With so many terrific releases to pick from, these are my top ten vocal, choral, and opera releases on CD and DVD, listed chronologically. (Apologies to the great instrumental albums that are excluded, particularly pianist Andrew Russo’s Dirty Little Secret; the wind quintet Pentaèdre’s Mozart arrangement, Così: Un opéra muet; Yuri Bashmet’s recording of works by Stravinsky and Prokofiev for string orchestra; and Roman Kofman’s version of Silvestrov’s Sixth Symphony.)


Monteverdi CycleMonteverdi Opera Cycle
De Nederlandse Opera's seven-DVD set of the three surviving Monteverdi operas and a staged version of Il combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda represents a brilliant and conceptually unified approach to the works, thanks largely to the absolutely focused dramatic vision of director Pierre Audi and his ability to draw together some of the most gifted early music performers and most inventive visual designers to collaborate on a project. Audi's approach doesn't box his collaborators in; each opera has a distinctive look and sound, but they are united by the emotional integrity and economy of his direction, which emphasizes the humanity of the characters and the universality of the complexity of their relationships. For any opera to be fully effective, the singing must be superb, and the consistently transcendent vocal quality and idiomatically appropriate period practice are the other elements that raise these performances to the level of the sublime. Read more >>

 

Lully TheseeLully: Thésée
Jean-Baptiste Lully, born in Florence in 1632, moved to France early in his career. By the time he turned 30, he had been named music master to the royal family and elevated to the nobility. Italian opera, particularly the works of Cavalli, had become hugely popular in France, and Lully took up the task of creating a tradition of native French opera. In 1775, in collaboration with librettist Philippe Quinault, Lully produced Thésée, a tragédie en musique, which marked a turning point in the synthesis of music, dramaturgy, and dance, and became the model for French opera for nearly a century, until the reforms of Gluck. CPO's splendid new recording of the opera finally gives listeners the opportunity to hear what made the opera so historic. Read more >>


 

Vivaldi JarousskyVivaldi Heroes
Philippe Jaroussky's countertenor is not a large instrument, but what an instrument! He sings with flawless intonation; a tone that is sweet, pure, even, and focused over the full extent of his wide range; and a breathtaking command of coloratura technique. The impression that his voice is perhaps more elfin than heroic seems of minor consequence in light of its beauty, and the expressive intelligence and musicality he brings to these characters from Vivaldi operas. In spite of the bravado of the album's title, Vivaldi Heroes, many of the arias are exquisitely tender, showcasing Jaroussky's strengths in bringing out the characters' humanity and vulnerability. Any number of arias could be singled out, but "Vedro con mio diletto," from Guistino, is a standout. Read more >>


 

Donizetti Dom SebastienDonizetti: Dom Sébastien, Roi de Portugal
Donizetti considered Dom Sébastien, Roi de Portugal (1843), his final completed opera written for the Paris Opéra, to be his masterpiece. In spite of its relative obscurity, on the basis of this recording, one is inclined to agree with him. The opera has several attributes that in the past have proved to be obstacles to its popularity. The first is its length — it's in five substantial acts and lasts three hours, but that's not so onerous for contemporary audiences accustomed to Wagner and Strauss. Besides, the composer created an abbreviated version for Viennese audiences, who at that time wanted to be out of the theater by 10 p.m., and that version could be used if necessary. The extravagant scenic and musical demands (at the premiere, there were 500 people on-stage at one point) put the opera outside the capability of all but the largest companies. A third difficulty for early audiences was the relentlessly dark subject matter; besides the many personal tragedies that make up the plot, the opera is ultimately a national tragedy as well — at the finale, Portugal has been lost to Spain, whose ships are seen approaching over the horizon as the curtain falls. Donizetti's music is appropriately somber, and at times, chilling. For modern audiences, whose sensibilities can accommodate Wozzeck or Elektra, the sadness and brutality of Dom Sébastien shouldn't be a deterrent to its viability. Read more >>


 

Verdi TraviataVerdi: La Traviata
Farao Classic's recording of La Traviata is revelatory, largely because of the extraordinary quality of the principals, who until this release, were largely unknown to international audiences. Anja Harteros is a stunningly effective Violetta — fresh and young sounding, with absolute vocal security and interpretive sensitivity. Her tone is natural and unforced, she sings with beautiful intonation, and the skill and psychological range and insight with which she shapes the vocal lines make this a performance of the highest order. Her of renunciation of Alfredo, and her death scene are heartbreakingly poignant, great moments of theatre. Her voice and her dramatic depth clearly mark Harteros as an artist to watch out for. The same could be said for Paolo Gavanelli; his burnished, vibrant tone in service to a nuanced, compassionate characterization makes his Germont genuinely compelling. Read more >>
 

 

