21 August 2017

CD REVIEW: Ned Rorem — OUR TOWN (M. DiBattista, D. Wilkinson, G. Arroyo, B. Buckley, M. Rood, A. Gooch; New World Records 80790-2)

IN REVIEW: Ned Rorem - OUR TOWN (New World Records 80790-2)NED ROREM (born 1923): Our TownMatthew DiBattista (Stage Manager), Donald Wilkinson (Dr. Gibbs), Glorivy Arroyo (Mrs. Soames), Brendan P. Buckley (George Gibbs), Margot Rood (Emily Webb), Angela Hines Gooch (Mrs. Webb), Stefan Barner (Joe Crowell), Jonas Budris (Frank), Jason Connell (Sam), Rachele Schmiege (Lady in the Balcony), Graham Wright (Man in the Audience), David Kravitz (Mr. Webb), Stanley Wilson (Simon Stimson), Krista River (Mrs. Gibbs); Monadnock Music; Gil Rose, conductor [Recorded at the Rogers Center for the Arts, Merrimack College, North Andover, Massachusetts, USA, 13 – 14 August 2013; New World Records 80790-2; 2 CDs, 123:25; Available from New World Records, Amazon (USA), Presto Classical (UK), and major music retailers]

One of the great fascinations of opera is observing the divergent ways in which literary source materials are adapted for the stage. In many instances, great works of literature prove poorly suited to operatic treatment, whereas poetry, prose, and drama of lesser quality thrive in partnerships with music. The works of Ovid, Shakespeare, Schiller, and Pushkin are lodes of operatic potential mined again and again by composers known and forgotten, but which qualities account for the prevalence of these authors’ texts among operatic endeavors? Why is a writer such as Sir Walter Scott a frequent inspiration for composers while the novels of Charles Dickens are rarely given operatic treatment? In this sense, opera is a realm of missed opportunities. What heights of expression could Verdi have reached with Hawthorne’s Hester Prynne and Arthur Dimmesdale? What might Bartók have made of an opera based upon a plot taken from the phantasmagorical imagination of Edgar Allan Poe? What fires might have been ignited by Richard Strauss in the frigid Nordic environs of an Ibsen scenario?

Offering a case study in the difficulties that often complicate marriages of words and music, the journey of Thornton Wilder’s iconic play Our Town from page to operatic stage was anything but easy. First performed in Princeton, New Jersey, in 1938, Wilder’s dramatization of small-town American life and the deceptively stereotypical relationships among the inhabitants of the invented burgh of Grover’s Corners, New Hampshire, gave contemporary theatre one of its cornerstone works, one in which all artifice was stripped away in pursuit of an undiluted, unsentimental examination of humanity’s absurdities. Our Town’s operatic potential was recognized almost as quickly as its cinematic appeal, but first Wilder and later his estate denied usage rights even to as lauded a composer as Leonard Bernstein, whose promise as an adapter of Our Town was exhibited in his unwieldy but touching opera A Quiet Place. Though his score for the 1940 film version of the play and his own opera The Tender Land hint at how an operatic Our Town by Aaron Copland might have sounded, Wilder and his literary executors were right to seek for Our Town the sort of organic connection between text and composer that Colette’s L’enfant et les sortilèges found with Maurice Ravel.

The much-anticipated product of the Wilder estate’s trust in one of America’s most gifted composers of Art Songs, Ned Rorem’s Our Town was jointly commissioned by Indiana University, Aspen Music Festival, Lake George Opera Company, University of North Carolina School of the Arts, Opera Boston, and California’s Festival Opera. With a deftly-crafted libretto by J.D. McClatchy, author of the Metropolitan Opera’s clever English abridgments of Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte and Rossini’s Il barbiere di Siviglia, Rorem’s opera was first performed by Indiana University Opera Theater on 24 February 2006. In the subsequent decade, performances have followed throughout the United States and in the UK. Too many contemporary operas, especially those in English, are governed by the aesthetics of Broadway rather than those of opera, presumably a misjudgment born of well-intentioned efforts at closing the gap between the often-lampooned traditions of grand opera and modern audiences’ technology-shaped sensibilities. In his music for Our Town, Rorem achieved a style that sounds derived from rather than imposed upon Wilder’s text, providing the playwright’s characters and scenarios a distinctly operatic identity that engages without pandering to popular tastes.

Musically, Rorem’s score is a thoughtfully-crafted work of great emotional depth that punctiliously preserves the play’s groundbreaking metatheatrical structure. Complementing Wilder’s stipulation that the play be performed with minimal scenic effects, the composer’s music is generally sparse, the instrumental part writing supporting communication of the text with little post-Wagnerian orchestral commentary. The innate lyricism and whimsy familiar from Rorem’s art songs are also present in Our Town, but they are integrated into a discernible dedication to begetting musical and dramatic continuity. That the score’s tonal language is approachable and logical is not indicative of simplicity or a lack of originality. There are suggestions of Britten’s Albert Herring in Rorem’s music for Emily’s and George’s awkward courtship, and the disconcerting atmosphere of Tippett’s Knot Garden is recalled by Our Town’s final scene. Naturally, there are also fleeting reminders of Rorem’s 1965 Strindberg-based opera Miss Julie, but the sonic landscapes of Our Town are predominantly unique to the composer’s musical portrait of Grover’s Corners.

In this world-première recorded performance by Monadnock Music, situated by Albany Records in an acoustic evocative of a small theatre appropriate for the intimate intricacies of Our Town’s—Wilder’s or Rorem’s—emotional relationships, Gil Rose’s conducting provides Rorem’s score with advocacy akin to Beecham’s Berlioz, Böhm’s Richard Strauss, and Mackerras’s Janáček. Above all, Our Town is a theatrical experience that must not be allowed to wallow in saccharine sentimentality, and Rose never allows the momentum in this performance to decelerate. The nods to the familiar strains of popular hymns and the Wedding March from Mendelssohn’s incidental music for A Midsummer Night’s Dream are handled by Rose with adroitness equal to the cleverness with which Rorem plaited them into the score, and the conductor’s tempi consistently realize the composer’s intentions. Perpetuating the ethos of Rose’s leadership, the Monadnock musicians’ playing is rhythmically, intonationally, and temperamentally precise. Our Town is an opera in which both music and drama are driven by words, and Rose and the instrumentalists ensure that the orchestra converses with the singers in this performance without overwhelming or upstaging them.

Even with a handful of largely inconsequential characters being unheard [as a matter of family pride, I must object to the elimination of Grover’s Corners’ steadfast milkman, Howie Newsome], Rorem’s Our Town requires a large cast of singers capable of creating individual characterizations that convincingly weave into playwright’s and composer’s tapestry depicting life in Grover’s Corners. The Monadnock Music choristers—sopranos Lindsay Conrad, Rachele Schmiege (heard, too, as the Lady in the Balcony), and Sarah Kornfeld; mezzo-sopranos Thea Lobo, Christina English, and Stephanie Kacoyanis; tenors Stefan Barner, Jason Connell, and Jonas Budris (also depicting George’s friends and baseball teammates Joe Crowell, Sam, and Frank); and baritones Jonathan Nussman, Jacob Cooper, and Graham Wright (doubling as the Man in the Audience)—impress individually and in ensemble, their singing of the traditional hymns that are an integral part of the opera’s story unfailingly musical but credibly congregational.

The doggedly conventional Mrs. Soames is enlivened by mezzo-soprano Glorivy Arroyo’s clarion vocalism and dramatic vigor, not least in the Act Three scene in the cemetery in which her spirit chastises George for his display of grief at Emily’s grave. Similarly, tenor Stanley Wilson is an aptly cantankerous Simon Stimson. Exasperatedly rehearsing the church choir in Act One, Wilson sings both ‘Music isn’t good when it’s loud / Leave loudness to the Methodists’ and ‘I want them to feel / All I get is squeals!’ with an unmistakable aura of artistic superiority. When Stimson sings from his grave in Act Three, the tenor exhibits great depth of feeling in his delivery of ‘Here is our peace, here is our hope.’ There are parallels between the ambiguity of reality in Our Town and Bohuslav Martinů’s exploration of a similar theme in his opera Julietta, and the singers in Monadnock Music’s performance of Rorem’s score convey the emotional emptiness of Grover’s Corners’ society by delivering their parts so meticulously. The composer’s writing for the townspeople is music that revels in what the Quakers termed ‘the gift to be simple.’ Poetry, this music suggests from the perspective of Grover’s Corners, is for people with offices in skyscrapers and suburban housewives who wear trousers and read magazines. One feat of Rorem’s ingenuity is exemplified by his creation of music that exposes but never openly ridicules or condemns the banality of ordinary lives.

