19 December 2014

CD REVIEW: Giuseppe Verdi from beginning to end - UN GIORNO DI REGNO (Tactus TC 812290) and OTELLO (NAXOS 8.660357-58)

CD REVIEW: Giuseppe Verdi - UN GIORNO DI REGNO (Tactus TC 812290) & OTELLO (NAXOS 8.660357-58)[1] GIUSEPPE VERDI (1813 – 1901): Un giorno di regnoMikheil Kiria (il Cavaliere di Belfiore), Simone Alberti (il Barone di Kelbar), Alice Quintavalla (la Marchesa del Poggio), Angela Nisi (Giulietta di Kelbar), Marco Frusoni (Edoardo di Sanval), Dario Ciotoli (il Signor La Rocca), Roberto Jachini Virgili (il Conte di Ivrea), Marco Miglietta (Delmonte), Riccardo Certi (un servo); Belcanto Chorus; Diego Procoli, fortepiano; Roma Sinfonietta; Gabriele Bonolis, conductor [Recorded during live performances in Teatro Flavio Vespasiano, Rieti, Italy, in November 2013; Tactus TC 812290; 2 CD, 108:03; Available from ClassicsOnline, Amazon, jpc, Presto Classical, and major music retailers]

[2] GIUSEPPE VERDI (1813 – 1901): OtelloRobert Dean Smith (Otello), Raffaella Angeletti (Desdemona), Sebastian Catana (Jago), Luis Dámaso (Cassio), Vicenç Esteve (Roderigo), Marifé Nogales (Emilia), Kristjan Mõisnik (Lodovico), Michael Dries (Montano), Enrique Sánchez (Araldo); Orfeón Donostiarra, Los ‘Peques’ del León de Oro; Oviedo Filarmonía; Friedrich Haider, conductor [Recorded in Auditorio Príncipe Felipe, Oviedo, Spain, 22 August – 8 September 2007 and 18 – 26 August 2009; NAXOS 8.660357-58; 2 CD, 131:57; Available from ClassicsOnline, Amazon, jpc, Presto Classical, and major music retailers]

​Composed during one of the most difficult periods in its young creator’s life and unsuccessfully premièred at La Scala in 1840, Giuseppe Verdi’s Un giorno di regno is an opera that has frequently fallen victim to being condemned for what it is not rather than embraced for what it is. Verdi’s only comic opera until Falstaff, the valedictory score with which he triumphantly ended his career as a composer of opera more than a half-century later, Un giorno di regno is not is an unheralded masterpiece: as contemporary assessments suggested, Verdi’s opera fares badly in comparisons with Donizetti’s L’elisir d’amore and Don Pasquale. A time in which he was mourning the losses of his children and first wife was not ideal for even a great artist’s inaugural effort at comedy, and the fact that he purported to have chosen what he deemed to be the least-stupid of the Felice Romani libretti placed at his disposal tacitly reveals Verdi’s level of enthusiasm for the project. Verdi at his most distracted was capable of crafting tuneful, well-constructed music, however, and Un giorno di regno is a score in which the composer’s authentic voice is distantly but distinctly heard. As a rival for the comic operas of Rossini and Donizetti, Un giorno di regno fails, but it is an invaluable glimpse of the craft of the composer of Falstaff in its infancy—and, under the right circumstances, it can be an enjoyable romp through false identities, amorous entanglements, and comedic conflicts between self and state.

​Recorded in November 2013 during Reate Festival performances in the Teatro Flavio Vespasiano in Rieti​, Italy, Tactus’s Un giorno di regno offers a lively account of the opera in the mode of the RAI Milano performance with Lina Pagliughi, Juan Oncina, Renato Capecchi, and Sesto Bruscantini given—and recorded by CETRA—in 1951 in commemoration of the fiftieth anniversary of Verdi’s death. Supervised, mixed, and mastered by Giovanni and Andrea Caruso, the recording suggests the sonic perspective of a prime seat in the stalls, and the minimal stage noise contributes to the sense of enjoying a performance in the theatre. Directed by Martino Faggiani, the Belcanto Chorus singers make favorable impressions every time Verdi calls upon them, especially in the choruses that open each of the opera's two acts. Un giorno di regno is the only of Verdi's operas that makes use of secco recitative, but there is nothing 'dry' in the playing of Diego Procoli, whose fortepiano accompaniment of the recitatives is splendidly witty: thanks to his inventiveness, the passages of secco recitative in this performance can be enjoyed rather than dreaded. Conductor Gabriele Bonolis exhibits a strong grasp of the subtleties of the young Verdi's bel canto style, setting tempi that allow the comedy to progress at a natural, unforced pace. The musicians of the Roma Sinfonietta distinguish themselves with fine playing throughout the performance, beginning with a nimble account of the opera's Sinfonia. Maestro Bonolis keeps the performance moving without pushing the musicians or the singers beyond their abilities, and he wholly avoids the heavy-handedness with which many conductors approach early Verdi repertory.

After the choristers launch Act One with their lively singing of ‘​Mai non rise, non rise un più bel dì,’ baritones Simone Alberti and Dario Ciotoli duet rambunctiously as Barone di Kelbar and the Tesoriere, Signor La Rocca, in 'Tesoriere garbatissimo, una perla or tocca a voi.’ Both gentlemen possess solid, resonant voices, and they buzz through the duet winningly. Tenor Marco Miglietta shapes Delmonte’s ‘Sua Maestà, signori, è alzata, e qui s'invia’ and all of his lines in the opera with finesse.

The Cavaliere di Belfiore is formally introduced by his cavatina, ‘Compagnoni di Parigi, che sì matto mi tenete,’ which baritone Mikheil Kiria sings powerfully and with at least a suggestion of the elegance that the piece demands. The baritone from Western Georgia sails energetically through the Cavaliere’s cabaletta, ‘Verrà purtroppo il giorno de' miei pensier piu gravi,’ having no trouble with the repeated top Es. He is joined by tenor Marco Frusoni in the subsequent duet with Edoardo di Sanval, 'Proverò che degno io sono del favor che vi domando,’ a piece that subjects the tenor to frequent top Gs. The rollicking allegro marziale 'Infiammato da spirto guerriero’ keeps both gentlemen on their toes, and they interact with the flair of a comedic duo.

Parma-born soprano Alice Quintavalla makes her mark on the performance with a graceful account of the Marchesa del Poggio’s cavatina ‘Grave a core innamorato è frenare l'ardente affetto,’ reaching the top A♭s and B♭ in the cadenza with little evidence of stress. The Allegro cabaletta, 'Se dee, se dee cader la vedova non cada in peggio imbroglio’—with its trills, coloratura, and repeated high A♭s—is a greater challenge, but Ms. Quintavalla emerges unscathed. Giulietta di Kelbar also establishes herself in the opera with a cavatina, ‘Non san quant'io nel petto soffits mortal dolore,’ which soprano Angela Nisi executes elegantly. She, too, faces bravura demands in her allegretto cabaletta, ‘Non vo' quel vecchio, non son sì sciocca,’ in which she bravely confronts the trills and top B♭s.

Mr. Alberti and Mr. Ciotoli return to banter good-naturedly in the ‘duetto buffo’ for the Barone and Tesoriere, 'Diletto genero, a voi ne vengo,’ which the gentlemen perform with comic bluster. The subsequent sextet, begun by Edoardo with ‘Cara Giulia, alfin ti vedo,’ to which Mr. Frusoni gives a sweetly-phrased delivery, finds Giulietta, the Barone, the Cavaliere, Tesoriere, and the Marchese—and their respective portrayers—getting mired ever deeper in confusion, conveyed by the young Verdi in frenzied, fanciful music. The trio for the Marchesa, Giulietta, and Edoardo that follows, ‘Bella speranza in vero,’ is one of the finest numbers in the score, and Ms. Quintavalla, Ms. Nisi, and Mr. Frusoni sing it charmingly, the ladies displaying greater ease than the gentleman on their unison top A. Ignited by the fire of the composer’s budding genius, the ensemble finale brings Act One to a rousing close, capped by Ms. Quintavalla’s strong top B♭.

Edoardo launches Act Two with his largo cantabile aria 'Pietoso al lungo pianto alfin m'arride amore,’ which Mr. Frusoni sings competently despite omitting the written top C in the aria’s cadenza. The moderato cabaletta ‘Deh! lasciate a un'alma amante di speranza un solo istante’ is frankly a trial for both the singer and the listener, the strain at the top of the tenor’s range sometimes painful to hear. Mr. Alberti and Mr. Ciotoli again trade patter and top Es in the duet for the Barone and Tesoriere, ‘Tutte l'armi si può prendere de' due mondi e vecchio e nuovo.’ Mr. Kiria duets vigorously with Ms. Quintavalla in ‘Ch'io non possa il ver comprendere,’ but the Marchesa gains the upper hand thanks to the soprano’s shining top A.

The Marchesa’s andante cantabile aria, ‘Si mostri a chi l'adora,' is the musical apogee of Act Two, and Ms. Quintavalla masters all of its difficulties except for an untidily-sung descending chromatic scale. She fires off exciting top As and Bs in the allegro cabaletta, ‘Sì, scordar saprò l'infido, fuggirò la sua presenza.’ Ms. Nisi follows Ms. Quintavalla’s lead in Giulietta’s duet with Edoardo, ‘Giurai seguirlo in campo,’ rocketing to forceful top Bs in the allegro section, ‘Corro al re: saprò difendere i miei dritti in contro a' suoi.’ Verdi creates symmetry by complementing the sextet in Act One with a septet in Act Two, begun by the Marchesa with ‘A tal colpo preparata io non era, io non era, o Cavaliere.’ Tenor Roberto Jachini Virgili, a pupil of Renata Scotto, adds his vivid characterization of the Conte di Ivrea to his colleagues’ spirited singing, and the opera’s finale, ‘Sire, venne in quest'istante un corrierre della Corte,’ draws vehement singing from the cast. Their conflicting interests sorted out, ‘Eh! facciamo facciam da buoni amici’ takes Giulietta and the Marchesa to top B♭s. Mention must also be made of the firm vocalism of baritone Riccardo Certi in Verdi’s few lines for the Servo. Even when their singing is not first-rate, these young artists throw themselves into the performance with absolute commitment, and they fashion an involved, sometimes genuinely amusing Un giorno di regno—no magnum opus, to be sure, but an entertaining opera that repays honest endeavors to uncover the seeds of Verdi’s burgeoning theatrical savvy.

