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The Wonder of Christmas
Elora Festival Singers
Noel Edison, conductor
Michael Bloss, organ
Naxos. 8.573421
***** (5/5)
Noel Edison founded this choir in the beautiful city of Elora, Ontario, in 1979. Since then, this renowned and acclaimed ensemble has recorded a few high-quality compact discs, including The Mystery of Christmas, in 1997 (Naxos). Almost no founding member remains today, but impeccable attention to detail and warmth of performance are still intact. Considering the inevitable and useless Christmas CDs on the market, here’s a one worthy of our attention. The tradition and spirit of this religious holiday are preserved. The richness and at times brave harmonies of the Carols’ modern arrangements are especially appreciated. Rather then  deprive the Carols of their essence, they add a stimulating note of freshness and renewal. Of the well-known rediscovered carols, a few lesser-known works of contemporary composers bring a wonderful variety to the ensemble. Listening to this music allows us to understand how the human voice has enormous evocative power. Here’s a disc that awakens our greatest nostalgia and fascination for discovering how the Christmas repertoire continues to move us. Wonderful!
– René-François Auclair

Louis-Claude Daquin
Livre de Noëls
Vincent Boucher, Beckerath organ
Atma Classique ACD2 2703
69 minutes 58 seconds
**** (4/5)

The St. Joseph Oratory 1960 Beckerath organ was fully restored in 2011-2012. This project went almost unnoticed during the highly mediatized building of the Casavant organ at the Maison symphonique. Given that Beckerath has hardly been used for recordings over the years, the impressive German instrument, with 5,811 pipes, is used for Daquin’s Christmas carols (1694–1772). We can hear with joy the splendour of sounds in large registers and delicate intonations. We should mention the quality of the sound recording in this grandiose environment. Fortunately, the Oratory’s great concrete structures never disrupt the ensemble’s beauty. Vincent Boucher chose the most appealing tones among the organ’s 78 stops. However, despite the variety, the music becomes tiring, and ultimately, familiar tunes arranged as variations by Daquin are simply charming pastorals. A touch of exuberance and the composer’s “bubbling” character are lacking in this recording. More contrasts between the flamboyant and contemplative sections would have made a huge difference.
– René-François Auclair

Jocelyn Morlock: Cobalt
Various orchestras, ensembles, soloists, and conductors
Centredisques CMCCD 20014
66 minutes 38 seconds
***** (5/5)

Jocelyn Morlock, a Manitoba native working in Vancouver, skillfully composed works with traditional and tonal idiomatic expressions in an incisive and perceptive contemporary discourse. This is especially striking in the album’s opening Music of the Romantic Era. This piano and orchestra-like concerto is tonal; it either directly or subtly makes reference to major Romantic music canons—particularly music by Tchaikovsky. The Cobalt and Solace concertante duos are likely the most successful. Rich, spellbinding and captivating sounds are heard in a rich and encircling musical gesture. Influences are at times explicit with Shostakovich in Asylum, Messiaen in Oiseaux bleus et sauvages, and Josquin in Solace. However, Morlock has no intention of composing pastiches. She is more subtle and playful. Her work not only proves solid craft but also shows lyrical and mocking musical ideas. A West Coast breeze enhances the beauty of Morlock’s music. It is to be discovered for the spirit of liberty and sensuality that govern this fundamentally personal work.
– Éric Champagne

Nicole Lizée: Bookburners
Various ensembles and soloists
Centredisques CMCCD 20514
(CD: 45 minutes 58 seconds; DVD: 35 minutes 23 seconds)
***** (5/5)
Nicole Lizée is somewhat the bad girl of Canadian contemporary music. Brought up in the techno, pop culture, beat, and “impure” music scenes, Lizée’s music is akin to rock. It comes as no surprise that this second album, dedicated to the composer, is similar to albums in the commercial music business—a double CD/DVD and, as a bonus, a card to download two extra pieces. A rock star, you say? Lizée’s works delve into numerous roots between technology and pop culture. Hitchcock Études is a great example of such a trend. By making use of images and sounds from miscellaneous Hitchcock films, the composer makes new audio material, developed with a piano score linked to the images. This is a stunning visual and listening experience capped off with a work for cello and turn-table starring cellist Stéphane Tétreault. Three works on the CD are of interest, and White Label Experiment is definitely the highlight. Nicole Lizée’s CD will fulfill the expectations of adventurous listeners wishing to get off the beaten track and do some smart exploring.  
– Éric Champagne

