07 April 2015

CD REVIEW: Johann Sebastian Bach – THE BACH PROJECT, Volume One – Organ Works (Todd Fickley, organ; MSR Classics MS 1561)

CD REVIEW: Johann Sebastian Bach - THE BACH PROJECT, Volume One (MSR Classics MS 1561)JOHANN SEBASTIAN BACH (1685 – 1750): The Bach Project, Volume One – Organ WorksTodd Fickley, organ [Recorded in St. Michaëlskerk, Zwolle, The Netherlands, in October 2007; MSR Classics MS 1561; 1 CD, 75:10; Available from MSR Classics, Amazon, Presto Classical, and major music retailers]

If ever a composer impacted the writing of music for a particular instrument, Johann Sebastian Bach surely altered the course of composition for the organ, the instrument of which he was an acknowledged master. It now seems inexplicable that in the Eighteenth Century it was as an organist far more than as a composer that Bach was esteemed, even by his own children, but the significance of his work to the organ repertory cannot be overstated. Furthering the German traditions of Heinrich Schütz, Dieterich Buxtehude, and Johann Pachelbel, Bach’s prowess at the organ was reputed in the Eighteenth Century to have been rivaled only by that of Georg Friedrich Händel, whose extensive travels and endeavors as a composer of opera spread his fame far beyond that of Bach. Whereas Händel’s compositions for organ are inventive and often delightfully tuneful, Bach’s organ works are, like Chopin’s piano music, virtually a genre unto themselves. Volume One of organist Todd Fickley’s and MSR Classics’ The Bach Project offers a recital of six representative works from Bach’s extraordinary catalogue of music for the instrument. This is a valuable disc solely as a fantastic recording of some of Bach’s finest music, but as a harbinger of future releases in The Bach Project it is priceless.

The sound of the instrument used for this recording is arresting from the first chord of the opening selection, and special mention must be made of the fidelity with which the organ is recorded. This is one of Northern Europe’s greatest organs, and recording it from a distance of thirty-two​ feet as supervised by engineer Jiri Zurek​ for this project both enables preservation of the clarity of the instrument’s registers and appreciation of the acoustical ambiance of the space and the five-second ​reverb​. The 1682 collapse of the tower of St. Michaëlskerk in the Dutch town of Zwolle following a fire dealt a fatal blow to the church’s original organ, an instrument that may have dated from before 1505 and had been substantially reworked in 1643. After a quarter-century without an organ, the famed North German Schnitger firm was engaged in 1718 to construct a new organ for St. Michaëlskerk. Father and sons Arp, Franz Caspar, and Johann Georg Schnitger collaborated on the design and construction of the quadruple-manual instrument, though the Schnitger patriarch did not survive to witness its 1721 completion and installation. In the subsequent 294 years, the organ has been subjected to maintenance and modification but is now restored to the closest possible replication of its original 1721 form. Though having no direct connection with Bach, the Zwolle Schnitgerorgel is emblematic of the influential school of organ-building with which Bach was closely acquainted. Its robust construction and unique timbre​ make it an ideal instrument for playing Bach’s organ music, and Mr. Fickley’s performances on this disc are enhanced by the grandeur of the instrument at his disposal.

A native of Washington, D.C., Mr. Fickley has been acclaimed throughout his career as one of America's finest ​organists. Named a fellow of the American Guild of Organists at the age of twenty-three, Mr. Fickley exhibits both stylistic and philosophical similarities to the celebrated organist E. Power Biggs, who did much to popularize Schnitger organs for the performance and recording of music from the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries. Opening this recorded recital with the Toccata, Adagio, and Fugue in C Major (BWV 564), Mr. Fickley plays with unpretentious mastery, placing nothing between the listener and complete appreciation of the music. The strict rhythmic accuracy of his playing of the Toccata does not inhibit a suggestion of rhapsodic capriciousness, and he evokes the subdued atmospheres of the slow movements of Bach’s great concerti and suites with his phrasing of the Adagio. The contrapuntal writing in the Fugue often seems to require more than ten fingers and two feet, but Mr. Fickley negotiates its superhuman demands with his anything-but-ordinary human resources. He is especially successful at highlighting the harmonic individuality of countersubjects and secondary voices, something accomplished on the organ only with tremendous skill.

One of his great eighteen chorale preludes, Bach’s ​Francophile ​treatment of the five-stanza Reformation chorale 'An Wasserflüssen Babylon' (BWV 653), a piece set by a wide assortment of composers including Praetorius, Reincken, and Pachelbel, is an evocative response to the despondent text that likely dates from the last decade of the composer's life. In a sense, Bach’s music is truer to the text than many composers’ vocal settings of the chorale. The graceful sarabande in the French style is phrased by Mr. Fickley with an appealing air of ceremony, and the completeness of his understanding of Bach’s idiom is revealed by his delicate handling of the ritornelli and the tenor subject. The level-headed accuracy of the organist’s playing discloses the unparalleled ingenuity of the composer’s sometimes stunningly modern uses of harmony and modulations.

Likely an arrangement of a chamber work made by Bach for the educational benefit of his eldest son, Wilhelm Friedemann, the Trio Sonata No. 1 in E-flat Major (BWV 525) makes no allowances for a student’s weaknesses. This is music as difficult as any that Bach composed for any instrument or ensemble, and Mr. Fickley devotes unflagging energy to his playing of the Trio Sonata’s opening Allegro movement, the textures of the music managed so that the melodic figurations never disappear amidst the cascades of sound. The lovely Adagio is followed by another Allegro, its mood lighter but no less demanding than the first movement. In both the Adagio and the final Allegro, Mr. Fickley plays exceptionally well, his affection for the music apparent in his thoughtful handling of the interplay between chord progressions and the emotional moods of the piece.

Mr. Fickley’s performance of the Prelude and Fugue in A minor (BWV 543) is marked by an expansively-phrased account of the Prelude and an unflappable consistency in elucidating the contrapuntal writing in the Fugue with instinctive balancing of the subject as it passes from voice to voice. These qualities are also at the core of his playing of the Partite diverse sopra il corale ‘Sei gegrüsset, Jesu gütig’ (BWV 768), a lovely inspiration in which Bach’s singular gift for harmonizing popular chorale melodies is especially apparent. The composer’s mastery of the styles of his own and previous generations is evident in the Passacaglia in C minor (BWV 582), as well. In Mr. Fickley’s traversal of the Passacaglia, an unusual piece that is essentially a set of variations with a broadly-conceived fugue as the final variation, the majesty of the Schnitgerorgel rings out stirringly. As in the other selections on this disc, Mr. Fickley plays commandingly, performing in a manner that neglects neither the grandeur nor the individuality of the music.

Hearing a great organ in a space worthy of its sound is an experience like no other, and this first installment in Todd Fickley’s and MSR Classics Bach Project recreates that experience on compact disc as vibrantly as any recording has ever managed to do. Mr. Fickley is not a limelight-seeking organist like Virgil Fox: rather, he is clearly one whose scholarship and dedication equal his technique. In this recital of organ music by Bach, there is a rare intersection of great music, great instrument, and great player. Imagining Bach playing his own music as well as Todd Fickley plays it on this disc, is there any wonder that his contemporaries esteemed him most highly as an organist? When hearing musicality of this quality, one does not interrupt the player’s concentration to inquire about the provenance of a piece: one merely sits back, listens, and enjoys.

06 April 2015

ARTS IN ACTION: Opera Carolina and a world-class cast restore true bel canto to Donizetti’s LUCIA DI LAMMERMOOR


‘Arrived at the door of the apartment, Colonel Ashton knocked and called, but received no answer except stifled groans. He hesitated no longer to open the door of the apartment, in which he found opposition from something which lay against it. When he had succeeded in opening it, the body of the bridegroom was found lying on the threshold of the bridal chamber, and all around was flooded with blood. A cry of surprise and horror was raised by all present; and the company, excited by this new alarm, began to rush tumultuously towards the sleeping apartment. Colonel Ashton, first whispering to his mother, “Search for her; she has murdered him!” drew his sword, planted himself in the passage, and declared he would suffer no man to pass excepting the clergyman and a medical person present … There was no private passage from the room, and they began to think that she must have thrown herself from the window, when one of the company, holding his torch lower than the rest, discovered something white in the corner of the great old-fashioned chimney of the apartment. Here they found the unfortunate girl seated, or rather couched like a hare upon its form—her head-gear dishevelled, her night-clothes torn and dabbled with blood, her eyes glazed, and her features convulsed into a wild paroxysm of insanity. When she saw herself discovered, she gibbered, made mouths, and pointed at them with her bloody fingers, with the frantic gestures of an exulting demoniac.’

Sir Walter Scott: The Bride of Lammermoor, Chapter 34

Abraham Lincoln’s oft-repeated adage about fooling some of the people all of the time, all of the people some of the time, but not all of the people all of the time is no less applicable to opera than to politics. Some listeners are unwaveringly devoted to certain singers, particular repertory, or even specific notes: daring to suggest to an aficionado that a favorite vocalist, opera, or climactic top C is undeserving of great esteem, it would be advisable to be prepared either for a fight or to make a quick escape. The passions depicted in opera are anything but cool, so it is only natural that the responses of the genre’s devotees should be similarly incendiary. It is one thing for a sort of musical mass hysteria to sustain the career of a singer or even a style of singing, but it is ultimately something vastly more difficult for fashion to secure an opera’s immortality. In order for a score to continue to command respect and affection generations after its première, there must be an elusive combination of qualities that endears it on some level to all sectors of the operatically-inclined population. In the case of Gaetano Donizetti’s 1835 Lucia di Lammermoor, one of the few bel canto operas to have never left the international repertory since its triumphant first performance at the Teatro San Carlo di Napoli, these qualities can seem as enigmatic as they are undeniable. As shrewd and intuitive an artist as Maria Callas could not have justified portraying Lucia simply because she possessed the coloratura, trills, and [interpolated] E♭6s for the character’s famed Mad Scene. What, then, compelled her not to impersonate but to become Lucia? Why, after 180 years, do audiences continue to embrace Lucia di Lammermoor when contemporary society spurns the notions of arranged marriages, secret elopements, and the insurmountable supremacy of familial duty? The youthful, imaginative principals in Opera Carolina’s production of Lucia di Lammermoor, opening at the Blumenthal Performing Arts Center in Charlotte on Saturday, 11 April, have committed themselves to answering these questions in the most irrefutable manner possible—by singing Donizetti’s music with the beauty and credibility that never require any explanation.