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At the opposite end of the spectrum from Un giorno di regno, artistically and chronologically, is Otello, the score with which Verdi said his final farewell to serious opera in 1887. Also premièred at La Scala, where the failure of his freshman attempt at comic opera nearly convinced him to abandon composition altogether, Otello was the culmination of a concerted campaign by the publisher Giulio Ricordi and the librettist and fellow composer Arrigo Boito to lure Verdi into setting an adaptation of Shakespeare’s tale of the Moor of Venice to music. Boito’s libretto—a rare example of a librettist equaling or even improving upon the Bard of Avon—was completed six years before Verdi’s opera reached the stage, but the success that greeted the work proved that it was worth the wait. Musically, Otello is a masterpiece of Verdi’s still-evolving late-career style. Dramatically, the opera is a marvel. The characterizations of Otello, Desdemona, and Jago are sharper in the four acts of Verdi’s opera than in the pages of Shakespeare’s play. In the playhouse, the tragedy is poignant: in the opera house, it is devastating. The aged Verdi clearly admitted Desdemona into his heart, and the score that resulted brims with the misadventures of young love despite the age of the hands that created it.

NAXOS’s Verdi escapades have mostly been successful, the label’s catalogue including enjoyable performances of Rigoletto, Il trovatore, La traviata, and Aida and a particularly competitive recording of Falstaff. This studio recording of Otello immediately rises to the top of the list of NAXOS’s best opera recordings in any repertory. NAXOS recordings almost never disappoint in terms of sound quality, but Otello is a score that can be suffocated in the recording studio: it is Verdi’s most extravagantly atmospheric opera, and a recording that lacks ample space into which the cacophonous climaxes can expand threatens to be uncomfortably claustrophobic. The basic acoustic in this recording is more evocative of the studio than of the theatre, but it is meticulously-balanced to avoid peaking when all of the musical forces are in full cry. The sterling achievements of producer Joachim Krist and engineer and editor Fernando Arias contribute superbly to the dramatic effectiveness of the performance. Only in Act Four of Aida had Verdi previously built tension as potently as in Otello, and indifferent sound can spoil the impact of the music, particularly in the opera’s final scene. The acoustical ambience of this recording never stands in the way of Verdi’s carefully-wrought musical and dramatic effects: that alone is a commendable attribute for a recording of Otello.

Still, the fearsome question of how to cast a performance of Otello, whether in the opera house or before microphones, surely haunts any production team planning to take Verdi’s penultimate opera into the studio. It is NAXOS’s answer to this question that is the most impressive element of this recording. Otello is more dependent upon the capabilities of its central characters than almost any of Verdi’s other operas, but this recording features a cast of strength from the smallest rôles to the three leads. Whether their voices are heard as those of the Cypriot populace or rabble-rousing soldiers, the choristers of Los 'Peques' del León de Oro and ​Orfeó​n Donostiarra bellow and sigh assertively. They open the opera with exclamations of ‘Una vela!’ that shudder with apprehension, and the sopranos and tenors seem little troubled by the fortissimo lines taking them to top A and B♭. Their utterances of ‘Fuoco di gioia!’ are stirring, and the choristers consistently sing with engagement that heightens their collective rôle as a sort of Greek chorus. Maestro Friedrich Haider’s vast experience in bel canto repertory is apparent in his conducting of Otello. Even in his last operas, Verdi never completely renounced the bel canto instincts that yielded the melodic prodigality of his music, and Maestro Haider’s intuitive handling of bel canto idioms gives the melodic lines in Otello special luminosity. Less expected is the mastery that Maestro Haider demonstrates in leading the admirable playing of the fiercely dramatic score by the Oviedo Filharmonía. The brass players give particularly commendable accounts of their difficult parts, but all of the orchestra’s musicians furnish imposing performances. Aided by NAXOS’s production team, Maestro Haider and the orchestra achieve epic dynamic contrasts that aptly evoke the polarized environments in which the fates of Otello, Desdemona, and Jago collide.

Led by Marifé Nogales’s shrewd Emilia, the singers in supporting rôles acquit themselves adroitly. Ms. Nogales sings her part in the quartet in Act Two with firm tone, and the terror and fear for her mistress that she exudes in Act Four are harrowing. As the Araldo, baritone Enrique Sánchez lends a resonant voice and noble phrasing to his pronouncements of ‘La vedetta del porto ha segnalato la veneta galea che a Cipro adduce gli ambasciatori’ in Act Three and ‘Signor mio...ven prego, lasciate ch'io vi parli’ in Act Four. Basses Michael Dries and Kristjan Mõisnik impress as Montano and Lodovico, the former’s singing of ‘È l'alato Leon!’ in Act One demanding attention. Tenors Vicenç Esteve as Roderigo and Luis Dámaso as Cassio give nuanced readings of their parts that benefit from their youthful vocalism. In Act One, Mr. Dámaso sings ‘Essa infiora questo lido’ commandingly, and he rises to the top As in ‘Questa del pampino verace’ and ‘Miracolo vago dell’aspo e dell’ago’ in Act Three with freedom. His etching of ‘Questo nome d'onor suona ancor vano per me’ is the finest moment in Mr. Dámaso’s wonderful performance.

​American baritone Sebastian Catana is one of the Twenty-First Century’s great hopes for authentic Verdi baritone singing [a review of his terrific performance of Pasha Seid in Washington Concert Opera’s March 2014 presentation of Il corsaro is available here]. As Jago in this performance, his outstanding singing and the suitability of the voice for the music usher him into the company of the finest recorded Jagos of the past. With his subtly-hued phrasing of ‘È infranto l'artimon!’ and ‘Roderigo, ebben che pensi,’ Mr. Catana personifies a dangerous, calculating character from the start, and his suggestive ‘Se un fragil voto di femmina non è tropp'arduo nodo pel genio mio nè per l'inferno’ is chilling. In ‘Ei favella già con troppo bollor,’ he nails the high F and G♭, and the high tessitura of ‘Inaffia l'ugola!’ is managed with thrilling punch. The famous ‘Credo in un Dio crudel’ in Act Two inspires Mr. Catana to a glorious display of Verdi singing, his negotiations of the punishing tessitura and climactic top Fs and F♯ marked by technical aplomb. His voice drips with venom in ‘Ciò m'accora...,’ his goading of the insecure Otello manifested by his almost violent attack on the trill on E♯. The pointed irony of his ‘Pace, signor’ is disquieting, and his false account of Cassio’s dream, ‘Era la notte, Cassio dormia, gli stavo accanto,’ his voice enveloped in chiaroscuro, borders on the pornographic. Mr. Catana matches his Otello decibel for decibel in duet, and his alertness to the moments of beauty in his music makes him an especially menacing figure. There is a deadened quality to his singing of ‘Vieni; l'aula è deserta’ in Act Three, and the viciousness of his elocution of ‘Questa è una ragna dove il tuo cuor casca, si lagna, s'impiglia e muor’ is terrifying. His villainy is so compelling because there are glimmers of humanity in his performance, moments in which his cold demeanor seems designed to conceal a pitiable vulnerability. There are no weaknesses in Mr. Catana’s vocalism, however, and he lurks in the shadows of Act Four like a cobra plotting its strike. That this Jago evades justice is maddening, but Mr. Catana portrays a character for whom escape is as natural as deception. His 107 appearances at the Metropolitan Opera to date have been in supporting rôles: hopefully, this recording will prompt the MET and opera houses throughout the world to bolster—and in some cases revive—their Verdi wings by giving their audiences opportunities to hear this phenomenal young singer in the leading rôles for which his burly, burnished voice qualifies him.

The list of memorable Desdemonas includes many of the greatest sopranos of the years since Otello’s première. On records, there are Maria Carbone, Renata Tebaldi, Dame Gwyneth Jones, Renata Scotto, and Mirella Freni. Additionally, in the world’s opera houses, Verdi’s exquisite music has received standard-bearing performances from Lotte Lehmann, Elisabeth Rethberg, Eleanor Steber, Licia Albanese, Victoria de los Ángeles, Montserrat Caballé, Ilva Ligabue, Raina Kabaivanska, Teresa Żylis-Gara, and Renée Fleming. Born in Torino, soprano Raffaella Angeletti is a Desdemona in the tradition of Mirella Freni, a warmly feminine, lushly Italianate young woman whose demure tranquility does not preclude flashes of temper. The amorous wonder of her exclamation of ‘Mio superbo guerrier!’ in Act One is epitomized by her sustained top A♭, and the solidity of the central octave of the voice is put to great use, musically and dramatically. Ms. Angeletti’s singing in the love duet maintains poise and laser-like focus: it is hardly surprising that she has been widely acclaimed in Europe for her portrayal of Puccini’s Cio-Cio San. In Act Two of Otello, she exudes purity in ‘Splende il cielo, danza l'aura, olezza il fior’ and soars to her stunning top B. Her plea for mercy for Cassio, ‘D'un uom che geme sotto il tuo disdegno la preghiera ti porto,’ would melt the heart of a sane man: it is obvious why it so unnerves Otello, already drowning in suspicion and paranoia. Ms. Angeletti palpably imparts the confusion of ‘Perchè torbida suona la voce tua?’ The sadness and supplication of her pained enunciation of ‘Se inconscia, contro te, sposo, ho peccato, dammi la dolce lieta parola del perdono,’ the line plunging to the bottom of the voice, are very moving, and her top B♭ in the dolcissimo ‘Vien ch'io t'allieti il core’ is a glistening tone. She trades full-throated forte top B♭s with Otello in the quartet, and she takes her leave with heartbreaking disillusionment. In Act Three, she seems barely able to utter her words in ‘Dio ti giocondi, o sposo dell'alma mia sovrano’ and ‘Tu di me ti fal gioco,’ and in ‘Mi guarda! il volto e l'anima ti svelo’ her lustrous top B♭ on the phrase ‘guarda le prime lagrime’ is a cry from the heart. Her despair is tinged with indignation in ‘A terra! sì...nel livido fango,’ and she soars over the ensemble to top C♭, on which Verdi cruelly requested that Emilia and Cassio join her. It is in Act Four that Desdemona has her most familiar music, and Ms. Angeletti manages to make the oft-abused willow aria, ‘Piangea cantando nell'erma landa,’ sound grippingly spontaneous. Her voice trembles with fear when she sings ‘Ah! Emilia, Emilia, addio.’ This singer’s account of 'Ave Maria, piena di grazia,’ the floated top A♭ emitted as though intended solely for God’s ears, is truly a despondent young woman’s prayer rather than a prima donna’s workaday traversal of a famous aria. The voice is choked with sadness and horror when she emotes, ‘Chi è là? Otello?’ These are rhetorical questions: this Desdemona already senses that it is Otello who approaches and that he comes to kill her. Ms. Angeletti takes an understated approach to Desdemona’s death throes. She loves Otello too much to struggle against his injustice. There is occasionally a slight dullness to the basic patina of her sound, but the technical surety with which Ms. Angeletti sings Desdemona is marvelous—and, in this sad time for Verdi singing, quite exceptional.

