01 Rossini ZelmiraRossini – Zelmira
Soloists; Górecki Chamber Choir, Krakow; Virtuosi Brunensis; Gianluigi Gelmetti
Naxos 8.660468-70 (naxosdirect.com)

Dating from 1822, Zelmira is the 33rd of Rossini’s 39 operas and the last one he wrote in Naples. By that time he was aiming for international attention, first step to be Vienna. Zelmira achieved great success there and later in Paris, but inexplicably it fell out of public favour and simply disappeared for nearly two centuries. By a stroke of luck in 1995, Richard Bonynge and Joan Sutherland found the score in an antique bookshop in Paris and it was quickly bought by the Pesaro Festival and triumphantly performed there with a stellar cast.

The reason for the disfavour was Rossini’s attempt to reconcile Italian and German styles by devising new harmonies and orchestral effects, no doubt to please Vienna audiences, but unfortunately it was too unusual for Italians. Too bad, because it’s a tremendous grand opera with magnificent, original and highly inspired music and great opportunities for singers; particularly for the two principal tenors and the lead soprano (written for Rossini’s wife, Isabella Colbran).

The story takes us to the Age of Antiquity, to Lesbos on the Aegean Sea. It revolves around the king’s daughter Zelmira, who after many vicissitudes, false accusations and even prison, saves her father, and her son, from wicked usurpers to the throne. The main villain is Antenore, secondo tenore (American tenor Joshua Stewart) with a tremendously difficult tessitura, full of powerful high notes à la Rossini. He comes to the stage first, but just you wait for the primo tenore, Ilo, prince of Troy and Zelmira’s husband (sung by Turkish virtuoso Mert Süngü), and his first cavatina – Cara! deh attendimi! – with even more hair-raising vocal acrobatics.

Silvia Dalla Benetta is Zelmira. She crowns it all with her superb voice and is thoroughly enchanting in Perché mi guardi e piangi, one of Rossini’s most inspired creations.  All wonderfully held together and conducted by veteran Rossinian maestro Gianluigi Gelmetti.

02 Janacek House of DeadjpgLeoš Janáček – From the House of the Dead
Bayerisches Staatsorchester and Chorus; Simone Young
BelAir Classiques BAC173 (naxosdirect.com)

Janáček’s From the House of the Dead is a gripping dramatic work. The last opera he composed, this adaptation of Dostoyevsky’s novel premiered in 1930, two years after Janáček’s death, with an orchestration completed by two of his students. From the House of the Dead is notable for a number of reasons, including the use of chains as percussion in the orchestra (to reflect the sounds of the prisoners shuffling back and forth) and the lack of narrative content; there is no overarching storyline, but rather a number of episodic narratives relating to individual prisoners interspersed with occurrences within the prison itself.

This video release from the Bayerische Staatsoper is captivating, providing a gritty interpretation of Janáček’s work. Featuring an onstage cage in which the majority of the large ensemble cast is contained throughout the performance as well as superb costumes, including an homage to the famous Day of the Dead, the visual plays as important a role in this opera as the music. It is fascinating to see how this production so ably serves the dramatic requirements of Janáček’s opera and reinforces just how confined and uncomfortable this Siberian prison camp is, as told by Dostoyevsky. 

The Staatsoper soloists, chorus and orchestra are superb throughout this short yet intense work, conveying the depth and darkness of the score without once coming across as melodramatic. One of the 20th century’s most profound and significant operatic composers, Janáček displays his mastery in full force in From the House of the Dead, and this production is highly recommended to all who enjoy this Czech master’s works.

03 ZemlinskyZemlinsky – Der Traumgörge
Josef Protschka; Pamela Coburn; Janis Martin; Hartmut Welker; Hessischer Rundfunk Youth Chorus; RSO Frankfurt; Gerd Albrecht
Capriccio C5395 (naxosdirect.com)

In 1907, Alexander Zemlinsky’s new opera Der Traumgörge was set to premiere at Vienna’s Court Opera. But after its conductor, Zemlinsky’s mentor Gustav Mahler, abruptly resigned as music director of the opera house, the production was cancelled. Zemlinsky was already well-established as a composer, pianist, conductor and teacher (his students included Schoenberg, Korngold and Alma Schindler, who later married Mahler). But it took almost 75 years for Der Traumgörge to get its first performance. 

This version, recorded live at a concert performance in 1987, seven years after the much-delayed premiere, has long been unavailable. Now, with Zemlinsky’s music finally getting the attention it deserves, Capriccio has reissued it. 

The psychological undercurrents of Der Traumgörge’s libretto by Leo Feld resonate with Freudian profundity. Görgesets off on a quest to find the princess he’s been fantasizing about. Instead he encounters a troubled woman, Gertraud. When she is brutally attacked for being a witch, Görge rescues her and brings her back home. Finally he figures out that she is the woman of his dreams after all. 

Conductor Gerd Albrecht shows an incisive grasp of Zemlinsky’s opulent late-Romantic style. The terrific cast of singers get right to the heart of this inspired music. With the only other recording of this opera, James Conlon’s from 2001, unavailable, it’s disappointing that Capriccio did not include the libretto with this release. Otherwise, it’s a most welcome reissue.

