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No. 62 - September, 2007

Jason Victor Serinus

 

Soile Isokoski: Sibelius Songs • Ondine SACD ODE-1080-5

 

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Rarely does a classical recording win top prizes from multiple panels of respected judges. Thus, when soprano Soile Isokoski, who makes her belated San Francisco Opera debut as the aging Marschallin in the forthcoming production of Strauss Der Rosenkavalier, wins not only the 2007 MIDEM Classical Award, but also BBC Music Magazine's Disc of the Year and their Vocal Award for her gorgeous, wonderfully recorded high-resolution Ondine SACD of Jean Sibelius' orchestral songs, it is time to take notice.

Recordings of Sibelius' 100 songs are lamentably rare to records, even more so in their orchestral settings. Besides a recent flurry of CDs from such Scandinavian-born artists as Anne Sophie Von Otter, Karita Mattila, and Solveig Kringelborn, plus Barbara Bonney's indispensable Gramophone Award-winning 2000 recital of Scandinavian songs, Diamonds in the Snow, one has to turn back to the likes of Birgit Nilsson, Kirsten Flagstad, Jussi Bjoerling, Marian Anderson, and Lorri Lail to discover the same smidgeon of songs recorded over and over. It's a shame, because Sibelius' songs are not only accessibly melodic, but also ripe with emotion.

Isokoski, who turned 50 this past February, first came to public attention five years ago, when her silvery, radiant rendition of Strauss' Four Last Songs so sent Gramophone's critics into rapture that the Met quickly arranged her debut. While her instrument still seems capable of glowing, soaring utterance, it also possesses an emotional maturity and depth that make it ideal for Sibelius' ruminations.

In "Den första kyssen/The First Kiss" Op. 37/1, for example, Isokoski can just as easily embrace a young woman's rapturous reminiscence of her first kiss as express death's weeping. The performance of the extended tone poem for soprano and orchestra, "Luonnotar/The Nature-Spirit" Op. 70, is equally remarkable, as much for its orchestral echoes of the final movement of Sibelius' beloved Fifth Symphony as for the way Isokoski trails off the ends of short, falling phrases as though emitting sighs.

Sibelius may have written a number of Christmas songs, but he was hardly given to unbridled celebration. Even when he expresses ecstatic and mystical states through soaring lines, there is often a melodic counterforce that grounds his flights in sadness or grief. This is as true for one of his earliest songs, "Arioso" Op. 3, which compares a rose frozen in winter to the tragedy that befalls a young woman, to his late "Kaiutar/The Echo Nymph" Op.72/4, which describes a wood-nymph searching through the wilderness for her lost beloved. In both, the voice is glorious, the beautiful, haunting melodies enhanced by the shimmering, pulsating playing of Leif Segerstam and the Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra.

I would never quarrel with anyone who finds Bonney's slimmer, more girl-like voice at least as rewarding as Isokoski's in some of these songs. But there is an inherent rightness to Isokoski's voice that touches the heart of Sibelius' oft-mystical sentiments.

 

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Marta Gómez: Entre Cada Palabra • Chesky JD 301

 

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Marta Gómez has won me over. Her second disc for Chesky, the small audiophile label whose single point microphone technique produces exceptionally clear, truthful recordings, displays the beauties of her smiling, slightly throaty laid back voice to best advantage. Surrounded by expert musicians who share her joy in celebratory music making, Gómez conveys a special delight in the wonders of life.

Gómez was raised in Cali, a Colombian city known for its Salsa scene. A graduate of the Berklee College of Music, her repertoire consists of over 70 original songs and arrangements whose rhythms derive from Peru, Argentina, Spain, Colombia, Mexico, Uruguay, Cuba, Venezuela, and other Spanish-speaking countries. There is a special clarity to her seductive vocalism, illuminating simple, ingratiating melodies with a love that transcends language differences. Gómez rendition of "Cielito Lindo" is especially haunting, casting new light on the beauty of its familiar refrain.