Unlike many modern exponents of the part, Kansas-born tenor Robert Dean Smith has the capacity as Otello to combine the heroic stamina of a Heldentenor with the pliancy of a more lyric voice. In this performance, he alternates a hectoring, brutal public persona with fleeting images of a withering, intensely-flawed introversion. Mr. Smith’s introductory ‘Esultate​! L'orgoglio musulmano sepolto è in mar’ is powerful without being unpleasantly brusque, and he ascends unhesitatingly to the top G♯ and A. His ‘Abbasso le spade!’ is a command that is not to be ignored. His is the passion of a Cavaradossi or Pinkerton rather than a Siegfried or Tristan in ‘Già nella notte densa s'estingue ogni clamor,’ and the ardor of his ‘Vien…Venere splende’ is touchingly sincere, his long-sustained top A♭ invoking the height of passion. As Otello’s stability deteriorates in Act Two, Mr. Smith’s singing grows more agitated. In the duet with Jago, ‘Pel cielo, tu sei l'eco dei detti miei,’ the tenor meaningfully juxtaposes the increasing disjointedness of Otello’s thoughts with the reliable steadiness of his vocalism. He lashes at the top B on ‘amore e gelosia vadan dispersi insieme,’ and the anguish of ‘Mi lascia! mi lascia!’ and ‘Desdemona rea!’ is crippling. There is a repulsive, almost puerile resolve in his singing of ‘Ora e per sempre addio,’ and he copes unflinchingly with the troublesome tessitura, centered in the passaggio, and the catapulting vocal lines that climb to ‘Sì, pel ciel marmoreo giuro!’ Otello’s exchanges with Jago at the start of Act Three are given daunting significance by Mr. Smith’s performance, his singing of ‘Ancor l'ambascia del mio morbo m'assale’ a manifestation of the character’s desperation. His ill-tempered remarks to Desdemona, exemplified by ‘Datemi ancor l'eburnea mano, vo' fare ammenda’ are cutting, and he negotiates the rise to top C on ‘quella vil cortigian che è la sposa d'Otello’ far more easily than many Otellos. The mournful adagio, ‘Dio! mi potevi scagliar tutti i mali della miseria’ is sung with the delicacy of a love song, and Mr. Smith employs his ringing top B♭s as groans of dejection. ‘A terra! e piangi!’ and ‘Fuggirmi io sol non so!’ are tormented expressions of exasperation, and the rise to top A in ‘E il ciel non ha più fulmini’ is unanswerably emphatic. In Act Four, Otello is a broken man even before Jago’s treacherous manipulation is unveiled. Mr. Smith sings ‘Niun mi tema, s'anco armato mi vede’ with simplicity that proves far more persuasive than more ‘theatrical’ approaches to the passage. When Mr. Smith’s Otello sings of ‘un bacio...un bacio ancora,’ there is no question that his thoughts are as much of the next world as of this one. Mr. Smith does not always have at his disposal the sheer might that the part requires, but he sings the music captivatingly, and his performance preserves true beauty of tone in passages in which many singers sacrifice attractive vocalism in order to focus on survival. Moreoever, he, Ms. Angeletti, and Mr. Catana are an Otello, Desdemona, and Jago who sing with rather than at one another, and they expressively depict the sharpest pangs of Shakespeare’s, Boito’s, and Verdi’s tragedy.

That Otello remains one of Verdi’s most popular and frequently-performed operas is indicative of the quality of the music rather than that of most recent performances of the opera. It is a score that asks colossal things of those who perform it, and this new recording from NAXOS responds prodigiously. In colloquial terms, Otello is not an opera for weaklings: strength is the trademark of the efforts of NAXOS’s team of singers, musicians, and technical staff, and, perhaps most remarkably, they succeed in blending the necessary muscle with appeal. This is an Otello to be savored, not merely endured.

16 December 2014

CD REVIEW: Antonio Caldara – LA CONCORDIA DE’ PIANETI (V. Cangemi, R. Donose, F. Fagioli, D. Behle, D. Galou, C. Mena, L. Tittoto; DGG/Archiv Produktion 479 3356)

CD REVIEW: Antonio Caldara - LA CONCORDIA DE' PIANETI (DGG/Archiv Produktion 479 3356)ANTONIO CALDARA (1671 – 1736): La concordia de’ pianeti—Verónica Cangemi (Diana), Ruxandra Donose (Giove), Franco Fagioli (Apollo), Daniel Behle (Mercurio), Delphine Galou (Venere), Carlos Mena (Marte), Luca Tittoto (Saturno); La Cetra Vocalensemble Basel; La Cetra Barockorchester Basel; Andrea Marcon, conductor [Recorded in the Konzerthaus Dortmund, Germany, 13 – 19 January 2014, in conjunction with the work’s modern première on 18 January 2014; DGG/Archiv Produktion 479 3356; 2 CD, 108:07; Available from Amazon, jpc, iTunes, Presto Classical, and major music retailers]

Despite the quality of his oeuvre, Antonio Caldara is a composer whose name remains more known than his music. A native Venetian whose turbulent career took him to Barcelona and Vienna via Mantua and Rome, Caldara was a prototypical son of a violinist who mastered several instruments and took up composition as a natural continuation of the family legacy. His liturgical music found favor at the Hapsburg court in Vienna, and he was likely the composer of the first Italian operas performed in Spain, but, beyond speculation and generalities, who was Antonio Caldara? Even the date of his birth is uncertain, and sadly little information of verifiable veracity about his life remains. What is known is that he was not altogether fortunate in his choices of employers: his tenure at the Mantua court of the Francophile Ferdinando Carlo Gonzaga was cut short by the expulsion of French interests from Italy, and his stay in Barcelona was relatively brief but seemingly remarkably productive. The extent to which his artistry was shaped by education and experience remains a matter of conjecture, but his surviving music affirms that he earned the right to be regarded both by his contemporaries and by posterity as one of the true masters of the Italian Baroque. By the time of his death in 1736, Caldara had assumed a vital position in the musical life of Hapsburg Vienna, and that his passing was mourned by the imperial court indicates the esteem in which he was held in Europe’s most musical city. That the man deserved such homage from his contemporaries must suggest that, in an age in which ambition and curiosity lead artists into the most neglected corners of Baroque repertory, his music merits the attention of the most inquisitive artists of the Twenty-First Century. Long an advocate for overlooked music of the Seventeeth and Eighteenth Centuries, the Archiv label here gives the music of Antonio Caldara an impeccable opportunity to lift the composer’s name out of decaying musicological tomes and thrust it into the global musical conversation.

First performed in 1723 in Znojmo in today’s Czech Republic, Caldara’s ‘componimento teatrale per musica,’ La concordia de’ pianeti, was created as a diversion for the Hapsburg Empress’s name day during a royal visit to Moravia. Details of the first performance are vague, but Znojmo had the distinction of being the base of operations for one of Caldara’s most intriguing contemporaries, Prokop Diviš, the inventor of a contraption known as the denis d’or, ostensibly the first ‘electronic’ musical instrument in the modern sense. Presumably, musical forces either existed or were assembled to suitably serenade sojourning crowned heads from Vienna, and the participation of several of the continent’s most celebrated singers—the castrati Carestini, Orsini, and Genovesi, who sang Apollo, Giove, and Diana, and tenor Gaetano Borghi as Mercurio—assured a regal ambience. Recorded in conjunction with a concert presentation in Dortmund, this performance has the advantage of the services of excellent singers and musicians of proven elegance in similar repertory. Aside from strangely artificial-sounding applause, the recording gives no indications of its live-performance provenance. The acoustic is slightly dry, which accentuates a few blemishes in the singers’ vocal productions, but the overall sonic atmosphere is pleasing to the ears. Though not Caldara’s best work even among the few scores known to Twenty-First Century listeners, La concordia de’ pianeti is an inventive score, and Archiv’s engineering allows Andrea Marcon and the instrumentalists of La Cetra Barockorchester Basel to exercise their gifts with great refinement but without fear of details being obscured by indifferent sound quality. The taut playing of the work’s Introduzione sets the stage for a thoughtful but unexaggerated performance, and the singing of La Cetra Vocalensemble Basel in the choruses ‘Oggie brillate e ardete,’ ‘Questo giorno celebrate,’ and ‘Tu sei cara in pari guisa’ further establishes the success of the performance as a whole. The choristers maintain close-knit ensemble without sounding inappropriately ecclesiastical, and their near-perfect diction gives their utterances heightened immediacy. Having dedicated much of his career to leading performances of music by Vivaldi, Maestro Marcon knows how this essentially Venetian score should go, and he and his team of continuo players, musicians, and singers give Caldara’s music a reading of tremendous energy and finesse.

As sung by bass Luca Tittoto, Saturno is a staunchly curmudgeonly presence, the character’s recitative with Giove, ‘Mercurio non risponde,’ receiving from the singer charismatically gruff enunciation. In the aria ‘Di quel bel nome al suono,’ Mr. Tittoto manages the wide range of the music capably, producing terrifically resonant low notes. There is a surprising vulnerability to Saturno’s ‘Mi piace, o dive, o numi,’ realized viscerally by Mr. Tittoto, and he channels considerable resources of tonal shading into his imaginative phrasing of the aria ‘Pari a quella il mondo vede.’ The basses in performances of Baroque vocal music are often whining, weak-voiced singers with grainy, featherweight timbres. Saturno demands a measure of true brawn, and Mr. Tittoto supplies it well within the boundaries of good taste.