Hindemith CardillacHindemith: Cardillac
Cardillac is one of Hindemith's oddest creations, but when it's performed well, as it is in this spectacular DVD production from the Paris Opéra, it's one of his most compelling. The libretto, by Ferdinand Lion, based on an E.T.A. Hoffmann story set in seventeenth century Paris, requires some substantial suspension of disbelief in order to fly. Every time Cardillac, an extraordinary goldsmith, sells a piece of jewelry, the purchaser is murdered. Somehow, suspicion never falls on Cardillac himself, and when he finally confesses at the end of the opera, he is killed by a crazed mob. His last intended victim, who managed to escape his attacker, castigates the crowd for not understanding the passion of an artist who couldn't bear to part with what he had created. The repentant mob then sings a rapturously beautiful lament in praise of the fallen hero. Curtain. It takes some pretty inspired direction to pull off such an irrational scenario, but a key lies in giving Hindemith's sense of irony and of the absurd full rein in creating a sort of parallel moral universe, in which expectations are constantly turned on their heads. Read more >>
 

Martin: Le vin herbeMartin: Le vin herbé
It’s not surprising that when Frank Martin, one of the twentieth century’s most devout composers, began a work based on the legend of Tristan and Iseult, he turned not to Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur or to Wagner’s source, Gottfried von Strassburg’s Tristan, both of which depict the lovers as totally abandoned to their passion, but to Joseph Bédier’s Le roman de Tristan et Iseut (1900), which was based on sources earlier than Mallory or Gottfried in which the lovers, in spite of their passionate love, remain chaste for the sake of their honor. The combination of chastity and passion aptly characterizes Le vin herbé, Martin’s 1941 secular chamber oratorio, for 12 singers, seven strings, and piano. Read more >>
 
 

Lauridsen NocturnesLauridsen: Nocturnes
British chamber choir Polyphony has recorded a collection of music by Morten Lauridsen that includes not only his gorgeous (and ubiquitous) cycle Les chansons des roses, but two less familiar cycles, Mid-Winter Songs and Nocturnes, and several shorter pieces. The sound of the choir is full, rich, and well blended, and the singers perform with absolute confidence, fully secure with the composer's close harmonies and unresolved dissonances. Their grasp of a full range of articulation, from crisp staccato to velvety legato, is especially striking. Conductor Stephen Layton leads the choir in an unusually nuanced and expressive performance of Les chansons des roses, with great flexibility of tempo, bringing out compositional felicities that can go unnoticed in more conventional readings with straighter tempos. His reading of the cycle Mid-Winter Songs, accompanied by Britten Sinfonia, is notable for its bristling energy and high drama. Read more >>
 
 

Golijov OceanaGolijov: Oceana
The three pieces by Osvaldo Golijov recorded here offer more evidence that his is one of the freest and most compelling voices on the scene. Although he came to the attention of the broader public in 2000 with the bold stylistic juxtapositions of La Pasión según San Marco, Oceana, written in 1996, incorporates a comparable diversity of elements. Perhaps even more than La Pasión, Oceana mingles its various idioms into an integrated aesthetic vision. What stands out is Golijov's fearless rejection of the orthodoxies of modernism, postmodernism, minimalism, and every other -ism that limits the definition of an acceptable aesthetic. Oceana is a large-scale cantata for which the unique sound of Brazilian singer Luciana Souza provided inspiration, and her voice is a unifying thread that runs through it. It's evocative of oceanic vastness without being imitative, and its moments of grand emotion are passionate, even spiritual; the fact that the ecstatic choral exclamations, "Oceana!" are easily mistaken for "Hosanna!" cannot have been coincidental. Souza's voice is absolutely astounding in its tonal coloring and expressive range. Robert Spano leads the Gwinnett Young Singers and the Atlanta Symphony & Chorus in a radiant performance. Read more >>
 
 

Lieberson SongsLieberson: Neruda Songs
The history of Peter Lieberson's Neruda Songs is so freighted with emotion that it's difficult to listen to them with any objectivity. The great Chilean poet Pablo Neruda wrote a hundred Love Sonnets (1960) for Matilde Urrutia, who later became his wife, and Peter Lieberson set five of them for his wife, mezzo-soprano Lorraine Hunt Lieberson. Lieberson's settings grew out of a full understanding of his wife's extraordinary vocal and dramatic gifts and are suffused with his intimate awareness of her personal and artistic vitality, as well as the fragility of her physical health. Hunt Lieberson gave the premiere of the Neruda Songs in Los Angeles in May 2005 and recorded them with the Boston Symphony under James Levine in November that year. She died in July 2006. The listener is always aware of the generosity of the husband and wife, composer and singer, in being allowed to participate in the intimacy of their final love song to each other. Read more >>