22 January 2018

PERSONAL PERSPECTIVES: Sandro Ivo Bartoli resurrects the forgotten piano music of Giacomo Puccini (Solaire Records SOL1007)

FROM STAGE TO SALON: Sandro Ivo Bartoli plays the complete piano works of Giacomo Puccini (Solaire Records SOL1007)GIACOMO PUCCINI (1858 – 1924) and CARLO CARIGNANI (1857 – 1919): Complete Piano Works and Selected Opera TranscriptionsSandro Ivo Bartoli, piano [Recorded in Steinway Haus Berlin, Berlin, Germany, 4 – 5 July 2017; Solaire Records SOL1007; 1 CD, ; Available from Solaire Records and major music retailers]

I do not deny that I often drown even my noblest intentions in deluges of words. The greatest danger of approaching the analysis of music with a literary mind is allowing the love of writing to overwhelm the necessity of being read. Too frequently, I cannot overcome the compulsion to write an Edward Everett oration when a Gettysburg Address with easily-extracted talking points would be preferred. It is a disease that resists therapy and is perhaps ultimately fatal to the integrity of an earnest crusade to restore to criticism its own kind of artistry.

Sandro Ivo Bartoli’s Solaire Records recital of music for solo piano by Giacomo Puccini, supplemented by Carlo Carignani’s arrangements of themes from Puccini’s operas, is a disc that inspires appreciation that must not be fed to the insatiable beast of verbosity. As in all of his recorded performances with which I am familiar, the technical skill that Bartoli brings to his playing is irreproachable: were there a need for such stunts, he could undoubtedly play the most difficult of Alexander Scriabin’s piano sonatas whilst blindfolded and subjected to all sorts of adverse conditions. Bartoli is not a well-designed automaton, however, and he does not play like one. Rather, his performances breathe. By the motions of his wrists, the music before him inhales and exhales, the notes and chords becoming atoms and molecules in the atmospheres that emanate from composers’ scores. Even if the music that he performs is sparse and atonal, his playing retains a pervasive aura of bel canto.

It became fashionable in the second half of the Twentieth Century and inexplicably remains a badge of honor in some musical circles in the Twenty-First Century to dismiss Puccini’s music as formulaic, undistinguished, and embarrassingly sentimental. Passages from virtually every score that Puccini produced can be cited in validation of these accusations, but it is not an honest operaphile who proclaims that every bar of Le nozze di Figaro, Tristan und Isolde, or Falstaff bears obvious evidence of genius.

In an effort at fairly assessing the merits of Puccini’s music, consider La bohème, a score labeled by some connoisseurs as unendurably saccharine. On stage and in studio, Mimì and Rodolfo are sometimes older than convention suggests that amorous Bohemians ought to be, sometimes fatter, sometimes older and fatter, and, among listeners who surrender their prejudices to the music, has a truly well-sung but zaftig Mimì ever prompted the notion that her death might have been affecting had binoculars been required to see her waistline from the first row of the stalls? There are combinations of emotional qualities in Puccini’s scores that refuse to be suppressed. Bad performances reveal the blemishes, to be sure, but performances like Bartoli offers on this disc celebrate the beauties of Puccini’s music with a blaze of passion that no pseudo-academic disapprobation can wholly extinguish.

Among the pieces included on this disc, only the first six are the work of Puccini in the sense that the composer himself was wholly responsible for their creation—and, in the cases of at least two of the pieces, that attribution is not universally accepted as factual. Possibly a study for the slow movement of an unfinished D-major string quartet that occupied Puccini in 1882, whilst he was studying composition under the tutelage of Antonio Bazzini, the Adagio in A major is a delightful discovery, its graceful melodic lines, eventually adapted to new surroundings in 1883 in both the Capriccio sinfonico and the opera Le Villi, bewitchingly extended by Bartoli’s phrasing. The limited but imaginative thematic development suggests that the music may well trace its genesis to the aborted string quartet, but Bartoli brings it to the piano with panache.

Composed in 1894, the Lento molto Piccolo Valzer eventually metamorphosed into Musetta’s aria ‘Quando m’en vo’ soletta per la via’ in Act Two of La bohème, its opening theme as familiar as the melodies of Verdi’s ‘La donna è mobile’ and Puccini’s later ‘Nessun dorma.’ Bartoli conveys the wistfulness of the tune more touchingly than almost any Musetta: without the subtext of the character’s toying with Alcindoro and Marcello, the melancholic core of the melody resounds. Bartoli plays without a trace of artifice, the sincerity of his performance heightening the piece’s expressivity. Similarly, Bartoli wields compelling—and fitting—energy in his playing of the Marcetta brillante Scossa Elettrica, commissioned in 1899 to celebrate the centenary of Alessandro Volta’s invention of the electric battery.

In Bartoli’s handling, both the ‘moderato’ and the ‘con affetto’ components of Puccini’s instructions for Foglio d’Album are realized with subtlety. This and the Piccolo Tango possess harmonic nuances of near-Impressionistic colorations, almost as though Puccini learned the art of composition for the piano from the young Debussy. The lack of autograph manuscripts has exposed these pieces to doubts about their origins, but Bartoli’s idiomatically persuasive performances of them silence any debat. Verification of their authorship may be difficult, but enjoying the pianist’s playing is easy. A mere sixteen bars in duration, the Calmo e molto lento Pezzo per pianoforte was written in 1916 in tribute to the appalling human toll of World War One, the effects of which reverberated through the Arts until the atrocities of the Second World War dominated cultural consciousness. Lovingly played here by Bartoli, Puccini’s piece is poignantly understated, imparting collective senses of loss and reflection. For sixteen bars, Puccini gave the piano the communicative power of Wilfred Owen’s poetry, and Bartoli’s interpretation of Pezzo per pianoforte conveys the full meaning of Owen’s declaration that, when writing of the horrors of war and human cruelty, ‘the Poetry is in the pity.’

An almost exact contemporary of Puccini, as well as a fellow native of Lucca and an accomplished musician in his own right, Carlo Carignani created arrangements for piano of excerpts from Puccini’s operas that divulge abundant musicality. Both of the pieces from Tosca included on this disc, the cantata ‘Sale, ascende l’uman cantico’ and Tosca’s aria ‘Vissi d’arte, vissi d’amore’ from Act Two, project the moods of the respective scenes in the opera. How much more effective many performances of Tosca would be were their leading ladies capable of sculpting the line as artfully as Bartoli does in his ‘singing’ of the aria! The Preludes to Act One of Le Villi and Act Three of Edgar were reimagined for the piano by Carignani and are delivered by Bartoli with complementary intelligence, the calibre of the former’s craftsmanship honored by the depth of the latter’s concentration.