04 ClytemnestraClytemnestra
Ruby Hughes; BBC National Orchestra of Wales; Jac van Steen
BIS BIS-2408 SACD (naxosdirect.com)

The maverick Welsh soprano Ruby Hughes is the star of this alluring collection of song cycles which opens with five songs by Gustav Mahler based on the poetry of Friedrich Rückert, sung with admirable sensitivity and a clear, light voice. There are of course landmark recordings of these lieder that are richer in tone and emotionally more compelling, by the likes of Janet Baker, Christa Ludwig and Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau; nevertheless Hughes offers a youthful and well-considered take on these intimate songs.

The Viennese premiere of Alban Berg’s Altenberg Lieder in March 1913 was the cause of a legendary riot. Though only two of the five songs of the cycle were programmed, a member of the audience soon bellowed out that both the composer and poet (the whimsical picture-postcard texts were authored by Peter Altenberg) should be sent to the insane asylum. In fact, the poet was already there! Fisticuffs ensued and the remainder of the concert was abandoned. The effect on Berg was devastating. A complete performance of this astounding composition, which presages advances in chromaticism (including some proto-serial elements) that foreshadow those of his mentor Schoenberg, would not take place until 1952, long after his death. This is a most worthy contribution to the limited roster of recordings of this great work.

Clytemnestra, a 25-minute song cycle by the Welsh composer Rhian Samuel, is a vivid, blood-curdling setting of Aeschylus’s tale of the murder of Agamemnon by his wife. Commissioned by the BBC Wales Orchestra in 1994, Samuel’s libretto is constructed solely from Clytemnestra’s point of view. This is a garish, unabashedly cinematic work, massively orchestrated and incorporating some provocative electric bass guitar solos, compellingly brought to life in a riveting performance from both soloist and orchestra under the direction of their principal guest conductor Jac van Steen.

05 Agata ZubelApparition
Agata Zubel; Krzysztof Książek
CD accord ACD 263-2 (naxos.com)

The 20th century was a time of immense creativity, with the fundamental building blocks of musical composition and interpretation disassembled and reconstructed by some of Western music’s most legendary figures. Apparition explores a number of lesser-known and underappreciated composers from this period, including Barber, Crumb and Szymanowski.

This disc opens with Maurice Ravel’s Shéhérazade, an art song triptych based on the renowned Arabic folk tales of One Thousand and One Nights, most famously set to music by Rimsky-Korsakov. Ravel’s songs feature characteristic exoticism, combining “oriental” material with impressionistic harmonies and long vocal lines, expertly interpreted by Zubel and Książek. These traditional, almost Debussian works are sharply contrasted with George Crumb’s Apparition, a set of songs which combine the familiar with the avant-garde. Within this cycle, Crumb gives the singer her expected role, singing texts set to tunes, with a few exceptions such as the three Vocalises, which utilize the timbral aspect of the voice independent of textual tethers. The piano part, however, is a demanding essay in extended techniques throughout the cycle, as the pianist is required to utilize every part of the piano to produce percussive, shimmering, and rattling effects.

The remainder of this disc’s contents fall between these two stylistic extremes: Szymanowski’s Songs of a Fairy Tale Princess, Barber’s Opus 13 songs, and Fernando Obradors’ Canciones all align themselves more closely with Ravel than Crumb, bringing the 19th-century tradition of art song forward into the 20th. As a whole, Apparition is a well-thought-out and equally well-performed survey of piano-voice repertoire from the last century and well worth a listen, especially for those who appreciate the radical genius of George Crumb.  

06 Lang The LoserDavid Lang – The Loser
Rod Gilfry; Conrad Tao; Bang on a Can Opera Ensemble; Lesley Leighton
Cantaloupe Music CA21155 (cantaloupemusic.com)

When I hear a line like, “Strangely enough I met Glenn on Monk’s Mountain, my childhood mountain, which is also called Suicide Mountain, since it is especially suited for suicide and every week at least three or four people throw themselves off it into the void,” and find myself, despite myself, laughing, I know I’m experiencing the misanthropic comedy of Thomas Bernhard. In this case I’m listening to the nameless narrator of Bernhard’s novel, The Loser, who, as many Canadian readers know, is obsessed with the Glenn mentioned above, last name Gould. Aside from pianistic virtuosity, though, this “Glenn” is ultimately fictional, serving as a paragon of perfection against which Bernhard’s frustrated narrator measures his own failures.

David Lang’s opera adaptation of the novel, sung by baritone Rod Gilfry, offers an outstanding musical correlative to Bernhard’s centri-fugal prose. The melodies, deceptively simple, gain complexity through gradual repetition and subtle layering over time, much like Bernhard’s text itself, and the minimalist accompaniment from the note-perfect Bang on a Can Opera Ensemble captures the inner echoes of the narrator’s solipsistic musings. 