Much credit is owed Julio Santillán, whose spare, sophisticated arrangements bring out the best in this wonderful artist. Even when Gómez sings in a catchy, upbeat vein, as in "Pececito de agua," a song about the little fish who hides people's secrets in his scales and carries them far away, her gentleness and grace shine through. No wonder she has been invited to share the stage with Bonnie Raitt, Mercedes Sosa, and other great artists, and was called Best National World-Music Artist by the Boston Globe.

 

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W. A. Mozart: Sacred Vocal Works • Chor der vocapella • Coviello Classics SACD COV 30607

 

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German import Coviello Classics gifts us with music and musicianship of the highest order. This high-resolution SACD (Super Audio Compact Disc), with its optional surround-sound playback, presents four of Mozart's tuneful sacred works in renditions that can hold their own against any in the current catalogue. Performed by the Chor der vocapella and Sinfonieorchester Aachen, conducted by Marcus Bosch, the interpretations are graced by four stellar soloists. Soprano Dorothee Mields in particular has won my heart through the simplicity of her pure, radiant vocalism. As we listen to Mields sing the tuneful "Agnus Dei" from the irresistibly spirited Coronation Mass, composed when Mozart was in his early 20s, we're reminded that the finest "Mozart voices" can facilitate a quasi-mystical meeting of heaven and earth.

Mields shines in Exsultate, Jubilate, 17-year old Mozart's great motet for solo soprano. Concluding with its unforgettable "Alleluja," Mozart's eminently whistlable music benefits from Mields' informed naďveté. I usually prefer a slower rendition of the andante, but as Mields asks the crowned virgin to grant us peace, I'm convinced that there isn't a God in the Universe who wouldn't heed her prayers. After a fine performance of the Vesperae solennes de Confessore, with its celestial soprano solo, the disc concludes with one of Mozart's final works, his exalted Ave verum corpus. There may be more tightly focused, colorful recordings of this music, but the unimpeachable spiritual intent of these musicians transcends such considerations.

 

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Maneesh de Moor: Om Deeksha • Sounds True M1162D

 

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This beautiful CD contains sacred chants and meditative instrumental music that manifest the Oneness Blessing, a special form of deeksha (Sanskrit for "transfer of divine energy") originated at Oneness University in southern India. Produced by Netherlands-born Maneesh de Moor (mdmsound.com), this music transcends its space-music and "ethno-ambient" acoustics and other New Age effects with its exceptional clarity and purity of expression. The sense of devotion that runs through these ten tracks is enough to send anyone with an inquisitive spirit or thirst for oneness to the websites of Oneness University (www.onenessuniversity.org) and its US manifestation, Oneness Movement (www.onenessmovement.org).

The Oneness Blessing, which I have only experienced (so far) through the energy of this disc, is described as "a non-denominational benediction… a transfer of Divine Energy which, over time, is designed to bring about the state of Oneness in the recipient." Said to have been brought to the world through Divine Grace, "it is being bestowed upon humanity by the twin avatars of enlightenment Sri Bhagavan and Sri Amma, who reside in the Golden City, India."

Whatever your feelings may be about gurus and avatars, the sacred, heart-opening beauty of Deva Premal, Sudha, Anette Carlström, Krishnaraj-ji and other vocalists is hard to resist. Yes, the chants are often westernized, both in vocal accent and harmony, to make them more "popular," but the feelings of oneness and peace are universal. Calming, centering, and transporting, this wonderful CD is ideal for meditation, contemplation, and bodywork.

 

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The Tord Gustavsen Trio: Being There • ECM 2017

 

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Norwegian pianist Tord Gustavsen is one of an increasing number of jazz musicians whose music reflects a spiritual path. While the path may occasionally swing, as on the six-minute "Blessed Feet," most of Gustavsen's compositions for piano, double-bass (Harald Johnsen), and drums (Jarie Vespestad) are marked by a welcome sense of spareness and restraint.

Being There completes a recorded trilogy that includes Gustavsen's two previous ECM discs, Changing Places and The Ground. If those titles, as well as such tracks as "Vicar Street," "Draw Near," "Blessed Feet," and "Vesper" seem to have religious implications, you're on the right track. Gustavsen, it turns out, grew up playing in churches. "Our music draws just as much from hymns and gospels as it does from contemporary jazz or contemporary classical music," he writes in the liner notes. "Vesper" has been used for evensong services in the very liberal church Gustavsen attends in Norway, and the closing track, "Wide Open," seems suited for holding hands.