The central episode in Il trittico, premièred at The Metropolitan Opera in 1918 with Geraldine Farrar as its titular postulant, Suor Angelica falls victim to particularly vehement scorn for its musical construction and its narrative of a woman who receives absolution after ending her own life upon learning of the death of the child from whom she was separated. In Bartoli’s performance of Carignani’s arrangement of the opera’s Intermezzo, one hears the devastated mother’s restlessness as she prepares the potion that will reunite her with her son, anticipating the elation of the meeting between parent and child. Music is often a realm of extremes in which middle ground can be difficult to find and even harder to occupy, and this year’s centennial of Il trittico’s world première is a suitable occasion for reminding listeners of the foolishness of slavishly replicating others’ preconceptions. Puccini unquestionably aimed for the tear ducts in Suor Angelica, but is the idea of feeling empathy for a grieving mother, albeit a fictional one, really so deserving of contempt? Transcending music, Bartoli’s performance of the opera’s Intermezzo is a timely lesson in compassion.

The principal subjects of Cio-Cio San’s aria ‘Un bel dì vedremo’ and the Coro a bocca chiusa (the Humming Chorus) from Act Two of Madama Butterfly are two of Puccini’s most widely-known melodies, and Carignani arranged them for piano with remarkable sensitivity. The ambiance of Puccini’s Nagasaki permeates Carignani’s work, and Bartoli’s finesse brings Cio-Cio San to life with moving immediacy. With his articulation of ‘Un bel dì vedremo,’ Bartoli evokes the simplicity of Margaret Sheridan, the heartbreak of Maria Callas, and the eloquence of Renata Scotto. In his playing of the Humming Chorus, Butterfly’s yearning for Pinkerton’s return surges in the music’s familiar strains. Before hearing this disc, I would never have anticipated one of the foremost interpreters of Cio-Cio San’s tragedy being a pianist.

As he was preparing to depart from New York City after attending performances of Manon Lescaut and Tosca at the Metropolitan Opera, Puccini and his wife bade farewell to their American hosts with gracious remarks that were preserved for posterity by Columbia Phonographic Company. Recorded on 21 February 1907, those few words provide today’s listeners’ sole opportunity to hear Puccini’s voice—until the release of this disc, that is. No words are spoken here, but Puccini speaks as clearly in the performances on this disc as he did in Columbia’s studio more than a century ago. With his playing, Sandro Ivo Bartoli translates Puccini’s discourse into language that all hearers can understand.

18 January 2018

CD REVIEW: Ludwig van Beethoven, Frédéric Chopin, & Franz Liszt — PIANO WORKS (Alexei Melnikov, piano; Acousence Classics ACO-CD 13217)

IN REVIEW: L. van Beethoven, F. Chopin, & F. Liszt - PIANO WORKS (Acousence Classics ACO-CD 13217)LUDWIG VAN BEETHOVEN (1770 – 1827), FRÉDÉRIC CHOPIN (1810 – 1849), FRANZ LISZT (1811 – 1886): Piano Works—Alexei Melnikov, piano [Recorded at Campus Fichtenhain, Krefeld-Fichtenhain, Germany, 1 – 3 March 2017; Acousence Classics ACO-CD 13217; 1 CD, 62:10; Available from Naxos Direct, Amazon (USA), iTunes, jpc (Germany), Presto Classical (UK), and major music retailers]

On 15 July 1909, the Leipzig-born pianist Wilhelm Backhaus entered the fledgling HWV studio, then only seventeen months along in its life in the wake of its formation as a branch of the Gramophone Company, and recorded a six-minute abridgment of Edvard Grieg’s Opus 16 Piano Concerto in A minor. Twenty-five years old at the time, Backhaus was already well advanced in a career that would endure war, political upheaval, and unfortunate associations. Though hardly the first recording of music for piano and amounting to nothing more than a small fragment of one of the cornerstones of the piano repertory, those six minutes of Grieg were revolutionary. With that recording, an acknowledged master of the instrument recognized and validated the legitimacy of the art of recording piano music. It was an auspicious development in the relationship between music and technology, a relationship that in the subsequent century has evolved in ways that even a visionary like Backhaus could not have foreseen.

Whether the medium is acetate, vinyl, magnetic tape, plastic, or digital coding, the objective of recording music for piano has remained constant: by faithfully reproducing the combinations of sounds that a musician cajoles from the piano, a recording preserves an unique performance via which the distances that separate composer, performer, and listener are closed. In this sense of sharing the emotional proximity between music and musician with the listener, Alexei Melnikov’s Acousence Records recital of music for piano by Beethoven, Chopin, and Liszt is a noteworthy success. What makes this disc so special, however, is the opportunity that it affords the hearer to experience the artistic coming of age of a pianist with traits much like those that Backhaus brought to the HMV studio in 1909. Insightful, intelligent, adventurous, and abidingly musical, Melnikov is a young artist who life and training span two millennia but whose passion for the communicative power of music is shown by this disc to be of timeless profundity.

A prize winner in a number of prestigious international competitions, native Muscovite Melnikov was born in 1990, beginning his journey at a time of extraordinary change in his homeland. Especially in an era in which any child with a keyboard, a means of recording video, and an internet connection can aspire to being the next online sensation, he is now hardly a novice, but neither the extensiveness of a musician’s experience nor his age constitutes maturity. In this instance, it is his playing—recorded by Acousence in an appealingly intimate acoustic ambiance that places the listener at the pianist’s side, sensing the movement of his fingers and wrists and the vibrations of the strings before him—that divulges the state of Melnikov’s artistic cultivation. The hallmarks of nationalistic schools of pianism are now only memories that can be revisited in recordings from prior generations, but there are in Melnikov’s playing on this disc reminiscences of the style of his countryman Sviatoslav Richter, not least in the obvious commitment to approaching music without agenda or artifice. It is virtually impossible to wholly avoid egotism in achieving the level of technical mastery necessary to focus on interpreting complex pieces rather than getting the notes right, but Melnikov channels the drive to perform at his best into a conscious desire to be the catalyst that facilitates listeners’ reactions to composers’ musical narratives. The three pieces selected for this disc are very different in substance and structure but strikingly similar in the immediacy of their emotional storytelling, and it is as a teller of these stories that Melnikov seizes the imagination.

Composed during the first years of the Nineteenth Century, a period of great personal struggle during which the composer was compelled to confront his increasing deafness, Ludwig van Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 23 in F minor (Opus 57)—not given its traditional appellation of Appassionata until a decade after the composer’s death—continues after more than two hundred years to be regarded as one of the most difficult sonatas in the standard repertory. Like much of Beethoven’s music, the Appassionata is susceptible to being made ridiculous by pianists who overdo the histrionics in wrongheaded pursuits of metaphysical context for the Sonata. The music is brooding and bleak, but it is music, not a series of aural hieroglyphics awaiting decoding. Melnikov executes the score without affectation, focusing on what exists in the music rather than on its Existential implications.