Portraying George’s and Emily’s parents, baritone Donald Wilkinson and mezzo-soprano Krista River as Dr. and Mrs. Gibbs and baritone David Kravitz and soprano Angela Gooch as the Webbs bring their characters into sharp focus, using Rorem’s vocal lines to create vivid but uncaricatured portraits of these stalwarts of small-town social hierarchy. In the Act Two scene in which Mr. Webb offers George advice about building the foundations of a successful marriage, Kravitz voices ‘Patience and an open heart, George, that will suffice’ with both sincerity and humor, the warmth of his tone imparting the character’s paternal tenderness. The Act One duet for Dr. and Mrs. Webb, ‘The moon just sits and waits,’ is beautifully done, and Wilkinson responds to a question about temperance in Grover’s Corners with a wry statement of ‘Some folks keep a little liquor in the medicine chest.’ Gooch phrases one of the most significant lines in the opera, Mrs. Webb’s remark to Emily in Act One that ‘You’re pretty enough for all normal purposes,’ straightforwardly, unmistakably limning the long-established desirability of finding one’s destined place in life and filling it without complaint. At Emily’s and George’s wedding in Act Two, Gooch’s unexaggerated articulation of ‘Why on earth am I crying’ offers a momentary glimpse behind the façade of imperturbability cultivated by the denizens of Grover’s Corners. Despite their adherence to the paradigms with which they are comfortable, Emily’s and George’s parents are the bridges that connect the youngsters with both the antiquated ideals of their native town and novel notions. The capably-voiced utterances of the quartet of singers to whom the rôles are entrusted in this performance affirm that it is with the elder Gibbses and Webbs that our town begins to seem more like their town.

The young lovers George and Emily are brought to life with charm and disarming dramatic verisimilitude by tenor Brendan Buckley and soprano Margot Rood. It is their conscious efforts at being unremarkable—Emily’s bewildered contemplation of the journeys of idiosyncratically-addressed letters and George’s decision to forgo college in order to manage his uncle’s farm, for instance—that differentiate them from their neighbors. For most of the residents of Grover’s Corners, fitting in comes naturally. In their characters’ bumbling romance, Rood and Buckley sing fervently but with appropriate restraint. Rorem has not made them a New England Tristan and Isolde, and they draw from their music well-considered accents of thoughtful young people gently nudging themselves and one another beyond the reaches of their familial safety nets. The ambivalence expressed in the wedding scene in Act Two, epitomized by the couple’s anxious internal queries of ‘What am I doing here,’ is echoed in the conviction with which the singers voice these words. The psychological nuance that George and Emily display is at odds with their environment, and Rorem’s music recalls Britten’s juxtapositions of simple and complex emotions in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. In the context of an audio recording, one cannot see George as the grieving husband whose public mourning in Act Three inspires the deceased Mrs. Soames’s disapprobation: if the singer cannot win the listener’s sympathy with his vocal acting, a measure of George’s hesitant originality is unrealized. Occasionally encountering problems at the top of his music’s range, Buckley is a persuasive George; if not a bonafide operatic lover in the fashion of Puccini’s tenor protagonists, an earnest fellow who sings handsomely. Rood, too, is taxed by some of her music, not least in Act Three, but her resilience is laudable. The immediacy of her performance in the throes Emily’s impassioned rejection of reclaimed life brings to mind the young Galina Vishnevskaya’s conflicted Tatyana in Tchaikovsky’s Yevgeny Onegin. Buckley and Rood dive into George’s and Emily’s intertwined emotional depths but are never in peril of drowning in them. Musically, even their momentary struggles are resourcefully used as aspects of effective, affecting portraits of two of American theatre’s most iconic characters.

Playing the part of the omnipresent Stage Manager, a sort of Evangelist in Wilder’s, McClatchy’s, and Rorem’s Everyman’s Passion, tenor Matthew DiBattista faces formidable musical and histrionic challenges. In spoken theatre, the proverbial fourth wall can be broken by merely targeting a receptive face in the audience when enunciating lines, but opera audiences are accustomed to having words and notes hurled at them by unimaginative singers. In opera, the crucial difference between an aside upon which the listener eavesdrops and a line directed specifically to the listener can be virtually imperceptible. That DiBattista handily initiates one-sided dialogue with the listener in this performance of Our Town is evidence not only of his theatrical savvy but also of his trust of the communicative capabilities of Rorem’s music. DiBattista’s Stage Manager is at once the musical personification of Wilder, McClatchy, Rorem, and Grover’s Corners itself: both narrator and participant, he propels the drama by melding into it. The tenor’s singing of ‘They don’t understand, do they? They never understand’ in Act One is resigned rather than accusatory, and the bright sheen of his timbre lends his diction an edge that heightens the impact of his words. The subtly of DiBattista’s voicing of ‘It’s quiet in our town of an afternoon’ suggests a mixture of ennui and relief. At the start of Act Two, a similar mood permeates his statement of ‘Well, friends, three years have gone by.’ In Act Three, DiBattista’s Stage Manager guides the newly-dead Emily sensitively, allowing her to make her own decisions and learn from the errors of her experiences. The Stage Manager’s music traverses a wide range, and DiBattista’s upper register is intermittently strained by Rorem’s demands. His performance is hauntingly memorable in ways that actors’ portrayals of the Stage Manager rarely are, however. DiBattista’s singing exudes true concern for the people with whom the Stage Manager interacts, including the listener, and he earns the attention and appreciation of his audience.

Its creator’s stipulations for minimalist staging notwithstanding, Thornton Wilder’s Our Town is a masterwork of modern American theatre that in performance can leave an observer feeling that something is missing. In many productions, it is difficult to feel for Emily, George, and their neighbors the sort of sympathy that audiences have for Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, Rostand’s Cyrano de Bergerac, and Miller’s Willy Loman. Wilder undoubtedly intended for audiences to be enlightened, not enamored, by his characters, but, whether it is Wilder’s Emily, Brecht’s Mutter Courage, or Kushner’s Prior Walter upon the stage, efforts at edifying the mind are aided incalculably by allure that enchants the senses. Even the doldrums of Grover’s Corners impart their lessons more readily when they are dressed in the colors of New England sunsets and autumn foliage. Hearing this moving opera performed so appealingly fosters the impression that what has been missing from performances of Our Town is Ned Rorem’s music.

15 July 2017

RECORDING OF THE MONTH | July 2017: Jeffrey Roden — threads of a prayer, Volume 2 (J. Fišer, Š. Ježek, S. Marciniak, W. Fischer, T. Fischer, S. I. Bartoli; Solaire Records SOL1004)

RECORDING OF THE MONTH | July 2017: Jeffrey Roden - THREADS OF A PRAYER, Volume 2 (Solaire Records SOL1004)JEFFREY RODEN: threads of a prayer, Volume 2Jakub Fišer and Štěpán Ježek, violin; Szymon Marciniak, double bass; Wolfgang Fischer, timpani; Tobias Fischer, organ; Sandro Ivo Bartoli, piano [Recorded in Reitstadel, Neumarkt in der Oberpfalz, Germany, 20 – 22 May 2016; Solaire Records SOL1004; 1 CD, 53:01; Available from Solaire Records and major music retailers]

Who hears the prayers of those whose voices have been stifled? What deities are there to comfort those who have learned to seek peace in annihilation? Which are the Psalms to read over the corpses of those who never found love? Where are the places in which those who have no home can find rest? There are few things more injurious to the integrity of an artist’s work than seeking philosophical agendas in it, but there are artists whose endeavors transcend the traditional boundaries of the media in which they work. To experience the music of Jeffrey Roden solely with the ears would be akin to viewing the canvases of Frida Kahlo and perceiving only fantastical colors, hearing none of the voices that scream from her images and feeling none of the wounds that tear at the paint. Continuing the journey begun with the 2016 release of the breathtakingly original first volume [reviewed here], the second volume of Solaire Records’ threads of a prayer introduces another quartet of Roden’s works in performances that utilize sound as only one medium of their existence. This is music that must be lived, not merely heard, and the performances on this disc make passive listening impossible.

Describing the first work on the disc, the field, as a trio for violin, double bass, and timpani is to impose upon the music a measure of formality that its ethos unmistakably rejects. Produced, engineered, and edited by Solaire Records founder Dirk Fischer, the disc’s soundscape is itself a component of the field’s impact. Crawling out of primordial silence like the first sprout of a germinating seed, the music spreads its tentative rhythmic steps upon crumbling tonal ground, seeking the strength to stand and survey its surroundings. Included in Solaire’s typically engaging liner notes, Roden’s poem ‘the field’ proposes a literary translation of the field’s aural message.

mist
ribbon like
rising
above the sacred grove
where there
will be
a great
suffering
cast upon
the beauty
of the earth

Played by Jakub Fišer, first violin of the Bennewitz Quartet, double bassist Szymon Marciniak, and timpanist Wolfgang Fischer, the piece is poetry in its own right, the music uncannily paralleling the complexities of humanity in the manners in which the parts coexist, sometimes seeming to shun interaction and then coveting their collisions as invigorating, life-affirming connections. Rarely are the double bass and timpani as communicative as Roden, Marciniak, and Fischer make them, and there is sweetness in Fišer’s tones even when stridency is the composer’s mandate. Applying the imagery of Roden’s words to the music, beauty materializes as an inalienable element of the ‘great suffering,’ particularly when beauty is prized above all other conditions. As performed here, the field is a musical parable that warns of the quiet destruction that lurks behind the masks that beauty wears.