Marte is sung by countertenor Carlos Mena with a blend of subtly-inflected diction and compact tone. Sparring with Apollo, Diana, and Venere in the recitative ‘Se tanto ottien laggiù,’ he matches the sheen of his timbre to the dramatic impetus of his words. He exhibits a fine bravura technique but intermittent weakness on sustained tones in the aria ‘Non v'è bella che non creda.’ Marte’s scene with Venere, ‘No, non è il solo,’ is rousingly done by Mr. Mena, who then sings the exhilarating aria with trumpets ‘Da mia tromba’ excitingly, as well. Mr. Mena’s dulcet but unmistakably masculine timbre is always heard with pleasure.

Delphine Galou is one of the few true contraltos singing today, and her performances invariably convey complete preparedness and concentration. As Venere in La concordia de’ pianeti, she contends with music that is almost perfectly-suited to her voice. In Venere’s exchange with Mercurio, ‘Qual fia costei,’ the burnished quality of her timbre lends her portrayal authority and sensuality appropriate for the character. Ms. Galou’s singing of the complex aria ‘Non si turba e non si duole,’ its deceptive cadences put to clever dramatic use, is distinguished by the fantastic strength of her sustained tones. To both the recitative with Giove, ‘Qual se improvvisa face,’ and the aria ‘Ad Elisa ancor d'intorno’ she devotes the best of her artistry, wrapping her voice around the words alluringly. In the symbolic Licenza, a flattering paean to the imperial birthday girl, Ms. Galou gets the last words with the recitative ‘Ecco, Elisa, gli applausi’ and aria ‘La concordia de' Pianeti,’ which she sings chicly. The sophistication for which Ms. Galou is renowned is evident in every note that she sings in this performance, and her sensitive, womanly Venere is rightly the musical and dramatic nucleus of the recording.

In the context of this recording, Daniel Behle further confirms that he is one of the Twenty-First Century’s most important singers with a performance of breathtaking bravura swagger. In Mercurio’s recitative with Venere, ‘Qual fia costei,’ the tenor tears into the words with a vengeance, the innate refinement of his basic vocal production not inhibiting his carefully-honed dramatic instincts. Mr. Behle dispatches the fiery coloratura passagework in the aria ‘Tal se gemma e rara e bella’ with incredible gusto. He joins delightfully with Saturno and Giove in the recitative ‘Più belle sempre furo,’ and his singing of the aria ‘Madre d'Amor tu sei’ is characterized by exemplary breath control and keen phrasing. Mr. Behle creates an aptly aristocratic Mercurio with Puckish charm, and the voice is, as ever, an exceptionally secure, beautiful instrument.

To the ranks of several outstanding recent recordings countertenor Franco Fagioli adds a performance of Apollo in La concordia de’ pianeti that reaches very high levels of expressive, lovely singing. In ‘Mal crede il dio guerrier,’ his recitative with Mercurio and Giove, Mr. Fagioli seems to truly listen and react to his colleagues. His broadly-phrased singing of the aria ‘So ch'io dal suolo alzai’ is crowned with extraordinary high notes. Later, he lavishes great nobility and tonal luster on Apollo’s recitative ‘Ben cedi, o Cintia’ and aria ‘Questo dì così giocondo.’ There are a few ungainly moments in Mr. Fagioli’s negotiations of pyrotechnics, but he is a shrewd, uncompromising singer who excels in almost every musical task that he undertakes. This recording finds him very near to being on his best form, which is to say that he sings magnificently.

Rugged machismo is not the hallmark of mezzo-soprano Ruxandra Donose’s Giove, but he is a willful, virile god with a voice that sounds as though it holds thunderbolts in reserve. It seems counterintuitive to suggest that a singer’s vocalism is too beautiful, but Ms. Donose’s opulent vocalism is a bounty that is almost richer than Giove’s music justifies. In the recitative ‘Mal discerni a i grandi’ and aria ‘Alla bontade e al merto,’ Ms. Donose displays impressive poise, and her bravura technique is never less than equal to Caldara’s requirements. Similarly, her voice flows through the recitative ‘Il giusto augurio accetto’ and aria ‘Goda il mondo’ with the sheen of liquid gold. Ms. Donose is an astonishingly versatile singer, and this recording documents her artistry at its peak.

Soprano Verónica Cangemi is the kind of singer who can uplift or break a listener’s heart with something as simple as the resolution of a cadence. As the chaste Diana in La concordia de’ pianeti, she enchants with the magic of a great actress. In Diana’s recitative with Mercurio and Venere, ‘Di Mercurio è costume,’ and the encounter with Giove, Venere, and Mercurio, ‘Ben sovente più bella,’ she communicates with both her colleagues and the listener with insightful use of text, shading her tone to reflect the shifting emotions of the words. Her traversal of the aria ‘Ad essa io cederò’ is a lesson in historically-informed singing allied with a poet’s caressing of nuances in the text. Even in the recitative with Giove, ‘Poiché tanto prometti,’ her phrasing is endearingly pensive. Ms. Cangemi provides the emotional zenith of the performance with her serene, heartfelt singing of the aria ‘Voti amanti ch’il chiedete.’ The voice is no longer produced with the obvious ease that her singing demonstrated in years past, and there are passages in which the velvet has worn off, revealing the sturdy hardwood core. Ms. Cangemi nonetheless remains a Baroque stylist of the first rank, ornamenting her arias with great creativity, and her coolly engaging Diana proves an ideal foil to Ms. Galou’s fervid Venere.

Like many of his contemporaries, Antonio Caldara is only just beginning to emerge from the long shadows of Händel and Vivaldi. The small group of stylistically authentic recordings of Caldara’s music represents a still-inadequate reflection of what history suggests that the composer’s significance in the artistic milieu of the first half of the Eighteenth Century warrants. La concordia de’ pianeti is not a masterpiece worthy of comparison with Händel’s Tamerlano or Vivaldi’s Orlando furioso, but its quality suggests that the next Caldara manuscript to emerge from a dark library may well be. Performed as well as La concordia de’ pianeti is on this recording, almost any piece might seem a valuable discovery.

15 December 2014

IN MEMORIAM: American mezzo-soprano IRENE DALIS, 1925 – 2014

IN MEMORIAM: American mezzo-soprano IRENE DALIS (1925 - 2014) as Fricka in Richard Wagner's DIE WALKÜRE at the Metropolitan Opera in 1965 [Photo © by The Metropolitan Opera Guild]So ist es denn aus mit den ewigen Göttern: American mezzo-soprano Irene Dalis as Fricka in Richard Wagner’s Die Walküre at the Metropolitan Opera, 1965 [Photo © by The Metropolitan Opera Guild]

Irene Dalis

8 October 1925 – 14 December 2014

On 18 December 1959, Birgit Nilsson made her Metropolitan Opera début in a rôle that remains associated with her, the titular Irish princess in Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde. Ten days later, she reprised her Isolde in one of the most famous performances in MET history, the night on which the ravages of illness paired her with no fewer than three Tristans. The winter of 1960 – 1961 saw the MET débuts of Hermann Prey and Sir Georg Solti in Wagner’s Tannhäuser in December, the spectacular joint débuts of Leontyne Price and Franco Corelli in Verdi’s Il trovatore in January, and Ms. Price’s first MET Aida in February. In January 1962, the underappreciated Anita Välkki bowed as Brünnhilde in Die Walküre, followed in March 1964 by the first MET appearance of the equally undervalued Nicolae Herlea as Rodrigo in Don Carlo. In October 1966, Karl Böhm and a fantastic cast introduced MET audiences to Richard Strauss’s Die Frau ohne Schatten, and a highlight of the Spring 1967 Tour was the début in Boston of Elisabeth Grümmer as Elsa in Lohengrin. The 28 September 1968 performance of Cilèa’s Adriana Lecouvreur partnered Renata Tebaldi with a young tenor making his first journey across Lincoln Center Plaza from New York City Opera to the MET, Plácido Domingo. August Everding’s new production of Tristan und Isolde, uniting Ms. Nilsson’s Isolde with Jess Thomas’s Tristan, was one of the greatest triumphs of the 1971 – 1972 Season, and the artistic sensation of the 1976 MET Tour was Renata Scotto’s portrayal of the soprano heroines in Puccini’s Il trittico. The common denominator in these performances, the witness to all of these watershed moments in the history of the Metropolitan Opera, is mezzo-soprano Irene Dalis, one of America’s finest, most unforgettable singers. A thrilling creature of the stage whose artistry was matched by her humanity, Ms. Dalis’s legacy in American opera is one of integrity, humility, and dedication to making her own career one of unerring dignity and affectionately nurturing the careers of young singers.

Following an instructive tenure in German opera houses, Ms. Dalis made her own MET début as Eboli in Don Carlo on 16 March 1957, in a performance in which her colleagues were Jussi Björling, Delia Rigal, Ettore Bastianini, Cesare Siepi, and Hermann Uhde. Critic Raymond A. Erickson wrote in Musical America that she ‘met the exacting demands of the part of Eboli with such vocal and dramatic authority as to make her debut one of the most exciting in recent seasons.’ Her prowess in Verdi repertory was confirmed in subsequent seasons by the fact that neither her Azucena nor her Amneris was eclipsed by her high-wattage colleagues. The histrionic intensity of her Azucena and the nobility of her Amneris were combined in Ms. Dalis’s magnificently-sung Lady Macbeth, and she was a hair-raising but unfailingly musical Ulrica in Un ballo in maschera. In Verdi repertory, as Santuzza in Cavalleria rusticana, as the Principessa di Bouillon in Adriana Lecouvreur, and as the Zia Principessa in Suor Angelica, she was America’s only true rival for the incomparable Giulietta Simionato.

Though she brought an element of authentic Gallic hauteur to her characterization of the Principessa di Bouillon, Ms. Dalis’s only French rôle at the MET was the Biblical seductress in Saint-Saëns’s Samson et Dalila, but her expertise in Italian repertory was paralleled by her superb singing of German rôles. Brangäne in Tristan und Isolde was her fourth part at the MET, and her level of achievement was such that Birgit Nilsson, frequently her Isolde, regarded her not as a rival but as an equal. Whether her Brünnhilde was Nilsson, Välkki, Martha Mödl, or Margaret Harshaw, she was a commanding Fricka in Die Walküre and a compelling Waltraute in Götterdämmerung, as well as a powerful Fricka in Das Rheingold. She was an Ortrud and a Venus who could hold her own against the very different Elsas of Régine Crespin, Ingrid Bjoner, and Elisabeth Grümmer and Elisabeths of Victoria de los Ángeles and Leonie Rysanek. Ms. Dalis’s sole Klytämnestra in Richard Strauss’s Elektra was a tour performance in Atlanta, but her Herodias in Salome took New York by storm. The standard that she set with her singing of the Amme in Die Frau ohne Schatten has never been surpassed.