ARTS IN ACTION: Baritone HYUNG YUN, Enrico in Donizetti's LUCIA DI LAMMERMOOR at Opera Carolina [Photo © by Opus 3 Artists]Buon fratello: Baritone Hyung Yun, Enrico in Opera Carolina’s production of Gaetano Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor, April 2015 [Photo © by Opus 3 Artists]

Few singers of any age bring more enthusiasm to their work than baritone Hyung Yun, who will sing the rôle of Enrico, Lucia’s socially ambitious brother, in Opera Carolina’s production of Lucia di Lammermoor. Having partnered many of today’s most acclaimed singers on the world’s great stages, Mr. Yun brings to his appearances in Lucia an impressive Curriculum Vitæ including acclaimed performances of the Verdi baritone rôles for which Enrico was in many ways a prototype. ‘In regards to stylistic perspective, I intentionally approach [Enrico] more like a Verdian character,’ Mr. Yun confides. ‘When I prepared this rôle, I felt much anguish and desperation in his character—and it was amazing and inspiring to see [that] Bernard Uzan’s, my stage director, interpretation confirmed my idea the very first day I met him at Charlotte. It’s a most wonderful thing when my understanding and study of [a] character concur with [the] stage director’s.’ Mr. Yun strives to make Enrico a more involved character, one whose motives are less obvious than his actions might suggest. ‘Most productions portray Enrico as being one step behind his emotions and rather reserved, but [my] Enrico has much passion and [is a] purpose-driven character.’ In Mr. Yun’s view, Enrico is more a victim of the circumstances in which he finds himself than a conventional operatic villain: there are far greater depths to Enrico’s character than many productions and performances depict. [The] ‘unexpected, sudden regret in the Sextet is a great example,’ the baritone offers. ‘Donizetti perhaps wanted to [show] Enrico’s humanistic side through the Sextet and foreshadow what is to follow in the Mad Scene.’ Still, Mr. Yun is cognizant of the fact that Enrico is, in effect, a man without a future. ‘If Donizetti had chosen to write Enrico’s fate, perhaps [Enrico] might have given up all he tried to preserve and lived in regret and repentance,’ he says. His insightful consideration of Enrico’s psyche ultimately enables him to focus on the truest heart of the character: Donizetti’s music. ‘Only when this character is imbedded in me almost to [an] extreme extent can I then delve into Donizetti’s musical aspects,’ he shares.

ARTS IN ACTION: Tenor ZACH BORICHEVSKY, Edgardo in Gaetano Donizetti's LUCIA DI LAMMERMOOR at Opera Carolina [Photo © by Simon Pauly]Fidanzato segreto: Tenor Zach Borichevsky, Edgardo in Opera Carolina’s production of Gaetano Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor, April 2015 [Photo © by Simon Pauly]

Mr. Yun’s dedication to finding in Enrico’s character the motivations for his musical profile is shared by tenor Zach Borichevsky, whose Charlotte performances of Edgardo, Lucia’s clandestine betrothed, will be his first. Like Enrico, Edgardo is a bridge between the bel canto of Bellini and Donizetti and the full-on Romanticism of Verdi and Puccini. Mr. Borichevsky is sensitive to the demands of Edgardo’s music, but he is confident that it is the right time in his career to take on the part—and that Opera Carolina is an ideal venue for introducing his Edgardo to the public. ‘Edgardo fits in perfectly with where my voice is right now,’ he says. ‘It's not easy, so it requires intense, complete focus in a way that less-challenging parts don't. I can get away with lazy vocalism on occasion in some other rôles, but Edgardo doesn't let up. Donizetti's bel canto writing doesn't allow you any escape valves if you're sloppy.’ This intuitive young singer does not indulge in the dangerous game of predicting where singing a rôle like Edgardo will lead him as his career progresses. ‘In terms of where my voice will go in the future, I hate to speculate,’ he states. ‘I like to consider each role individually, [and] I don't like to delegate that consideration to a precise Fach system handed down from on high. If I work on a rôle and think I can effectively convey the composer's intentions through his music, I think it's right for me.’ Why, then, is Edgardo right for him? What aspects of the character compel him to sense that the part is one that he can portray credibly at this juncture in his career? ‘Before he met Lucia, Edgardo sought only revenge,’ Mr. Borichevsky muses, ‘but his love for her soon became all-consuming: it became his ultimate motivation. He was willing to do anything to protect her, even make peace with her brother, his mortal enemy. When she leaves him, he says, the fire inside him is snuffed out, and he ends it all.’ This, Mr. Borichevsky relays, provides a meaningful connection between Opera Carolina’s Lucia and a tragic reality with which today’s audiences still contend. ‘Suicide remains a serious problem in our society, and our dramatization in this production does not glorify the act,’ he says. ‘Nor does it portray Edgardo's behavior as deranged or insane. Often, we too easily dismiss suicidal people as myopic or selfish. The only way to prevent tragedy is to understand its origins—to understand what puts someone in that depressed place. Edgardo has no one. His parents have died, he has no prospects, his love has betrayed him. He has no support. If my performance encourages just one person to empathize with and support someone who is struggling, it will be a success.’

ARTS IN ACTION: Soprano KATHRYN LEWEK, Lucia in Gaetano Donizetti's LUCIA DI LAMMERMOOR at Opera Carolina [Photo © by Kathryn Lewek]Bella Lucia: Soprano Kathryn Lewek, Lucia in Opera Carolina’s production of Gaetano Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor, April 2015 [Photo © by Kathryn Lewek]

Charlotte audiences will also have the great pleasure of witnessing soprano Kathryn Lewek’s inaugural portrayal of Lucia. A thrilling performer whose fiery singing is bolstered by a rock-solid coloratura technique, Ms. Lewek comes to Opera Carolina after a vociferously-acclaimed whirlwind of performances of the Königin der Nacht in Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte at the Bregenzer Festspiele, the Metropolitan Opera, the Wiener Staatsoper, Houston Grand Opera, and, most recently, Royal Danish Opera, where her Queen of the Night won the applause of the Queen of Denmark, Margrethe II. The transition from the Königin der Nacht to Lucia is a journey that has both challenged and thrilled Ms. Lewek. ‘I’ve been incredibly fortunate for the opportunity to sing a rôle I am confident with all over the world,’ she says of her tenure as the Königin der Nacht. ‘Queen has opened doors for me that I never imagined would be available at such an early stage in my career. To already have had major house débuts at places such as the Wiener Staatsoper and the MET is a gift that now allows me to focus more on my craft rather than my accomplishments. Of course, while there still exists a tremendous pressure to uphold a high level of artistry that matches my résumé, I also feel a sense of freedom to enjoy my experiences more fully and objectively, without the constant worries hanging over my head associated with being a young and emerging artist.’ Nonetheless, Ms. Lewek is attentive to the daunting task faced by a young artist endeavoring to make choices that engender a successful long-term career in opera. ‘The most important rule of life to me is a familiar one: actions speak louder than words,’ she intimates. ‘I live by this rule on and off the stage. I [have] spent my life so far working hard rather than convincing others that I could work hard. There are no short-cuts to success, just many different ways of getting there. Carving out a niche in this business is a really hard thing to accomplish, and if it’s not hard—well, then you're doing it wrong, and it’s not going to be worth it! Yes, there is always an element of luck: the "decision maker" of the day woke up on the right side of the bed, ate some particularly good jam and bread for breakfast, the universe converges in your favor, and he happens to be more enchanted by your singing than the person that came before or after you, and voilà—you have a great opportunity in your lap. Are you ready for it? Have you worked your rear-end off so that when this opportunity opens its doors, you were so ready to take the bull by the horns that you practically burst out of the gate with quality, accuracy, thorough research, and also, very importantly, with an open mind and heart? Be prepared every moment of your life like it may be the defining one.’

In approaching Lucia with the open mind and heart that she deems necessary to fully inhabiting a character, Ms. Lewek has been especially aware of the musical and dramatic contrasts between the Königin der Nacht and Lucia and the ways in which these are reflected in both her interpretations and her own life. ‘In preparing for this début, Lucia has actually been a driving force of my vocal life for over a year now, all while I was singing zillions of performances of Zauberflöte! In many ways, she’s had a larger presence in my life over the last year than Queen: she’s been quietly waiting in the wings, untouched and unheard by anyone other than myself and my trusted circle of ears (my teacher, Diana Soviero, and a few special coaches scattered across the globe). In some capacity, I’ve worked on Lucia almost every day whether it be character study through Walter Scott’s original novel, libretto translation, cadenza composition, or general musical preparation. Unlike Queen, she’s with me in the practice room on all my days off from performing, and she’s what I’ve used to warm up my voice on performing days as well. I step off the stage from singing “O zittre nicht, mein lieber Sohn” [the Königin’s aria in Act One of Die Zauberflöte], and my well-loved, tattered Lucia score is ready to greet me in my dressing room. She keeps my voice warm and healthfully supple for the Queen’s second aria, “Der Hölle Rache kocht in meinem Herzen.” Lucia has kept me safe this entire year of singing endless performances of Queen, because bel canto is truly the most natural and healthy genre of operatic singing. There is no forcefulness or unnatural production in Italian bel canto, only free-flowing athletic and organic vocal velvet. Lucia always reminds me that there are many different colors in my instrument, and that “Der Hölle Rache” is just three minutes—albeit excitingly powerful ones!—of intensely acrobatic vocal pyrotechnics that don’t have to influence how I sing everything else, unless I choose to include that color for a momentary emotional effect.’

