The Toronto Symphony have a new CD out. It’s a couple of Berlioz works recorded under the baton of Sir Andrew Davis at Roy Thomson Hall in September 2018. The first piece is the rarely heard Fantaisie sur la Tempête de Shakespeare for which the orchestra is joined by the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir. It’s an early piece inspired by one of Berlioz’ unrequited passions (like everything else by Berlioz!) and was considered daringly modern in its day. It’s said to be the first piece to introduce a harp to the symphony orchestra and it also includes piano four hands. It’s very colourful and rather brash which is territory that Sir Andrew excels in. There’s great clarity to both the singing and the playing.
Suzanne Farrin’s Dolce la morte sets poems by Michelangelo inspired by his relationship with Tommaso de’ Cavalieri dealing with the joy and complexity of desire and spiritual fulfillment. They are really intense poems and Farrin has scored them for counter tenor and seven piece chamber ensemble. The music is complex and intriguing. The vocal line consists mainly of long, high legato lines that play around with pitch in a variety of ways. The instrumental accompaniment is often also quite high and somewhat drone like with percussive insertions and places where the strings sound uncannily like another voice. It’s haunting and quite disturbing and definitely the sort of music one doesn’t fully “get” on first hearing but which makes one want to come back to it.
I got hold of the recent Chandos recording of Berlioz’ L’Enfance du Christ largely because I wanted to take a look at the Super Audio CD format. On that subject my thoughts are here. But it was also a chance to listen to a piece I was entirely unfamiliar with. I’m glad I did. It’s quite beautiful music; lyrical rather than dramatic, except perhaps in the early sections where Herod is having a hissy fit. I can see why it’s not done very often though. It calls for seven soloists plus chorus and a big orchestra.
Heimweh is a CD of Schubert songs from young German soprano Anna Richter and pianist Gerold Huber with a bit of help from clarinettist Matthias Schorn. It’s an interesting combination of the familiar and the less familiar with a bit of a leaning to the more lyrical, less dramatic end of the Schubert canon. Familiar material includes Der Hirt auf dem Felsen and the three parts of Ellens Gesang but there’s material that I’m much less familiar with too like Der Zwerg and Viola. I guess thirteen minute long songs about snowdrops just don’t get programmed that often. There’s also the slightly odd Abschied; where the piano accompanies spoken text.
Terezín/Theresienstadt is a CD of music composed in the concentration camp at Terezín in what was then Czechoslovakia. Virtually the entire Czech intelligentsia; certainly those of Jewish or Communist persuasion, were imprisoned in a kind of “show camp” to demonstrate to the world that the Nazis weren’t as bad as made out. Nine of the ten composers featured on the disc ended up on a “Polentransport”; a one way ticket to Auschwitz. No story is more poignant than that of Ilse Weber, a nurse in the hospital. She chose to accompany the sick children of the camp on their final journey and reportedly sang to them in the gas chamber.
I was fortunate, back in November 2016, to be at the Aga Khan Museum when Miriam Khalil gave an extraordinary performance of Osvaldo Golijov’s Ayre. Good news! It was recorded and is now available as the inaugural release on the new Against the Grain label. It loses little in its translation to disk. I think the power, beyond the work itself, comes from Miriam’s intensity and grasp of the various idioms involved. As the man himself says “No one owns this piece in the way that Miriam Khalil does. It is as if she was born to sing it”. Certainly it sounds quite different from the original recording with Dawn Upshaw. The recording itself is clean and clear and does the performance justice. Osvaldo’s introductory speech is included as a bonus.
Ayre is available digitally on iTunes (C$9.99) and Google Play, and physical CDs will be sold in retail shops in Toronto, online via the AtG website, and at all upcoming 18/19 season performances by Against the Grain Theatre.
There is also a digital booklet (including texts and translations and useful historical/background material) available on the AtG website.
I’m not sure how I’ve not come across the music of Howard Skempton before but it took a flyer for a disk with a setting of The Ancient Mariner to get my attention. I’m fascinated by what contemporary composers do with the broadly defined field of art song and Skempton’s piece is really interesting. He sets a mildly abridged version of the Coleridge but there’s enough to last past the half hour mark. The vocal writing is tonal, rhythmic and declamatory; hardly song at all in a way, but it supports the text rather well. It’s sung here by baritone Roderick Williams, for whom the piece was written. He has a clear, bright voice and the setting tends towards the upper end of the baritone range. He also has superb diction in the manner of the best of the “English school”. The result is complete comprehensibility for the text and full value for every word.