09 Shostakovich 13Shostakovich – Symphony No.13 “Babi Yar”
Oleg Tsibulko; Russian National Orchestra; Kirill Karabits
PentaTone PTC 5186 618 (naxosdirect.com)

In the absence of a memorial marking the scene of one of the many great atrocities committed by the Nazis in WWII, Dmitri Shostakovich erected his Symphony No.13, “Babi Yar” (1962). Initially, Shostakovich set only the title poem by his younger compatriot Yevgeny Yevtushenko. Later, he encouraged the poet to provide more, ending up with a total of five movements, all of them choral settings. 

This is post-Stalin Shostakovich, a time when the composer allowed his musical utterances to be “modern,” encouraged by the “Khrushchev Thaw.” His choice to set a poem that more or less accuses his compatriots of anti-Semitism was nonetheless full of personal risk, given how poorly the poem had been received by critics and the Russian public. Disturbing echoes can be found when one reads the text in today’s context, as nationalists again repeat the phrases that disguise hate. The music that accompanies the part of the text echoing Anne Frank’s diary is heartrending.

On this recording the chorus, orchestra and soloist are uniformly excellent. Oleg Tsibulko has the classic Russian basso voice, warm and powerful. The recording was made in a studio, but one hears a reverberant hall. At times overbearing, as one might expect given the subject matter, there are lighter moments. The second movement, for example: Humour is a celebration of how mirth and mockery always triumph over tyranny; it’s a scherzo where Shostakovich pulls out all his favourite tricks. 

The text of the other poems veers between subversion and sloganeering, treading a line between orthodoxy and rebellion. The most interesting is the final poem, A Career. Its ambiguity is matched quite cleverly to the most tonal and tuneful music in the symphony. Trust Shostakovich to loose the arrows of irony toward an unsuspecting target.

10 Voces8After Silence
Voces8 Records VCM129 (voces8aftersilence.com)

Multiple-award winning British vocal ensemble, VOCES8, has just released a two-CD collection rife with diverse works from Bach, Mahler, Monteverdi, Byrd, Britten, Dove, Fauré and more. Known for their eclecticism, the ensemble performs in a cappella format, in collaboration with a wide variety of orchestras and specialized ensembles, as well as with noted soloists. The title of this ambitious project refers to a quote from Aldous Huxley, “After silence, that which comes nearest to expressing the inexpressible, is music”.

The program here is divided into four sections: Remembrance, Devotion, Redemption and Elemental, with each containing enervating, multi-influenced compositions. Produced by Adrian Peacock and under the artistic direction of Barnaby Smith, the recording utilized the stunning natural acoustics of the Chapel of Trinity College at Cambridge, St. George’s Church in Chesterton and St. John the Evangelist in Islington. The uber-gifted members of VOCES8 include sopranos Andrea Haynes and Eleonore Cockerham; altos Katie Jeffries-Harris and Barnaby Smith; tenors Blake Morgan and Euan Williamson and basses Christopher Moore and Jonathan Pacey. 

Remembrance begins with the sombre beauty of Orlando Gibbons’ Drop, Drop, Slow Tears, which initiates the emotional four-song exploration of the depth and nature of grief and loss. Through each track, the ensemble exercises not only magical dynamics, but a breathtaking relationship to A440 and heavenly intonation. The vocal blend and control of the respective vocal instruments here is nothing short of incomparable. Devotion examines filial, venal, sacred and romantic love as illustrated in Monteverdi’s heart-rending madrigal Lagrime d’amante al sepolcro dell’amata. Redemption and Elemental contain a nearly unbearable amount of beauty, but an exquisite track is Mahler’s Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen. In short – After Silence is perfection. 

01 ScarlattiAlessandro Scarlatti – Gli equivoci nel sembiante
Capella Intima; Gallery Players of Niagara; Nota Bene Baroque Players; Bud Roach
Musica Omnia mo0803 (galleryplayers.ca/shop/music) 

Alessandro Scarlatti’s first opera, Gil equivoci nel sembiante, was conceived and performed in the dark days of the papacy of Innocent XI. The virtual ban on secular art meant that the defiance of its composition and its performance, albeit privately, in 1679 must rate as one of the most glorious conceits of the religious censorship of the Baroque era. This extraordinary recording captures the dizzying episodes of mistaken identity with delightfully translucent obfuscation and appropriate comedy. 