Considering Bernhard once wrote that “a prize is invariably only awarded by incompetent people who want to piss on your head,” it somehow feels wrong to apprise The Loser, but Lang, Gilfry and company’s interpretation is brilliant, deserving full praise. Can someone please convince them to perform it in Toronto, maybe at, say, Glenn Gould Studio…?

07 Sarah SleanSarah Slean
Sarah Slean; Symphony Nova Scotia; Bernhard Gueller
Centrediscs CMCCD27820 (cmccanada.org)

Tonal/atonal classical, popular and musical theatre genres meet amicably in this ambitious Canadian collaboration by vocalist/actress/poet/composer Sarah Slean, Symphony Nova Scotia and composer Christos Hatzis.

Hatzis’ three-song/movement Lamento was written for a Symphony Nova Scotia/Slean concert in April 2012. Based on Purcell’s aria When I am Laid in Earth from Dido and Aeneas, his self-described exploration of the Baroque stepwise descending “lamento bass” creates grief-stricken sounds of loss of loved ones, mental illness and suicide. The opening When This is Over features heartbeat-reminiscent drum beats, Slean’s lower vocals with clarinet contrasts, huge orchestral sound, a cappella sections, and modern/pop/dance grooves shifts. My Song nicely uses flute-played daybreak bird songs, waltz feel, singalong vocal melody and loud closing musical theatre-like finale build. The complex yet accessible Despair is wrought with heart-wrenching atonal wide-pitched vocals/instruments, contrasting dynamics, instrumental interludes, eerie squeaks, Baroque/Purcell effects and gloomy repeated vocal “remember me” finale.

In his final season, Bernhard Gueller conducted SNS in Ecstasy (2018) by Hatzsis (music) and Slean (text), a three-movement musical portrayal of the intellectual and mystical human mind. Slean’s clearly articulated higher vocals drive Love, and likewise Logos, with its contrasting calm and intense dance sections. Bhakti is a calmer atonal/tonal work with unexpected orchestra member whispers, held notes and Slean’s a cappella vocal finale.

Performers, compositions and CBC live performance recordings are exquisite. Dramatic music fans definitely will love this. And everyone else, take a listen! Magical!

01 Schumann MythenSchumann – Myrthen
Camilla Tilling; Christian Gerhaher; Gerold Huber
Sony Classical 19075945362 (sonyclassical.de)

“To my beloved Clara on the eve of our wedding from her Robert.” So wrote Robert Schumann on a specially bound set of 26 recently composed songs dedicated to Clara, collectively titled Myrthen for the myrtle branches and flowers that traditionally adorned bridal wreaths.

In it, Schumann drew from nine poets, with Rückert, Goethe, Heine and Robert Burns (in translation) accounting for 19 of the songs. Schumann specified those to be sung by a woman or a man, suggesting a young couple’s ongoing relationship. Here, the appropriately light-and-bright voices of soprano Camilla Tilling and baritone Christian Gerhaher are ably supported by pianist Gerold Huber.

Myrthen begins with the well-known Widmung (my favourite among Schumann’s 250-plus songs); others in the set that will be familiar to many are Der Nussbaum, Die Lotosblume and Du bist wie eine Blume. Of those less-often encountered, the tender Lieder der Braut and Hochländisches Wiegenlied, the sprightly Räthsel and Niemand, and the plaintive Aus den hebräischen Gesängen are particularly gratifying. The wistful, concluding Zum Schluss promises, almost prophetically, that only in heaven will the couple receive “a perfect wreath.”

Robert and Clara married in 1840, after years of obstruction from Clara’s father. Sadly, their marriage ended in 1856 with Robert’s early death in a mental asylum. Myrthen, Robert’s wedding gift to Clara, thus represents an enduring, significant, poignant testament to what is surely classical music’s most enduring, significant and poignant love story. Texts and translations are included.

02 A Voice of Her OwnA Voice of Her Own – Musical Women Who Persisted 1098-1896
Toronto Chamber Choir; Lucas Harris
Independent n/a (torontochamberchoir.ca)

Sacred and secular music require two wholly different mindsets and the singers of the Toronto Chamber Choir, with Lucas Harris as artistic director, have the wherewithal to do both in spades. Both genres demand an immersion of sorts into the music itself. The performance by this choir does more than simply tick all the boxes; it soars impossibly high, taking the music to another realm altogether. Another challenge – admirably handled by the choir – is the fact that the music spans almost 800 years of evolved tradition.

The program itself is an inspired one and is quite representative of women composers who, as the title suggests, emerged with high honours in a world dominated, at every level of art and its commerce, by men. This recording gets off to a glorious start with music by the ecstatic mystic, Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179). In the extract from Ordo Virtutum, where the monastic nun adapted the language of visions and of religious poetry, the choir’s interpretation is resonant and retains the exquisite purity of the music.

From the soaring intensity of the anonymous 17th-century composition Veni, sancte Spiritus by the nuns of Monastère des Ursulines de Québec through songs from Gartenlieder by the prodigiously gifted Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel (1805-1847) to the deep melancholia of Clara Schumann’s (1819-1896) work, the musicians and choristers achieve unmatched levels of elegance and refinement.

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