‘Bringing Lucia to life over the last week in rehearsals has been an experience that has completely surpassed my expectations,’ Ms. Lewek reveals. ‘I’m extremely fortunate to be in the position that I am in. I am so lucky to be singing with a first-class cast of principals. Opera Carolina has a knack for booking incredible in-demand artists amidst their internationally thriving schedules, and this provides a fantastic opportunity for stage magic to ensue. My co-stars set the bar at such a high level, and I know my own performance will benefit greatly from sharing the stage with them. In particular, since Zach and I are both débuting our respective roles for the first time here in Charlotte, the innocence and inexperience of young love is somewhat personified during our love duet scene in Act One, and yet since we were already good friends before being cast together in this production, our on-stage relationship also has the added benefit of our off-stage friendship. I couldn’t ask for a more talented and artistically generous person with whom to share the stage in this new experience.’ For Ms. Lewek, the most crucial aspect of bringing Lucia to life is finding within herself the dramatic foundation of the character. Then, the music makes sense not just in terms of harmonic progressions and phrasing but as an extension of Lucia’s inner life. ‘All of the characters I play on stage have one thing in common, which is that they all blossom from an inner emotional center within me,’ she says. ‘I strive to bring an authenticity to all the characters I’m privileged to personify by attaching real emotions and personal qualities to each of them. As scary as it is to admit this, the rage that I bring to the stage when singing Queen comes from a very real place, as this is an emotion all of us feel at one point or another—and, in truth, that is more exhausting to me than singing those high-flying Fs. It is impossible for me as an actress to detach my singing energy from my emotional energy, yet all the while I must be sure to keep the safety net around my larynx so I don’t strain. There is an element of madness in the Queen, of course, but Lucia’s madness is of an entirely different kind. There is no rage—only heartbreak, despair, abandonment, and ultimately the need for complete detachment from reality. Real life becomes too difficult for her to bear, and therefore she succumbs to an alternate universe that she fosters in her mind. In the Mad Scene, the stage is crowded with almost the entire cast, yet to her they are only shadows, almost like living ghosts on the perimeter of a life she has left behind. Our director, Bernard Uzan, has very wisely and intuitively designed this production to show the strength rather than the weakness of Lucia. This is a finely complex character realization to play, but [this] ultimately makes her fate completely understandable to me, and also more so to the audience. If Lucia were so weak and faint-hearted as she is normally portrayed, she would easily give in to the wishes of the powerful men around her rather than desperately trying to control the outcome of her life. She literally spends almost the entire opera fighting against the two biggest male influences in her life, her lover Edgardo and her brother Enrico. These two men are highly volatile and energized individuals, almost like two protons that race towards each other with such incredible energy and force that when they collide, with Lucia at the center of it all, what you are left with is a burst of emotional destruction, with particle energy moving in all different directions, while the two protons themselves are completely destroyed and annihilated. What you are left with is the shattered Lucia, suspended in a way as the resulting cloud burst, but constantly and violently spinning back and forth between reality and the dream fulfillment of her union with Edgardo. This Mad Scene is not the typical “float around the stage with a bloodstained dress” that one normally finds in productions of Lucia di Lammermoor. Instead, it is a violent, disturbing, and upsetting scene of inner turmoil, hashed out in front of all who bear witness.’

The elemental energy generated by these singers and Opera Carolina’s production of Lucia di Lammermoor are poised to restore to the opera the glorious spirit of bel canto that has maintained its place in the international repertory despite its absence from many performances. Again adapting the words of Abraham Lincoln to opera, this is a Lucia di Lammermoor destined to prove anew that, far from being the elitist institution many imagine it to be, opera is an art of the people, by the people, for the people.

Opera Carolina’s production of Lucia di Lammermoor opens on Saturday, 11 April 2015, and runs through 19 April. The production then travels to Toledo, Ohio, for performances on 24 and 26 April with Toledo Opera, also featuring Kathryn Lewek, Zach Borichevsky, Hyung Yun, and Maestro James Meena.

To learn more about Opera Carolina’s production of Lucia di Lammermoor and to purchase tickets, please visit Opera Carolina’s website.

Sincerest thanks to the artists for responding to questions for this preview.

05 April 2015

CD REVIEW: Tómasson, Ingimundar, Eiríksdóttir, Sigurbjörnsson, Felder, & Clark – DIALOGUS: Music for Solo Violin (Hlíf Sigurjónsdóttir, violin; MSR Classics MS 1551)

CD REVIEW: DIALOGUS - Music for Solo Violin (MSR Classics MS 1551)MERRILL CLARK (born 1951), KARÓLÍNA EIRÍKSDÓTTIR (born 1951), ALFRED FELDER (born 1950), RÚNA INGIMUNDAR (born 1963), HRÓĐMAR INGI SIGURBJÖRNSSON (born 1958), and JÓNAS TÓMASSON (born 1946): Dialogus – Music for Solo ViolinHlíf Sigurjónsdóttir, violin [Recorded in Stúdíó Sýrland, Reykjavík, Iceland in 2009 (Tómasson) and Reykholtskirkja, Reykholt, Iceland in July and September 2013; MSR Classics MS 1551; 1 CD, 79:38; Available from MSR Classics, Amazon, iTunes, and major music retailers; World première recordings]

One of the greatest delights of writing about music is unexpectedly encountering a recording of unfamiliar repertory that after a single hearing has managed not only to introduce a previously-unknown artist but also to enrich and enlarge one’s understanding of a beloved instrument. In my youth, I studied the violin under the tutelage of a very fine teacher and, after mastering music by Bach and Vivaldi and even composing a few pieces for the instrument, fancied myself a capable violinist. Thankfully, that fantasy quickly dissolved when I was among truly capable violinists, and it seems all the more laughable after hearing Danish/Icelandic violinist Hlíf Sigurjónsdóttir’s MSR Classics disc Dialogus. Such sounds as she coaxes from her 2004 Christophe Landon violin in her performances of music by Jónas Tómasson, Rúna Ingimundar, Karólína Eiríksdóttir, Hróđmar Ingi Sigurbjörnsson, Alfred Felder, and Merrill Clark never issued forth from my strings. I cannot deny that, before hearing this disc, my appreciation of music for unaccompanied violin did not extend much beyond Johann Sebastian Bach’s BWV 1001 - 1006 Sonatas and Partitas. In this case, ignorance was at best false bliss: not knowing the music on Dialogus was tantamount to a drastically compromised awareness of the violin’s capabilities. Hlíf Sigurjónsdóttir is not only a world-class violinist. In the context of this disc, she is also an amazingly effective educator who enlarged the understanding of this writer, who at heart was still a daft boy who erroneously thought that he knew a thing or two about the fiddle.

From the opening bars of the first movement, ‘góđ tré’ (‘good trees’), from Jónas Tómasson’s 1983 Vetrartré (Winter Trees), it is apparent that Ms. Sigurjónsdóttir’s take-no-prisoners style is the only way of doing this music justice. Recorded with an immediacy that is almost startling at first, she attacks the music with the ferocity that the composer’s angular writing demands. In the second movement, ‘sorgmædd tré’ (‘sad trees’), this intensity metamorphoses into an energetic, bizarrely moving statement of pervasive unease, Ms. Sigurjónsdóttir’s bowing limning the interpretive significance of the music’s distinct rhythmic profile. The prevailing sentiments of the third movement, ‘óđ tré’ (‘mad trees’) are evocative of both anger and insanity, as though these are dueling responses to a common emotional stimulus. The relative tranquility of ‘pögul...’ (‘quiet...’), the final movement, is deceptive: exploiting tonal patterns with the sure hand of a modern Mahler, Tómasson created a primordial sound world into which Ms. Sigurjónsdóttir lures the listener with seductive playing.

There are unexpected Celtic specters haunting the margins of Rúna Ingimundar’s 2012 Ađ Heiman (From My Home), and the abrupt changes in direction in the piece, shaped by its homages to Icelandic folk tunes, require repeated listening before their subtle insinuations are fully revealed. This is not a straightforward, saccharinely nostalgic piece, and Ms. Sigurjónsdóttir does not eschew astringency when the music calls for it. This is not unapproachable, facelessly cacophonous music, however. Though the language is very different, the recounting of a musical journey is as successful as in any piece by Schubert or Dvořák, and Ms. Sigurjónsdóttir plays with the confidence of a traveler with the final destination always in view.

Karólína Eiríksdóttir’s 1996 Hugleiđing (Meditation) is also a piece in which ambivalent emotions collide. The composer cleverly manipulated the sonic possibilities of the instrument, causing the illusion in a performance as accomplished as Mr. Sigurbjörnsson’s that the violin is conversing with itself. She evinces complete comfort with the work’s complex rhythms and maintains an aura of undisturbed simplicity throughout the most difficult passages. The almost cautiously contemplative nature of the music, the kind of thoughtfulness capable only when one is alone with one’s own fears and feelings, is given a touchingly fragile dimension by Ms. Sigurjónsdóttir’s impeccably-judged phrasing. This is evidence of one of the most bewitching aspects of the violinist’s artistry: she is uniquely gifted at distilling from a tumultuously difficult piece of music its most concentrated psychological implications and immersing every technical feat of her playing in the music’s spiritual essence.

Composed in 2012, Hróđmar Ingi Sigurbjörnsson’s Kurìe requires a level of concentration that eludes many musicians, but Ms. Sigurjónsdóttir places herself wholly at the service of the music. The composer employed compartmentalized strands of thematic material drawn from the ‘Kyrie eleison’ of his Skálholt Mass, which Ms. Sigurjónsdóttir unites with her raptly focused playing. Melodic lines emerge with the sudden clarity of sunlight burrowing through clouds, and the violinist’s unexaggerated vibrato and flawless intonation ideally realize the enigmatic power of the music.

Swiss composer Alfred Felder’s 1987 Tilbrigđi Viđ (Variations on the Easter liturgy ‘Victimae paschali laudes’) is a vigorous piece demanding the attention to detail and uncompromising virtuosity of which Ms. Sigurjónsdóttir repeatedly proves a consummate mistress on this disc. Following in the footsteps of de Lassus, Palestrina, and Byrd, Felder suffused his music with the profundity of the Eleventh-Century text. Delving into the emotions of the music as surely as if she were intoning the cantus firmus of the Gregorian service, Ms. Sigurjónsdóttir plays Felder’s music with dazzling technical prowess that never obscures the uncommon sensitivity of her interpretation. Her performance of Tilbrigđi Viđ is remarkable for the imagination with which she both elucidates the composer’s thematic development and gives the work a singular warmth.