The shepherd Eurillo and Clori, a nymph and object of his affection, are engaged in a hilarious, dizzy mix-up with a Eurillo look-alike, Armindo, and Clori’s envious younger sister Lisetta. Each is swept up in an interlinked romantic affair that becomes so awkward that it takes a near-miraculous appearance of all four characters together at once to unknot the whole affair.

Alessandro Scarlatti (1660-1725), the most celebrated name in Baroque opera, composed more than 60 operas during his life, changing with the times and influencing the genre through significant artistic reform. His brilliant work is brought to life with uncommon vividness by these performers. The vocalists of the Capella Intima embrace the radiance and foibles contained in Domenico Filippo Contini’s libretto. The Gallery Players of Niagara and the Nota Bene Baroque Players – playing period and contemporary instruments beautifully – add colourful realism to Scarlatti’s exquisite music. Bud Roach adds his masterful direction to bring it all to life.

Listen to 'Alessandro Scarlatti – Gli equivoci nel sembiante' Now in the Listening Room

02 Rolando VillazonnMozartissimo
Rolando Villazón
Deutsche Grammophon 4837917 (rolandovillazon.com/now-available-mozartissimo-from-deutsche-grammophon)

Mexican lyric tenor Rolando Villazón has justly become world famous while conquering most of the bel canto and even the heavier roles (e.g. Don Carlo, Werther etc.) and has become the darling of the opera-loving public by teaming up with Anna Netrebko creating a “dream couple” with their youthful and attractive looks, natural compatibility and lovely stage presence. His youthful exuberance, intensity and taking of chances unfortunately led him into trouble and surgery, but he successfully recovered. Now he has turned to Mozart whom he reveres and calls his “most beloved composer and dearest friend.”

 My first encounter with him in Mozart was a recent recording by DG of Don Giovanni, which I reviewed in these pages (April 2016), singing Don Ottavio and bringing an erotic Latin sensuality to the part. Since then DG has recorded all seven Mozart operas with him taking the tenor role in most. This new issue contains almost all of Mozart’s work for the tenor. A tremendous undertaking.

Villazón begins with the two famous arias from Don Giovanni including my favourite Il mio tesoro intanto, immediately showing his virtuosity with a voice that triggers varied emotions often within the same aria. What follows are excerpts from Cosi fan tutte, Abduction from the seraglio, Le nozze di Figaro, La clemenza di Tito and Die Zauberflöte where he takes the role of Papageno, again showing his versatility with this buffo role. All the foregoing are accompanied by the Mahler Chamber Orchestra and the Chamber Orchestra of Europe conducted with exquisite Mozartian style by Yannick Nézet-Séguin.

A most rewarding disc that should be enjoyed piecemeal, one or two items at a time, to come to you fresh with each listening.

03 Sturm and Drang 1Sturm und Drang Volume 1
Chiara Skerath; The Mozartists; Ian Page
Signum Classics SIGCD619 (signumrecords.com/product/sturm-und-drang-volume-1/SIGCD619)

The Sturm und Drang movement (often translated as “Storm and Stress”) was a brief moment in post-Baroque art, lasting from the 1760s to the 1780s, characterized by extremes of subjectivity, passion and sentimentality. In some ways this movement anticipated the ideals of Romanticism, using dramatic and turbulent musical ideas to express intensely moody atmospheres, but it was also reactionary and revolutionary against the rococo backdrop of the late Baroque era.

This disc, the first in a seven-volume series exploring the Sturm und Drang movement incorporates iconic compositions from the 1760s by Gluck and Haydn, as well as largely forgotten or neglected works by less familiar names such as Niccolò Jommelli and Franz Ignaz Beck. 

Whether the composer and the repertoire are firmly in the contemporary canon or not, these works are clearly connected in style and substance. Beck’s Symphony in G Minor, for example, has all the characteristic features of an early symphony by Mozart or Haydn, including formal structures, modulatory formulae and thematic development, while Jommelli’s opera Fetonte is, in retrospect, a decidedly Mozartean effort. It is essential to note, however, that Jommelli was born in 1714, 42 years before Mozart, and it is Jommelli who is credited for advancing opera seria to a level of freedom and complexity that paved the way for Mozart and his contemporaries. 