Unsurprisingly, the writing in octaves that is a vital component of Beethoven’s presentation of thematic material in the Sonata’s opening Allegro assai movement makes no demands to which Melnikov’s technique is not equal, and the fluidity of his delivery is impressive. The music’s inherent instability, conveyed by churning arpeggios, is meaningfully imparted without being unduly emphasized. The beautifully simple principal subject of the Andante con moto movement is phrased with understated eloquence that persists in Melnikov’s handling of the variations. It is all too easy for pianists to fall into the trap of encumbering this music with saccharine emoting, but the young pianist here circumvents this obstacle by playing straightforwardly and allowing the connection between music and listener to guide his interpretation. Melnikov’s playing of the Allegro ma non troppo – Presto finale is admirably accurate, his grasps on the movement’s rhythmic transitions and the intricacies of the Sonata’s expansive coda unfaltering. Beethoven has long been cited, perhaps apocryphally, as having asserted that playing without passion is far more damaging to music than playing wrong notes. The playing of some very famous pianists has substantiated the sagacity of Beethoven’s alleged observation, but Melnikov’s performance of the Appassionata is one of the finest recorded examples of how strikingly modern the Sonata can sound when performed with both passion and precision.

It is not necessary to attempt to count its appearances on every aural medium in order to discern that Frédéric Chopin’s Nocturne in C minor (Opus 48, No. 1) has amassed a discography more extensive than that of almost any other piece in two-and-a-half centuries of piano literature. In the company of recordings by virtually every noteworthy pianist of the past hundred years, it is now tremendously difficult for any artist to bring originality to a recorded performance of the Nocturne without also approaching it with idiosyncrasy that is a disservice to both Chopin and the listener. Remarkably, Melnikov plays the Nocturne with an abiding sense of individuality that remains wholly faithful to the score. As in an aria by Bellini, whose work Chopin knew and admired, the melodic line is of paramount importance, and the pianist negotiates the interplay of the primary and secondary subjects, as well as the shift from Lento to Poco più lento, with resourcefulness that intensifies rather than diluting the composer’s distinctive expressivity.

Almost since the piece first appeared in print in 1854, Franz Liszt’s mammoth Piano Sonata in B minor (S.178) has confounded pianists, audiences, and musicologists. Essentially through-composed in the manner of an expansive, half-hour tone poem for solo piano, the Sonata’s construction has ignited debates about Liszt’s intentions, namely whether the piece was conceived as a single movement or should be viewed as a progression of interconnected movements played without pause. With his performance of the Sonata on this disc, Melnikov espouses neither theory, preferring to concentrate on surmounting the score’s many difficulties and allowing the listener to seek clues within the music.

The naturalness of the recorded sound is a great boon to Melnikov’s performance of the Liszt Sonata, enabling the listener to fully appreciate the contrasting delicacy and power of the pianist’s control of the clarion-toned Shigeru Kawai instrument at his disposal. The full emotional effect of the brief Lento assai introduction is realized in Melnikov’s performance, and the piano’s keys gallop beneath his fingers in his playing of the Sonata’s Allegro energico episode. The pomposity in this reading of the Grandioso section is Liszt’s, not Melnikov’s, and the conversational directness of the pianist’s reading of the Recitativo passages initiates a dialogue among the Sonata’s competing thematic fragments.

The pulse of bel canto beats unmistakably in this maneuvering of the Andante sostenuto heart of the Sonata, and the significance of the return to Allegro energico is spotlit by the drive with which it is accomplished. Melnikov observes Liszt’s cantando espressivo marking with sophistication matched by the zeal of his launching of the following Stretta quasi presto. The course from Presto to Prestissimo is traced with dynamism that lends the recurrence of the Andante sostenuto heightened psychological force. From this apex, the path to the Sonata’s resolution is carved through Allegro moderato and Lento assai terrain, and the descent is effectuated in this performance with athletic agility. The clarity of Melnikov’s navigation of Liszt’s contrapuntal writing reveals the composer’s prowess as a steward of long-established musical forms. It is not without justification that the Liszt Sonata is a piece that pianists add to their repertoires only after acute study. Melnikov’s study yields a rousing, revelatory account of the Sonata—rousing in its traversal of Liszt’s craggy musical topography and revelatory in its manifestation of its player’s abilities.

Comparisons of one pianist’s performances with those of other pianists are often as pointless as they are inevitable, but they are sometimes useful in providing a benchmark against which a young artist’s work can be measured. In the context of Melnikov’s playing on this disc, the most apt comparison is with Edith Farnadi, whose interpretations of music by Beethoven, Chopin, and Liszt, exemplified by her 1954 Westminster recording of the Liszt Sonata, possessed an analogous balance between mood and momentum. At least since the 1960 release of Johnny Tillotson’s version of the pop song with the title, the notion of ‘poetry in motion’ has been a cliché, but it is an apposite description of Farnadi’s work. As he plays Beethoven’s Appassionata, one of Chopin’s most affecting Nocturnes, and Liszt’s B-minor Sonata on this disc, his commercial recording début, Alexei Melnikov’s artistry also embodies kinetic lyricism. Above all, the performances on this disc beget an enticing question: what comes next for this erudite pianist?

14 January 2018

RECORDING OF THE MONTH | January 2018: DEBUT – Music for Horn (Ben Goldscheider, horn; Daniel Hill, piano; Willowhayne Records WHR045CD)

RECORDING OF THE MONTH | January 2018: DEBUT - Music for Horn (Willowhayne Records WHR045CD)YORK BOWEN (1884 – 1961), VOLKER DAVID KIRCHNER (born 1942), NIKOLAUS VON KRUFFT (1779 – 1818), ESA-PEKKA SALONEN (born 1958), ROBERT SCHUMANN (1810 – 1856), and JÖRG WIDMANN (born 1973): Debut – Music for HornBen Goldscheider, horn; Daniel Hill, piano [Recorded in Turner Sims Concert Hall, Southampton, UK, 22 – 24 September 2017; Willowhayne Records WHR045CD; 1 CD, 74:36; Available from Willowhayne Records, Presto Classical (UK), and major music retailers]

Six decades after his death, one man’s name continues to reverberate in the affections of English-speaking people who appreciate the complex art of horn playing: Dennis Brain. Sufficiently esteemed beyond the linguistic and musical diasporas of Britain to have inspired Francis Poulenc to compose his moving Elégie for horn and piano on the day after the musician’s untimely death in a motorway crash, Brain came in his brief life to dominate public awareness of his instrument to a degree that perhaps no other Twentieth-Century musician managed to do. A virtuoso of both technique and style, Brain displayed a remarkable understanding of the evolution of writing for the horn, including in his repertoire music ranging from Eighteenth-Century concerti by Joseph Haydn and Mozart to then-new pieces created for him by his contemporaries. The world’s orchestras are continually populated with capable horn players, but lamentations for the lack of musicians of Brain’s caliber among today’s horn sections are misleading. In truth, like singers of the stature of Kirsten Flagstad and Maria Callas, a horn virtuoso of Brain’s technical and interpretive abilities is ever exceedingly rare. The emergence of Hertfordshire-born horn virtuoso Ben Goldscheider is therefore all the more exciting. A musician whose credentials belie his youth, Goldscheider proclaims with this impressively-engineered, absorbing Willowhayne Records release that he is poised to honor Brain’s legacy with his own once-in-a-generation artistry.