Scored for violin, double bass, and organ, as we rise up recalls Baroque trio sonatas in concept if not in content. Here, too, Roden’s part writing casts the instruments as participants in an unscripted drama, emphasizing the significance of both their individual voices and their contributions to the ensemble. If the field is a cautionary parable steeped in apprehensive sadness, as we rise up is the reactionary explosion of impotent anger that groans, ‘I told you so!’ As in the field, there is unnerving beauty within the strands of the music, however: in this piece, it is the random, horrible beauty of chaos. One of the most extraordinary facet’s of Roden’s artistry is his ability to find the music in cataclysm and share it with listeners without dictating a desired response. Any composer can write tragic music, but only a complete artist can discern and transpose into sounds within the capacities of instruments the raw music of tragedy. Fišer’s Bennewitz Quartet colleague Štěpán Ježek phrases the violin lines with dexterity and imagination, and Marciniak matches his flawless intonation. As played by Tobias Fischer, the electric organ is not unlike the chamber organs frequently employed in Baroque music, its sonorities in as we rise up serving as a freely-deployed ground bass in the mode of Buxtehude and Pachelbel. The violence in the music disturbs more deeply for being enacted with such concentrated expressivity. Played so hypnotically, as we rise up is wondrously distressing. Is this truly external music, or is Roden ingeniously echoing the music of discontent that roars in each listener’s mind?

A noteworthy interpreter of music in a mind-boggling variety of idioms, Italian pianist Sandro Ivo Bartoli has fashioned an estimable career on his own terms, extracting from the instruments that he plays their own unique personalities rather than suppressing them with an artificial persona of his devising. His ambitions are driven by the demands of the music that he plays, not by the dictates of commercialism or meaningless celebrity. His technique is remarkable, the clarity of his articulations of even the most complex passages reminiscent of Rudolf Firkušný’s playing of music by Chopin or Martinů, but it is not the action of his fingers and wrists that marks Bartoli’s performance of Roden’s threads of a prayer as the work of a great artist. Under his touch, the warm-toned Steinway that he plays is transformed by Roden’s music from an instrument of wood, iron, and steel into a creature of flesh and blood, one whose voice utters the threads of its prayer with urgency.

The symbiosis between music and musician in Bartoli’s account of the first of Roden’s 6 pieces for the unknown for piano is stunning. In sequence, the six pieces constitute a tone poem that examines variations on the theme of unspoken feelings. The pianist’s playing of the second piece shimmers with subdued yearning, expanded in the third piece into a grandiose but subtle discourse between the musics of sound and silence. A lauded exponent of Franz Liszt’s piano music, Bartoli performs the fourth of the 6 pieces no less dazzlingly. The interpretive virtuosity required by Roden’s music is vastly different from the nimbleness necessitated by Liszt’s extroverted exhibitionism, but Bartoli’s emotive adroitness equals the marvels of his fingering. Like the final movements of a Baroque suite, the fifth and sixth pieces further develop the thematic material of the foregoing pieces, but there is no resolution in Roden’s music. Perhaps the unknown aspect referenced in the 6 pieces’s title is the absence of temporal definitions: this is not music that can be measured in seconds or minutes, with pauses for polite applause. Roden writes and Bartoli in this performance plays in Faulknerian stream-of-consciousness style, the music flowing with the naturalness of thought. Roden’s creative energy dwells in the unknowable, but what is known is that this is momentous music, fittingly performed.

When pressing ‘Play’ in order to hear a recording of music by Jeffrey Roden for the first time, the only certainty is that the sounds that emerge will be incomparably original, provocative, and utterly unfeigned. Hearing this second volume of threads of a prayer brings to mind history’s chronicle of the afternoon of 19 November 1863, when Abraham Lincoln managed to more eloquently convey the feelings of a nation battered by war in fewer than three hundred words than a celebrated orator had done in two hours. As performed on this disc, Roden’s music does with modest means what Frida Kahlo could do with a single painted blossom. Spurning the elitism that now oppresses the composition, performance, recording, and hearing of Classical Music, this is music of the people, by the people, and for the people—people willing to listen with both their ears and their souls.

14 July 2017

CD REVIEW: Sir Edward Elgar — THE DREAM OF GERONTIUS (A. Staples, C. Wyn-Rogers, T. Hampson; DECCA 483 1585)

CD REVIEW: Sir Edward Elgar - THE DREAM OF GERONTIUS (DECCA 483 1585)SIR EDWARD ELGAR (1857 – 1934): The Dream of Gerontius, Opus 38Andrew Staples (Gerontius), Catherine Wyn-Rogers (The Angel), Thomas Hampson (The Priest, The Angel of the Agony); Staatsopernchor Berlin, RIAS Kammerchor, Konzertchor und Jugendchor der Staatsoper Unter den Linden; Staatskapelle Berlin; Daniel Barenboim, conductor [Recorded in conjunction with live performances in Berliner Philharmonie, Berlin, Germany, 16 – 17 and 19 – 20 September 2016; DECCA 483 1585; 2 CDs, 94:01; Available from Amazon (USA), iTunes, jpc (Germany), Presto Classical (UK), and major music retailers]

The isolation that often separates artists from their societies has been both a part and a product of the creative process since man first expressed himself in verse, song, and imagery. In the Biblical narrative of Eden, man’s relative proximity to divinity isolates him from the meaner inhabitants of earth, a chasm between humanity and the natural world made arrestingly visual in Michelangelo’s ceiling in the Cappella Sistina. In Shakespeare, the artistic temperament of Prospero encloses him away from the other players in his drama, and Hamlet’s brooding solitude engenders an emotional distance that not even Horatio can span. There are moments of compassion and conviviality, sometimes even genuine comfort, but full communion among artists and their surroundings is too often thwarted by mistrust and misunderstanding. This isolation, equally crippling and liberating, is a central focus of Blessed Cardinal John Henry Newman’s 1865 poem The Dream of Gerontius, an examination of a soul’s transition from life to afterlife that in the 1880s appealed to Antonín Dvoŕák, a man of great faith in a time of rapidly-spreading secularism, as a potential subject for a large-scaled choral work. Never taken up by the Czech composer, Newman’s words were ultimately matched with music by Sir Edward Elgar, whose Dream of Gerontius was composed in fulfillment of a commission from the Birmingham Triennial Music Festival and first performed—poorly, history records—at that gathering on 3 October 1900. It was an auspicious point of departure for choral music in the Twentieth Century and a lone artist’s warning to a world already on the brink of total war.

From the informed perspective of the Twenty-First Century, it is difficult to fathom that Elgar, the most quintessentially English of composers, was in a real sense an artist without a country. A devout Catholic in an unyielding Protestant society, Elgar was at odds with the artistic establishment of which his own music was a vital component. Though the ceremonial toll exacted by his faith was considerably higher than the true professional cost, the official patronage and recognition that he was denied by the country of which he was the undisputed musical monarch cannot have failed to awaken in Elgar a feeling of disenfranchisement. That Cardinal Newman was himself a convert from Anglicanism to Catholicism undoubtedly intensified the allure of his words for Elgar, who received as a wedding gift an annotated copy of Newman’s poem that had belonged to General Gordon, the self-appointed martyr of the 1885 massacre of Khartoum. Possessing an uncanny intuition for selecting texts that, even when undeniably pompous, stoked his creative genius, Elgar brought to Newman’s words a wealth of imagination that was manifested in music of tremendous difficulty and still-potent beauty. Not even the score winning the esteem of Richard Strauss spared Elgar the indignities of seeing both his instructions that Dream of Gerontius not be termed an oratorio ignored and the work’s Catholic point of view modified to suit Anglican tastes. Not quite four months remained in Queen Victoria’s long reign at the time of Gerontius’s first performance: already in danger of becoming an anachronism, Elgar propelled himself and his reluctant countrymen into tuneful but terrifying modernity.

A committed advocate for Elgar’s music in concert halls and recording studios, Buenos Aires-born conductor Daniel Barenboim continues his survey of the composer’s music for DECCA with a superlatively-engineered account of The Dream of Gerontius recorded in conjunction with much-discussed performances in Berlin’s Philharmonie. DECCA’s sonics capture the frisson of live performance with virtually none of the distracting blemishes, and the venue’s spacious acoustic is a worthy setting for the sumptuous but sinewy playing of Staatskapelle Berlin, a source of strength throughout the performance. This recording is among Barenboim’s finest outings as a conductor, his pacing of the score meriting favorable comparison with long-respected performances led by Sir Malcolm Sargent, Sir Adrian Boult, and Sir John Barbirolli. The ‘Lento, mistico’ marking of the Prelude’s opening is meticulously observed, and the orchestra’s wind playing here and throughout the performance is superb. Following with the score, it is possible to note Barenboim’s reaction to virtually every shift in tempo or dynamics. When the music calls for vehemence, the conductor does not shrink from it, but the dramatic thrust of this Gerontius is never forced. Aided by DECCA’s production team, Barenboim and the orchestra attain—and maintain—aural balances in which details of Elgar’s orchestrations, particularly his inspired writing for the harp, are consistently audible within appropriate perspectives. Instructions such as ‘crescendo ed agitato,’ ‘naturale,’ and ‘affrettando’ have logical, discernible meaning in this performance. Considering his decades-long relationship with the music of Richard Wagner, Barenboim’s insightful handling of musical textures is not surprising, but there is much about his leadership of this Dream of Gerontius that profoundly surprises and gratifies. Above all, Barenboim and his German colleagues prove that suggestions that this music is too English to be wholly effective beyond Britain’s borders are as idiotic as they are ill-founded.