A universal feature of the Sturm und Drang composers is a juxtaposition of relatively simple melodic and harmonic material with vibrant, aggressive and engaging rhythms. It is paramount that a performer conveys the vitality of these rhythms while still reflecting the chiaroscuro subtleties of the overall work. Fortunately, conductor Ian Page and the Mozartists are enormously capable interpreters and breathe life into these works in a way that sounds both effortless and tremendously satisfying.

04 Verdi OtelloVerdi – Otello
Jonas Kaufmann; Orchestra e Coro dell’Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia; Antonio Pappano
Sony Classical 19439707932 (jonaskaufmann.com/en/192/all-cds.html) 

My fondest memory of Otello was, as I recall, around 1960, walking in from the street to the Royal Alexandra Theatre to hear Jon Vickers sing the title role! Seven dollars for the ticket. Those were the good old days...

Now in the 21st century it is world-famous German heldentenor Jonas Kaufmann who steps into a long line of great Otellos: Vickers, Ramòn Vinay, Mario del Monaco, Plácido Domingo, José Cura et al. But it took a long period of hesitation and gestation before he decided to attempt this Mount Everest of tenor roles. Much like it took Verdi, who hadn’t composed anything for the stage for 15 years, a great deal of agonizing before he was persuaded by a brilliant librettist, Arrigo Boito, and the Shakespearean subject matter, to write again at age 74. The result was an astounding masterwork, unlike anything he had written before.

Kaufmann’s first attempt to sing the role was in 2017 at Covent Garden under Antonio Pappano’s masterly handling of the score and it was a breakthrough success. Sony Classical decided to make a recording in Rome with the same principals and the famed Santa Cecilia Orchestra and Chorus. This is actually the second “Roman” Otello, the first being from 1960 with Vickers, Rysanek and Tito Gobbi, Tullio Serafin conducting. 

Kaufmann superbly delivers a role that exhausts all emotions, the power, the passion, the grief, but also lyrical tenderness in Gioia nella notte dense, one of the most beautiful love duets ever written. His triumphant entry, the exuberant Esultate, is shattering. Italian soprano Federica Lombardi is an ideal Desdemona who “successfully brings off a marvellous musical depiction of wounded innocence” with her beautiful, many-shaded voice. Of course there is Iago, Carlos Álvarez, a veteran of the role who is suitably conniving and malevolent, but Kaufmann and Pappano’s collaboration is symbiotic and the magnum force that binds it all together. “An Otello for the ages.” (The New York Times)

05 Gurrelieder GlagoliticSchoenberg – Gurre-Lieder; Janáček – Glagolitic Mass
Soloists; Chor des Bayerischen Rundfunks; Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks; Rafael Kubelík
Urania Records WS121388 (naxosdirect.com/items/schoenberg-gurre-lieder-janácek-glagolitic-mass-534288)

This sprawling, two-disc release pairs Arnold Schoenberg’s Gurre-Lieder with Leoš Janáček’s Glagolitic Mass. There is an unexpected symbiosis achieved from juxtaposing the two works, both masterstrokes of their respective composers’ catalogues. 

The record opens with the Gurre-Lieder. Bavarian Radio Symphony and Choir and Rafael Kubelik offer a gilded rendition of the orchestral prelude, celebrating its expressionist sonorities with a vibrant, contemporary veneer to the sound profile and design. One feels that this could almost be the work of an orchestralist titan of our own century: John Adams or Kaija Saariaho. Of course, this is due in no small part to the expert insights and overarching concept Kubelik brings to Schoenberg’s art; the conductor has a remarkable talent for breathing urgent new life into scores from the past, imbuing everything he touches with brilliance and finesse.

The singing itself and delivery of text is equally compelling. Every voice contributes a unique component to the narrative arc, expertly balanced and stylistically suitable to such sumptuous orchestral direction. The final installment of Part III, “The Summer Wind’s Wild Hunt,” proves an impressive convergence of all elements in a whirling, bristling finale where not a single musical stone goes unturned – a thrilling end to a monumental work of love and tragedy.