Translation: Dwain Richardson

Strauss: Don Juan / Four Last Songs / Also sprach Zarathustra
Erin Wall, soprano
Andrew Davis, conductor
Melbourne Symphony Orchestra
ABC Classics ABC 481 1122 (73m 46s)
**** (4/5)

This year marks the 150th anniversary of the birth of Richard Strauss, and his works are heard with even greater than usual frequency. A welcome addition is this new CD of two of his most popular tone poems, and arguably his most celebrated orchestral song cycle. This is the first of a series of Strauss recordings involving Sir Andrew Davis and the MSO. The soloist is Canadian soprano Erin Wall, one of the best Strauss sopranos of the younger generation. Vier letzte Lieder has been in her repertoire for a long time – I vividly recall her Toronto debut in this song cycle with the Royal Conservatory Orchestra at the George Weston Recital Hall ten years ago, and it led me to write an article on her for Opera Canada. This cycle has since become her calling card. If Wall at 39 years of age is not quite the last word on interpretive depth in this autumnal song cycle, she has no shortage of ethereal beauty of tone and prodigious breath supply to do it justice. Particularly lovely is her singing in Beim schlafengehen, not to mention the gorgeous violin solo.  The soprano benefits from the able support of conductor Sir Andrew Davis leading the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra. If one were to quibble, the microphone placement is too close for comfort, making one too aware of the singer’s breathing. One of the best Strauss conductors of our time, Sir Andrew is certainly at home in the two tone poems, giving us a scintillating account of the mercurial twists and turns of Don Juan and a real sense of grandeur in Also sprach Zarathustra.  The catalogue is already chock-full of great recordings of these pieces, but this new release certainly belongs up there as well. 
– Joseph So
 

Japanese Children’s Songs
Diana Damrau, soprano
Orchestre symphonique de Montreal / Kent Nagano, conductor
Analekta AN2 9131
***** (5 / 5)

This disc of 22 Japanese children’s songs is a complete delight. Conductor Kent Nagano was singularly responsible for its genesis. The accompanying booklet gives a detailed account of how Nagano, a third generation Japanese from California, started researching these songs after hearing his wife sing them to their daughter. These hauntingly beautiful songs, newly orchestrated, were first heard in two live performances in February-March 2010 at Salle Wilfrid Pelletier in Montreal, and the section involving the soloist was recorded in Germany in June 2011. Nagano could not have picked a better singer or finer interpreter than Diana Damrau. In 2011, Damrau was experiencing motherhood first hand with her two children, Alexander and Colyn.  She brings the right qualities to these songs, not just vocal beauty but a palpable sense of love and tenderness – one can imagine her singing these to her own children. Damrau was a big success as Lucia in the Metropolitan Opera tour to Japan in 2011, right after the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami. I imagine that visit inspired her to make this recording. Singing in Japanese must have been a real challenge for the German soprano. These songs are about Old Japan, from the late 19th Century to 1930, with sentimental text expressing a longing for the past. It really bears no resemblance to 21st century Japan. These songs aren’t really sung by Japanese children today. However, one can still find them on the concert stage sung by professional singers, particularly sopranos and they are still popular among middle-aged and elderly people. The Montreal Children’s Choir is absolutely lovely, and Kent Nagano conducts these songs, leading the OSM with great affection. The booklet with Japanese text and translations plus several essays is beautifully presented and informative.  This disc is more than a curiosity, but one every music lover should explore. It ranks among the best Canadian releases of 2014.
– Joseph So 

René-François Auclair recommends this CD for your holiday listening here.

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About Author

Joseph K. So is Professor Emeritus at Trent University in Peterborough, Ontario, but his first love is music, which he studied as an undergraduate student at the State University of New York. Since seeing his first live opera – La Gioconda with Renata Tebaldi at the Met in 1967, the singing voice became his lifelong favourite instrument. In addition to his longtime contributions to La Scena Musicale and The Music Scene, he is Associate Editor of Opera Canada and a frequent contributor to Musical Toronto.

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