2 years ago

Volume 26 Issue 2 - October 2020

  • Text
  • Classical
  • Artists
  • Choral
  • Concerts
  • Performances
  • Choir
  • Jazz
  • Musical
  • Toronto
  • October
Following the Goldberg trail from Gould to Lang Lang; Measha Brueggergosman and Edwin Huizinga on face to face collaboration in strange times; diggings into dance as FFDN keeps live alive; "Classical unicorn?" - Luke Welch reflects on life as a Black classical pianist; Debashis Sinha's adventures in sound art; choral lessons from Skagit Valley; and the 21st annual WholeNote Blue Pages (part 1 of 3) in print and online. Here now. And, yes, still in print, with distribution starting Thursday October 1.

the listener to perceive

the listener to perceive the multiple layers of sound taking place: the soloist or ensemble in the foreground; the woodwinds and upper strings in the middle ground; and the lower strings below, underpinning the higher parts with immovable precision. One of the more beautiful components of this performance is the way in which the orchestra’s use of period instruments determines the dynamic levels of all involved. To use a well-known example, Der Hölle Rache – the famous Queen of the Night aria – can be so driven by the aggressive rage contained in the text that the interpretation becomes a caricature of its inherently lyrical nature, pitting pyrotechnical technique against musical sensibility. Not so in this instance, though; the control exercised in tandem by soprano Caroline Wettergreen and the OAE ensures that there is beauty amidst the chaos, producing an unusually moving result. While the music is treated with historically informed sensitivity, the sets and staging for this production are decidedly and wonderfully nontraditional, a surreal and eccentric exploration of Alice in Wonderland-style visual effects. With each background made to look hand-sketched, colourful costumes and perspective-bending design, the visual impression made by this presentation is as impactful, if not more so, than the musical. Those acquainted with Mozart’s operatic masterwork will surely appreciate such a novel and engaging reimagining of this familiar favourite. Matthew Whitfield Rossini – Moïse Soloists; Gorecki Chamber Choir, Krakow; Virtuosi Brunensis; Fabrizio Maria Carminati Naxos 8.660473-75 ( ! Well, the ancient Hebrews certainly didn’t know that they would be marching out of Egypt to a Rossini tune! Rossini composed Moses in Egitto for Naples in 1818 when he was 26 years old. Then, like many other Italian composers he went to Paris for fame and fortune, and as a wealthy and successful composer turned Moses into a French grand opera (Moïse et Pharaon) with new, spectacular stage effects, adding additional music and even a ballet. The opera became tremendously successful. The biblical story is the struggle of Moses (Russian basso Alexey Birkus) to convince the Pharaoh (Italian basso Luca Dall’Amico) to let his people go by producing miracles punishing the Egyptians with calamities until the hesitant Pharaoh gives in and the rest is history. Interwoven in the plot is a love story between the Egyptian crown prince (virtuoso American tenor Randall Bills) and a Hebrew girl (Italian soprano Elisa Balbo) in conflict between love versus loyalty to family and country. Somewhat like the Aida/Radames love story later in Verdi. The rather lengthy opera is musically very rich, extremely enjoyable with catchy tunes, beautiful arias, duets, ensembles and exciting stretta finales. The second act is a work of genius with show-stopping hits coming one after the other. The heavenly vocal quintet O toi dont la clémence is followed by an animated duet between Pharaoh and son (Moment fatal! que faire?) and a tremendous scene and aria by Queen Sinaide (Italian soprano Silvia dalla