Under the direction of chorus masters Martin Wright and Justin Doyle, the combined personnel of the Staatsopernchor and RIAS Kammerchor bring to this performance of Dream of Gerontius irreproachable musicality, immaculate intonation, excellent diction, and complete comfort with Elgar’s demanding choral writing—an accomplishment that infamously eluded the choir by which the music was first performed. As the Assistants observing Gerontius’s final hours on earth in Part One, the choristers deliver ‘Kyrie eleïson’ with an apt aura of supplication, and their singing of ‘Be merciful, be gracious; spare him, Lord’ is entrancingly pleading. Darker sentiments increase the fervor of the chorus’s entreaties with the evocation of iniquity in ‘Rescue him, O Lord, in this his evil hour,’ but the faithful sincerity of ‘Go, in the name of Angels and Archangels’ is touchingly conveyed. The Berliners revel in portraying the Demons who haunt Gerontius’s second Part, voicing ‘Lowborn clods of earth, they aspire to become gods’ and ‘The mind bold and independent’ with exhilaratingly infernal ferocity. The religious ardor of their performances of the Angelicals’ ‘Praise to the Holiest in the height’ and ‘Glory to Him, who evermore by truth and justice reigns’ equals the zeal of their demonic utterances, and in both the earthly voices’ ‘Be merciful, be gracious; spare him, Lord’ and the Purgatory-bound souls’ ‘Lord, Thou hast been our refuge’ their vocalism capitalizes on the music’s potential to startle and soothe. The English choral tradition is rightly legendary, but the choral singing on this recording confirms that Berlin is as natural a home for Gerontius as Birmingham.

In his singing of the Priest and the Angel of the Agony, American baritone Thomas Hampson wields the vocal and histrionic gravitas that the music needs without pushing the voice. In Part One, he phrases the Priest’s ‘Proficiscere, anima Christiana, de hoc mundo!’ with keen response to the text, breathing life into Elgar’s poignant setting of the Latin words. Greater effort is expended in Hampson’s singing in this performance than in his previous recordings of similar repertory such as the title rôles in Mendelssohn’s Elijah and Paulus, but his years of experience have honed his interpretive skills without diminishing his vocal control. As the Angel of the Agony in Part Two, the baritone voices ‘Jesu! by that shuddering dread which fell on Thee’ with stern authority, the words receiving as much of the singer’s scrutiny as the notes. Even with so many fascinating operatic characterizations to his credit, this is among Hampson’s best recorded performances. An exceptionally persuasive rendering of Elgar’s forthright music on his own terms, Hampson’s singing in this Dream of Gerontius is also a lesson for young singers in the art of preserving the voice by safeguarding both the technique and one’s artistic integrity.

It is now nearly a quarter-century since the impeccably-schooled voice of British mezzo-soprano Catherine Wyn-Rogers first counseled a recorded Gerontius in his preparation for divine judgment. Interacting with the Gerontius of Anthony Rolfe Johnson under the baton of Vernon Handley, she was a serene presence as the Angel. Like Hampson, Wyn-Rogers has managed her career with rare intelligence, and her sagacity has fortified the voice against the ill effects of passing time. With her pianissimo statement of ‘My work is done, my task is o’er,’ building to a secure fortissimo E at the top of the stave, she recreates the emotional honesty of her 1993 performance and adds a new dimension of restrained rapture. There is in her assertion of ‘You cannot now cherish a wish which ought not to be wished’ a sense of gentle reprimand, the singer’s adherence to Elgar’s ‘espressivo’ direction supported by the conductor. The mezzo-soprano differentiates ‘It is because then thou didst not fear, that now thou dost not fear’ and ‘They sing of thy approaching agony’ with subtle inflections rather than overstated emoting, and her voicing of ‘And now the threshold, as we traverse it, utters aloud its glad responsive chant’ and ‘O happy, suffering soul! for it is safe’ exudes the assurance of triumphant faith. Wyn-Rogers’s singing in this Dream of Gerontius is never more beautiful than in ‘Softly and gently, dearly ransom’d soul,’ her timbre glimmering. Like Hampson’s, Wyn-Rogers’s vocalism is now marginally more laborious than in years past, but the rewards are also more special. As a young singer in training, Wyn-Rogers won the Royal College of Music’s prize honoring contralto Dame Clara Butt, for whom Elgar composed his Sea Pictures: with her singing in this performance of Dream of Gerontius, she earns the distinction anew.

Much of the attention garnered by the performances of Dream of Gerontius that produced this recording was focused on who did not sing the title rôle, a surely unintentional affront to the very gifted artist who stepped in and furnished a beautifully-sung, unaffectedly moving interpretation of Gerontius. Created in the work’s 1900 première by Edward Lloyd, a tenor acclaimed for his singing of rôles in sacred works by Sir Arthur Sullivan and Sir Hubert Parry, Gerontius has been sung by a broad spectrum of voices ranging from the lyric instruments of Gervase Elwes and Heddle Nash to the Wagnerian heft of Jon Vickers and John Mitchinson. In Berlin in 2016, the part was sung by native Londoner Andrew Staples, a tenor whose artistry recalls the interpretive finesse and honeyed tones of Elwes. As the man facing death in Part One, Staples lofts Gerontius’s words on plumes of ideally-supported tone, declaiming ‘Jesu, Maria — I am near to death’ with dulcet simplicity. His exhortation to ‘Rouse thee, my fainting soul, and play the man’ is suitably inspiriting, and, like Hampson, the tenor excels in Elgar’s Latin word painting, voicing ‘Sanctus fortis, Sanctus Deus, de profundis oro te’ with expressive immediacy. Staples sings ‘I can no more; for now it comes again’ with a sudden rush of trepidation, and his ‘Novissima hora est; and I fain would sleep’ is the exclamation of a man wearied by life.

In the depiction of the harrowing progress of Gerontius’s soul towards final judgment in Part Two, Staples avoids operatic ostentation, building his portrayal upon a foundation of subtlety and sensitivity. The wonder with which ‘I went to sleep; and now I am refresh’d’ is phrased is obviously heartfelt, and Staples communicates the breadth of the character’s faith with exquisitely-wrought performances of ‘I would have nothing but to speak with thee for speaking’s sake’ and ‘My soul is in my hand.’ When Gerontius’s soul sings ‘I hear the voices that I left on earth’ in this performance, it is with reverence rather than wistfulness. Like his Angel, this soul’s voice is most beguiling when embracing the resolution of the spiritual journey, Staples singing ‘Take me away, and in the lowest deep there let me be’ with grace that not even Nicolai Gedda effectuated. Virtually every Gerontius on disc offers his own unique qualities, but Staples’s interpretation on these discs arises from as complete a mastery of the rôle’s diverse challenges as any singer has exhibited in recent memory.

Proving that The Dream of Gerontius is a work of immense significance in the career of its composer and the histories of English choral music and Western art is a responsibility that this recording and the artists who participated in it do not bear, but were this the sole evidence with which to assess the score’s value the judgment would be an affirmation of the widespread acclaim that the music has kindled in the 117 years since it was first heard. This performance of Elgar’s candid paean to the transfiguring tribulations of an artist’s soul achieves what any performance of The Dream of Gerontius should do: the isolation that is so inherent a part of an artist’s existence can perhaps never be eradicated, and perhaps should not be, but this Gerontius’s dream of reminding the listener of the universality of man’s fears, failings, and reliance upon hope comes marvelously to fruition.