Ideally, a musician’s début recording should provide the listener with introductions not only to the player’s technique but, more importantly, to his artistic personality, as well. Any young musician given an opportunity to make a recording must be presumed to have achieved a respectable level of technical proficiency, but conservatories regularly produce phalanxes of able technicians. Beyond satisfying the listener’s curiosity about the player’s mastery of his instrument, the question that a début recording should answer is this: what makes this musician unique? As an exhibition of the singular qualities that set him apart from his colleagues, this disc is especially valuable, but Ben Goldscheider’s Debut is equally enjoyable as a recital of astutely-chosen pieces that survey the development of writing for the horn during the past two centuries. Crucially, Goldscheider approaches each work on its own terms, consistent in his command of the horn’s mechanics but also splendidly attentive to the ever-adapting styles of the music.

The Air for solo horn of German clarinetist, conductor, and composer Jörg Widmann is a logical starting point for the young musician’s exploration of his instrument’s and his own capacities for expression. Here and in all of the selections on the disc, his management of intonation and dynamics is impeccable, and the evenness of tone that he produces is indicative of superb breath control. Beauty is not always a trait that can be cited in assessments of brass playing, but the singing quality that Goldscheider achieves in his shaping of the lyrical lines of Widmann’s music is truly beautiful. A horn’s valves make smooth transitions among intervals reliant upon the player’s finesse, and Goldscheider impresses with extended spans of legato.

A contemporary of Beethoven, Viennese composer Nikolaus von Krufft was also a cofounder of the prestigious Wiener Allgemeine musikalische Zeitung and an early champion of German Lied whose publication of a collection of finely-crafted songs in 1798 paved the way for Schubert and subsequent composers of Lieder. There are Lied-like episodes worthy of Schubert’s melodic prodigality in von Krufft’s skillfully-written Sonata for piano and horn in E major, in his performance of which Goldscheider is joined by pianist Daniel Hill. The collaboration between Goldscheider and Hill is indeed like that of a Lieder singer and accompanist, their playing following not only the dictates of the music but also the nuances of one another’s phrasing. In the opening Allegro moderato movement, reminiscent of Antonio Salieri’s similarly-conceived music for wind instruments, hornist and pianist share thematic material like voices in a Monteverdi madrigal, sustaining an elegant flow of melody. The central Andante espressivo is pensive without being melancholic, and Goldscheider interweaves his tones with the piano’s textures to conjure an atmosphere of Arcadian serenity. There are hints of Mendelssohn in the Moderato Rondo alla polacca that concludes the Sonata, hints that Goldscheider amplifies by playing with an effervescence that inspires the wish that Schubert might have written the obbligato in his Lied ‘Der Hirt auf dem Felsen’ for horn rather than for clarinet.

A piece that contrasts markedly with von Krufft’s Sonata, Robert Schumann’s Opus 70 Adagio and Allegro for horn and piano harkens back in spirit if not in actual structure to Johann Sebastian Bach’s organ music. The introductory Adagio discloses an obvious kinship with the slow movements of Schumann’s string quartets and exquisite Opus 44 piano quintet. Hill’s performance displays an admirable understanding of the composer’s intricate writing for the instrument, and Goldscheider plays with a quintessentially Romantic suggestion of yearning, mining the emotional lodes of Schumann’s harmonic progressions. The energetic pulse of the Allegro courses through both musicians’ playing. Schumann’s chamber music is rarely genuinely extroverted, but Goldscheider and Hill unearth the subtle smiles in the Allegro and translate them into alluring sounds.

Native Londoner York Bowen was renowned as both a violist and a horn player, so it is not surprising that his Opus 101 Sonata for horn and piano in E♭ major shows evidence of great affinity for composing for the horn. Even more so than in Schumann’s Sonata, horn and piano—and their players—are engaged in an eloquent, sometimes impassioned conversation. Though he was a contemporary of the leading exponents of the avant garde in British music during the first half of the Twentieth Century, Bowen’s compositional idiom was prevailingly Romantic, allying him more with Elgar than with Britten in his writing for the horn. This might have been perceived as a liability during the course of Bowen’s career, but it is a definite virtue in the context of his Opus 101 Sonata, composed in 1937. There is a pervasive, very British decorum in the Moderato espressivo movement that receives wonderfully gracious handling from Goldscheider and Hill, and the Poco lento maestoso that follows is played with sensitivity that never devolves into sentimentality. As in the final movement of the Schumann Sonata, Goldscheider and Hill bring to their performance of the Allegro con spirito in Bowen’s Sonata a tremendous emission of musical electricity, illuminating the savvy of the composer’s fusing of the horn’s and piano’s timbres. Perhaps the advocacy of a recorded performance as affecting as this one will propel the Sonata along the path to the greater recognition that it so deserves.

Building upon the tradition of music for horn and piano furthered by von Krufft’s and Schumann’s works, German composer Volker David Kirchner’s Tre poemi are evocative, challenging pieces that polish vastly different facets of Goldscheider’s musical persona. The shadows that lurk in ‘Lamento’ are dispelled by the purity of his pitch, the music’s straightforward emotion enhanced by the complete absence of artifice with which both Goldscheider and Hill deliver it. The joviality of ‘Danza’ is guarded, almost like an anxious breeze before a hurricane, but the musicians transport the listener to an uncomplicated celebration in a village town hall. ‘La Gondola funebre’ churns with the relentless motion of water, its mood more one of resignation than of despair. Hill’s playing is hypnotic, luring the listener into the recesses of the music and forcing confrontation with the horn, which seems to emerge from some enigmatic place deep within the harmonies. As Goldscheider plays, it is as though in his tones one is eavesdropping on one’s own thoughts.

Renowned in many musical circles more for his conducting than for his composing, Finn Esa-Pekka Salonen is without question one of the most imaginative musicians in recent memory. His compositional style is difficult to define within the boundaries of tradition parameters, but a compelling intensity often takes root and blossoms organically in his music. This is certainly true of his Concert Étude for solo horn. Its title notwithstanding, the Étude is anything but academic. It is undeniably a learned piece, but its wisdom is personal, not pedantic. The piece demands concentration and rhythmic precision that Goldscheider supplies, but he does not play with a student’s reticence. The years of life to his credit may be few, but the maturity of his performance of Salonen’s Étude is unmistakable. It is difficult music that is here executed with technique and expressivity in optimal equilibrium. Journalists speak of the question behind the question: Goldscheider reaches the music beyond the notes.