Benetta). The opera ends unforgettably with the Prayer Scene when the Israelites are praying for the Red Sea to part with a marvellous, iconic melody so beautiful that even Liszt wrote a paraphrase on it. Flawless cast, superb soloists and expertly conducted with true Rossinian flair by Fabrizio Maria Carminati. Janos Gardonyi Verdi – Il Trovatore Netrebko; Eyvazov; Salsi; Zajick; Orchestra, Chorus and Ballet of the Arena di Verona; Pier Giorgio Morandi Cmajor 754608 ( ! Il Trovatore is an immensely popular opera in which an implausible plot is transformed by a dizzying succession of glorious melodies. Along with Rigoletto and La Traviata, it forms the great trilogy of Verdi’s middle period, but it is the most traditional of the three. A melodrama about chivalry, honour, valour and tragic love powered by unremittingly high-voltage music. Leonora, Manrico and the count are all given passionate arias, but Verdi appeared most drawn to Azucena, the Gypsy outsider whose burning desire for revenge is finally rewarded in the opera’s final denouement. This is an unrelievedly intense performance, staged by the master of epic visual drama, Franco Zeffirelli, and has a stellar cast backed by choral and orchestral playing – helmed by Pier Giorgio Morandi – that is electrifying. Anna Netrebko, always at her magnificent best, gives an extraordinary performance as Leonora, while Dolora Zajick more than lives up to the intensity and challenge of Azucena’s character. Zajick’s arias – Madre non dormi? followed by Si la stanchezza m’opprime o figlio – are sublime. The most moving passages are created through dialogue, notably the Act 4 Miserere duet between Manrico and Leonora, in which she sings to the imprisoned troubadour above a chorus of praying monks, and the final exchanges between the lovers beginning with Yusif Eyvanzov’s fearsome tenor outburst Parlar non vuoi. Moments such as these raise Il Trovatore way above the level of period costume drama. This is absolutely a performance to die for. Raul da Gama Komitas – Divine Liturgy Latvian Radio Choir; Sigvards Klava Delos DE 3590 ( ! The profound music of Divine Liturgy is a historic recording, performed to commemorate the 150th birthday of its composer, Komitas Vardapet (1869- 1935). Komitas is considered the founder of the Armenian national school of music and an important pioneer in the field of ethnomusicology. He completed this monumental work in April 1915 as the Armenian Genocide perpetrated by the Ottoman government intensified. Komitas himself was arrested shortly thereafter. Although his life was spared, he was driven out of Armenia, soul destroyed, and spent the last 20 years of his life in an asylum in Paris. Divine Liturgy reflects Komitas’ deeply spiritual life but the backdrop evokes the socio-political events of the times. Thus, praise and worship are set in sombre tones and colours reflecting spiritual darkness. To capture this, Komitas “heard” male voices expressing praise for God as well as reflecting the mood of the times. However, arranger Vache Sharafyan has made a boldly presumptuous leap of faith and illuminates Komitas’ deeply meditative sound-mass textures, choosing to mix the shadowy darkness of male voices with the dappled light of soaring female ones. Thus we have a brilliantly daring new Divine Liturgy expressed as much in the eerie tones of Hovhannes Nersesyan’s dark and sonorous bass voice on Chosen of God and the eloquent outpourings of the tenor Armen Badalyan set amid pliant sopranos and contraltos. The mixed Latvian Radio Choir is superbly directed by Sigvards Klava, whose efforts – together with the bold ones of Sharafyan – give wings to the structural logic and deep spirituality of a work that many see as Komitas’ crowning achievement. Raul da Gama 56 | October 2020