13 July 2017

CD REVIEW: Back to the Future — Journeys through the History of the Harpsichord guided by Catalina Vicens (Carpe Diem Records CD-16312) and Christopher D. Lewis (Naxos 8.559843)

CD REVIEW: Harpsichord Journeys by Catalina Vicens (Carpe Diem Records CD-16312) and Christopher D. Lewis (Naxos 8.559843)[1] ANTONIO DE CABEZÓN (circa 1510 – 1566), VINCENZO CAPIROLA (1474 – after 1548), MARCHETTO CARA (circa 1465 – 1525), MARCO ANTONIO CAVAZZONI (circa 1490 – circa 1560), JOAN AMBROSIO DALZA (fl. 1508), FABRIZIO DENTICE (circa 1539 – 1581), JOSQUIN DESPREZ (circa 1452 – 1518), JACOPO FOGLIANO (1468 – 1548), PHILIPPE DE MONTE (1521 – 1603), RANIER (fl. early 16th Century), CLAUDIN DE SERMISY (circa 1490 – 1562), BARTOLOMEO TROMBONCINO (1470 – after 1534), ANTONIO VALENTE (circa 1520 – 1580), CLAUDIO VEGGIO (circa 1510 – after 1543), and ADRIAN WILLAERT (circa 1490 – 1562): Il Cembalo di Partenope – A Renaissance musical tale featuring music in and around 16th-Century NaplesCatalina Vicens, harpsichord [Recorded in the National Music Museum, Vermillion, South Dakota, USA, during May 2015; Carpe Diem Records CD-16312; 1 CD, 66:35; Available from Carpe Diem Records, Naxos Direct, Amazon (USA), jpc (Germany), Presto Classical (UK), and major music retailers]

[2] VINCENT PERSICHETTI (1915 – 1987): Harpsichord Sonatas and SerenadeChristopher D. Lewis, harpsichord [Recorded at Belvedere Estate, Belvedere, California, USA, 14 – 18 March 2016; Naxos 8.559843; 1 CD, 65:16; Available from Naxos Direct, Amazon (USA), jpc (Germany), Presto Classical (UK), and major music retailers]

In some glorious hour in human history, the communications among people and their societies were magnificently altered by the harnessing of music. In the play of wind among trees, the gurgling flow of water, and the innumerable melodies of nature, the earth has always resounded with music, but with man’s contrived mimicry of nature’s voices was born a diversion so perfect that not even centuries of constant change have spoiled it. As music’s path has wound through countless cultures, an astounding diversity of styles and traditions has been accumulated—and with them an ever-expanding arsenal of instruments echoing the sounds emerging from the minds of the custodians of music’s evolution.

In 1397, a writer in Padova recorded an innovation that was destined to hew from the bedrock of musical invention a path that, 620 years after that fateful mention of the development of the ‘clavicembalum,’ continues to be extended into new artistic territory. Likely devised as an amalgamation of the organ and the Medieval psaltery, the harpsichord was by the end of the Fifteenth Century familiar in various forms throughout Western Europe. In guises that would be recognized by Twenty-First-Century observers, the harpsichord became the prevalent keyboard instrument of the Baroque, prized in both solo and continuo capacities until it was supplanted in the second half of the Eighteenth Century by prototypes of the modern piano. Biding its time in opera houses’ orchestra pits and private collections until pioneering artists like Wanda Landowska and Igor Kipnis returned it to concert halls and recording studios, the harpsichord is now espoused by some of the Twenty-First Century’s most gifted composers and musicians. Approaching the instrument from vastly different periods in its history, two of today’s most enterprising artists guide listeners through enchanting treks into neglected niches of the harpsichord’s bounteous repertory via discs as personal as they are accomplished. It is not only in All That Jazz that ‘everything old is new again’: music, too, is cyclical, and these releases reaffirm that so much of the future can be found in the past by those willing to seek it.

Before the advent of motion pictures with sound, films were often accompanied by live music, utilizing music’s power to conjure and complement visual imagery. The efficacy of verbal storytelling is challenged by the limitations of language, but music transcends the necessity of understanding words. Among today’s exponents of early repertory for the harpsichord, there is no more talented a musical raconteuse than Chilean harpsichordist Catalina Vicens, and with Il Cembalo di Partenope she not only weaves a kaleidoscopic tapestry with musical threads but creates her own context for the chosen music in an imaginatively-conceived and thoughtfully-written ‘Renaissance tale,’ both printed in the accompanying liner notes and available for download as an audio book narrated by Vicens’s own melodious voice. Masterfully recorded by Carpe Diem Records in one of America’s foremost artistic treasures, the National Music Museum on the Vermillion campus of the University of South Dakota, the vehicle for Vicens’s musical pilgrimage to Sixteenth-Century Naples is the world’s oldest known harpsichord still in playable condition. Any suspicions of pedantry roused by this fact are wholly unfounded: a wealth of scholarship contributed to the making of this disc, of course, but Vicens’s playing takes the listener on a visceral adventure that blows dusty academia aside with a gale of timeless artistic prescience.

Little is known about many of the composers whose music is included on Il Cembalo di Partenope, but the acquaintance provided by Vicens’s playing puts to rest any doubts about the skills possessed by these little-remembered names and the quality of their work. Launching her voyage with a crisply-phrased account of Antonio Valente’s Fantasia del primo tono, published in 1576, this brilliantly expressive artist exploits the unique sound of the instrument, a Neapolitan model by an unidentified maker that likely dates from the first quarter of the Sixteenth Century, to evoke aural souvenirs of late-Renaissance Naples. Vincenzo Capirola’s ‘La villanella,’ first printed in 1517, is played with the grace of a dove soaring above the Duomo di San Gennaro. Vicens revisits the music of Valente with his Gagliarda napolitana, beguilingly done, and she explores the Spanish influence in Naples, a viceroyalty of the Aragonese House of Trastámara during the first half of the Sixteenth Century, with an elegant traversal of Antonio de Cabezón’s Obra sobre cantus firmus. One of his era’s preeminent tunesmiths, Bartolomeo Tromboncino anticipated the work of Francesco Cavalli in music of melodic fecundity. Vicens delivers his ‘Amor quando fioriva’ with hypnotic charm, and she finds in the thematic material of the enigmatic Ranier’s ‘Me lassera tu mo’ an entrance into a mysterious world of complex, startlingly modern emotions. Her period-appropriate but unexaggeratedly theatrical performances mine the lodes of sentimental significance in Joan Ambrosia Dalza’s Calata ala spagnola and Tromboncino’s ‘Poi che volse,’ making each piece a thought-provoking tableau within her panorama of Neapolitan life.

Regarding Vicens’s prevailing concept as a window opened to the extraordinary vistas of an ordinary day in a vibrant city, morning gives way to afternoon in the harpsichordist’s touchingly sincere performance of Dalza’s Pavana alla ferrarese. The blazing Neapolitan sun reaches its zenith in the sonic skies of Jacopo Fogliano’s Ricerchare and Marchetto Cara’s ‘Cantai mentre nel core,’ both presented with characteristic intensity that never threatens to obstruct appreciation of the music’s historical provenance. Perhaps also by Cara, ‘Per dolor mi bagno el viso’ receives from Vicens a traversal of understated grandeur that contrasts with the almost secretive intimacy of her playing of Tromboncino’s ‘Stavasi amor’ and ‘Che farala che dirala.’ The singular sonorities of Marco Antonio Cavazzoni’s ‘Recercada di mã ca’ are spellbinding as realized by Vicens, whose articulations of rhythmic and harmonic patterns awaken in the instrument beneath her fingers the distant voices not only of Luigi Rossi, Monteverdi, and Cavalli but also those of Stravinsky, Tippett, and Glass. Though precious little information about his life exists, the importance of Josquin Desprez’s music in the ongoing maturation of Western polyphony cannot be overstated. Vicens’s playing of Cavazzoni’s treatment of Desprez’s ‘Plus ne regres’ assumes a pivotal position in the narrative of Il Cembalo di Partenope: here, the sun sets on the horizon of the musician’s Neapolitan landscape, heralding the transitions to night and new ages in musical expression.

With her playing of ‘Vi’ recercada,’ attributed to Claudio Veggio, Vicens affectionately guides her tale towards its conclusion, caressing the music with a mother’s tenderness. Emotional honesty is also at the core of her account of Cavazzoni’s ‘Madame vous aves,’ her focus on elucidating the composer’s ingenuity enhanced by the lightness of her touch. Veggio’s own Recercada per b quadro and his setting of Claudin de Sermisy’s ‘Tant que vivray’ draw from Vicens tempests of artistic temperament that metamorphose the harpsichord into a vessel that whisks the listener to destinations beyond the physical senses’ perceptive capabilities. What she achieves within the scope of historical accuracy with Fabrizio Dentice’s Volta de spagna and Valente’s retooling of Philippe de Monte’s ‘Sortemplus disminuita’ is remarkable, this centuries-old music sounding as though it were being created anew as Vicens performs it. Returning to Valente first with his adaptation of Adrian Willaert’s ‘Chi la dirra’ and then with his Recercata del primo tono, Il Cembalo di Partenope’s expedition, like a party descending from the summit of Everest, retraces familiar ground but with new awareness of its originality.

In opera, it has often been said that there are no small rôles, only singers of diminutive artistic stature who fail to take advantage of the opportunities that composers offer them. Vicens asserts with her playing on this disc that there is in the harpsichord repertory no ‘old music’; no music, that is, that cannot be reinvented and rejuvenated by an artist attuned to the veins of unchanging humanity in even the most archaic pieces. When the music on Il Cembalo di Partenope was new, Naples was a bustling metropolis, the second largest city in Europe and a cosmopolitan crossroads of art and trade rivaled only by Paris. Vicens’s playing reverberates with the authentic voices of Sixteenth-Century Naples, and how current they sound!