Debut is a deceptive disc. During its seventy-five minutes, it is possible to believe that playing the horn is a task at which anyone with good lungs and a bit of patience might succeed. Were it solely a task, perhaps more people could succeed at it, but even the casual music lover knows that more unfortunate Leonores than can be counted have suffered their performances of the formidable ‘Abscheulicher! Wo eilst du hin?’ being marred by poor horn playing and that many traversals of Mahler’s Second Symphony have sunk under the weight of horns’ faltering intonation. The physics of blowing into a twisted tube of metal provides the sound, but it is artistry that makes it music. Debut answers the necessary question about what separates Ben Goldscheider from the ranks of well-qualified horn players. He is a young man with a timeless gift. In his hands, the horn is not an instrument but a conduit for making emotions audible.

13 January 2018

PERFORMANCE REVIEW: Gioachino Rossini — IL BARBIERE DI SIVIGLIA (D. Pershall, C. Hall, A. Owens, T. Simpson, D. Hartmann, S. Foley Davis, R. Hill, J. Kato, C. Blackburn; Greensboro Opera, 12 January 2018)

IN PERFORMANCE: Conductor JOEL REVZEN leads the cast of Greensboro Opera's production of Gioachino Rossini's IL BARBIERE IN SIVIGLIA in rehearsal, January 2018 [Photo by Star Path Images, © by Greensboro Opera]GIOACHINO ROSSINI (1792 – 1868): Il barbiere di Siviglia, ossia L’inutile precauzioneDavid Pershall (Figaro), Cecelia Hall (Rosina), Andrew Owens (Il conte d’Almaviva), Tyler Simpson (Don Basilio), Donald Hartmann (Dottor Bartolo), Stephanie Foley Davis (Berta), Ryan Hill (Fiorello), Jacob Kato (Un sergente), Christian Blackburn (Un notaro); Greensboro Opera Chorus and Orchestra; Joel Revzen, conductor [David Holley, Producer and Stage Director; James Bumgardner, Chorus Master; Jeff Neubauer, Lighting Designer; Greensboro Opera, UNCG Auditorium, Greensboro, North Carolina, USA; Friday, 12 January 2018]

George Bernard Shaw may never have actually said that youth is wasted on the young, at least not with those exact words, but the sentiment is very true to Shaw’s guardedly cynical world view. Could even the thorny Dubliner have thought that the marvels of youth were wasted on the young Gioachino Rossini? Fate dealt the prodigy of Pesaro a most ingenious paradox from the start, decreeing that he would be born on 29 February 1792, and, while his crib may not have been padded with music paper as Mozart’s must have been, the lad squandered no time in steadying his artistic gait. Rossini already had no fewer than sixteen operas, not all of them successful, under his belt when his iconic melodramma giocoso Il barbiere di Siviglia was first performed in Rome on 20 February 1816, nine days before his twenty-fourth birthday. Utilizing Cesare Sterbini’s enchantingly witty adaptation of Pierre-Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais’s Le Barbier de Séville ou la Précaution inutile, the young Rossini’s opera fell victim to the Roman audience’s lingering affection for Giovanni Paisiello’s 1782 setting of Il barbiere di Siviglia, a now-neglected score that in 1816 was still performed frequently throughout Italy. Vindication of Rossini’s musical cunning was not long in coming, however, establishing within a decade that Beethoven was right when he predicted that the popularity of Rossini’s Barbiere di Siviglia would persist as long as Italian opera continued to be performed.

The universal resonance of Beaumarchais’s story, the timeless cleverness of Sterbini’s words, and the perennial charm of Rossini’s score make staging Il barbiere di Siviglia an easy decision for opera companies large and small, but few companies present the work with the boundless imagination, musicality, and sheer fun that were the hallmarks of Greensboro Opera’s production. Since taking the helm as the company’s Artistic Director in June 2013, David Holley has steered Greensboro Opera towards markedly heightened artistic integrity and hard-won financial security. Both by bringing the 2015 convention of the National Opera Association to Greensboro and by casting Greensboro Opera’s productions with singers with wide-ranging credentials, Holley has increased Greensboro’s stature as a noteworthy operatic destination. This production of Il barbiere di Siviglia, produced and directed by Holley, embodied the rejuvenated company’s mission of making opera on a world-class level accessible to all residents of central North Carolina.

Using eye-pleasing scenery by Peter Dean Beck and costumes by Susan Memmott Allred, on loan from Utah Opera, Holley’s production created on the stage of UNCG Auditorium a Barbiere di Siviglia that was at once gratifyingly familiar and rousingly novel. Barbiere di Siviglia is a piece that many directors immerse in deluges of stock gestures and purposeless foolishness. A singer himself, Holley is sensitive to the physical demands of singing and supervised a staging of Rossini’s fast-paced musical gambol in which every movement was inspired by music and text. Too often, productions of Il barbiere di Siviglia and the singers who populate them seem awkward because they attempt to make the opera funny. The comedy exists in the score and libretto: a production’s success depends upon finding, not inventing it. Aided by the expert guidance of stage manager Shelby Robertson and assistant stage managers Caroline Stamm and Abigail Hart, the singers assembled by Holley exhibited natural comedic timing, the thoughtful illumination of their antics by Jeff Neubauer’s lighting designs ensuring that the audience’s attention was always focused on the nucleus of the action. With all participants in the production collaborating to realize Holley’s vision with complete conviction, the true focus was on Rossini—precisely where it should be in any performance of Il barbiere di Siviglia.

IN PERFORMANCE: baritones DAVID PERSHALL as Figaro (left) and RYAN HILL as Fiorello (right) in Greensboro Opera's production of Gioachino Rossini's IL BARBIERE DI SIVIGLIA, January 2018 [Photo by Star Path Images, © by Greensboro Opera]Factotum della città: baritones David Pershall as Figaro (left) and Ryan Hill as Fiorello (right) in Greensboro Opera’s production of Gioachino Rossini’s Il barbiere di Siviglia, January 2018
[Photo by Star Path Images, © by Greensboro Opera]

That what is now universally recognized as Il barbiere di Siviglia’s overture is one of the most familiar pieces of Classical Music would not surprise Rossini, who was fond enough of it—and was sufficiently idle—to have previously used it to open both Aureliano in Palmira and Elisabetta, regina d’Inghilterra, a pair of his serious operas. The eventual popularity of its third companion, with the comedic tone of which it fits handily despite sharing no thematic material with the balance of the score, ensured that Barbiere was its final destination. Energized by conductor Joel Revzen’s nimble negotiations of the music’s abrupt changes of pace and mood, the Greensboro Opera Orchestra’s playing of the spry Sinfonia set the tone for an evening of well-rehearsed and high-spirited musical merrymaking.