One of Ms. Dalis’s most memorable portrayals, Kundry in Parsifal, was heard at the MET only eight times, but she was the first American artist to sing the rôle at Bayreuth, where she appeared in Wieland Wagner’s controversial production of the opera in 1961, 1962, and 1963. Her performances in the 1962 Bayreuther Festspiele Parsifal were preserved on a recording that is embraced by many Wagnerians as one of the finest accounts of the troublesome opera. She also alternated with Astrid Varnay and Elisabeth Schärtel as Ortrud in the 1962 Bayreuth Lohengrin.

A native of San Jose, California, Ms. Dalis returned to her hometown after retiring from the MET stage, accepting a professorship and establishing an opera workshop program at her alma mater, San Jose State University. Recalling her own experiences as a young singer with German regional companies, she founded Opera San Jose in 1984, focusing on cultivating a true repertory company in the now-rare traditional sense. The launching of her Vocal Competition in 2007 furthered her aim of supporting and encouraging young singers and working towards the broadening of opera’s appeal in the United States.

Irene Dalis is one of many great singers whose voices I sadly know only from recordings, but her recordings offer evidence of a truly sublime talent. In truth, if her discography were confined only to the 1962 Bayreuth Parsifal, her reputation as a Wagnerian of legendary status would be assured. Thankfully, many of her MET broadcasts are in circulation in unofficial channels, and none is more impressive than the 1971 Die Frau ohne Schatten in which her Amme nearly steals the laurels from Leonie Rysanek’s typically resplendent Kaiserin, Christa Ludwig’s inspiring Färberin, and Walter Berry’s moving Barak. When I want to surrender myself completely to this fantastic singer’s beautiful tones and emotional directness, however, I turn to the 1962 broadcast of Cavalleria rusticana. To the New York operagoer of that era, the performance must have seemed unexceptional, with Ms. Dalis surrounded by Barry Morell’s Turiddu, Rosalind Elias’s Lola, Walter Cassel’s Alfio, and Lili Chookasian’s Mamma Lucia, and it is not a performance that redefines the opera or its impact. Still, it is a performance that possesses legitimate impact, and the source of that energy—a palpable electricity that, after fifty-two years, is undiminished—is the unique Irene Dalis.

IN MEMORIAM: American mezzo-soprano IRENE DALIS as Kundry in Richard Wagner's PARSIAL at the Bayreuther Festspiele, 1961 [Photo © by the Bayreuther Festspiele]Seit Ewigkeiten harre ich diener: American mezzo-soprano Irene Dalis as Kundry in Wieland Wagner’s production of Richard Wagner’s Parsifal at the 1961 Bayreuther Festspiele [Photo © by the Bayreuther Festspiele]

14 December 2014

CD REVIEW: Giuseppe Verdi – MESSA DA REQUIEM (K. Stoyanova, M. Prudenskaya, S. Pirgu, O. Anastassov; Chor und Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks; M. Jansons; BR-Klassik 900126)

CD REVIEW: Giuseppe Verdi - MESSA DA REQUIEM (BR-Klassik 900126)GIUSEPPE VERDI (1813 – 1901): Messa da RequiemKrassimira Stoyanova (soprano), Marina Prudenskaya (mezzo-soprano), Saimir Pirgu (tenor), Orlin Anastassov (bass); Chor und Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks; Mariss Jansons, conductor [Recorded in performance in the Philharmonie im Gasteig, Munich, Germany, 7 – 11 October 2013; BR-Klassik 900126; 2 CD, 86:23; Available from Amazon, BR-Klassik, ClassicsOnline, iTunes, jpc, Presto Classical, and major music retailers]

In recent years, Giuseppe Verdi’s Messa da Requiem has been in danger of over-exposure—or, rather, of falling victim to insurmountably-flawed performances that leave audiences hearing the score for the first time wondering why the work, a product of Verdi’s most inspired creative maturity, is so frequently performed by forces ranging from university music departments to the most renowned soloists, choruses, and orchestras. One of the most gnawing questions for those who love any musical masterpiece is whether the longing to hear the work performed outweighs the disappointment of hearing it performed poorly, and avowed Twenty-First-Century Verdians have been compelled, not least during the global commemoration of the 200th anniversary of the composer’s birth that dominated performance diaries throughout the world in 2013, to shake their heads at traversals of the Messa da Requiem that left the impression that Verdi surely lacked true understanding of composing effectively for voices. This is absurd, of course, but the novice introduced to the Messa da Requiem in such a context must be forgiven for the mistaken assumption. Recorded in performance at Munich’s Philharmonie im Gasteig during the Verdi Bicentennial year, BR-Klassik’s superbly-engineered, sonically atmospheric recording preserves an account of the Requiem that, while falling short of ideal, reminds the listener of the extraordinary emotive potential of the music. Most significantly, this performance reaffirms that, even in heaven-storming music like that in Verdi’s Messa da Requiem, beauty and delicacy can be as awe-inspiring as coldly forceful walls of sound.

Conducted by Mariss Jansons with measured intensity that allows appreciation of the subtleties of Verdi’s music, the performances of the Chor und Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks combine Teutonic discipline with Italianate brio in a way that fosters an uncommon degree of accuracy whilst avoiding rigidity. The contrasts between the hushed opening of the ‘Kyrie’ and the explosive fervor of the ‘Dies irae’ managed by the choristers are arresting, but the prevailing atmosphere of reverence is never abandoned in favor of overtly operatic extravagance. In the tricky double chorus in the ‘Sanctus,’ the choristers devote special energy to maintaining laudable precision, and the focus dedicated to contrapuntal passages in all parts of the Requiem is commendable. The exemplary singing of the chorus is wonderfully supported by the unerring virtuosity of the orchestral playing, which reaches formidable peaks of emotional engagement under Maestro Jansons’s leadership. Verdi makes arduous demands on the musicians’ abilities, requiring a dynamic spectrum akin to that asked of the choristers. Perhaps the most rewarding aspect of Maestro Jansons’s approach to the score is the manner in which he conducts with an emphasis on the architecture of the score as a whole without overlooking details of phrasing and orchestration. Thematic development, handled as deftly by Verdi in the Requiem as by Beethoven in his Missa solemnis, is given space in which to expand organically but is not permitted to drag. In some of its harmonic progressions and bold rhythms, the Requiem is Verdi’s most ‘modern’ work, more progressive than even Otello and Falstaff, and Maestro Jansons paces an account of the score that succeeds both as a sentimentally-charged performance and an academic treatise on the work’s significance in Verdi’s output and the broader advancement of choral music in the last quarter of the Nineteenth Century.

Bulgarian bass Orlin Anastassov anchors the solo quartet capably, fielding a well-projected, secure voice that moves through the music easily. His singing in both ‘Mors stupebit’ and ‘Rex tremendae’ finds his range slightly short at the bottom of the staff, his lowest notes sounding considerably weaker than the voice’s upper octave. Mr. Anastassov’s rounded tones are heard to advantage in the incendiary phrases of the ‘Confutatis,’ however, and the singer’s careful phrasing in the ‘Lux aeterna’ complements his colleagues’ insightful treatment of the text. Though greater tonal bulk at the bottom of the range would make a stronger effect in Verdi’s vocal lines, Mr. Anastassov sings steadily and often beautifully. It is frequently the bass soloist who compromises the effectiveness of the solo quartet in this music, and that Mr. Anastassov certainly does not do in this performance.

The Messa da Requiem figured prominently in Saimir Pirgu’s celebrations of the Verdi Bicentennial, and one of the finest attributes of BR-Klassik’s recording of the work is its documentation of the young Albanian’s instinctive way with this score. The voice is of virtually ideal proportions for the music: with a sensitive conductor at his side, he need neither hold back in moments of introspection nor force in the muscular climaxes. In terms of technique, he lacks only the trill for the ‘Hostias,’ and the beauty of tone that he has at his command is more than ample compensation. In this performance, Mr. Pirgu makes a strong impression at his first entrance, and the elegance and vigor of his singing never founder. He has no trouble with the range of his part, his tone retaining freedom and attractiveness to top B♭. His singing of the familiar ‘Ingemisco,’ typically regarded as the greatest test of the tenor’s abilities in the Requiem, is managed with heady elegance, the singer’s mezza voce gorgeously evoking a sense of piety. In many ways, though, it is in the ‘Hostias’ that the tenor is most cruelly tried by Verdi, and it is here that Mr. Pirgu does his finest singing in this performance. There is something of the honeyed melancholy of Ferruccio Tagliavini in his voicing of the melodic line, and he is a source of solidity to his colleagues in the fugue on ‘Quam olim Abrahae.’ Like Mr. Anastassov, Mr. Pirgu sings his lines in the ‘Lux aeterna’ with deep consideration of the meaning of the words. Throughout this performance, Mr. Pirgu distinguishes himself with thoughtful, focused singing of deceptively difficult music.

Mezzo-soprano Marina Prudenskaya’s first notes establish a high level of accomplishment from which she never deviates in the course of this performance. She seizes the opportunity given to her by Verdi in the ‘Liber scriptus,’ singing with pointed but never harsh tone that takes on increased brightness as the tessitura of her music climbs. In both ‘Quid sum miser’ and ‘Recordare,’ she blends her voice with that of her soprano colleague with close attention to the resulting mixes of timbres and vibrati. Ms. Prudenskaya’s singing gleams in the ‘Agnus dei’ with the soprano and chorus, and she takes the high lines in the ‘Lux aeterna’ with unhesitating brilliance, joining Mr. Pirgu and Mr. Anastassov in a moving delivery of the text. The evenness of Ms. Prudenskaya’s voice throughout her range is appreciable, and her judicious use of chest voice suggests a rare understanding of how raw ability and technique must be employed in tandem both to meet the needs of a specific piece of music and to ensure vocal longevity. Ms. Prudenskaya is one of the few mezzo-sopranos recorded in Verdi’s Requiem since the start of the new millennium who sounds genuinely comfortable in the music.

