrast between vocal tone and meaning.

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