Born in Philadelphia in 1915, American composer and pedagogue Vincent Persichetti exerted an influence on the music of his native country that now, thirty years after his death in 1987, remains insufficiently appreciated. Not least in his tenure on the Juilliard faculty, during which his students included Leonardo Balada, Richard Danielpour, Philip Glass, Lowell Liebermann, Einojuhani Rautavaara, and Peter Schickele, Persichetti’s teaching furthered the legacy of his own studies with Fritz Reiner and Olga Samaroff, fusing a thorough grounding in European traditions with strikingly original elements of American modernism. The advancement of the composer’s individual compositional idiom during the 1950s coincided with his burgeoning acquaintance with the harpsichord, and his compositions for the instrument—ten sonatas, the fifteenth of his Serenades, the twenty-fourth of his Parables, and his Little Harpsichord Book—chart the course of Persichetti’s stylistic progress. Three decades separated the completions of his first and second Harpsichord Sonatas, bridging a period in his career during which some of his most memorable music was created. In addition to his symphonies, chamber music, and piano sonatas, all of which merit places in the repertories of talented ensembles and soloists, Persichetti’s insightful and approachable tome on Twentieth-Century harmony should be required reading for every student of music of that period.

Starting his public career as a pianist and composer whilst still an adolescent, Persichetti was a precocious artist, and the spirit of his youthful mastery electrifies the performances of his music on this handsomely-recorded Naxos disc by Welsh harpsichordist Christopher D. Lewis. As in his previous recordings for Naxos, the eloquence of Lewis’s playing of Persichetti’s music belies his youth. The notion of a young musician having an ‘old soul’ is silly if rather poetic, but Lewis is an artist whose sensibilities encompass a near-boundless array of musical styles. Playing the first three Sonatas on this disc on a resplendent Pleyel concert harpsichord of the type preferred by Wanda Landowska and employing an instrument completed in 1997 by San Francisco-based maker Kevin Fryer after a Seventeenth-Century Flemish model by Ioannes Rucker for the remaining Sonatas and Serenade, Lewis perpetuates the initiative begun by Vicens, broadening listeners’ experiences with the harpsichord by venturing further into the immense trove of music composed for the instrument.

Completed in 1951, Persichetti’s first Sonata (Opus 52) is in many ways a transitional work in which the composer’s avant garde proclivities are tempered by increasing lyricism. The Sonata’s first movement, itself a transition from Andante sostenuto to Allegro, is played by Lewis with an outpouring of energy that ignites the sparks that crackle in the music. The subsequent Adagio movement is a sort of tonal oasis and is handled in this performance with well-considered sensitivity that deprives the piece of none of its potency. The following Vivace is dispatched with the sizzle of summer lightning, its technical demands effortlessly met by Lewis. The artistic growth exhibited by Sonata No. 3 (Opus 149), written in 1983, is unmistakable, Persichetti’s voice now more confident. Lewis’s performance highlights the assurance of the composer’s work. As played here, it is not the bracing harmonic complexities of the opening Allegro moderato that compel admiration but the intuition with which they are executed, revealing the organic logic with which the music was constructed. Lewis’s tempo for the Adagietto revels in the music’s inherent expressivity without impeding its momentum, and the bravado with which he plays the Allegro molto, again successfully targeting the soul of Persichetti’s score, is both exciting and enlightening.

A product of 1984, Sonata No. 5 (Opus 152) also reflects the shifting priorities not only of Persichetti’s mode of composition but also of writing for the keyboard in general. Here and in the subsequent Sonatas on this disc, thematic development exerts greater emotional force, exemplified by the Fifth Sonata’s slyly stirring Moderato. Lewis maintains precisely the attitude of informed ambivalence that lures the listener into the intricacies of the music. There is nothing ambivalent about his sensual, seductive playing of the Andante or the rousing ebullience with which he traverses the Allegro, however. Another three years passed before the completion of Sonata No. 8 (Opus 158) in 1987, the final year of his life, and in that interim Persichetti further refined his command of writing for the harpsichord. The depth of Lewis’s response to Persichetti’s music is apparent in the immediacy with which his playing exposes the continuous transmutations of the composer’s artistry. Both the Andante sostenuto and Allegro ma grazioso movements are presented with complete comprehension of the manner in which the composer manipulated thematic material to achieve intriguing and sometimes deceptive continuity. The buoyancy of the rhythmic figurations of the concluding Allegro con moto is ideally conveyed by Lewis’s effervescent performance.

Sonata No. 9 (Opus 163) followed the Eighth Sonata in 1987, but the atmosphere that it inhabits scarcely resembles that of the earlier work. In the Moderato first movement, the pace of Lewis’s playing manifests the sobriety of Persichetti’s writing with surprisingly moving simplicity. There is a formality in the Andantino that the harpsichordist here translates into clear-eyed emotional honesty, extracting from the music the essence of the composer’s inspiration. The surging Allegro erupts from Lewis’s fingers. Also dating from 1987, the fifteenth of Persichetti’s Serenades for various instruments (Opus 161) is the most ostensibly Baroque of Persichetti’s works for harpsichord, but its Prelude introduces this as a piece that looks to the future more palpably than it looks to the past. In the Prelude and the Episode that follows, Lewis emphasizes the music’s tunefulness, and his performance of the Bagatelle combines playfulness with technical prowess. His account of the Arioso truly sings. The inviolable concentration with which Lewis rips through the Capriccio meaningfully fulfills Persichetti’s goal of reawakening the demonstrative potential of the harpsichord.

When Wanda Landowska recorded Johann Sebastian Bach’s Goldberg Variations for the first time in 1933, the harpsichord was little more than an entry in musical encyclopedias. The small portion of its music that clung to familiarity was appropriated by pianists, few of whom were concerned with preserving the specific technique that the harpsichord’s mechanism necessitated. Nearly a century later, perhaps even Landowska would be astonished by the harpsichord’s near-miraculous return to prominence. Miracles are not wrought by men, but the harpsichord’s comeback has been catapulted into reality by artists of virtuosity and vision like Catalina Vicens and Christopher D. Lewis. Like Norma Desmond, Landowska would likely not have been comfortable with the term ‘comeback,’ not for her beloved harpsichord: ‘it’s a return,’ and, with discs like these two to its credit, an abundantly welcome one.

03 July 2017

CD REVIEW: Richard Wagner — PARSIFAL (L. Cleveman, K. Dalayman, J. Tomlinson, D. Roth, T. Fox, R. Hagen, R. Murray, A. Greenan; Hallé CD HLD 7539)

IN REVIEW: Richard Wagner - PARSIFAL (Hallé CD HLD 7539)RICHARD WAGNER (1813 – 1883): Parsifal, WWV 111Lars Cleveman (Parsifal), Katarina Dalayman (Kundry), Sir John Tomlinson (Gurnemanz), Detlef Roth (Amfortas), Tom Fox (Klingsor), Reinhard Hagen (Titurel), Robert Murray (Erster Gralsritter), Andrew Greenan (Zweiter Gralsritter), Sarah Castle (Knappe, Blumenmädchen), Madeleine Shaw (Knappe, Blumenmädchen, Stimme aus der Höhe), Joshua Ellicott (Knappe), Andrew Rees (Knappe), Elizabeth Cragg (Blumenmädchen), Anita Watson (Blumenmädchen), Ana James (Blumenmädchen), Anna Devin (Blumenmädchen); Hallé Youth Choir, Trinity Boys Choir, Royal Opera Chorus; The Hallé; Sir Mark Elder, conductor [Recorded ‘live’ in concert at the BBC Proms, Royal Albert Hall, London, UK, on 25 August 2013; The Hallé CD HLD 7539; 4 CDs, 258:35; Available from The Hallé, Amazon (USA), iTunes, jpc (Germany), Presto Classical (UK), and major music retailers]

In the long, complicated history of human endeavor, a conundrum with which many societies and intellectuals have contended is the assessment of the true value of art. From a doggedly practical perspective, art fails modern efficiency standards’ litmus test of tangible value by having no effect on the fit, form, or function of man’s existence: art neither fills the lungs with oxygen nor causes the heart to beat. During the darkest days of World War II, as pragmatic a thinker as Sir Winston Churchill argued that art made the ferocious battle to preserve the British way of life worthwhile, however, recognizing art as a manifestation of humanity’s ascent out of barbarity. Who can view Michelangelo’s Pietà, awed by the serene honesty of its emotion, and not believe at least for a moment that the figures are of flesh rather than of marble? Who can gaze at Ansel Adams’s photographs of the American West and not surrender at least for a moment to an unspoiled communion with nature? Whether the medium is sculpture, still life, sonnet, or song, art is a conduit between man and his nature, and few artists have dedicated themselves as completely to facilitating man’s exploration of his own accomplishments and absurdities as did Richard Wagner. After indelibly altering the development of opera in the Nineteenth Century with scores as revolutionary as the politics of his youth, he crowned his career with Parsifal, an opera that fascinates, confounds, and provokes as potently in 2017 as when it was premièred in 1882 at the second Bayreuther Festspiele. Parsifal exerts no influence on the elementary functions of the universe, but hearing such music as the opera contains can convince even the casual listener that there is meaning in the most mundane mechanics of living.