Songs by Sir Hamilton Harty Kathryn Rudge; Christopher Glynn Somm Recordings SOMMCD 0616 ( ! I’m a longtime admirer of Hamilton Harty’s distinctively Irishsounding orchestral works, especially his unfairly neglected Piano Concerto, so I welcomed the opportunity to hear and review this CD containing 23 songs, nearly half his total output, 16 recorded for the first time. Set to words by 17 poets, including W.B. Yeats, Padraic Colum, Walt Whitman and Harty himself, the songs range across Ireland’s natural landscapes, love, lullabies, work, worship, war and death. Many are infused with the traditional melodic turns, lilt and sentiment we immediately identify as so uniquely and ingratiatingly Irish. English mezzo-soprano Kathryn Rudge’s shiny, firmly focused voice surges thrillingly in the more dramatic songs, while she’s sensitively subdued in the tender or reflective selections, varying her vocal colours, always acting the texts. The piano accompaniments are elaborate and fully fleshed, not surprising because Harty, in addition to his distinguished career as a conductor, performed as piano accompanist (he preferred the term “collaborator”) for violinist Fritz Kreisler, tenor John McCormack, soprano Agnes Nicholls (his wife) and mezzo Elsie Swinton (his purported mistress), the latter two for whom he composed many of his songs. Pianist Christopher Glynn “collaborates” admirably, adding, on his own, two charming salon-like solo piano pieces by Harty, one in its first recording. Harty’s lustrous, warm-hearted songs surely deserve to be included in the repertoires of today’s vocal recitalists and the CD collections of lovers of beautiful music, like you! Detailed notes and texts are provided. Michael Schulman Alexander Kastalsky – Requiem Soloists; Choirs; Orchestra of St. Luke’s; Leonard Slatkin Naxos 8.574245 ( ! Alexander Kastalsky’s vision for his grand Requiem for Fallen Brothers – which included all those who died in WWI on both sides – was summarily snuffed out because by the time he was ready to unveil it on stage, in 1917, political power in Russia was in the hands of the Bolsheviks. More tragically his cross-cultural, 17-movement requiem – a work of immense proportion in which he weaves not only Latin and Orthodox rites in multiple languages, but even manages to use Eastern music, seamlessly and with dark grandiosity – remains virtually unknown within the canon of Western classical choral-orchestral works. Appropriately, this definitive recording, featuring the Orchestra of St. Luke’s conducted by Leonard Slatkin, brings together a spectrum of players including the Cathedral Choral Society, the Clarion Choir, the Saint Tikhon Choir and the Kansas City Chorale, who illuminate the work’s breathtaking array of meditative, sparse and nimble sonorities. This is a highly reverential recording, distinguished by exquisite solo contributions from soprano Anna Dennis and bass-baritone Joseph Charles Beutel, supported with fine choral work by all of the vocal ensembles. Together they turn this awe-inspiring requiem into something truly memorable from the darkness of the Confutatis and the following Lacrymosa, the undulant Interludium: Hymn to Indra and the magnificent Domine Jesu. Through it all, Slatkin reveals the inner logic and structural grandeur of this complex work with exemplary clarity and inner detail. Raul da Gama Dame Ethel Smyth – The Prison Dashon Burton; Sarah Brailey; Experiential Chorus; Experiential Orchestra; James Blachly Chandos CHSA 5279 ( ! Dame Ethel Smyth (1858-1944) was an English composer with a large and varied compositional output that includes several operas, sonatas, works for strings, choral works and a mass. The Prison is a vocal symphony for soprano, bass-baritone, chorus and orchestra that was premiered and conducted by Smyth in 1931. Based on the libretto The Prison: A Dialogue by philosopher Henry Bennet Brewster, Smyth’s lifelong friend and mentor, the symphony tells the story of a prisoner in solitary confinement who dialogues poignantly with his soul about his innocence and imminent death. Dashon Burton (The Prisoner), Sarah Brailey (His Soul) and the Experiential Orchestra and Chorus offer a raw performance that is both stirring and compelling. Overall, Smyth’s writing is rich and complex and very much reminiscent of an important influence in her life, the Brahms symphonies. In the first part, the prisoner’s feelings of dread are powerfully captured in the brass section with dark-timbred percussive bursts. This is in contrast to the second part, where the prisoner seems to find liberation in the acceptance of his faith in the more ethereal sonorities of his soul. Smyth composed The Prison while grieving the loss of Brewster and progressively becoming deaf, thus prematurely ending her career as a composer. There are several parallels made between this work and her personal life. (Re)discovering forgotten composers can be frustrating when primary resources are scarce or when the composer’s output turns out to be less than exciting. In Smyth, we find not only a compelling individual, but a woman who left behind thousands of letters ready to be studied. Hers is a legacy still waiting to be revealed. Sophie Bisson Ēriks Ešenvalds – Translations Portland State Chamber Choir; Ethan Sperry Naxos 8.574124 ( ! Award-winning Latvian composer Ēriks Ešenvalds is a superb younger generation choral composer who writes with feeling, lyricism, layered complexity and the skill to also create sad sounds that are soothing and comforting at the same time. It is thrilling to hear him expand the very strong and thriving choral tradition of the three Baltic nations. This is the second recording of his music by the Portland State Chamber Choir, under the direction of Ethan Sperry. Sperry and his university ensemble perform with intellect, texture and passion. The seven works here are not easy to interpret due to language, diverse texts, wide-ranging tonality and multiplepart writing. Highlights include The Heavens’ Flock (2014) with its almost folk-song singalong quality, full tonal harmonies, occasional high soprano pitches and calming repeated ending. Translation (2016) has a darker, reflective mood. Slow but never boring, the harmonies keep the listener’s attention until the closing singing handbells’ final ring. Vineta (2009) opens with a choral pedal on E, as the volume builds with attention-grabbling contemporary tonalities and the use of mesmerizing ringing vibes and glockenspiel, and solo bass drum for unexpected rewarding effects. For In paradisum (2012), Ešenvalds adds viola and cello. A devastating solo cello line with full choral backdrop adds to the grief sentiment. An unforgettable minimalistic atonal string duet closes the work above a spectacular low, pianissimo choral drone. The moving compositions, clear production and youthful singing make Translations a memorable choral release. Tiina Kiik October 2020 | 57

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