Throughout the performance, Revzen adopted tempi that kept the show moving without bullying the singers. Perhaps the greatest challenge of Barbiere for conductors and directors is the disproportionate duration of Act One, but Revzen and Holley ensured that members of the Greensboro audience were not glancing at their watches and wondering how many more bars would whizz past before the interval. Accompanied by Revzen, the secco recitatives churned with the excitement of feisty Spaniards consumed by amorous intrigue. The Temporale in Act Two, enacted by Holley with a welcome avoidance of nonsensical stage business, had the effect of a discharge of the dramatic electricity that crackled through the preceding scene. Occasionally, Revzen’s conducting lost momentum, most noticeably in solo numbers, and there were sporadic mishaps in the orchestra, none of which upset the overall musical equilibrium of the performance. Under the direction of chorus master James Bumgardner, the twelve gentlemen of the Barbiere chorus—Christian Blackburn, Ian DeSmit, John Huff, Lucas Johnston, Jacob Kato, Brian Kilpatrick, Mark Loy, Wesley McLeary-Small, Wendell Putney, Ben Ramsey, D’Andre Wright, and John Warrick—both sang and acted their parts to perfection, portraying Conte Almaviva’s band of hired musicians and the too-eager recruits of Seville’s constabulary with gusto that matched the orchestra’s playing. Like their colleagues behind the scenes, orchestra, chorus, and conductor gave of their best in service to Rossini.

IN PERFORMANCE: tenor ANDREW OWENS as Conte Almaviva (left) and mezzo-soprano CECELIA HALL as Rosina (right) in Greensboro Opera's production of Gioachino Rossini's IL BARBIERE DI SIVIGLIA, January 2018 [Photo by Star Path Images, © by Greensboro Opera]Il conte e la sua Rosina: tenor Andrew Owens as Conte Almaviva (left) and mezzo-soprano Cecelia Hall as Rosina (right) in Greensboro Opera’s production of Gioachino Rossini’s Il barbiere di Siviglia, January 2018
[Photo by Star Path Images, © by Greensboro Opera]

With music like Rossini’s to sing, even small rôles in Barbiere di Siviglia need large personalities with vocal talents to match, and in Greensboro Opera’s performance they had them. Supplementing their choral duties, Kato and Blackburn were valuable assets to the performance as the police sergeant dispatched to investigate the cause of the tumult chez Bartolo in the Act One finale and the notary summoned to formalize Bartolo’s union with Rosina in Act Two. Baritone Ryan Hill was an unusually sonorous Fiorello, launching the opera’s opening scene with a handsomely-voiced ‘Piano, pianissimo, senza parlar.’

In too many performances of Barbiere, the ladies who portray Bartolo’s housekeeper Berta look and sound as though they may have studied the rôle under the tutelage of Rossini himself. A particular joy of Greensboro Opera’s Barbiere was the casting of mezzo-soprano Stephanie Foley Davis as a Berta who sang powerfully in every scene in which she appeared without prompting fears that she would need to be defibrillated at the end of every phrase like a broken-down bel canto incarnation of Offenbach’s Olympia. A dramatic whirlwind in the Act One finale, Foley Davis delivered a wonderful account of Berta’s Act Two arietta ‘Il vecchiotto cerca moglie,’ rising to top A with ease. Ideally, a Berta should sound as though she might be a capable Rosina: Foley Davis would undoubtedly be considerably more than capable and was a magnificent Berta.

IN PERFORMANCE: Bass-baritones DONALD HARTMANN as Bartolo (left) and TYLER SIMPSON as Basilio (right) in Greensboro Opera's production of Gioachino Rossini's IL BARBIERE DI SIVIGLIA, January 2018 [Photo by Star Path Images, © by Greensboro Opera]La calunnia è un venticello: bass-baritones Donald Hartmann as Bartolo (left) and Tyler Simpson as Basilio (right) in Greensboro Opera’s production of Gioachino Rossini’s Il barbiere di Siviglia, January 2018
[Photo by Star Path Images, © by Greensboro Opera]

Following the trend started by Berta, it is apparent in many productions of Barbiere that Don Basilio has devoted many years to his parochial pursuits, with the vocal attrition to prove it. Rossini’s music for the rôle indicates that he expected Basilio to at least temporarily wield virility potent enough to make his conspiratorial machinations believably threatening. Basilio need not be genuinely menacing to make his mark, but there was a hint of sadism at the core of bass-baritone Tyler Simpson’s interpretation of the part that lent the not-so-holy man’s treachery atypical forcefulness. In this performance, Basilio’s encounter with Bartolo in Act One eerily foreshadowed Filippo’s fateful sparring with the Grand Inquisitor in Verdi‘s Don Carlo: laughter still reigned here, but the effect of casting a young, clarion-toned singer as Basilio was palpable. Expectedly, Simpson sang Basilio’s Act One aria ‘La calunnia è un venticello’ with galvanizing persuasiveness and vocal assurance, firing the repetitions of ‘colpo di cannone’ into the auditorium with Scarpia-like glee. Arriving for Rosina’s singing lesson in Act Two to the unexpected news of his replacement and dire illness, Simpson imparted Basilio’s bewilderment with a credibility that only an intelligent singer can achieve. Astutely-honed stagecraft shone in Simpson’s every note, word, and motion, especially in ensembles, and his vocalism was unfailingly secure and stimulating.

IN PERFORMANCE: bass-baritone DONALD HARTMANN as Bartolo in Greensboro Opera's production of Gioachino Rossini's IL BARBIERE DI SIVIGLIA, January 2018 [Photo by Star Path Images, © by Greensboro Opera]A un dottor della mia sorte: bass-baritone Donald Hartmann as Bartolo in Greensboro Opera’s production of Gioachino Rossini’s Il barbiere di Siviglia, January 2018
[Photo by Star Path Images, © by Greensboro Opera]