Like many details of Wagner’s self-propagated mythology, the oft-repeated account of Parsifal’s genesis dating to a sun-drenched Good Friday experienced on the Swiss estate of Otto and Mathilde Wesendonck in 1857 is equal parts hyperbole and outright fabrication. Impressed by reading first Wolfram von Eschenbach’s Parzival, with which he became acquainted in 1845, and, a decade later, the work of Arthur Schopenhauer, Wagner indeed resolved in 1857 to adapt the story of the Arthurian Grail Knight Percival to music, but the notion was set aside until 1865, by which time he had completed Tristan und Isolde and drafted Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, operas in which the Celtic and Teutonic origins of the Percival legend and its literary incarnations were also evident. Another quarter-century would pass—and witness the composition of the behemoth Der Ring des Nibelungen and the construction of the Bayreuther Festspielhaus—before Wagner again turned his attention to Parsifal. Completing the libretto and composing the music of Parsifal occupied Wagner for more than two years, from February 1877 until his finalization of Act Three in April 1879. Beginning with the Act One Vorspiel in 1878, fully scoring the opera required another three-and-a-half years. After such a vast gestation, the titanic Bühnenweihfestspiel reached the stage of the Bayreuther Festspielhaus on 26 July 1882, with a cast that included tenor Hermann Winkelmann, soprano Amalie Materna (Brünnhilde in the first complete Bayreuth Ring), and Emil Scaria as Parsifal, Kundry, and Gurnemanz. Thus began the continuing narrative of one of Western civilization’s most momentous artistic phenomena.

Saying that the demands made by Parsifal on singers, instrumentalists, and conductors are formidable is an understatement of Wagnerian proportions. When scoring Parsifal, Wagner was cognizant of the opera’s literal and symbolic functions as the summation of his life’s work, and he crafted the work with music of incredible complexity and difficulty. Under the sagaciously-wielded baton of Sir Mark Elder, The Hallé’s musicians attain in the first bars of the Vorspiel that precedes Act One an exalted level of excellence that persists throughout this performance, recorded in concert in Royal Albert Hall during the 2013 BBC Proms. The Hallé’s execution of the diaphanous string writing in the Karfreitagmusik and Verwandlungsmusik shimmers with the ethereal mysticism that the dramatic situations require, and the orchestra’s brass and woodwind players, not least the contrabassoon, elsewhere employed by Wagner only in his lone completed Symphony, deliver their parts with exceptional accuracy. The Hallé’s mastery of Parsifal rivals that of the finest Bayreuth orchestras. Their exemplary work is mirrored by the superb singing of the Trinity Boys Choir, the Hallé Youth Choir, and the Royal Opera Chorus, respectively led by Michael Holiday, Richard Wilberforce, and Renato Balsadonna. Not even the most fervent Wagnerian can deny that Act One of Parsifal is a leviathan of Biblical dimensions, one that outstays its welcome in many performances. Likewise, the opera’s final pages can be lost in a treacly haze. In this Parsifal, Elder, the Hallé, and the combined choruses provide the musical and dramatic clarity, continuity, and propulsion that the score needs in order to achieve all that Wagner intended. With virtually no distracting reminders of the provenance of the recording, this performance mesmerizingly conveys the power and poetry of Parsifal.

Epitomizing the hypnotic vigor of this performance is the ensemble of Blumenmädchen, sopranos Elizabeth Cragg, Anna Devin, Ana James, and Anita Watson and mezzo-sopranos Sarah Castle and Madeleine Shaw. The ladies’ euphonious sounds conjure the seductive atmosphere missing from so many performances of their scene. Shaw is also a Stimme aus der Höhe whose words have ramifications, and she is joined by Castle and tenors Joshua Ellicott and Andrew Rees in the quartet of fresh-voiced Knappen. As the Gralsritter, tenor Robert Murray and bass-baritone Andrew Greenan sing handsomely, their exchanges with Gurnemanz and the Knappen phrased with alert handling of the text. In generations past, one could hear voices of the caliber of those of Montserrat Caballé, Hilde Güden, Gundula Janowitz, James McCracken, Kurt Moll, and Kostas Paskalis as Blumenmädchen, Knappen, and Gralsritter in performances of Parsifal. The casting of these parts in this performance recalls those bygone days of Wagner singing.

Further expanding the vocal distinction of this performance is the unexaggerated, truly sung Klingsor of American baritone Tom Fox. Parsifal’s villain is portrayed in many performances as a wheezing caricature with little dramatic impetus—and often with very cavalier approaches to intonation. As sung by Fox in this performance, however, Klingsor is a reptilian conniver who wields vocalism as entrancing as his sorcery. From his first ‘Die Zeit is da,’ Fox traverses Klingsor’s music with focused, flinty tone. When he summons Kundry with ‘Dein Meister ruft dich Namenlose, Urteufelin, Höllenrose,’ the injury of the girl’s shame strikes at the listener’s heart. Fox finds nuances in ‘Furchtbare Not! So lacht nun der Teufel mein, dass einst ich nach dem Heiligen rang?’ that few Klingsors bother to seek, and he declaims ‘Seine Wunde trägt jeder nach heim! Wie das ich euch gönne!’ electrifyingly without bawling. There are suggestions of the defeated but defiant Wotan in Fox’s singing of ‘Halt da! Dich bann' ich mit der rechten Wehr! Den Toren stelle mir seines Meisters Speer!’ Fox lends Klingsor the intrigue of a fallen and not merely an evil man, and this interpretive imagination allied with his secure vocalism makes him one of the most engaging Klingsors on disc.

German bass Reinhard Hagen—an aptly-named Wagnerian—is a Titurel who evinces the character’s suffering without inflicting it upon the listener with pained, ugly singing. The sorrow, frustration, and exhaustion that shape Hagen’s singing of ‘Mein Sohn Amfortas, bist du am Amt?’ are derived not from the singer’s vocal production but from the text, and the dignity at the heart of the bass’s delivery of ‘Im Grabe leb’ich durch des Heilands Huld’ adds a measure of distinction to his portrayal of a man who is all too often depicted as a whining cipher. Titurel has as much about which to complain as any character in opera, but most winsome is the Titurel whose tribulations are expressed not in ranting but in song, as Hagen exhibits in this performance. When his voice resounds with ‘Oh, heilige Wonne! Wie hell grüsst uns heute der Herr!’ on this recording, Titurel initiates a prolonged catharsis via which the opera’s agonies are ultimately relieved. Like Fox’s Klingsor, Hagen’s Titurel is an atypically detailed characterization that benefits from uncommonly solid singing.

Prior to this BBC Proms performance, Freudenstadt-born baritone Detlef Roth’s Amfortas was heard in five consecutive Bayreuth seasons, an achievement that places him in the company of George London, Thomas Stewart, and Bernd Weikl among the Festspiele’s longest-serving exponents of the part. His singing on these discs confirms that Roth’s Amfortas was as comfortable in Kensington as on the Green Hill. In Act One, Roth sings ‘Recht so! Habt Dank! Ein wenig Rast’ nobly, and the suggestiveness of his ‘Du, Kundry? Muss ich dir nochmals danken, du rastlos scheue Magd?’ intensifies the significance of the relationships among Kundry and the other players in Parsifal’s drama. The baritone gives both ‘Wehe! Wehe mir der Qual! Mein Vater, oh! noch einmal verrichte du das Amt!’ and ‘Des Weihgefässes göttlicher Gehalt erglüht mit leuchtender Gewalt’ the histrionic force that these passages lack in many performances, but the timbre often seems at odds with the music: when brawn is wanted, suavity is supplied. Roth’s Amfortas is an active participant instead of a ceremonial observer in Act Three, his statement of ‘Mein Vater! Hochgesegneter der Helden!’ voiced with awe and assurance. The sincerity of this Amfortas’s query of ‘Wer will mich zwingen zu leben, könnt ihr doch Tod mir nur geben?’ markedly enhances the emotional impact of the opera’s final scene. Even in the context of a recording of a concert performance, Roth’s ingratiating singing impressively creates and maintains genuine dramatic presence, but the ears often crave a more robust sound.

There is no question that Sir John Tomlinson is among England’s most distinguished Wagnerians. His portrayal of Hunding in Die Walküre remains remarkable for the menace that the bass conveyed without shouting, and he was the rare König Marke in Tristan und Isolde whose heartbreak was as palpable as his ire. Tomlinson sang Titurel powerfully in Daniel Barenboim’s studio recording of Parsifal and engrossingly depicted Gurnemanz in the 1993 Berlin production, also conducted by Barenboim, that was released on Laser Disc and VHS. Twenty-two years later, the intelligence and insightfulness of his interpretation of Gurnemanz are undiminished, but the intervening decades have exacted an unmistakable toll on the voice. Tones in the middle of the generally range retain the orotundity familiar from the best years of Tomlinson’s career, but resonance is lost below the stave. Pitches are almost always accurate, but notes above B♭3 wobble. The long narration with which Gurnemanz opens Act One is a fearsome test of both a singer’s stamina and his ability to sustain dramatic momentum in music of relative stasis. His first notes in ‘He! Ho! Waldhüter ihr, Schlafhüter mitsammen, so wacht doch mindest am Morgen!’ introduce Gurnemanz as a man of unyielding seriousness of purpose, and Tomlinson enunciates ‘Er naht: sie bringen ihn getragen’ and ‘Ich wähne, ist dies Schaden, so tät’ er euch gut geraten’ with appropriate gravitas. The very different demands of ‘Oh, wunden-wundervoller heiliger Speer! Ich sah dich schwingen von unheiligster Hand!’ and ‘Titurel, der fromme Held, der kannt’ ihn wohl’ are met with the understanding that comes only from long acquaintance with the music, and the bass elucidates the mysticism with which Wagner inundated ‘Deine Mutter, der du entlaufen, und die um dich sich nun härmt und grämt.’