Krassimira Stoyanova is one of the world’s most adaptable singers. An intrepid Mozartean, she has also conquered the impassioned bel canto of Donizetti’s Anna Bolena, the smoldering femininity of Dvořák’s Rusalka, and the melancholic grandeur of Richard Strauss’s Ariadne auf Naxos. Solely within the Verdi repertory, her versatility has proved remarkable, her gallery of memorable Verdi characterizations spanning the composer’s career. From a purely vocal perspective, the writing for the soprano soloist in the Requiem is the pinnacle of Verdi’s genius for creating exquisite music for soprano heroines. The successful soprano soloist in the Requiem must have the animation of Giovanna d’Arco, the chameleonic stylistic variety of Violetta, Aida’s ability to hold her own in ensembles, and Desdemona’s gift for soaring aloft. Despite occasional wiriness at the top of the voice and a few instances of forcing, inevitable in live performance for all but the most ironclad voices, Ms. Stoyanova comes nearer to exhibiting all of these qualities than almost any other soprano singing today. She reaches top C without prompting worries about vocal meltdown, and she displays a winsome confidence on her music’s climactic top B♭s. Ms. Stoyanova responds to Ms. Prudenskaya’s incisive singing in the ‘Quid sum miser’ and ‘Recordare’ with singing of equal power. She makes of the ‘Domine Jesu Christe’ a deeply personal statement, and the poise of her vocalism in the exposed lines of the ‘Libera me’ is stirring. Ms. Stoyanova’s is not a plush voice, but she is skilled at conjuring impressions of tonal amplitude with assiduous projection. This is less apparent on a recording than in an opera house, but the voice is very flatteringly recorded here. It is hardly possible to claim to be an important Verdi soprano without mastering the complexities of the Requiem. The legitimacy of Ms. Stoyanova’s claim is considerably enhanced by this generously expressive, appealingly-sung performance.

Virtually every listener who loves Verdi’s Messa da Requiem has at least one recording that, for reasons musical or sentimental, could almost never be surpassed. Indeed, there are performances in the Requiem’s discography that define the histrionic possibilities of Verdi’s music: Ezio Pinza’s singing of the bass solos in Sabajno’s 1929 recording and the wonderful Serafin recording made a decade later; Cesare Siepi’s refined singing for Toscanini and de Sabata; the glowing timbre of the young Renata Tebaldi, also with de Sabata; the spectacular vocalism of Leontyne Price and Jussi Björling under Reiner’s baton; the full-throated glory—and real trills—of Richard Tucker with Ormandy; the unmatchable tones of Lili Chookasian and Carlo Bergonzi with Leinsdorf; the combination of Elisabeth Schwarzkopf and Christa Ludwig with the aristocratic Giulini; the eloquence of Robert Shaw and idiomatic zeal of Riccardo Muti. No individual element of BR-Klassik’s recording is likely to supplant cherished performances in listeners’ affections, but this recording succeeds in ways in which many recordings fail. It preserves a performance featuring well-matched soloists, choristers and orchestra players capable of scaling Verdi’s musical mountains without faltering, and a conductor with respect for the score and the musicians following his beat. All of the artists, musical and technical, involved with this recording also respect the listener by providing a performance of the Messa da Requiem that is both an enjoyable experience and a worthy homage to the of prodigy of Le Roncole.

12 December 2014

ARTS IN ACTION: Five Titans of the Stage honored in the tenth annual Opera News Awards

OPERA NEWS [Logo © by The Metropolitan Opera Guild]

In circulation since 1936, Opera News has been the leading advocate for opera in print in the United States for nearly eight decades. Under the auspices of the Metropolitan Opera Guild, the pages of Opera News have offered readers portraits of important artists, reviews of new recordings and performances in New York and throughout the world, and glimpses of the inner workings of one of the world’s great opera houses.

Starting in the 2005 – 2006 Season, the editors of Opera News have selected five important artists each year to be honored with Opera News Awards. Joining such prestigious honorees from previous seasons as Martina Arroyo, Marilyn Horne, Christa Ludwig, Leontyne Price, Renata Scotto, Dame Kiri Te Kanawa, and Shirley Verrett, the recipients of 2015’s Tenth Annual Opera News Awards are an illustrious quintet whose accomplishments at the Metropolitan Opera span five decades.

Polish tenor Piotr Beczała as Lenski in Tchaikovsky’s YEVGENY ONEGIN in 2009 (left – Photo by Beatriz Schiller) and Italian bass Ferruccio Furlanetto as Cardinal de Brogni in Halévy’s LA JUIVE in 2003 (right – Photo by Ken Howard) [Photos © by The Metropolitan Opera]
Polish tenor Piotr Beczała as Lenski in Tchaikovsky’s Yevgeny Onegin in 2009 (left – Photo by Beatriz Schiller) and Italian bass Ferruccio Furlanetto as Cardinal de Brogni in Halévy’s La Juive in 2003 (right – Photo by Ken Howard) [Photos © by The Metropolitan Opera]

Since his 2006 MET début as the Duca di Mantova in Rigoletto, Polish tenor Piotr Beczała has thrilled New York audiences with his performances of rôles as diverse as Edgardo in Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor, Gounod’s Faust and Roméo, Chevalier des Grieux in Massenet’s Manon, Rodolfo in Puccini’s La bohème, and the Prince in Dvořák’s Rusalka. Possessing a natural lyric instrument of superb quality, Mr. Beczała has in recent seasons expanded his repertory to include darker, heavier rôles that suit his passionate dramatic temperament. A Belmonte in Die Entführung aus dem Serail recorded early in his career confirms the legitimacy of Mr. Beczała’s credentials as a Mozartean in the class of Haefliger and Wunderlich, a facet of his artistry not yet explored in New York. MET audiences have also thus far been denied the opportunity to hear his bold, impetuous, but lovingly-phrased Alfredo in Verdi’s La traviata, acclaimed in London, Munich, and Vienna. Mr. Beczała’s greatest triumph at the MET to date was his charismatically caddish Duca di Mantova in Michael Mayer’s much-discussed 2013 production of Rigoletto. Transported to the decadent atmosphere of Las Vegas in 1960, rather than presiding over a hoard of courtiers this Duca is the headlining act in a glitzy, slightly seedy lounge on the Strip. A tenor without imagination might have made of his part in this production a schmaltzy Dean Martin caricature, but Mr. Beczała brought to his performances the swagger of a genuine member of the Rat Pack, not a conventionally operatic imitation. With Count Vaudémont in Tchaikovsky’s Iolanta and Riccardo in Verdi’s Un ballo in maschera on his MET schedule and Massenet’s Werther at the 2015 Salzburger Festspiele in his diary, Mr. Beczała continues to follow his artistic curiosity along new paths. With careful management of his prodigious vocal resources and technical acumen, he has at his disposal every gift needed to take audiences on fascinating musical journeys for years to come.

The 1980 MET début of Italian bass Ferruccio Furlanetto as the Grand Inquisitor in Verdi's Don Carlo introduced to the company’s roster one of the hardest-working singers in the industry—and, more importantly, one of the finest voices in the world. Despite an illustrious career in many of the most daunting rôles in the bass repertory, it is only during the past decade that Mr. Furlanetto has received the worldwide recognition his talents merit. In addition to joining Éva Marton and Plácido Domingo as Alvise in a revival of Ponchielli’s La Gioconda that retains a special place in MET lore, Mr. Furlanetto’s velvety bass has been heard at Lincoln Center as Mozart’s Don Giovanni and Leporello, sometimes partnering Samuel Ramey; Rossini’s Don Basilio in Il barbiere di Siviglia and Mustafà in L’italiana in Algeri; Méphistophélès in Gounod's Faust; Cardinal de Brogni in Halévy’s La Juive; and Colline in Puccini’s La bohème. It was with music by Verdi that his tenure at the MET began, however, and it is as Giovanni da Procida in I vespri siciliani, Sparafucile in Rigoletto, Fiesco in Simon Boccanegra, and Don Ruy Gomez de Silva in Ernani that Mr. Furlanetto has carved for himself a prominent place in MET history. In 2007, Fred Cohn wrote in the pages of Opera News of Mr. Furlanetto’s Fiesco in Simon Boccanegra that ‘his great oaken bass in itself would have guaranteed him a success. But this was only a starting point for a portrayal of extraordinary fervor.’ Indeed, few singers in the world today can combine vocal solidity with poetic vivacity as meaningfully as Mr. Furlanetto. The term ‘veteran’ is often used with a pejorative slant, but Mr. Furlanetto is a MET veteran in the best sense of the word: his artistry tested by a career stretching back thirty-five years, he has emerged as one of the finest practitioners of bass singing in the storied MET annals.

American soprano Sondra Radvanovsky as Leonora in Verdi’s IL TROVATORE in 2009 (left) and American bass Samuel Ramey as Giovanni da Procida in Verdi’s I VESPRI SICILIANI in 2004 (right) [Photos by Ken Howard, © by The Metropolitan Opera]
American soprano Sondra Radvanovsky as Leonora in Verdi’s Il trovatore in 2009 (left) and American bass Samuel Ramey as Giovanni da Procida in Verdi’s I vespri siciliani in 2004 (right) [Photos by Ken Howard, © by The Metropolitan Opera]

During a recent long drive, I listened to a 2013 MET broadcast of my favorite opera, Bellini’s Norma, featuring American soprano Sondra Radvanovsky. One never listens to a performance of Norma dating from a time after the retirement of Dame Joan Sutherland without a measure of trepidation, but Ms. Radvanovsky’s singing transformed fears into cheers. Hers is not yet a Norma for the ages, but her respect for Bellini and the gargantuan difficulties of his music is audible in every note of her performance. In many ways, Ms. Radvanovsky’s career at the MET harkens back to those of some of the great singers of the past. Like Lucine Amara before her, the soprano’s earliest seasons with the company enabled her to cut her histrionic teeth in supporting rôles before proving her exceptional value to the company in performances as Antonia and Stella in Offenbach’s Les contes d’Hoffmann in February 1998. A year later, her first Leonoras in Il trovatore began an association with Verdi repertory that has extended to indelible depictions of Violetta in La traviata, Luisa Miller, Elena in I vespri siciliani, Elisabetta in Don Carlo, Elvira in Ernani, Lina in Stiffelio, Aida, and Amelia in Un ballo in maschera. The breadth of Ms. Radvanovsky’s MET repertory, which also includes much-lauded outings as Donna Anna in Mozart’s Don Giovanni, Rosalinde in Strauß’s Die Fledermaus, Puccini’s Musetta in La bohème and Tosca, and Roxane in Alfano’s Cyrano de Bergerac, brings to mind recollections of the MET career of Gilda Cruz-Romo: it is to be hoped that, in time, Ms. Radvanovsky will follow her Mexican forebear’s lead in singing Leonora in La forza del destino, Cio-Cio San, and Suor Angelica at the MET, as well. Building upon the foundation of her Norma, an enlargement of her bel canto cache in New York seems particularly justified. Recent performances of Anna Bolena in Chicago have been some of the most exalted triumphs of her career—and, judging from her singing in the 7 December broadcast performance, rightly so. Even with so many successes to her credit, Ms. Radvanovsky is a singer who promises still greater things and the rare Verdi soprano whose singing is truly worthy of the MET.