Written for Ms. Sigurjónsdóttir, as were several of the works on Dialogus, and inspired at least in part by her playing of Bach repertory, Merrill Clark’s 2010 ‘Sigurjónsdóttir Sonata,’ Seiđkonan (The Sorceress), is an invigorating examination of Classical techniques of composing for the violin through the lens of modernity. The Preludio that launches the Sonata sets a tone of formal grace to which Ms. Sigurjónsdóttir responds with playing of wide-ranging vision. This is followed by an account of the second movement, Song, in which the violinist’s tone blossoms with resonance akin to that of the human voice. In both the Fuga and the Waltz Scherzo, Ms. Sigurjónsdóttir’s ironclad rhythmic precision provides a stage upon which Clark’s witty music dances. The closing Ciaconna is a tour de force that aptly summarizes Ms. Sigurjónsdóttir’s awesome array of accomplishments on Dialogus: inspiring her to magical playing that validates the Sonata’s title. Ms. Sigurjónsdóttir is indeed a musical sorceress.

Dialogus is a disc from which I learned much about an instrument I mistakenly thought that I knew intimately. Beautifully recorded, thoughtfully presented, and sumptuously played, the music on this disc unveils new possibilities for the violin. In the hands of a musician less adventurous than Hlíf Sigurjónsdóttir, these pieces would perhaps seem less rewarding, but this talented lady transforms her strings and bow into conduits for an electrical surge of discovery. If more discs shared the zeal that makes Dialogus such a success, who would dare suggest that Classical Music is an expiring art?

04 April 2015

CD REVIEW: Johann Sebastian Bach – MATTHÄUS-PASSION, BWV 244 (Academy of Ancient Music AAM004, Signum Classics SIGCD385, & J.S. Bach-Stiftung St. Gallen B006)

CD REVIEW: Johann Sebastian Bach - MATTHÄUS-PASSION, BWV 244 (AAM Records AAM004, Signum Classics SIGCD385, J.S. Bach-Stiftung St. Gallen B006)JOHANN SEBASTIAN BACH (1685 – 1750): Matthäus-Passion, BWV 244—[1] James Gilchrist (Evangelista), Matthew Rose (Christus), Ashley Riches (Pilatus), Elizabeth Watts (soprano), Sarah Connolly (mezzo-soprano), Thomas Hobbs (tenor), Christopher Maltman (baritone); Choir of the Academy of Ancient Music; Academy of Ancient Music; Richard Egarr, conductor [Recorded at Saint Jude-on-the-Hill, London, UK, 20 – 27 April 2014; AAM Records AAM004; 3 CDs, 144:38; Available from AAM, Amazon, jpc, Presto Classical, and major music retailers]; [2] Charles Daniels (Evangelista), Peter Harvey (Christus), Bethany Seymour and Helen Neeves (sopranos), Sally Bruce-Payne and Nancy Cole (mezzo-sopranos), Joseph Cornwell and Julian Podger (tenors), Matthew Brook (bass-baritone); Yorkshire Baroque Soloists; Peter Seymour, conductor [Recorded at the National Centre for Early Music, York, UK, 7 – 10 September 2013; Signum Classics SIGCD385; 2 CDs, 153:33; Available from ClassicsOnline, Amazon, jpc, Presto Classical, and major music retailers]; and [3] Charles Daniels (Evangelista & tenor arias), Peter Harvey (Christus), Joanne Lunn (soprano), Margot Oitzinger (contralto), Wolf Matthias Friedrich (Pilatus & bass arias); Knabenkantorei Basel, Chor der J.S. Bach-Stiftung; Orchester der J.S. Bach-Stiftung; Rudolf Lutz, conductor [Recorded in Switzerland in 2012; J.S. Bach-Stiftung B006; 3 CDs, 159:55; Available from J.S. Bach-Stiftung, ClassicsOnline, iTunes, jpc, and major music retailers]

Virtually every Eastertide brings a multitude of performances of the Passions of Johann Sebastian Bach in an almost endless assortment of performing editions ranging from historically-informed, one-to-a-part readings to the grandiloquent Romanticizations with Victorian-scaled choirs and orchestras. There is no question that the canonical Passions—the Johannes and the Matthäus—are both pillars of the Western choral repertory and masterpieces of their composer’s genius. Whether the swift-moving, intensely dramatic Johannes or the more expansive, contemplative Matthäus is preferred is an individual choice that each listener must make, but the profundity of the Matthäus is undeniably impactful. Likely first performed in Leipzig’s Thomaskirche at Vespers on Good Friday, 11 April 1727, the Matthäus-Passion underwent revisions at which Bach labored throughout the remaining twenty-three years of his life. Although the work is not known to have been performed beyond Leipzig until the Nineteenth Century, it is a myth that the Matthäus-Passion was completely forgotten within only a few years after Bach’s death. Recent scholarship strongly supports the assertion that the piece remained in relatively frequent circulation in Leipzig until 1800. Felix Mendelssohn’s ‘rediscovery’ of the score and subsequent performance of it—or, rather, his arrangement of it—in Berlin in 1829 was a milestone in the work’s history, one that ushered in renewed interest in and affection for the Matthäus-Passion that persist into the Twenty-First Century. Since the early days of sound recording, the Matthäus-Passion has fared well, with even many of those recordings that are travesties from the perspective of historically-informed performance practices offering superb singing in compensation. The work’s popularity in recent decades notwithstanding, the appearance of three meritorious new recordings of Matthäus-Passion within the space of a few weeks is an uncommon occurrence of near-Biblical proportions. Like the performances in cities large and small throughout the world, each of these recordings of Matthäus-Passion—AAM Records, Signum Classics, and J.S. Bach-Stiftung releases—inhabits its own unique environment. It is a testament to the creative brilliance of Bach’s score that it can endure such differing approaches. In reality, it is this variety that makes Matthäus-Passion such an engaging, inspiring work. Every performance is an opportunity to encounter the score as though for the first time, hearing each number differently than ever before. Each of these recordings has its own prevailing ethos, but they share a commitment to the performance of Bach’s music that is audible in every moment. The score’s ability to unearth in this versatility new ways of seizing the listener’s imagination is one of the most sparkling facets of the Matthäus-Passion.

CD REVIEW: Johann Sebastian Bach - MATTHÄUS-PASSION, BWV 244 (AAM Records AAM004)

The companion to the organization’s triumphant recording of the Johannes-Passion [reviewed here], the Academy of Ancient Music’s Matthäus-Passion on the orchestra’s own AAM Records label is characterized by an uncompromisingly high standard of musicality that equals the best recorded performances of Matthäus-Passion in the catalogue. Though flawlessly stylish in the modern sense, there are in this performance tantalizing similarities to the legendary 1930s recordings conducted by Hans Weisbach and Willem Mengelberg, foremost among which is the sharply-drawn dramatic profile of the Passion narrative. Each of these new recordings utilizes the earliest, 1727 version of the score, but under the direction of Richard Egarr the AAM performance throbs with psychological depth and very modern sensibilities. Vitally, these are extracted from the music rather than imposed upon it. Propelled by the quicksilver playing of Maestro Egarr, lutenist William Carter, harpsichordist Jan Waterfield, and organist Alastair Ross, the Academy of Ancient Music choristers and players craft a performance that never puts scholarship ahead of the communication of unfiltered emotions. Few recorded performances have made the violence of the Passion so palpable: the attentive listener cannot fail to feel Christ’s agony. Secondary parts are taken by a fantastically consistent cast of capable singers: sopranos Philippa Hyde and Elizabeth Drury, countertenor Christopher Field, tenor Stuart Jackson, and basses Richard Bannan and Richard Latham all sing confidently, creating dramatically credible characterizations even when given only a few words to sing. Bass Philip Tebb’s Judas and baritone Ashley Riches’s Pilatus are particularly memorable, both for their vitality and the excellent quality of the vocalism. Among the quartet of superb aria soloists, mezzo-soprano Sarah Connolly earns pride of place with as heartrending an account of the exquisite ‘Erbarme dich, mein Gott’ as has ever been recorded, her malleable tone and refined declamation rivaling those of Kathleen Ferrier, Marga Höffgen, and Christa Ludwig. Ms. Connolly’s singing of 'Buß und Reu,' 'Können Tränen meiner Wangen,' and the lovely 'Sehet, Jesus hat die Hand' with chorus is equally accomplished. She is complemented by the expert singing of soprano Elizabeth Watts, whose traversals of 'Blute nur, du liebes Herz!' and 'Ich will dir mein Herze schenken' are radiant and obviously heartfelt. Her performance of 'Aus Liebe will mein Heiland sterben' is exceptionally eloquent. Tenor Thomas Hobbs again confirms that he is one of today’s foremost Bach singers, allying tonal beauty with technical mastery in standard-setting performances of his arias, his singing of 'Ich will bei meinem Jesu wachen' with the chorus exhibiting a level of conviction that heightens the meaning of the text. Christopher Maltman’s brawny timbre occasionally lacks ideal richness and security in the lower register for the bass arias, but he makes strong showings in 'Komm, süßes Kreuz' and 'Mache dich, mein Herze, rein.' Bass-baritone Matthew Rose is a dignified, warmly human Christus, more boy next door than ostentatious Divine Redeemer. He rightly dominates the performance, singing resiliently and making Christus a man rather than an archetype. Among recorded portrayals of the Evangelista in Matthäus-Passion, James Gilchrist’s performance on this recording stands out for the ease and liquidity of the vocalism and the psychological depth of the storytelling. He encounters no challenge that his technique cannot surmount with panache to spare, and he makes as much of the text as of the music. Many Evangelistas illuminate particular passages, but Mr. Gilchrist’s singing shines in every phrase. Like AAM’s Johannes-Passion, this Matthäus-Passion is an incredibly competitive recording, one that preserves not a studio-bound account but a thriving, profoundly affecting performance of Bach’s awe-inspiring score.