Absent from Act Two, Gurnemanz returns in Act Three, wearied by age and calamity, to guide Parsifal to the resolution for which he has hoped. The weight of the years that separate Parsifal’s first appearance from his return to the Domain of the Grail is heard in Gurnemanz’s voice as he sings ‘Von dorther kam das Stöhnen,’ and the immediacy of this Gurnemanz’s utterance of ‘Wie anders schreitet sie als sonst!’ reminds the listener of the human elements of the drama’s metaphysical stakes. ‘So kennst auch du mich noch? Erkennst mich wieder, den Gram und Not so tief gebeugt?’ seems to issue from both the soul and the throat. Tomlinson’s singing of ‘O Gnade! Höchstes Heil! O Wunder! Heilig hehrstes Wunder!’ is deeply moving, the effort in the vocal projection reflecting the character’s long perseverance. With ‘So ward es uns verhiessen, so segne ich dein Haupt, als König dich zu grüssen,’ the bass makes palpable Gurnemanz’s realization that an end to the misery that has surrounded him for so long is nigh. The solemnity of Tomlinson’s voicing of ‘Mittag: Die Stund' ist da: gestatte Herr, dass dich dein Knecht geleite’ discloses the breadth of the character’s faith. There are flaws in Tomlinson’s singing that, assessed individually, undermine his musical portrait of Gurnemanz. They cannot be ignored or said not to matter, but they are easily forgiven when the cumulative performance is so memorable. Gurnemanz sometimes becomes a curmudgeon who prattles on beyond the boundaries of audiences’ attention spans, but Tomlinson is here a Gurnemanz whose cautionary tales are the lifeblood of a timely parable.

Recently a riveting Fricka in Stockholm’s Ring des Nibelungen, Swedish soprano Katarina Dalayman enriches this recording of Parsifal with a Kundry of psychological subtlety and vocal security, one who, complementing Fox’s Klingsor, is refreshingly free of shrieking and silliness. The Kundrys of Kirsten Flagstad, sadly reaching modern ears in complete form through sonic murk, and Maria Callas, whose interpretation of this part that she sang only five times is preserved solely in a RAI concert performance that was sung in Italian, are very different, but there are reminders of both in Dalayman’s London performance. Neither Flagstad’s tonal amplitude nor Callas’s dramatic incisiveness is a natural component of Dalayman’s artistry, but her Kundry is all the more remarkable for rivaling much of what Flagstad and Callas respectively achieved with more voice and more ferocity. In Act One, Dalayman’s Kundry is less insinuating than guardedly introverted, each word seemingly considered before it is uttered. Her ‘Von weiter her als du denken kannst. Hilft der Balsam nicht, Arabia birgt dann nichts mehr zu seinem Heil’ is the pronouncement of a troubled woman, not a treacherous temptress, and the ardor with which she asserts ‘Ich helfe nie’ transcends the all-purpose malevolence in which many singers cloak Kundry. Dalayman phrases ‘Den Vaterlosen gebar die Mutter, als im Kampf erschlagen Gamure’ with vehemence rather than venom.

The contrast between the Kundry of Act One and the woman who hurtles into Act Two is particularly arresting in this performance. Here, too, Dalayman has obviously devoted great thought to her rôle, eschewing the snarling and sneering that are sometimes substituted for interpreting Kundry. The soprano’s stinging ‘Ach! Ach! Tiefe Nacht...’ unleashes in four words the essence of the character, the battle against the fate to which her actions condemned her awakening an animalistic brutality aimed as much at herself as at either Klingsor or Parsifal. The fervor of Dalayman’s account of ‘Oh, ewiger Schlaf, einziges Heil, wie, wie dich gewinnen?’ is heightened by the beauty of her tone. Confronting Parsifal, equally her tormentor and her deliverer, this Kundry launches ‘Hier weile, Parsifal! Dich grüsset Wonne und Heil zumal’ with sure aim. The phenomenal condition of Dalayman’s voice throughout the performance is epitomized by the spectacular top B with which she recalls Kundry’s ridicule of the dying Christ. Reduced in Act Three to cries of ‘Dienen... Dienen...,’ this indomitable woman is nevertheless far more than an apparition on the fringes of the male-dominated society. As depicted by Dalayman in this performance, Kundry claims her rightful place in the lineage of Wagner’s redemptive heroines extending from Senta to Brünnhilde, donning the mantle of a tragic heroine. Joining her Brünnhildes in recorded concert performances of Die Walküre and Götterdämmerung with the Hallé and Elder, Dalayman’s Kundry in this recording is a compelling impersonation by one of today’s most probing Wagnerians of one of Wagner’s most enigmatic characters.

On records and on stage, Parsifal’s music has been sung by a remarkably broad array of voices, ranging from the bronzed sounds of Lauritz Melchior to the pewter-hued effusions of Jon Vickers and the Mediterranean timbre of Plácido Domingo. An impressive Siegfried in the same Stockholm Ring in which Dalayman portrayed the character’s imperious step-grandmother, as well in the Hallé’s Götterdämmerung, Swedish tenor Lars Cleveman is as recorded here a Parsifal whose voice occupies a position near the center of that spectrum. His is a reasonably youthful but muscular sound, and the steadiness of his singing throughout the range and at all levels of dynamics earns appreciation. The bravado of the good-natured but largely doltish Parsifal of Act One rings in Cleveman’s traversals of ‘Gewiss! Im Fluge treff’ ich, was fliegt!’ and ‘Ja! Und einst am Waldessaume vorbei, auf schönen Tieren sitzend, kamen glänzende Männer,’ his demeanor casual but committed. He sings ‘Ich schreite kaum, doch wähn’ ich mich schon weit’ boyishly. Like his Kundry, this Parsifal is transformed in Act Two into an altogether different figure. Cleveman communicates the shifting sentiments of ‘Noch nie sah ich solch zieres Geschlecht’ and ‘Ihr wild holdes Blumengedränge, soll ich mit euch spielen, entlasst mich der Enge!’ with pointed diction, and the raw virility of his voicing of ‘Nie sah ich, nie träumte mir, was jetzt ich schau’, und was mit Bangen mich erfüllt’ is exhilarating and illuminating. The zeal with which he sings ‘Amfortas! Die Wunde! Die Wunde! Sie brennt in meinem Herzen’ and ‘Auf Ewigkeit wärst du verdammt mit mir für eine Stunde’ adds a facet of virility to his portrayal, increasing Parsifal’s credibility as a Romantic—if not a romantic—hero.

The passive, puerile Parsifal of Act One is metamorphosed by Cleveman into a man of action in Act Three, the tenor’s sinewy singing of ‘Heil mir, dass ich dich wieder finde!’ followed by a steely but expressive ‘Zu ihm, des’ tiefe Klagen ich törig staunend einst vernahm.’ Addressing Kundry with an imaginatively-phrased ‘Du wuschest mir die Füsse, nun netze mir das Haupt der Freund,’ his comportment is softened by tenderness. Matured by experience, this Parsifal voices ‘O wehe, des höchsten Schmerzentags!’ and ‘Nur eine Waffe taugt: die Wunde schliesst der Speer nur, der sie schlug’ with personal consequence. The character’s exclamation of ‘Oh! Welchen Wunders höchstes Glück!’ can seem artificial and slightly foolish, but Cleveman’s delivery grants it credence. Like Siegfried in the Ring, Parsifal can annoy when his man-child mannerisms are overemphasized, but Cleveman fashions a sensible balance between exuberance and sobriety. Most importantly in this gargantuan rôle, he sings attractively and with adequate reserves of hardiness for climaxes.

Since the opera’s first performance in 1882, Parsifal’s merits have been heatedly debated, some listeners perceiving in the score a deterioration of Wagner’s abilities and others deeming it the most perfect product of the composer’s genius. An objective analysis of the score would likely yield an opinion that neither wholly substantiates nor refutes either extremity, but objectivity is not among the earnest Wagnerian’s traits. For that matter, Parsifal is not conducive to compromise, the qualities that define it making it anything but a ‘take it or leave it’ opera. Whether individual listeners love or loathe it, Parsifal’s success in performance depends upon the same factors that allow works by Mozart, Donizetti, Verdi, or Puccini to sink or soar: cogent conducting, playing, and singing. With all of these factors to its credit, this is a Parsifal that soars.