The sense of space, and the quasi-contemplative, introspective movement from note to note that characterize "Still There" and the opening track, "At Home," suggest a quest for something greater and far deeper than catchy titles. Sometimes the quest leads in unexpected directions, as the Spanish influence that crops up in the up-tempo "Where We Went." Every track on this mostly mellow disc reflects Gustavsen's journey to "groundedness and openness."

 

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Chanticleer • And on Earth, Peace: A Chanticleer Mass • Warner/Rhino R2 146364

 

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In a first for Chanticleer, the famed male vocal ensemble commissioned five composers to create a composite mass. Intended as a celebration of Chanticleer's founder, countertenor Louis I. Botto, who died from AIDS in 1997, the fiveworks by composers with intentionally varied national, spiritual, and ethnic backgrounds are dedicated to such eminent San Franciscans as slain gay Supervisor Harvey Milk. Chanticleer has framed the compositions with plainsong (Gregorian Chant), and included two gorgeous 16th century polychoral works by Andrea Gabrielli and three distinctly modern-sounding madrigals by the 16th century's Carlo Gesualdo.

Though one can't expect composers working in isolation to create a unified whole, the experiment benefits from Music Director Joseph H. Jennings' unassailable taste and Chanticleer's exalted, sonorous tones. It is doubtful they've ever sounded better. The male sopranos make an exceedingly round, pure sound, thanks in no small part to the strong, clear voice of Eric S. Brenner.

Chief among the mass's attractions is the irresistible Kyrie of Tucson-born Douglas J. Cuomo, whose equal facility with the sacred and profane creates music that moves from heavenly simplicity to contrapuntal complexity. Equally transporting is London-born Ivan Moody's Ravenna Sanctus, sung in Greek, which contrasts Chanticleer's low voices with its soaring altos and trebles. Praise be for Dublin-born Michael McGlynn's Agnus Dei, which sings out to God with utter conviction. While Tel Aviv-born Shulamit Ran's overly long stylistic hodgepodge, Credo/Ani Ma'amin, is bogged down by two spoken, preachy sections recited in overly stilted fashion, and Kamran Ince's (Gloria) Everywhere takes too long to reach its haunting ending, Chanticleer's ability to create sacred space transforms A Chanticleer Mass into a holy experience.

 

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Valerie Joyce: New York Blue • Chesky JD316

 

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Whispered intimacies, soft-breathed caresses, and silky seduction: that's what Seattle-based jazz vocalist Valerie Joyce is all about. On a well-recorded disc that mixes jazz standards by Rodgers & Hart, Cole Porter, Sammy Cahn, and Jimmy Van Heusen with newer works by herself, Jimi Hendrix, John Lennon, and Tracey Chapman, Joyce imbues her singing with the sounds of sultry seduction. Hers is perhaps the only version of "Fever" that can hold its own with Peggy Lee's classic rendition.

Born in Japan to an American father and Japanese mother, Joyce's first musical exposure was to her mother's classical pianism and extensive record collection. Years later, at the University of Puget Sound, she studied classical piano on scholarship while singing and playing jazz in the off hours. Turning down a jazz vocal scholarship from the Berklee School of Music in order remain in the Northwest, Joyce spent four hears playing piano in Jay Thomas' big band. Though we don't get an opportunity to hear her pianism on New York Blue, the lovely if not particularly original arrangements by Joyce and pianist Andy Ezrin do a fine job of showcasing her vocal talents.

With two discs under her belt, Valerie Joyce shows great promise of becoming a major presence in the jazz scene. As we await the release of her forthcoming CD with the David Hazeltine Trio, recorded in May 2007, we've got New York Blue to keep us warm.