The 1984 MET début of Kansas-born bass Samuel Ramey as Argante in the company première of Georg Friedrich Händel’s Rinaldo was an unlikely but unforgettable start to a brilliant singer’s relationship with the house that would become a home base in his career. Though he had been heard on the MET stage in a National Council Auditions Finals concert in 1972 and a Gala of Stars telecast in 1980, these performances can hardly have suggested the typhoon that would engulf the house when Mr. Ramey’s volleys of coloratura and rafter-shaking volume were unleashed in Argante’s music. From such a beginning, he built a career focused on bringing to a large repertory the basic tenets of bel canto that served him so well in Händel. His Rossini parts—Assur in Semiramide, Don Basilio in Il barbiere di Siviglia, and Mustafà in L’italiana in Algeri—benefited from his astonishing bravura technique, and he infused his singing of Méphistophélès in Gounod’s Faust with a welcome dose of true basso cantante elegance. His was a Don Giovanni for whom lechery was a bewitchingly dangerous weapon, however: the sardonic edge of his wooing left no confusion about why the French refer to the sensual climax as ‘la petite mort.’ His slyly charming impersonation of Bartók’s Bluebeard was chillingly memorable even alongside a wife as commanding as Jessye Norman. Like Mr. Furlanetto and Ms. Radvanovsky, however, it is in Verdi repertory that Mr. Ramey has proved invaluable to the MET. His handsomely cavernous voice was both haunted and haunting as Banco in Macbeth, and his Filippo in Don Carlo writhed with the pain of a man who, despite having the world at his feet, was desperate to be loved. When Mr. Ramey was the Grand Inquisitor to Mr. Furlanetto’s Filippo in 2002, there was in the ferocious old man’s encounters with the tormented monarch an element of shared understanding that enhanced the psychological intensity of the characters’ interplay, and their rapport also shone in their sparring as Don Giovanni and Leporello. His Zaccaria in Nabucco, Pagano in I Lombardi alla prima crociata, Giovanna da Procida in I vespri siciliani, and Padre Guardiano in La forza del destino, and Leone in Attila all possessed the complete acquaintance with Verdian style missing from so many performances in recent years. Complementing his mastery of the Verdi canon, Mr. Ramey splendidly impersonated characters in operas either less familiar at the MET or receiving their company premières: Field Marshal Kutuzov in Prokofiev’s War and Peace, Nick Shadow in Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress, and the delightfully reptilian Reverend Olin Blitch in Floyd’s Susannah. His performances of the title rôles in Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov and Boito’s Mefistofele crackled with regal authority and sadistic glee. With so many phenomenal performances to his credit, it seems greedy to regret omissions, but it is particularly lamentable that Mr. Ramey’s standard-setting traversal of the titular Hun in Verdi’s Attila was never allowed to lay siege to the MET stage. Reviewing a 1991 performance of Mozart’s Le nozze di Figaro in which Mr. Ramey reprised his Figaro, wonderfully recorded with Sir Georg Solti for DECCA, John Rockwell wrote in the New York Times that the singer was ‘a willing actor with a gorgeously-produced high bass.’ Even we critics sometimes hit the proverbial nail on the head, though this critic would argue that, at his best, Mr. Ramey was far more than merely a ‘willing’ actor. His singing has been a tremendous asset to the MET for three decades and an inestimably important example to young American singers contemplating careers in opera.

Canadian soprano Teresa Stratas as Nedda in Leoncavallo’s PAGLIACCI in 1963 [Photo by Louis Mélançon, © by The Metropolitan Opera]
Canadian soprano Teresa Stratas as Nedda in Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci in 1963 [Photo by Louis Mélançon, © by The Metropolitan Opera]

Without question, Canadian soprano Teresa Stratas is one of the greatest artists ever to have graced the operatic stage. It seems impossible that fifty-five years have passed since Ms. Stratas’s singular voice was first heard at the Metropolitan Opera in the Regional Auditions National Finals concert on 20 March 1959, singing the title character's 'Sola, perduta, abbandonata' from Puccini's Manon Lescaut. Her formal début occurred six months later, when she sang Poussette in Massenet's setting of Abbé Prévost's tragic saga of Manon. She sang an array of secondary rôles with the company until the performance of Bizet's Carmen on 15 November 1960, in which the legendary Jane Rhodes joined the MET roster as the gypsy heroine and Ms. Stratas advanced to the part of Micaëla. Paul Henry Lang wrote in the Herald Tribune of her performance that 'she deported herself like a veteran though she is at the very beginning of a very promising career.' During the early years of that promising career, she witnessed many of the most celebrated operatic creations of the Twentieth Century: Farrell's Alceste, Vinay's Parsifal, Nilsson's Turandot, the pairing of the débuting Leontyne Price and Franco Corelli in Il trovatore, Robert Merrill's Rigoletto, Borkh's Elektra, and Siepi's Don Giovanni. She was only twenty-three when, in 1962, she took her first leading rôle at the MET, Mimì in Puccini's La bohemè. Over the next three decades, she portrayed characters as dramatically and musically diverse as the Komponist in Richard Strauss's Ariadne auf Naxos, Sardula in Gian Carlo Menotti's The Last Savage, Mozart's Cherubino in Le nozze di Figaro, Zerlina in Don Giovanni, and Despina in Così fan tutte, Lisa in Tchaikovsky's Pikovaya dama, Offenbach's Périchole, Marguerite in Gounod's Faust, Humperdinck's Gretel, Desdemona in Verdi's Otello, Debussy's Mélisande, Mařenka in Smetana's Prodaná nevĕsta, and Nedda in Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci, as well as Puccini's Mimì, Cio-Cio San, Liù, and the three heroines in Il trittico. Every new portrait that she created on the MET stage was memorable, but among scores of exciting performances Ms. Stratas offered audiences characterizations of a quartet of troubled heroines that validated her reputation as one of the most accomplished singing actresses of her generation: Jenny in Kurt Weill's Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny, Berg's Lulu, Marie Antoinette in John Corigliano's The Ghosts of Versailles, and Madame Lidoine in Poulenc's Dialogues des Carmélites. To these ladies—and, indeed, all of the parts that she sang—she brought unstinting dramatic commitment and a voice with which she seemed able to do anything that she wanted. Not every risk was well-advised, and not every gamble paid off, but Ms. Stratas is an artist whose performances gave opera stirring injections of grit and glamor.

The recipients of the Tenth Annual Opera News Awards will be honored at a gala at New York’s Plaza Hotel on 19 April 2015, during which they will be serenaded by renowned mezzo-soprano and MET star Stephanie Blythe. For ticket information, please visit the Opera News website or phone 212.769.7009.

Sincerest congratulations to each of these terrific artists and to Opera News for seventy-eight years of articles and features that go far beyond merely reporting the news about opera.

08 December 2014

ARTS NEWS: Nominations for the 2015 GRAMMY® Awards include recordings featured on VOIX DES ARTS

The GRAMMY® Awards (Logo © by the National Academy of Recording Arts & Sciences)The panels charged with nominating artistic endeavors for recognition by mainstream awards organizations often inspire confusion and consternation with their selections, but GRAMMY® voters distinguished themselves by choosing competitive, artistically significant candidates for the 2015 Classical GRAMMY® Awards, a number of which have been featured on Voix des Arts.

Among the recordings vying to be honored as Best Classical Instrumental Solo is Jory Vinikour’s superb disc of modern American music for the instrument of which he is the consummate master, the harpsichord. Featuring music by Samuel Adler, Thomas Benjamin, Stephen Blumberg, Henry Cowell, Harold Meltzer, Patricia Morehead, Robert Moevs, Robert Muczynski, Mel Powell, and Ned Rorem, all thrillingly performed by Mr. Vinikour, Toccatas is a compelling reminder that neither the composition of music for the harpsichord nor extraordinary virtuosity among the instrument’s practitioners became extinct when Baroque idioms fell from favor [Sono Luminus DSL-92174; reviewed here].

In an especially tight field, consideration for Best Classical Solo Vocal Album pits Argentine countertenor Franco Fagioli’s disc of arias by Nicola Porpora [Il maestro – Porpora Arias—Naïve V 5369; reviewed here] against mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato’s Stella di Napoli, a fiery recital of bel canto stunners by Bellini, Carafa, Donizetti, Mercadante, Pacini, Rossini, and Valentini [ERATO 08256 463656 2 3; reviewed here]. Mr. Fagioli brings to a fascinating array of music by one of the Eighteenth Century’s leading composers singing of histrionic flair and unstinting musicality. One of the handful of great bel canto singers of recent years, Ms. DiDonato exhibits her trademark vocal brilliance in her performances on Stella di Napoli. Both discs provide feasts of richly satisfying singing.

Best Choral Performance nominees include René Jacobs’s revelatory recording of Johann Sebastian Bach’s iconic Matthäus-Passion [harmonia mundi HMC 802156.58; reviewed here] and Dunedin Consort’s moving account of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s Requiem [Linn Records CKD 449; reviewed here]. Preserving unforgettable performances by Werner Güra as the Evangelist and Johannes Weiser as Christ, Maestro Jacobs’s Matthäus-Passion challenges traditions by looking deeply into the score for Bach’s true intentions. Dunedin Consort and Maestro John Butt do much the same with Mozart’s Requiem, taking as their inspiration the aim of reconstructing the work as it was first performed with the completion by Franz Xaver Süßmayr. Neither of these works is unfamiliar, but these performances reveal unseen facets of these cornerstones of the Western choral repertory.