CD REVIEW: Johann Sebastian Bach - MATTHÄUS-PASSION, BWV 244b (Signum Classics SIGCD385)

The performance by Yorkshire Baroque Soloists on Signum Classics seeks to present the Matthäus-Passion as it was first heard on Good Friday 1727 in the Thomaskirche, where Bach was Kantor. It seems strange that efforts to perform a score precisely as its composer would have expected it to be executed should be deemed ambitious, but casting aside almost two centuries-worth of good-intentioned meddling and accumulated traditions is a daunting task. On the whole, this performance, directed by Peter Seymour, manages to use the small forces now thought to replicate the personnel of Bach’s first performances without sounding anemic in the score’s most grandiose passages. Closely adhering to Bach’s structure of the work as it is now understood, not only are the chorus and orchestra here in two parts as the score dictates but the arias are also divided between two quartets of soloists according to their context within the narrative. Like Maestro Egarr, Maestro Seymour presides from the harpsichord, and his playing, seconded by the lovingly understated performances of lutenist Elizabeth Kenny and organist Robert Patterson, provides a firm musical foundation upon which layers of detail are constructed by the well-matched cast. Young baritone Johnny Herford is a vibrant, solid-voiced presence whether depicting Petrus, Pilatus, or a High Priest, and soprano Bethan Thomas is a delight as Pilate’s Wife. She, Eleanor Thompson, and Elissa Edwards sing sweetly as the soprani in ripieno. Bethany Seymour directs a flow of silvery tone through her singing of ‘Ich will dir mein Herzen schenken’ and ‘Aus Liebe will mein Heiland sterben,’ and Helen Neeves sings ‘Blute nur, du liebes Herz!’ with equal distinction. The alto arias are sung with impressive interpretive depth by Sally Bruce-Payne, whose accounts of ‘Buß und Reu,’ the ardent ‘Erbarme dich, mein Gott,’ and ‘Sehet, Jesus hat die Hand’ shimmer with devotion, and Nancy Cole, who sings ‘Können Tränen meiner Wangen’ with handsome, focused tone. Joseph Cornwell possesses one of the most astonishing bravura techniques heard in Baroque music for the tenor voice, but his singing of ‘Ich will bei meinem Jesu wachen’ in this performance impresses most viscerally not with technical brilliance but with emotional directness. Julian Podger matches Mr. Cornwell’s achievement with his keen singing of ‘Geduld!’ Bass-baritone Matthew Brook offers firm, attractive vocalism in ‘Gerne will ich mich bequemen’ and ‘Gebt mir meinen Jesum wieder!’ As bass soloist, Peter Harvey sings ‘Ach, nun ist mein Jesus hin,’ ‘Komm, süßes Kreuz,’ and ‘Mache dich, mein Herze, rein’ powerfully, but his greatest attainment in this performance is his sonorous, sensitive Christus. His experience in Matthäus-Passion is extensive, but his impersonation of Christus in this recording is anything but routine. In this, he is partnered by the flexibly-voiced Evangelista of Charles Daniels, whose lean, captivating singing lures the listener into the drama with almost tangible immediacy. The value of its fidelity to Bach’s original concept of the score notwithstanding, the foremost pleasure of this Matthäus-Passion is its honesty. Nothing is exaggerated or approximated: more than most performances in the discography, this is unmistakably Bach’s Matthäus-Passion.

CD REVIEW: Johann Sebastian Bach - MATTÄUS-PASSION, BWV 244 (J.S. Bach-Stiftung B006)

That the music for the Evangelista and Christus in the Matthäus-Passion is of a difficulty that essentially makes them Fächer of their own is evident in the fact that the recording of the work by the J.S. Bach-Stiftung St. Gallen shares the singers of both parts with the Yorkshire Baroque recording. An installment in the J.S. Bach-Stiftung’s admirable recorded survey of all of Bach’s sacred music, this performance of Matthäus-Passion honors Teutonic traditions in all the right ways. The Chor und Orchester der J.S. Bach-Stiftung and Knabenkantorei Basel respond to Rudolf Lutz’s leadership as though performing for Bach himself, their efforts skillfully buttressed by the continuo of harpsichordist Thomas Leininger and organist Norbert Zeilberger. It is only reasonable that the aim of a recording destined for inclusion in an exploration of Bach’s complete choral works should be an indelibly authoritative Matthäus-Passion, and, with a few minor exceptions, this goal is realized. In minor parts, sopranos Mirham Berli, Susanne Frei, and Guro Hjemli are occasionally shrill but effective, and basses Philippe Rayot, Manuel Walser, Chaspar Mani, and Valentin Parli sing committedly as Judas, Petrus, and the Hohepriester. The voice of soprano Joanne Lunn soars through her arias, her singing of ‘Ich will dir mein Herze schenken’ and ‘Aus Liebe will mein Heiland sterben’ discernibly shaped by a very personal reaction to the text. The pinnacle of Margot Oitzinger’s resonant singing of the alto arias is justifiably her fervent recitation of ‘Erbarme dich, mein Gott,’ but her every note seems quarried from the soul. Wolf Matthias Friedrich bawls menacingly as Pilatus and rolls through the bass arias with aplomb, the efficacy of his singing undermined only by a few moments of strain at the extremes of his range. Mr. Harvey repeats his urbane but unpretentious Christus, an even more successful assumption in the context of this recording owing to the sympathetic acoustic. Mr. Daniels here faces the formidable task of singing both the Evangelista’s music and the tenor arias. Not surprisingly, he meets every demand spellbindingly. Like Mr. Harvey, Mr. Daniels is a tested veteran of Bach’s Passions, but he sings the music in this recording of Matthäus-Passion as though it were new to his repertory. This performance does not endeavor to inject artificial drama into Bach’s score: rather, it extricates from the work’s words and music the inherent catastrophe and catharsis that make Matthäus-Passion a monumental work of timeless, universal force.

Precisely how Matthäus-Passion sounded when it was first performed on Good Friday in 1727 can now only be imagined, but nearly a century of recorded excerpts and complete performances enables the modern listener to appreciate why this music is treasured by people of all creeds. Johann Sebastian Bach was surely a pious man, but in order to appreciate his Matthäus-Passion one’s faith need only be in music. These three recordings of Matthäus-Passion confirm that there are in this score as many paths to spiritual exultation as there are people to travel them. If one must choose only one of these recordings, the Academy of Ancient Music performance is the prime contender, but each of these accounts enriches the Matthäus-Passion discography in wondrous, welcome ways.

02 April 2015

CD REVIEW: Brinley Richards – SONGS OF WALES / CANEUON CYMRU (Stuart Burrows, tenor; John Samuel, piano; Tŷ Cerdd Records TCR012)

CD REVIEW: Brinley Richards - SONGS OF WALES (Tŷ Cerdd Records TCR012)HENRY BRINLEY RICHARDS (1817 – 1885): Songs of Wales / Caneuon Cymru—Stuart Burrows, tenor; John Samuel, piano [Recorded in 1986; Tŷ Cerdd Records TCR012; 1 CD, 57:48; Available from Tŷ Cerdd Records]

Sir Arthur Sullivan, Sir Edward Elgar, Frederick Delius, Gustav Holst, Ralph Vaughan Williams, Benjamin Britten, and Sir Michael Tippett are frequently cited as the foremost British composers of the late Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries, but they should more properly be regarded as some of England’s finest composers. There are on that famed isle another two proud nations, of course; nations with unique musical traditions all their own. While the ruggedly beautiful landscapes of Wales are familiar to people throughout the world, the music of Wales is far less known than the iconic tunes of England, Ireland, and Scotland. How can this be true of the traditional music of a land known for singing? Indeed, with her brooks, windswept crags, and churning sea, Wales herself seems to sing, and her songs are no less ravishing than those of her British sisters. In the Twentieth Century, Welsh music was represented on the global stage by Alun Hoddinott, an exceptionally gifted composer whose ability to write effectively and memorably for the human voice is central to his still-evolving legacy. A century before Hoddinott reached his artistic maturity as a composer of Art Songs, Henry Brinley Richards’s collection entitled Songs of Wales was published. Born in Caerfyrddin (Carmarthen) in 1817, Brinley Richard​s established for himself remarkable credentials, studying in London at the Royal Academy of Music under the patronage of the Duke of Newcastle and in Paris under the tutelage of Chopin. The quality of his work in Songs of Wales is therefore anything but surprising. It is surprising that this collection remains neglected, however. Richards adopted the bardic name Pencerdd Towy in his tireless advocacy for the preservation of Welsh customs, but, intriguingly, he did not speak Welsh, a fact that the intuitiveness with which he set Welsh texts to music makes all the more unbelievable. Richards wrote in his Preface to the published edition of Songs of Wales that some observers ‘insist that style in music is more or less typical of the configuration of the country to which any music may belong.’ It is an oblique assertion, but the sentiment is unquestionably founded upon a kernel of truth: there is an unbreakable bond between a nation and its indigenous music. That bond is celebrated in Richards’s Song of Wales and in the profoundly affectionate performances of twenty-six of Wales’s most idyllic songs on this disc. This is a recording that quashes any doubts about the musical significance of Wales and her native sons.

A native of Cilfynydd, a few miles north of Cardiff​, tenor Stuart Burrows is, along with Sir Geraint Evans and Dame Gwyneth Jones, one of the trio of great Welsh Classical singers of the second half of the Twentieth Century. International success followed quickly after his professional début, his career taking him to opera houses and concert halls throughout the world. First bowing at the Metropolitan Opera as Don Ottavio in Mozart’s Don Giovanni in 1971, he went on to sing Mozart’s Belmonte in Die Entführung aus dem Serail and Tamino in Die Zauberflöte, Alfredo in Verdi’s La traviata, Gounod's Faust, and Pinkerton in Puccini’s Madama Butterfly at the MET. Also in 1971, his Elvino in Bellini’s La sonnambula at Covent Garden provided Renata Scotto with the kind of partner she so often lacked in her performances of bel canto repertory, a legitimate primo uomo. Likewise, his poetic Faust ideally complemented the reserved, demure Marguerite of Dame Kiri Te Kanawa. Many of Mr. Burrows’s finest stage characterizations were also recorded in studio, foremost among which are his mellifluously-voiced Mozart portrayals. His mastery of bel canto enabled very fine performances of Percy in Anna Bolena and Leicester in Maria Stuarda, both opposite Beverly Sills, and his Lenski in the DECCA Yevgeny Onegin conducted by Sir Georg Solti is a great achievement. Had he recorded nothing else, though, his Jack in Tippett’s The Midsummer Marriage on Lyrita would assure his artistic immortality. So, too, would this recording of Songs of Wales. The voice is not produced with the freshness of twenty years earlier, and the liquidity of phrasing no longer flows as readily as it once did, but Mr. Burrows remained at the time of this recording an artist of incomparable imagination and technical brilliance. Unlike many of his colleagues, Mr. Burrows possessed from the very start of his career the particular intelligence that enables a singer to safeguard vocal health. Few of even the most gifted singers are blessed with a natural instrument as mellifluous as Mr. Burrows’s, and even fewer treat their voices with as much care, respect, and genuine affection as Mr. Burrows lavished on his.

