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.

Listen to 'Vivaldi: Il Tamerlano' Now in the Listening Room

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.

05 Helene BrunetSolfeggio: Handel; Vivaldi; Vinci; Bach; Mozart
Hélène Brunet; L’Harmonie des saisons; Eric Milnes
ATMA ACD2 2808 (atmaclassique.com/en)

Solfeggio is Canadian soprano Hélène Brunet’s first solo album. In collaboration with the excellent period ensemble L’Harmonie des saisons, and under the direction of Eric Milnes, Brunet offers a total of 13 pieces by celebrated composers Bach, Handel, Mozart and Vivaldi. Solfeggio is a well-balanced album, mixing rite-of-passage pieces such as Bach’s Schafe können sicher weiden and Mozart’s Alleluja with other Bach, Mozart and Vivaldi favourites. Brunet also offers two world-premiere recordings of arias by Leonardo Vinci, an Italian composer better known for his opera compositions. 

Solfeggio opens with Handel’s dynamic aria Scoglio d’immota fronte, which sets the tone for the rest of the album. Brunet’s impeccable technique is matched only by the beauty, warmth and fullness of her timbre in all of her vocal registers. Vivaldi’s Juditha triumphans is especially noteworthy, for the lone harpsichord accompaniment serves to highlight Brunet’s beautiful tone before she launches into a fully accompanied aria that requires great vocal gymnastics. The eponymous title, Mozart’s Solfeggio No.2, is an etude most likely written for Constanze Mozart in the early 1780s. The Solfeggio pieces (five in total) all require precise technique, which Brunet demonstrates in spades when she sings trills at very slow speed and sings the most lyrical of high notes. 

Solfeggio should garner Brunet well-earned praise and a place of choice amongst other notable singers of the Baroque and Classical traditions.

Listen to 'Solfeggio: Handel; Vivaldi; Vinci; Bach; Mozart' Now in the Listening Room

06 Elina GarancaLieder: Robert Schumann; Johannes Brahms
Elīna Garanča; Malcolm Martineau
Deutsche Grammophon 4839210 (deutschegrammophon.com/en/catalogue)

The great Latvian mezzo-soprano, Elīna Garanča, is already a legend in our time and for the last 20 years has conquered most opera repertory, moving towards more and more complex dramatic roles. Her opera recordings are numerous and all have become runaway bestsellers.

This time however, she is turning towards the German lieder repertoire in contrast to opera. Here she can scale down her voice, become soft and intimate, where “three notes on the piano and an intricate melody can mean the world” (Garanča). For this purpose she teamed up with Scottish pianist Malcolm Martineau, himself a sensitive and brilliant accompanist ideal for the Romantic sound world of these songs. Composers chosen were Schumann and Brahms, whose careers intertwined in more ways than one (e.g. the love triangle of Robert and Clara Schumann with the young Brahms!).

The opening selection is Schumann’s Frauenliebe und -leben, a series of eight songs chronicling, step by step, a woman falling in love with a man. Beginning with love at first sight (Seit ich ihn gesehen) and admiration of her lover (Er, der Herrlichste von allen) to renouncing her girlish pleasures and finally total surrender (An meinem Herzen), engagement (Du Ring en meinem Finger), marriage and presumed consummation. Emotionally each song is a world in itself and Garanča always finds the right expression and mood through her wonderful intonation, inflection and her perfect German diction. Similarly for the other 13 love songs, although “Brahms is more down to earth, earnest and sincere exploring different states of mind and his beloved nature e.g. Die Mainacht, O kühler Wald” (her words again). Garanča is most impressed by the beautiful harmonic writing that influences her interpretations. Very rewarding listening.

07 Donizetti NisidaDonizetti – L’Ange de Nisida
Soloists; Orchestra e Coro Donizetti Opera; Jean-Luc Tingaud
Dynamic 37848 (naxosdirect.com/search/8007144378486)

In Search of a “Lost” Opera is the title of musicologist Candida Mantica’s detailed account in the booklet describing how she solved “the jigsaw puzzle” of L’Ange de Nisida’s “dismembered” manuscript score and libretto. Commissioned by the Paris Théâtre de la Renaissance, Donizetti completed the opera in 1839. Its premiere was cancelled when the theatre went bankrupt, so the resourceful composer incorporated parts of the score into La Favorite for its December 1840 opening at the Paris Opéra. L’Ange de Nisida remained unheard until 2018 at a concert performance in London; this 2019 production at Bergamo’s Donizetti Opera Festival is its first-ever staged presentation.

Leone, a fugitive after fighting a duel in 15th-century Naples, flees to the island of Nisida, unaware that his beloved Sylvia, called “the angel of Nisida” for her kindness, is King Fernand’s captive mistress. Spoiler alert: no happy ending.

The unconventional, theatre-in-the-round production has the soloists in modern dress, Sylvia sometimes wearing angel wings, the stage illuminated with symbolic projections, strewn with lots of paper representing Mantica’s “jigsaw puzzle.”

Musically, this two-DVD set is enthralling, Donizetti’s endlessly melodious score thrillingly sung by soprano Lidia Fridman (Sylvia), tenor Konu Kim (Leone), baritone Florian Sempey (Fernand), bass-baritone Roberto Lorenzi (Gaspar, Fernand’s chamberlain) and bass Federico Benetti (the Monk who denounces Fernand’s illicit affair). Conductor Jean-Luc Tingaud generates real excitement from the chorus and orchestra, adding to the unique pleasure of witnessing the long-delayed, world-premiere staging of a very entertaining Donizetti opera.

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