 

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Bill Mays & The Invention Trio: Fantasy • Palmetto PM 2128

 

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Pianist, composer and arranger Bill Mays has worked with the best in the business. He's accompanied and/or recorded with Karrin Allyson, Andrea Bocelli, Betty Buckley, Captain & Tenille, Rosemary Clooney, Leonard Cohen, Natalie Cole, Ella Fitzgerald, Aretha Franklin...I've stopped at F for lack of space. Early on, he played with the far out Frank Zappa and drag-attired Cycle Sluts, and was Music Director for Sarah Vaughan. Now, at age 63, he has little he needs to prove, but plenty of music yeteto make.

Mays founded the Invention Trio with Marvin Stamm (trumpet and flugelhorn) and Alisa Horn (cello) in order to explore the intersection of chamber music and jazz. They traverse quite a wide-laned thoroughfare, performing jazz improvisations on the Borodin-inspired "Baubles, Bangles, and Beads," Rachmaninoff's "Vocalise," Debussy's "Girl with the Flaxen Hair," Gershwin's Piano Prelude No. 2, and Scriabin's Prelude (Prelude Op. 11 #3 / Sometime Ago). The three-movement title composition, a through-composed Fantasy for Cello, Trumptet, and Piano, received inspiration from several great jazz and classical works, while Invention #8 / Ah-Leu-Cha launches into a Bach quote before flying free. The trio's music has a good-natured, life-affirming joy about it that makes you want to play it quietly at twilight and turn it up during the day. No wonder this smiling combo is about to play at both the San Francisco Conservatory of Music (September 24) and Piedmont Pianos (September 25). Mays is also set to duo with Martin Wind at New York's Knickerbocker October 26-27).

 

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Judy Collins Sings Lennon & McCartney • Wildflower WFL 1312

 

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Judy Collins, 68, has now released a staggering 44 albums. Her career, which continues strong, began 55 years ago when she made her public debut performing Mozart's Concerto for Two Pianos. Initially inspired by Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, and the folk music revival that fed the likes of Joan Baez and Bob Dylan, Collins released her first LP in 1960. Forty-seven years later, she retains both her sweet voice and her telltale nice and easy approach to music.

Having survived alcoholism and the suicide of her only son, all of which she addresses in her book "Sanity & Grace: A Journey of Suicide, Survival, and Strength," Judy Collins seems to have taken the lyrics of John and Paul's "Hey Jude" to heart: "Hey Jude, don't make it bad. Take a sad song, and make it better." No matter what the subject matter – and Lennon & McCartney wrote about far more than tangerine trees and marmalade skies – Collins works it out in the same sweet manner. Even when Lennon & McCartney's music gets plaintive, as in "Yesterday," Collins' seemingly uncomplicated naďveté emphasizes the childlike innocence at the root of their collaborations. Most tracks feature Collins on piano, and acoustic backup from bassists Tony Levin and Zev Katz, drummer Tony Beard, and guitarist Larry Campbell. Without the classic Beatles sound, it all seems more than a bit white bread, but what did you expect from an album of Judy Collins Singing the Beatles?

 

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Nina Stemme Sings Richard Strauss • EMI 0094637879726

 

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Even before I had opened the plastic wrapping, I was determined to review this disc. The postperson had just delivered EMI's katest recording of Richard Strauss' glorious Four Last Songs, performed by soprano Nina Stemme, with Antonio Pappano conducting the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden.

Any new recording of Strauss' Four Last Songs, most recently tackled by Christine Brewer, deserves attention. Representing the distillation of 71 years of compositional skill, the octogenarian Strauss' four final orchestral songs trace a journey from love in springtime to final sunset. By turn ecstatic, wistful, autumnal, and resigned, the songs present the final flowering of a composer blessed with a rare gift for expressing emotion through vocal and orchestral color. If you've never heard music deliver the sonic equivalent of orgasmic bliss, it's safe to bet that you've never heard Richard Strauss interpreted by someone who holds no fear of surrendering to the Divine.