Recorded semi-professionally in 1986 on tapes that have deteriorated in the intervening years, there are in this performance of Songs of Wales very minor blemishes ​that could not be wholly eliminated in Tŷ Cerdd's meticulous remastering by James Clarke, Jim Unwin, and Dischromedia. In truth, the occasional deviations from sonic perfection contribute markedly to enjoyment of this disc. This a rare opportunity to hear a great singer in conversation, as it were, with music dear to him, and the foremost goal of such a conversation is never—and should never be—antiseptic precision. Accompanied with unfailing elegance and enthusiasm by pianist John Samuel, Mr. Burrows devotes to his singing of twenty-six of Richards’s song settings the same golden tone with which he sang Elvino’s ‘Prendi: l’anel ti dono’ in La sonnambula.

For the most part, Mr. Burrows selected the most charmingly romantic of the songs arranged by Richards. The mysterious aura of the opening ‘Toriad y Dydd’ (‘Taliesin's Prophesy’) draws from both Mr. Burrows and Mr. Samuel a performance of enigmatic beauty. ‘Ar Hyd y Nos’ (‘All through the night’) is captivatingly sung, and ‘Llwyn Onn’ (‘The Ash Grove’), one of the most familiar of all Welsh songs, receives from Mr. Burrows a reading of exquisite poise. The delicate sentiments of ‘Eryri Wen’ (‘White Snowdon’), ‘Llandovery’ (‘Yn Iach i ti Gymru’ – ‘Adieu to dear Cambria’), and ‘Erddigan Hun Gwenllian’ (‘A gentle maid in secret sigh'd,’ known as ‘Gwenllian's Repose’) are etched with finesse. Mr. Burrows and Mr. Samuel touchingly convey the dulcet feelings of ‘Merch Megan’ (‘Megan's fair daughter’) and ‘Pe Cawn i Hon’ (‘She must be mine’) with unaffected elocution.

The vivid imagery of ‘Clychau Aberdyfi’ (‘The Bells of Aberdovey’), ‘Dafydd y Garreg Wen’ (‘David of the White Rock’), and ‘Hela'r Ysgyfarnog’ (‘Hunting the Hare’) inspires both tenor and pianist to displays of the kind of uncomplicated use of text and music to create evocative landscapes in sound that can transform a song from a sequence of notes into a surge of emotions too intimate for mere speech. This elusive artistry also shapes Mr. Burrows’s accounts of ‘Anhawdd Ymadael’ (‘My Heart’), ‘Rhyfelgyrch Gwŷr Harlech’ (‘Men of Harlech’), and the starkly alluring ‘Difyrwch Gwŷr Dyfi’ (‘Woe to the Day’). The singer’s traversal of ‘Yr Hen Sibyl Neu Winiffreda’ (‘When I was young’) is shaped by a melancholy serenity that proves tremendously moving, and the interaction between voice and piano in ‘Rhyfelgyrch Capden Morgan’ (‘Forth to the Battle’) is exceptional. Mr. Burrows’s and Mr. Samuel’s closely-knit cooperation also engenders sparkling performances of ‘Hob y Deri Dando’ (‘All the day’) and ‘Bugeilio'r Gwenith Gwyn’ (‘Idle days in summer-time’).

The final eight songs on the disc take the listener deep into the heart of what might be rather simplistically dubbed the Welsh experience. Hearing Mr. Burrows sing ‘Y Fwyalchen’ (‘The Blackbird’) so stirringly, it is impossible not to feel that the majestic wildness of the Welsh countryside is close at hand. Both ‘Dyffryn Clwyd’ (‘Yn Nyffryn Clwyd’ – ‘The Missing Boat’) and ‘Y Ferch o'r Sger’ (‘The Maid of Sker’) are sung with mesmerizing narrative immediacy, and Mr. Burrows articulates both the words and the notes of the sublime ‘Y 'Deryn Pur’ (‘The Dove’) and the fetching ‘Tros y Garreg’ (‘Over the Stone’) with compelling grace. This is complemented by the glowingly amorous tone that he adopts in ‘Mentra Gwen’ (‘The Stars in Heav'n are bright’) and ‘Ffanni Blodau'r Ffair’ (‘Fanny’), both of which are sung magically. Mr. Burrows’s and Mr. Samuel’s performance of ‘Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau’ (‘Land of my Fathers’) radiates not the fair-weather patriotism of national holidays and public ceremonies but that of proud war veterans and private remembrances. It is a fitting conclusion to a disc that honors a nation, its singular terrain, and the extraordinary people who inhabit it.

As much as Songs of Wales is a celebration of Wales and Brinley Richards, it is a tribute to Stuart Burrows, a singer whose artistry should be a model for every young singer destined for the concert and opera stages. Great voices are present in every generation, but the singing of Stuart Burrows was never solely reliant upon his great voice. Songs of Wales is a wonderful disc that salutes an underappreciated composer. It is also a commemoration of the work of one of Wales’s finest singers. Most significantly, though, it is a disc during the fifty-eight minutes of which a venerable artist uses song to blot out the disappointments, stresses, and sorrows of a troubled, troubling world.

30 March 2015

CD REVIEW: Gioachino Rossini – GUILLAUME TELL (A. Foster-Williams, M. Spyres, J. Howarth, T. Stafford, A. Volpe, R. Facciolà; NAXOS 8.660363-66)

CD REVIEW: Gioachino Rossini - GUILLAUME TELL (NAXOS 8.660363-66)GIOACHINO ROSSINI (1792 – 1868): Guillaume TellAndrew Foster-Williams (Guillaume Tell), Michael Spyres (Arnold Melcthal), Judith Howarth (Mathilde), Tara Stafford (Jemmy), Alessandra Volpe (Hedwige), Raffaele Facciolà (Gesler), Nahuel Di Pierro (Walter Furst, Melcthal), Marco Filippo Romano (Leuthold, Un chasseur), Giulio Pelligra (Rodolphe), Artavazd Sargsyan (Ruodi); Camerata Bach Choir, Poznań; Virtuosi Brunensis; Antonino Fogliani, conductor [Recorded ‘live’ at the Trinkhalle, Bad Wildbad, Germany on 13, 16, 18, and 21 July 2013 (XXV ROSSINI IN WILDBAD Festival); NAXOS 8.660363-66; 4 CDs, 252:21; Available from ClassicsOnline, Amazon, jpc, Presto Classical, and major music retailers]

The foremost lesson learned from incessant cycles of ‘farewell tours’ and legions of singers wobbling merrily through rôles they should no longer be singing is that important careers in opera and those who admire and support them deserve appropriately-timed, properly-planned finales. For the past 150 years, a popular theme among operatically-inclined musicologists and aficionados has been regret of​ the retirement from composing for the stage of the famously industrious Gioachino Rossini after the first performance of Guillaume Tell at the Théâtre de l'Académie Nationale de Musique on 3 August 1829. The composer was only thirty-seven years old at the time of his final opera's première and had almost thirty-nine more years ahead of him, but what has often been interpreted as a waste of resources motivated by laziness was almost certainly at least as much a carefully-calculated act of going out with a bang. Another popular pastime, especially among operatic sophisticates in the past half-century, has been disparaging Rossini's creative powers. As scores like La donna del lago and Il viaggio a Reims have joined Il barbiere di Siviglia, La Cenerentola, and L'italiana in Algeri in the repertories of the world's most important opera houses, it is surely more apparent now than ever before in modern times that it was not solely for his penchant for writing great tunes that Rossini was heralded during his career as the Italian Mozart. Within days of its première, Guillaume Tell fell victim to the abundance of Rossini's genius: a work of Wagnerian dimensions in its original form, the opera was subjected to substantial cuts after only three performances, and by the time of its first revival in Paris a whole act had been excised. A prime attraction of this new recording of the opera from NAXOS, recorded during performances at the 2013 ROSSINI IN WILDBAD Festival, is the opportunity that it offers to hear Guillaume Tell in absolutely complete form, including not only the original score of 1829 but the amended finale devised for the three-act 1831 version, in which—remarkably—Rossini approved the suppression of Tell's celebrated air 'Sois immobile.' It is unfortunate that this performance could not have been recorded either in studio or during concert performances as the profusion of stage noise often intrudes upon appreciation of the singers' generally capable meeting of Rossini's extraordinary demands, but the NAXOS label again provides opera lovers with a valuable recording that combines admirable scholarship and modern production values with some fantastic old-fashioned stand-and-deliver singing.

A behemoth of a score even in truncated form, Guillaume Tell was familiar to a generation of Americans solely owing to the prominent use of the concluding section of its Overture as the theme of the popular television serial The Lone Ranger. Being Renaissance men of their era, the show’s stars, Clayton Moore and Jay Silverheels, likely had greater cognizance of the origins of their opening track than most of their contemporaries, but even in 2015, when Rossini rarities are performed throughout the world, a production of Rossini’s ultimum opus in any guise remains virtually unprecedented. Still, espousal by some of today’s foremost bel canto singers has hopefully engendered among the public at large a wider familiarity with the opera that extends beyond its famous Overture. In this performance, Antonino Fogliani presides over a taut, evocative account of the sprawling Overture by the Virtuosi Brunensis, each of its four sections granted careful consideration of its unique character. Upon that foundation, an exciting, generally accurately-played performance of the full score—including dance music—is constructed. Maestro Fogliani for the most part sets reasonable tempi, but a number of passages are compromised by extremes of speed. Both singer and chorus might have benefited from a slower tempo for Arnold’s ferocious cabaletta in Act Four. The tender music, of which there is more in Guillaume Tell than cut performances of the opera have often suggested, is paced with lightness and lyricism. This is a score in which the principals desperately need support rather than opposition from the pit, and, missteps notwithstanding, Maestro Fogliani maintains dedication to discerning the cast’s strengths and weaknesses throughout the opera. A decided strength in the performance is the singing of the Camerata Bach Choir, Poznań. More than in any of Rossini’s other operas except for the Biblical epics, the choristers play important rôles in the drama of Guillaume Tell, and, under the direction of Ania Michalak, they enact their parts in this performance with vigor. There are moments of untidy ensemble, but the great challenges are capably met. In Act One, both 'Hyménée, ta journée' and 'Gloire, honneur au fils de Tell' are energetically sung, and the choristers’ account of 'Quelle sauvage harmonie au son des cors se marie!' in Act Two is suitably awestruck. 'Gloire au pouvoir suprême!' and the spirited Tyrolienne, 'Toi que l'oiseau ne suivrait pas,' in Act Three receive from the chorus performances of stirring commitment, but it is rightly the final chorus in Act Four, 'Liberté, redescends des cieux,' that inspires the choristers to their finest singing. Rossini’s choral music in Guillaume Tell established a precedent followed by the poignant patriotic choruses in Verdi’s Nabucco and Macbeth, and this performance fully reveals not only how influential Rossini’s example was but also how sublimely effective the choral episodes in Guillaume Tell remain.