Christian Thielemann’s recording of Richard Strauss’s Elektra, released in celebration of the 150th anniversary of the composer’s birth, united a cast of acclaimed Strauss singers—Evelyn Herlitzius, Anne Schwanewilms, Waltraud Meier, and René Pape—in a performance of considerable dramatic power [Deutsche Grammophone 479 3387; reviewed here]. DGG’s forceful Elektra must contend in campaigning for the designation of Best Opera Recording with one of the most intriguing operatic releases of the Twenty-First Century, Darius Milhaud’s L’Orestie d’Eschyle [NAXOS 8.660349-51; reviewed here]. The virtues of DGG’s Elektra cast are complemented by those of NAXOS’s lineup for L’Orestie d’Eschyle: Lori Phillips, Dan Kempson, Brenda Rae, Sidney Outlaw, Tamara Mumford, Jennifer Lane, Julianna Di Giacomo, and Kristin Eder uphold the storied legacy of American singing established by artists such as Lawrence Tibbett, Leonard Warren, Richard Tucker, Lili Chookasian, Irene Dalis, Mignon Dunn, and Beverly Sills. Maestro Thielemann reminds listeners of why Strauss’s opera remains a stalwart in the international repertory almost a century after its première, and Maestro Kenneth Kiesler makes a strong argument on behalf of the merits of Milhaud’s elephantine homage to Aeschylus.

Congratulations to all of the nominees for the 2015 Classical GRAMMY® Awards!

01 December 2014

CD REVIEW: George Butterworth, Gerald Finzi, Ivor Gurney, & Ralph Vaughan Williams – FLOWERS OF THE FIELD (R. Williams, J. Irons; City of London Choir; London Mozart Players; NAXOS 8.573426)

CD REVIEW: George Butterworth, Gerald Finzi, Ivor Gurney, & Ralph Vaughan Williams - FLOWERS OF THE FIELD (NAXOS 8.573426)GEORGE BUTTERWORTH (1885 – 1916): A Shropshire Lad – Rhapsody for Orchestra; GERALD FINZI (1901 – 1956): Requiem da Camera; IVOR GURNEY (1890 – 1937): The Trumpet; RALPH VAUGHAN WILLIAMS (1872 – 1958): An Oxford ElegyRoderick Williams (baritone – Requiem da Camera), Natasha Harbinson (soprano – Requiem da Camera), Emily Tidbury (soprano – Requiem da Camera), David Bagnall (tenor – Requiem da Camera); Jeremy Irons (speaker – An Oxford Elegy); City of London Choir; London Mozart Players; Hilary Davan Wetton, conductor [Recorded in Henry Wood Hall, London, UK, on 11 and 12 July 2014; NAXOS 8.573426; 1 CD, 60:41; Available from ClassicsOnline, Amazon, jpc, Presto Classical, and major music retailers]

A century ago, as the desolation of ‘total war’ swept across Europe, destruction of life and land on an unprecedented, unimagined scale brought a continent and, in time, every nation in the world to the edge of a precipice from which retreat was impossible. From the brink of cataclysm, the view into the abyss of modern warfare shocked a world still coming to terms with industrialization and urbanization of contemporary society. One of the greatest tragedies of the Great War, which left swaths of the European population dead or destitute, is that the lessons of the ferocity and merciless carnage have seemingly been forgotten—or else were never truly learned at all. Now, when city streets are informal war zones and governments stand ready to initiate nuclear annihilation, the trenches of WWI are distant memories, and, with the veterans of those trenches departed, there are no voices to revitalize and honor those memories. Music is the immortal phoenix, however, and it can preserve for countless generations that which fades and falls from the minds of men. This new disc from NAXOS, Flowers of the Field, recorded in beautifully natural, spacious sound, takes the listener back to the trenches, to No Man’s Land, to the drawing rooms and kitchen tables of England, where families awaited news of their own soldiers and sailors. Art is in many ways the antithesis of war, but reactions to the complex, ambiguous sentiments of war-torn social orders have engendered some of the most extraordinary works of art in all genres. To the individual responses to WWI by four of England’s finest composers is owed the existence of the music on Flowers of the Field. Their perspectives were different, and it ironically was the oldest of the four composers represented on this disc who lived longest after the cessation of hostilities in 1918, but all of the music on Flowers of the Field provides intensely personal views of the horrors of what sadly did not prove to be the war to end all wars.

Under the insightfully-wielded baton of Hilary Davan Wetton, the London Mozart Players give a subtle, sonorous account of George Butterworth’s A Shropshire Lad – Rhapsody for Orchestra. The climax to which the music builds is achieved by Maestro Wetton with perfect control of thematic development. The Rhapsody’s principal melodic material, taken from Butterworth’s lyrical settings of poems from Housman’s A Shropshire Lad, provides a vein of solemn melancholy that courses through the music without concealing suggestions of optimism and memories of past happiness. The incandescent performance by the London Mozart Players and Maestro Wetton is a fitting tribute to the composer, who lost his life in the Battle of the Somme in 1916, less than a month after his thirty-first birthday.

Edited and completed by Christian Alexander, the score of Gerald Finzi’s Requiem da Camera is a sublime creation that delves deeply into the composer’s youthful idiom at its expressive best. The work’s Prelude receives from the London Mozart Players and Maestro Wetton a warmly affectionate reading, and the tranquility of their approach persists in each of the subsequent movements. Soprano Natasha Harbinson and tenor David Bagnall unite with the City of London Choir in a radiant account of Finzi’s setting of John Masefield’s ‘How still this quiet cornfield is to-night,’ their simple but serene singing exposing the raw emotions of the text. Thomas Hardy’s ‘Only a man harrowing clods’ received from Finzi a musical treatment of particular grace, and it is impossible to imagine the vocal lines served better than by baritone Roderick Williams in this performance. Whether premièring modern compositions or portraying familiar operatic characters like Marcello in Puccini’s La bohème, Mr. Williams is one of Britain’s finest singers, one whose many recordings are too few. He possesses a rare gift for looking at a piece of music and discerning its heart without over-analyzing, thus preserving the spontaneity of his interpretations whether he is singing a piece for the first or the hundredth time. That he also brings to his work a voice of extraordinary beauty and security only enlarges the effectiveness of his artistry. His singing of ‘Only a man harrowing clods’ is powerfully moving, both in its sheer tonal appeal and in the simplicity of utterance. ‘We who are left’ from Wilfrid Wilson Gibson’s ‘A Lament,’ published in 1918, is mesmerizingly performed by soprano Emily Tidbury soprano and the choir. The death of his mentor Ernest Farrar on the Western Front in 1918 deprived the seventeen-year-old Finzi, who had already lost his father and brothers, of one of the greatest influences on his development as a composer, and his sense of loss throbs in every bar of his Requiem da Camera and every moment of this performance.

Ivor Gurney survived WWI physically, but the lasting mental and emotion turmoil of his service undermined his psychological stability. One of England’s most gifted musicians thus spent the last fifteen years of his life in the confinement of an asylum, where he struggled to reclaim through Art what the terrors of war took from him. In The Trumpet, Gurney set an inspirational text by Edward Thomas, sung stirringly by the City of London Choir in this performance. Edited and orchestrated by Philip Lancaster, Gurney’s handling of ‘Rise up, rise up’ is realized with compelling magnitude by the London musicians and singers. The competing resignation and resilience of their collective phrasing of the lines ‘Open your eyes to the air / That has washed the eyes of the stars / Through all the dewy night: / Up with the light, / To the old wars; / Arise, arise!’ are unaffectedly profound.

Employing a text by Matthew Arnold, Ralph Vaughan Williams’s An Oxford Elegy is a work of the sort of contrasting public homage and private anguish at which the composer excelled. As in the other pieces on Flowers of the Field, the choristers, orchestra, and Maestro Wetton perform the music incisively, creating the impression that they are directly experiencing the incomprehensible losses of WWI rather than singing about them a century later. Though Vaughan Williams was in his forties when the war began, he enlisted, and his experiences on the Continent, combined with the later traumas of WWII, impacted his work for the rest of his life. The spoken portions of the Elegy are read by acclaimed thespian Jeremy Irons, whose mellifluous, immediately-identifiable voice lends Arnold’s verses a measure of glamor. There are drawbacks to Mr. Irons’s contributions, however, apparent from the start of his voicing of ‘Go, for they call you, Shepherd, from the hill.’ There and in ‘Here will I sit and wait,’ repeated by chorus, his phrasing and articulation can seem artificial, and his tone in ‘Come, let me read the oft-read tale again’ causes the text to seem just that—an oft-read tale that has been repeated to the verge of insignificance. His intoning of ‘Too quick despairer, wherefore wilt thou go?’ restores the expected integrity of his performance, however, and his delivery of the lines ‘There thou art gone, and me thou leavest here / Sole in these fields; yet will I not despair’—complemented by the chorus’s singing of ‘Yes, thou art gone! and round me too the night / In ever-nearing circle weaves her shade’ and the closing ‘Why faintest thou? I wander'd till I died’—carries vast dramatic weight. Vaughan Williams’s music gives Arnold’s text a canvas on which to paint the unfettered emotions of war in bold, ever-changing hues, and Mr. Irons, Maestro Wetton, and the singers and musicians collaborate in a presentation of An Oxford Elegy that both mourns the terrible costs of war and acknowledges the hope of the inevitable carrying on.

The body of George Butterworth was never identified or returned to England for burial among his ancestors, and that is a sorrowful reminder of the ways in which war disrupts families and societies for generations. When he fell in France in 1916, he perhaps could not have envisioned that, a century later, images of conflict would continue to haunt the citizens of the world nearly every single day. Vaughan Williams, who emerged from the deplorable savagery of WWI only to witness the atrocities of WWII, perhaps believed that the sacrifices of fathers and grandfathers would spare sons and grandsons the unspeakable pains of war. Ivor Gurney’s spirit was broken and Gerald Finzi’s childhood uprooted by the impersonal clashes of governments, but what these composers said in music is the legacy of World War One that must persevere: that every life mattered, every death left an empty seat at a dinner table, and every blood-soaked trench scarred the earth in ways that can never be healed. This disc and the sincere, heartfelt performances that it preserves rekindle the hope that every tear shed for the victims of WWI indeed gave life to flowers of the field.