The second half of Disc Two is occupied by Janáček’s Glagolitic Mass, JW III/9. As is typical of the composer’s best scores, this music boasts laser-precise allocations of material: instruments and voices are grouped via singular senses of registral timbre and colour. The efficiency of expression here almost surpasses Schoenberg’s longer work, as Janáček finds the perfect compositional solution for each verse of text and instrumental interlude. 

Additionally, the composer’s penchant for writing choral music is on full display – not to mention the infamous organ solo! – all expertly enhanced by impeccable diction from the vocal soloists. While more modest in scope than the Gurre-Lieder, Janáček’s Glagolitic Mass is performed here with a breadth of expression and understanding that matches the lineage of pan-Slavic history and its corresponding inheritance. The darker Eastern tunes of old fittingly conclude this indomitable two-disc set, worthy of a second – and even a third – listen!

06 ParryParry – Songs of farewell
Westminster Abbey Choir; James O’Donnell
Hyperion CDA68301 (hyperion-records.co.uk/tw.asp?w=W47)

For lovers of choral music, the British label Hyperion has championed the genre ever since its founding in 1980. This latest offering, featuring works by Parry, Stanford and Gray performed by the Westminster Abbey choir under the direction of James O’Donnell, is a splendid addition.

The disc opens with Stanford’s three Latin Motets Op.38, one of the composer’s few settings of church music using Latin texts. Completed in 1892 and published 13 years later, they have long been regarded as among his finest choral compositions. The Westminster choir approaches the music with a satisfying conviction, with the second, Caelos ascendit hodie, sung with particular buoyancy.

Alan Gray was Stanford’s successor as organist at Trinity College. His Magnificat and Nunc dimittis for double choir from 1912 make use of attractive counterpoint and antiphony, while Stanford’s Magnificat in B-flat was written as a “truce” to his friend Hubert Parry with whom he had had a brief falling out. Completed in 1918, the piece draws from Renaissance and early Baroque mannerisms, and at times contains a hint of the great Magnificat by J.S. Bach.

The bulk of the recording is devoted to Parry’s six Songs of farewell, written between 1914 and 1915 using texts spanning a 200-year period. The choir’s wonderful control of phrasing and dynamics, in addition to the superb acoustics of the All Hallows Church in London, make this a memorable performance.

The final song, Lord let me know mine end based on Psalm 39, is not only the lengthiest of the set, but also the most moving and personal. It contains a range of varying tempos but ends quietly, thus bringing the set – and the disc – to a satisfying conclusion.

07 Thais600x600Massenet – Thaïs
Erin Wall; Joshua Hopkins; Andrew Staples; Toronto Mendelssohn Choir; Toronto Symphony Orchestra; Sir Andrew Davis
Chandos CHSA 5258(2) (naxosdirect.com/items/massenet-tha%c3%afs-535854) 

Jules Massenet may be best-known for his operas Manon and – his magnum opus – Werther, but it is for his opera Thaïs that he wrote arguably his most iconic piece of music: the gossamer-like Méditation for violin and orchestra. This five-and-a-half-minute interlude – a theme for everything that flows out of the Premier Tableau, Chez Thaïs – just after Thaïs, idole fragile, from where the entire work is raised to a level of great intensity and exquisite delicacy.

Massenet’s work is Wagnerian in more ways than one. Not only does he adopt (Wagner’s) dramatic, Germanic tradition but also dwells on the inner struggle between the spiritual and the sensual. Thaïs (1894/98), like his celebrated oratorio Marie-Magdeleine (1873), explores this theme. Thaïs, like other French music of the day, also reveals Massenet’s fascination with, and affection for, orientalism. 

Based on Anatole France’s eponymous book, the story is woven into the cultural topography of Coptic Egypt – specifically Hellenistic Alexandria – where Thaïs earns the consternation of the Cenobites, especially Athanaël, the most rigorous ascetic of them all; and beguiles, among others, the wealthy voluptuary, Nicias. The titanic battle for Thaïs, body and soul – the struggle between spirituality and sensuality in Louis Gallet’s French libretto – is magnificently directed in this version by Sir Andrew Davis. Erin Wall’s Thaïs is lustrous and magical. Joshua Hopkins’ Athanaël is magical; Andrew Staples’ Nicias is superb, the TSO and the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir are in top form throughout.

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