As though the difficulty of the music were not challenge enough for any company thinking of performing Guillaume Tell, the opera also requires a large cast, not one member of which can get away with lacking the technical acumen demanded by the score. Rossini productions at Bad Wildbad have not always been distinguished by high-quality singing in smaller rôles, and this production of Guillaume Tell is also undermined by inconsistent casting. In the parts of Walter Furst and Melcthal, Arnold's father, Argentine bass Nahuel Di Pierro sings powerfully, his resonant voice lending Walter’s lines in the Act Two trio with Arnold and Tell, 'Il est donc vrai,' crucial dramatic substance. Rodolphe, the captain of Gessler's archers, is strenuously sung by tenor Giulio Pelligra, who is heard to even lesser advantage as Arnold in the alternate finale to Rossini’s three-act version of the opera that NAXOS provides as a supplement to the complete Bad Wildbad performance. Soprano Diana Mian, appearing solely as Mathilde in the alternate finale, sings ably, delivering the top line in ensemble expertly. The shepherd Leuthold and an unnamed hunter are portrayed demonstratively by bass Marco Filippo Romano, who appears as Tell in the supplemental music. Such are Rossini’s excesses in Guillaume Tell that even the fisherman Ruodi, like Iopas in Berlioz’s Les Troyens, has a beautifully decorative song taking him to top C: young tenor Artavazd Sargsyan sings 'Accours dans ma nacelle' handsomely, his upper register not ideally free but projected with intelligence and grace.

Tell’s son Jemmy is sung with contrasting sweetness and piquancy by soprano Tara Stafford, who off the stage is the wife of this performance’s Arnold. Jemmy’s air in Act Three, ‘Ah, que ton âme se rassure,’ has often fallen victim to the heinous cuts imposed on Guillaume Tell, but Ms. Stafford justifies its inclusion in this complete-and-then-some performance by singing it winningly. Tell’s wife Hedwige receives from mezzo-soprano Alessandra Volpe a portrayal of integrity and plush vocalism. In reality, her luxurious singing makes the character seem more important than her music suggests that Rossini thought her to be. Ms. Volpe’s voicing of Hedwige’s lines in the Act Four trio with her son and Mathilde, ‘Je rends à votre amour,’ is lovely, but her phrasing of the Prière (also in Act Four), 'Toi, qui du faible est l'espérance,' is stirring. She and Ms. Stafford make an appealing wife and son of whom any Tell would be both protective and proud.

As sung by Catania-born bass Raffaele Facciolà, Gesler is a genuinely nasty piece of work, a three-dimensional, troubled despot rather than a cardboard operatic villain. Throughout the performance, Mr. Facciolà’s vocalism is more assertive than attractive, but he acts with the voice emphatically. He is at his best in Act Three, his sinewy declamation of 'Que l'empire germain de votre obéissance' hurled out with defiance. In ‘Tant l’orgueil me lasse,’ the quartet with Rodolphe, Tell, and Jemmy, his voice palpitates with frustration and thwarted menace. Without a credibly threatening Gesler at the center of the drama, Guillaume Tell is at risk of seeming like a celebration without a cause: the defeat of Mr. Facciolà’s Gesler provides this performance with a legitimate reason for rejoicing.

The Hapsburg Princess Mathilde, the unlikely heroine of Guillaume Tell whose love for Arnold wins her support for Swiss liberation, is portrayed with aristocratic grace and vocal elegance by British soprano Judith Howarth. Having proved herself a bel canto stylist to the manner born with her inspired depiction of the title rôle in Minnesota Opera’s 2011 production of Donizetti’s Maria Stuarda, Ms. Howarth attacks Mathilde’s music unhesitatingly in this performance. Her musical portrait of the Princess combines qualities familiar from the recorded performances of her most acclaimed predecessors in the part: Carteri’s intuitive Romanticism, Cerquetti’s intensity, Caballé’s regal demeanor, Żylis-Gara’s security, Freni’s poise, and Studer’s fearlessness. Mathilde’s Act Two romance 'Sombre forêt, désert triste et sauvage' is one of Rossini’s most majestic arias for soprano, and Ms. Howarth sings it amazingly. No less beguiling is her singing in the duet with Arnold, 'Doux aveu,' another number in which Maestro Fogliani’s tempo jeopardizes the quality of the singers’ execution of the music. The air 'Pour notre amour plus d'espérance' in Act Three is shaped with passion by Ms. Howarth, and she fills her lines in the Act Four trio with Jemmy and Hedwige, 'Je rends à votre amour,' with lush, easily-produced tone. The coloratura demands of Mathilde are not as great as those of many of Rossini’s soprano parts, but Ms. Howarth leaves nothing to be desired with her deft handling of all aspects of Mathilde’s music and character.

It is inevitable that a performance featuring an Arnold capable of executing his voice-wrecking music impressively will be dominated by him. Indeed, merely surviving the rôle, the monstrous tessitura of which was famously spelled out by James Joyce, is admirable. American tenor Michael Spyres achieves far more than survival as recorded here. His voice is an astonishing instrument capable of brilliance in both the baritonal lower register demanded by much of Rossini’s writing for Andrea Nozzari and the stratospheric territory at and above C5 that is typical of rôles composed for Adolphe Nourrit, Rossini’s first Arnold, Gilbert Duprez, and Giovanni Battista Rubini. Mr. Spyres reaches the punishing high notes of his music with complete confidence, but the most enjoyable aspect of his work in this performance is his chameleonic dramatic versatility. His voicing of 'Le mien, dit-il! jamais, jamais le mien!' in Act One is rousingly masculine, and the indecision that he imparts in the duet with Tell, 'Ah! Mathilde, idole de mon Â​​me,' infuses Arnold with sympathetic credence. Mr. Spyres’s ardent singing in the Act Two duet with Mathilde, 'Doux aveu,' is ecstatic despite the battle he must fight to cope with Maestro Fogliani’s conducting, and his part in ‘Il est donc vrai,’ the trio with Walter and Tell, is authoritatively accomplished. Arnold’s air and cabaletta in Act Four are the pieces anxiously awaited by audiences fortunate enough to witness a performance of Guillaume Tell. A tenor’s stamina and technique are put to the test as nowhere else in opera in the air ‘Asile héréditaire’ and its cabaletta ‘Amis, amis, secondez ma vengeance,’ but Mr. Spyres, aided by the committed singing of his colleagues, makes the wait seem very brief indeed. The range and impact of Mr. Spyres’s upper register are hardly surprising: his E5—requested by the composer rather than an interpolation as has been asserted by some sources—in Polyeucte’s [a Duprez rôle] cabaletta ‘Oui, j’irai dans leurs temples’ in Opera Rara’s 2014 concert performance of Donizetti’s Les Martyrs electrified the London audience, and his Raoul in Meyerbeer’s Les Huguenots at Bard College in 2009 was marked by assured negotiation of the part’s troublesome tessitura. He does not make singing Act Four of Guillaume Tell sound easy, but the singer who does that cannot be human. Maestro Fogliani does not permit him to linger over his top Cs, but he ascends to them and to the climatic top D spectacularly. Not even the sensitive Nicolai Gedda affirmed as irrefutably as Mr. Spyres that Arnold is far more than a sequence of flashy high notes, however: the heart, not just the throat, aches for this thoughtful, deeply conflicted young firebrand.

Equaling a performance as commanding as Mr. Spyres’s is a fearsome proposition, but British bass-baritone Andrew Foster-Williams manages to do so with panache and bold, focused singing and thus restores the title character to the prominence that he deserves. Often a revelatory presence in Baroque repertory, Mr. Foster-Williams has amassed an impressively varied gallery of operatic portrayals that includes a detailed, surprisingly sympathetic Golaud in Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande and a mellifluous Balstrode in Britten’s Peter Grimes. His Tell in this performance is a tantalizing glimpse of what he is likely to achieve as he continues his journey into Verdi baritone repertory. In a sense, Tell might be considered one of the first great rôles in what is now regarded as Verdi’s style of composition for the baritone voice. Possessing elements of the histrionic power of Rigoletto, the dignity of Rodrigue [a rôle created by Jean-Baptiste Faure, who was also a celebrated Guillaume Tell], and the good humor of Falstaff, Tell was first sung by Henri-Bernard Dabadie, who was also Donizetti’s original Belcore in L’elisir d’amore. Gone are the bravura and patter of Figaro and Dandini: they are replaced by intense but always musical utterance of the kind familiarized by Verdi’s Macbeth, and in his fulfillment of the part’s demands Mr. Foster-Williams brings commanding charisma to a rôle that requires nothing less. In Tell’s Act One duet with Arnold, 'Ah! Mathilde, idole de mon Âme,' the reliability of Mr. Foster-Williams’s well-honed technique is immediately apparent, and his vocalism possesses equal rations of iron and velvet. The character’s singularity of purpose is meaningfully conveyed in Tell’s Act Two trio with Arnold and Walter, 'Il est donc vrai,’ the security of the singer’s voice evident in the incredible breath control on display in his generous phrasing. The pinnacle of Rossini’s music for Tell is the recitative 'Je te bénis' and air 'Sois immobile, et vers la terre incline au genou suppliant' in Act Three. How is it possible that this music was ever cut or that the composer could have sanctioned its excision? Musically and dramatically, ‘Sois immobile’ is worthy of comparison with Rigoletto’s monologues and Renato’s ‘Eri tu che macchiavi quell'anima in Un ballo in maschera, and Mr. Foster-Williams sings it accordingly. Tell is a stern, often unyielding character, but Mr. Foster-Williams establishes a core of humanity that spurs Tell’s actions. The rôle’s tessitura is higher than that of much of the music in which this exceptional artist has shone in past, but he has built the technique necessary to project the voice evenly throughout the range. Not all of Tell’s highest notes, cresting on G, are produced without effort, but Mr. Foster-Williams is a shrewd singer who puts fleeting moments of vocal stress to clever dramatic use. Most vitally, he is a Guillaume Tell who reminds the listener that the opera’s title is not Arnold.