Every conservatory should offer mandatory courses designed to foster comprehension amongst prospective singers that comedy and stupidity are vastly different concepts. Rossini and Sterbini obviously intended Barbiere to be funny, but not even at its zaniest is the opera ever stupid. In this performance, that course was taught by bass-baritone Donald Hartmann, whose characterization of the vain, blustering Dottor Bartolo was hilarious because there were glimmers of vulnerability beneath the gaudy veneer of self-congratulatory smugness and implacability—and the wig that was surely borrowed from the estate of Georg Friedrich Händel. As a potential consort for Rosina, Hartmann’s Bartolo was amusingly ridiculous, but as a man of a certain age whose romantic possibilities are decidedly limited his desperation was deeper than mere farce. In the Act One scene with Basilio, Hartmann was transformed from a bumbling grouch into a man with victory in sight as Basilio shared his plan to disgrace Conte Almaviva. The aria ‘A un dottor della mia sorte’ was sung with total mastery of its tricky phrasing and patter, and Hartmann’s Bartolo was the epitome of exasperated indignation in the madcap Act One finale. Catapulting into Act Two with a dejectedly ironic but never idiotic ‘Ma vedi il mio destino,’ this Bartolo exuded ennui during Rosina’s singing lesson but dearly relished showing off his own musical pedigree—in the course of which, as Shakespeare put it, a few strays clearly got over the wall—in the mock-archaic arietta ‘Quando mi sei vicina, amabile Rosina.’ Touchingly, he wistfully gazed after the heartbroken Rosina as the Temporale began, then believing her swain Lindoro’s intentions to be impure, suddenly sensitive to the sting of his dishonesty. Underestimating Rosina’s resilience and thwarted at every turn by her scheming with Figaro and the disguised Conte, Hartmann’s Bartolo accepted defeat with self-preserving affability. As ever, Hartmann deployed the sort of imposingly percussive singing that is precisely right for the music. He can probably sing Bartolo in his sleep, but this performance was so engaging that he might have been performing the rôle for the first time, Rossini’s music and Sterbini’s words sounding newly-minted.

IN PERFORMANCE: tenor ANDREW OWENS as Conte Almaviva (left) and mezzo-soprano CECELIA HALL as Rosina (right) in Greensboro Opera's production of Gioachino Rossini's IL BARBIERE DI SIVIGLIA, January 2018 [Photo by Star Path Images, © by Greensboro Opera]Un nobile soldato e la sua signora: tenor Andrew Owens as Conte Almaviva (left) and mezzo-soprano Cecelia Hall as Rosina (right) in Greensboro Opera’s production of Gioachino Rossini’s Il barbiere di Siviglia, January 2018
[Photo by Star Path Images, © by Greensboro Opera]

Returning to Greensboro to portray the lovesick Conte Almaviva, tenor Andrew Owens repeated the triumph of his portrayal of Don Ramiro in Greensboro Opera’s 2015 production of La Cenerentola, again confirming the validity of his Rossinian credentials with singing of seemingly effortless virtuosity. From his first entrance, Owens’s Conte radiated the confidence of an aristocrat tempered by the anxiety of a young man still finding his footing as a lover. Owens’s tastefully-ornamented account of the cavatina ‘Ecco ridete in cielo spunta la bella aurora’ seemed marginally cautious, but his ascents to the top As and B in bravura flourishes were flawless. It was a humorous if anachronistic invention to have this Conte begin Nemorino’s ‘Una furtiva lagrima’ from Donizetti’s L’elisir d’amore instead of Lindoro’s serenade, but Owens went on to declare ‘Io son Lindoro che fido v’adoro’ with dulcet tones and a spectacular trill, supported by the fine playing of guitarist Kevin Dollar. Invigorated by Rosina’s requital of his interest, this Almaviva rocketed through the duet with Figaro on wings of love, voicing ‘Su vediamo, su vediam di quel metallo’ with uncontainable joy. Owens launched the Act One finale with panache, bringing the lovable inebriation of Mayberry’s Otis to the operatic stage, and he returned at the start of Act Two with a bevy of perfectly-timed repetitions of ‘Pace e gioia’ as an hysterically arthritic Don Alonso. In the sequence of quintetto, terzetto, and finale ultima, the tenor’s voice soared through the difficult tessitura and fiorature, his timbre beautiful from the bottom of the stave to his gleaming top C, and his acting was boundlessly charismatic. Time constraints deprived Owens of the opportunity to sing the Conte’s seldom-performed aria ‘Cessa di più resistere,’ but his depiction of the character lacked nothing else.

IN PERFORMANCE: mezzo-soprano CECELIA HALL as Rosina in Greensboro Opera's production of Gioachino Rossini's IL BARBIERE DI SIVIGLIA, January 2018 [Photo by Star Path Images, © by Greensboro Opera]La futura contessa: mezzo-soprano Cecelia Hall as Rosina in Greensboro Opera’s production of Gioachino Rossini’s Il barbiere di Siviglia, January 2018
[Photo by Star Path Images, © by Greensboro Opera]

The Rosina of mezzo-soprano Cecelia Hall has matured appealingly since she performed the rôle with North Carolina Opera in 2016. The prevailing youthfulness of her characterization remains unchanged, but there is now greater seriousness in her negotiations of Rosina’s predicaments. In Greensboro, Rosina was pert and playful but also mindful of the consequences of her actions and the lifelong implications of perhaps finding herself married to Bartolo. Aside from trills that never fully materialized, she made her entrance in Act One with beguiling singing. Her traversal of the cavatina ‘Una voce poco fa qui nel cor mi risuonò’ was delightful despite a lack of crispness in her executions of fiorature. Here and in the duetto with Figaro, ‘Dunque io son tu non m’inganni,’ she avoided unnecessary aspiration in her coloratura singing, however, and she immersed herself in the capers of the Act One finale without forcing either the voice or the comedy. Smiling beneath her prim ginger wig, a creation of Trent Pcenicni, she sometimes looked uncannily like the very young Beverly Sills. In Rosina’s lesson scene in Act Two, Hall eschewed the practice of interpolating music from other scores and sang Rossini’s authentic ‘Contro un cor che accende amore’ brilliantly, encountering no difficulties with its top As. Her voice could not always be heard amidst the cacophony of the quintetto, but her declamation of ‘Ah! qual colpo inaspettato!’ in the terzetto rang out boldly. Gratifyingly, hers was a Rosina who did not posture and pout: her emotions were softer and more subtle but always discernible. In Hall’s performance, Rosina was determined but not truly minxish, her good nature never obscured by her willingness to resort to capriciousness—in other words, she gave Rosina her own unique character rather than portraying her as a coloratura Carmen. Vocally, she was stronger in her middle and upper registers than at the bottom of the range. Dramatically, her performance divulged no weaknesses.