Stemme's recording is all the more astounding for also including the polar-opposite final scenes from two Strauss operas, the early Salome (1905) and final Capriccio (1941). There are many sopranos who have tackled both the Four Last Songs and Salome on record, most notably Ljuba Welitsch, Montserrat Caballé, Deborah Voigt, Leontyne Price, and (if memory serves me right) Cheryl Studer. Among those combining the songs with the final scene from Capriccio, one can turn to Lisa Della Casa, Gundula Janowitz, Elisabeth Söderström, Renée Fleming, and the finest of all, Elisabeth Schwarzkopf. At least one soprano, Julia Varady, has recorded both final scenes, and probably sang the Four Last Songs in concert. But as far as I know, only Nina Stemme has dared to record all three on disc.

Stemme's Salome is frightening. I doubt the soprano, now in her early 40s, ever sounded like the kittenish adolescent Strauss (after Oscar Wilde) depicted. (The incomparable Lluba Welitsch did, in a voice that sounded positively deranged, until she sang herself out in the process). Nor does Stemme possess the silvery innocence that led Strauss to promise the angelic-voiced Elisabeth Schumann that he would rescore the orchestra if only she would tackle the role. Regardless, Stemme is a powerhouse. Her voice is not only large and gorgeous, but also filled with more layers of color and drama than any I have heard in the role. Hers is a Salome who could terrify anyone save John the Baptist, who pays for his spiritual otherworldliness with his life. You can easily imagine this depraved madwoman not only kissing the saint's severed head, but also gobbling it up whole. Need I say fabulous?

So far, Nina Stemme has only sung the final scene in concert. May San Francisco Opera be the first company to invite her to undertake the entire role onstage.

Pappano, too, is a wonder. Percussion thunders, brass blazes away, and Salome's final outburst becomes the apotheosis of orchestral as well vocal orgasmic ecstasy. Perfumed in Capriccio, heartfelt in the final songs, yet careful to never move beyond his soprano's expressive limits, he is a conductor both singers and opera queens dream for.

Whamo, ten seconds after Salome is slain, Pappano transitions to moonlight, introducing Countess Madeleine as she begins her final soliloquy on which is more important, words or music. (Her decision, at best hinted at, will determine whether she'll choose poet or composer as her mate). Stemme lightens her voice to an amazing extent, producing beautiful tone as she portrays a vibrant, mature woman who promises more than royalty in return for love. True, she lacks Della Casa's silvery nobility, Schwarzkopf's miraculously detailed, ever-expressive response to every note and syllable to slide from her lips, and Fleming's lushness. But, in the final scene at least, the voice of a woman who clearly has more going for her than she reveals through nuance convinces.

When it comes to the Four Last Songs, I join those who long ago surrendered any pretense of objectivity. How can an incurable romantic be objective when Strauss devotes every means at his disposal to transport you from the devastation of World War II to a final taste of all the joy, beauty, longing, and ultimate peace life and death have to offer?

In this noggin, a recording that combines Schwarzkopf's incomparable ability to express Strauss' multiple layers of meaning (without, in this case, becoming arch), Norman's remarkable breadth of tone and ability to arch a long-breathed phrase, and Price's admittedly intermittent ability to hit highs that make the body quiver with delight plays over and over. Stemme's interpretation may not be a top recommendation, but she certainly succeeds in transitioning from a voice that approximates springtime in Valhalla to one of final acceptance. There is not a wealth of nuance. Nor, in the final descent of "Beim Schlafengehen," can she retain vocal grasp of ultimate orgasmic bliss as do both Schwarzkopf and Norman. (To be honest, she doesn't even try). But the voice itself is so filled with glory, and the woman behind it is so clearly intelligent, that I find myself warming more and more to the performance.

By all means check out Schwarzkopf mono and stereo (plus live with von Karajan), the glorious Norman recorded as though she's in early digital outer space, and lighter-voiced sopranos such as Janowitz, della Casa, Popp, and this June's SFO Marschallin, Soile Isokoski. Listen to Price and Leinsdorf, flaws and all. Hear how Brewer, Fleming, the should be all right but decidedly all wrong Caballé, and (shoot me) Te Kanawa ultimately miss the mark. If, after all that, Stemme transports you to Straussdom, you've got a fair chance of winning the Big Spin.


- Jason Victor S
erinus -

© Copyright 2007 Secrets of Home Theater & High Fidelity

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