There are enough shortcomings in this recording of Guillaume Tell to render this a somewhat disappointing release. With acclaimed recent performances both in the United States and in Europe and the opera being scheduled to return to the stage of the Metropolitan Opera in the 2016 – 2017 Season after an absence of eighty-five years, the time for reassessment of Guillaume Tell and its significance in Rossini’s career and the development of Nineteenth-Century opera on all sides of the Alps has come. It is a score that was dismissed as a bloated, rambling monstrosity by several generations of critics who likely never even heard it performed—not in anything resembling its original form, at any rate. Like the indomitable spirit of the nation in which it is set, Guillaume Tell is a work that is not easily tamed, one that damns modest efforts to failure. It is a Brobdingnagian work but a resplendent one, a fitting finale to the operatic career of one of the genre’s most original composers. This NAXOS recording ultimately falls short of the standard needed to fully do justice to the score. Would Rossini have minded? With singers of the calibre of Andrew Foster-Williams, Michael Spyres, and Judith Howarth performing as they do on this recording, Rossini would almost certainly have been delighted by this traversal of Guillaume Tell—yes, Maestro, all of it!

28 March 2015

CD REVIEW: Benjamin Britten & Franz Schubert – LIEDER (Robin Tritschler, tenor; Iain Burnside, piano; Wigmore Hall Live WHLive0071)

CD REVIEW: Benjamin Britten & Franz Schubert - LIEDER (Wigmore Hall Live WHLive0071)BENJAMIN BRITTEN (1913 – 1976): Sechs Hölderlin-Fragmente, Op. 61 and Folksong Settings and FRANZ SCHUBERT (1797 – 1828): LiederRobin Tritschler, tenor; Iain Burnside, piano [Recorded ‘live’ at Wigmore Hall, London, UK, on 11 January 2014; Wigmore Hall Live WHLive0071; 1 CD, 46:48; Available from Wigmore Hall, Amazon, iTunes (UK), jpc, Presto Classical, and major music retailers]

Even amidst the tradition-smashing endeavors of young musicians in Twenty-First-Century Classical Music, there are few things more enjoyable and rewarding than a successful recital or recording of Art Songs. Very sadly, the qualities that define such an undertaking—Art and Song—are too often missing from such undertakings. Almost anyone with a decent grasp of pitch and the ability to read words and music can perform a Schubert Lied on the most basic level, but only an artist with a direct connection to the Grand Tradition of Lieder singing can conjure a world into which an audience is lured for a song’s duration. In the midday recital at London’s Wigmore Hall on 11 January 2014, Irish tenor Robin Tritschler proved a recitalist whose marvelously beautiful voice is but one of many notable qualities that he brings to his performances of Art Song. The programme of songs by Benjamin Britten and Franz Schubert selected for this recital provided ideal territory for the singer’s dauntless excursion into the shadowy recesses of the human psyche. The performances on this disc, preserved in clear, ideally-balanced sound that betrays no indications of having been recorded in live performance aside from well-deserved applause, are perfectly-judged journeys in which the crystalline pulchritude of the vocalism bathes the psychological depths of the music in revealing light. Though many performances offer fleeting moments of musical and interpretive efficacy, few Lieder recitals genuinely merit being preserved for posterity. Robin Tritschler’s 2014 Wigmore Hall recital earned that distinction, and this disc earns a place among the most cherished Lieder recordings of great tenors past and present.

No matter the repertory, the presence of Iain Burnside at the keyboard endures musicality of the first order and the facilitation of a nurturing, genuinely collaborative environment for the singer. Inexplicably, the term accompanist has taken on a derogatory connotation, but Mr. Burnside epitomizes the deepest essence of the concept of accompaniment. Without question, there are pianists who merely play notes, but Mr. Burnside’s playing transcends even his confidently virtuosic executions of music of finger-numbing difficulty. He understands and conveys to the listener that accompanist is a designation that is won, not given solely because the pianist shares the stage with a singer. No, he must accompany the singer musically, emotionally, intellectually, and dramatically; accompany in the sense of being a participant rather than an observer. This Mr. Burnside achieves in every passage in which he partners Mr. Tritschler. Both as pianist and as collaborative artist, the immediacy of his playing of Britten’s and Schubert’s songs is exquisite.

Composed during the summer of 1958, the Opus 61 Sechs Hölderlin-Fragmente—settings of verses by German poet Friedrich Hölderlin (1770 – 1843)—followed cycles in French (Les Illuminations, Opus 18, with texts by Rimbaud) and Italian (Seven Sonnets of Michelangelo, Opus 22) and constitute Britten’s only song cycle in German. Introduced to Hölderlin’s poetry by Louis, Prince of Hesse and by Rhine, to whom he dedicated the Fragmente, Britten found in these texts sentiments that surely resonated with him and his partner, Sir Peter Pears, for whose voice the songs were crafted. Hölderlin’s simple, stark imagery and emotional desolation instigate contemplation of love and loss, themes that surely remained in Britten’s and Pears’s minds during the gestational period of the Hölderlin settings, only months after the untimely death of their friend and esteemed colleague, horn virtuoso Dennis Brain. It is no exaggeration to state that Mr. Tritschler rivals Mark Padmore as the finest interpreter of the Hölderlins yet recorded. He uses text at least as thoughtfully as Sir Peter Pears but with none of that gentleman’s mannerisms, and the voice is considerably more conventionally attractive. His singing of ‘Menschenbeifall’ alternates exultation with unease, his phrasing of the lines ‘Ach! der Menge gefällt, was auf den Marketplatz taugt, / Und es ehret der Knecht nur den Gewaltsamen’—‘Ah! the mob fancies what is on offer in the marketplace, / And the servile cherish none but the violent’—exhibiting an apt suggestion of frustration. Voicing Britten’s lines with impeccable rhythmic precision, Mr. Tritschler subtly contrasts the bleak disappointment of ‘Die Heimat’ with the irony of ‘Sokrates und Alcibiades,’ the latter song’s latent homoeroticism neither emphasized nor evaded. The closing line of ‘Die Jugend,’ ‘Im Arme der Götter wuchs ich groß’ (‘I grew up in the arms of gods’), receives from Mr. Tritschler and Mr. Burnside luminescent treatment. The impersonal influence of nature is keenly felt in their muted performance of ‘Hälfte des Lebens.’ Not even Pears brought as much quiet understanding to the opening lines of ‘Die Linien des Lebens,’ ‘Die Linien des Lebens sind verschieden, / Wie Wege sind, und wie der Berge Grenzen’ (‘The lines of lie are manifold, / As paths are, and the mountains’ borders’) as Mr. Tritschler reveals: certainly no other voice has sung the number more elegantly.

Britten’s folksong arrangements are some of his greatest gifts both to singers and to music itself. There has ever been a stupid tendency among ‘serious’ musicians to regard folksongs with bemused contempt despite the legions of masterworks in the core repertory that are inspired by—or directly quote from—folk tunes and the advocacy of esteemed composers like Britten, Dvořák, and Percy Grainger. These performances by Mr. Tritschler and Mr. Burnside course with uncomplicated feeling and gentle melancholy. Their serene traversal of ‘Oft in the stilly night’ is complemented by the exuberant charm of their account of ‘The Minstrel Boy.’ Mr. Tritschler’s voice shimmers like midwinter moonlight in ‘At the mid hour of night,’ and no two adjectives could better describe the quality of his singing than those that begin ‘Rich and rare were the gems she wore.’ Mr. Tritschler’s singing of ‘The last rose of summer’ is one of the most perfectly beautiful things one might ever hope to hear: projecting tones so that they spin hypnotically into the listener’s ear, he transforms this piece into a deeply moving paean for the little tragedies of everyday life.

The Lieder of Franz Schubert need neither introduction nor explanation. The famously introverted composer found in the Lied a medium through which emotions too personal for speech could be communicated in ways not only meaningful but universal. In this recital, Mr. Tritschler evinces profound connection with both music and text, his mercurial vocalism shaped by the effervescent nuances of the words. Opening his Schubert selections with Father Reinhard van Hoorickx’s 1959 arrangement from ‘Die Blume und der Quell,’ ‘O Quell, was strömst du rasch und wild’ (D874), the tenor’s singing and the pianist’s playing raptly evoke the sharply-drawn images of nature. Mr. Tritschler’s phrasing of ‘Im Frühling’ (D882) seems borrowed from the very essence of eternal renewal, and the almost childlike wonder of his account of ‘Im Freien’ (D880) is uniquely inviting. A gnawing sadness pervades this performance of ‘Der Wanderer an den Mond’ (D870), the song’s introspection finding an insightful outlet in Mr. Tritschler’s silver-hued singing. The spiritual breadth that he manages to convey without ever distorting a rhythm or sacrificing the poise of his vocal placement is uncanny. The yearning that he highlights among the sentiments of ‘Ständchen’ (D889) and ‘An Silvia’ (D891), respectively drawn from Shakespeare's Cymbeline and Two Gentlemen of Verora, is bizarrely ambivalent, in his delicate handling both unsettling and comforting. This gets at the heart of Schubert’s genius: individual tribulations are reflected in universal pain, and the singular eloquence of Schubert’s explication of this duality is both saddening and liberating. The artistic union of Schubert and Shakespeare is also the source of Mr. Tritschler’s encore. The narrative voice of his singing of ‘Trinklied’ (D888), its text adapted from Antony and Cleopatra, is more poet than publican, but it is difficult to imagine any listener not wanting to share a pint with such an enthralling musical storyteller.

It is easy to make the mistake in an Art Song recital of regarding the music as a holy relic that the audience can revere from afar but never approach, much less handle. Likewise, too many singers seemingly perceive Lieder as a sort of archaic language that must be translated into a less-intimidating vernacular for Twenty-First-Century listeners. In truth, song is in every heart. Robin Tritschler’s voice, Iain Burnside’s hands, and the music of Benjamin Britten and Franz Schubert are vessels in which our hearts’ songs are distilled. In this Wigmore Hall recital, singer and pianist lift the soul countless times in the course of forty-six minutes. There is no shortage of new Lieder recordings even in today’s erratic Classical Music industry, but this disc is something very special.