IN PERFORMANCE: (from left to right) tenor ANDREW OWENS as Conte Almaviva, mezzo-soprano CECELIA HALL as Rosina, and baritone DAVID PERSHALL as Figaro in Greensboro Opera's production of Gioachino Rossini's IL BARBIERE DI SIVIGLIA, January 2018 [Photo by Star Path Images, © by Greensboro Opera]I tre conspiratori allegri: (from left to right) tenor Andrew Owens as Conte Almaviva, mezzo-soprano Cecelia Hall as Rosina, and baritone David Pershall as Figaro in Greensboro Opera’s production of Gioachino Rossini’s Il barbiere di Siviglia, January 2018
[Photo by Star Path Images, © by Greensboro Opera]

Operatic Spain is a natural habitat for baritone David Pershall, who revisited the land of flamenco, previously the setting for his exhilarating Escamillo in Greensboro Opera’s 2017 staging of Bizet’s Carmen, with a captivating portrayal of Figaro in Il barbiere di Siviglia, the rôle in which he débuted at the Metropolitan Opera in 2015. There is no more familiar entrance aria in opera than Figaro’s Act One cavatina ‘Largo al factotum della città,’ and with his crowd-pleasing performance of the number Pershall introduced his Figaro, one by whom the top Gs were not feared. Pershall’s singing was a reminder of a bygone era in which ‘big sing’ baritones like Robert Merrill and Nicolae Herlea included Figaro in their repertoires. In the ebullient duet with the Conte, the baritone voiced ‘All’idea di quel metallo’ incisively, his Figaro’s ideas seeming to genuinely be extemporaneously engendered by the clinking of coins in his hand. Then, implementing his plan to facilitate her rendezvous with the Conte, he joined Rosina in a rollicking account of their duetto, singing ‘Di Lindoro il vago oggetto siete voi, bella Rosina’ with irrepressible conviviality. Like Merrill and Herlea, navigating Rossini’s labyrinths of fiorature does not come naturally to Pershall, but his technique is equal to even Figaro’s most intricate vocal filigree, as he elatedly demonstrated in the Act One finale. As Figaro’s stratagems teetered on the brink of disaster in Act Two, Pershall emphasized the barber’s resourcefulness, taking charge with the authority of a Hollywood director—authority that the lovers under his protection were often too distracted by their canoodling to heed. The seat-of-his-trousers bravado of his vocalism in the quintetto was diverting, and his Figaro’s euphoric extolling of the efficacy of his handiwork in the terzetto truly earned the audience’s laughter. With such a skilled Figaro at the center of the action, there was never any doubt that all would end well, but one of the most endearing aspects of Pershall’s performance was its spontaneity. Still, not even the most genial Figaro succeeds solely with his acting of the part, and it was Pershall’s vibrant, ruggedly masculine singing that made the strongest, most lasting impression.

Perhaps more so than any other musical genre, and more so in the Twenty-First Century than ever before, opera is a community effort that depends upon a carefully-managed coordination of artistic, financial, and logistical collaborations. Putting on good shows with good singers is not sufficient to ensure an opera company’s survival. An opera company must look beyond the stage upon which its productions come to life for the raw materials with which to build its future. Most vital amongst these raw materials is involvement in the host community. Under David Holley’s stewardship, Greensboro Opera’s rôle in its community has metamorphosed from the elitist indulgence typical of opera in the United States to an advantageous cultural symbiosis. With this fantastic, superbly-sung production of Il barbiere di Siviglia, Greensboro Opera’s standing in both its local and global communities is solidified: no longer just Greensboro’s hometown opera, Greensboro Opera is a home for opera performed as composers and librettists intended.

01 January 2018

BEST LIEDER RECORDINGS OF 2017: Franz Liszt — SONGS FOR BASS VOICE AND PIANO (Jared Schwartz, bass, & Mary Dibbern, piano; Toccata Classics TOCC 0441) and Reynaldo Hahn — AMOUR SANS AILES (Zachary Gordin, baritone, & Bryan Nies, piano; MSR Classics MS 1649)

BEST LIEDER RECORDINGS OF 2017: Franz Liszt - SONGS FOR BASS VOICE AND PIANO (Toccata Classics TOCC 0441) & Reynaldo Hahn - AMOUR SANS AILES (MSR Classics MS 1649)[1] FRANZ LISZT (1811 – 1886): Songs for Bass Voice and PianoJared Schwartz, bass; Mary Dibbern, piano [Recorded in St. Matthew’s Episcopal Cathedral, Dallas, Texas, 25 – 27 April 2017; Toccata Classics TOCC 0441; 1 CD, 68:07; Available from Toccata Classics, Naxos Direct, Amazon (USA), jpc (Germany), Presto Classical (UK), and major music retailers]

[2] REYNALDO HAHN (1874 – 1947): Amour sans ailes – Songs of Reynaldo HahnZachary Gordin, baritone; Bryan Nies, piano [Recorded in Schroeder Hall, Green Music Center, Sonoma State University, Rohnert Park, California, USA, 8 – 9 October 2016; MSR Classics MS 1649; 1 CD, 46:06; Available from MSR Classics, Amazon (USA), and major music retailers]

The celebrated soprano Alma Gluck (1884 – 1938) once said that ‘the sincerity of the art worker must permeate the song as naturally as the green leaves break through the dead branches in springtime.’ Gluck was a daughter of cultural climates very different from those of the Twenty-First Century, but how remarkable it is to find her referring to herself and her counterparts not as singers, musicians, interpreters, or artists but as art workers! Perceptions of a successful musician’s life are often warped by fantasies of flitting from continent to continent in first class, sipping champagne of exalted vintage, and performing with the aura of a deus ex machina descended in order to rescue audiences from their own barbarism. Lives such as this are now as rare as handwritten letters and true privacy, and what remains is the difficult, sometimes disheartening work of preserving niches for the cultivation and enjoyment of art amidst the confusion of modern living.

Both the viability and the validity of the musical forms that the heroes of the Twentieth Century safeguarded through two World Wars depend upon the diligence of the art workers to whom Gluck appealed, and never is any winter of discontent endured by those who love song except by clinging to the hope for the emergence of voices that bring vernal renewal—voices like those heard on two of 2017’s most captivating recordings. Toccata Classics’ disc of songs by Franz Liszt performed by bass Jared Schwartz and pianist Mary Dibbern and MSR Classics’ homage to the songs of Reynaldo Hahn featuring baritone Zachary Gordin and pianist Bryan Nies are wondrously verdant bursts of life in a cultural winter that seems destined to be destructively long-lived.

The lives of few composers in the history of Western Classical music have been as eventful as that of Franz Liszt. Born in 1811 in the Hungarian town of Doborján, known since the end of World War I as the Austrian hamlet of Raiding, Liszt was the son of an accomplished musician who was a colleague of Joseph Haydn in service to the Esterházy family. Encountering Salieri, Beethoven, and Schubert during his first fifteen years of life, the young Liszt inaugurated a lifelong series of seminal musical acquaintances encompassing a panoply of composers as diverse as Berlioz, Chopin, and Saint-Saëns that would eventually culminate in his daughter Cosima marrying Richard Wagner. In a long career often touched by personal tragedy, Liszt witnessed virtually the whole evolution of Nineteenth-Century Romanticism, both advocating for its development using his wide-ranging influence and advancing its progress with his own compositions.

For listeners whose familiarity with Liszt’s music is defined by the brazen, sometimes bombastic virtuosity of works like his Hungarian Rhapsodies and Piano Concerti, the many delicate qualities of his Lieder may be surprising. Indeed, the fact that Liszt composed songs at all is seldom considered in assessments of his artistry. [Beautiful recordings of Liszt Lieder by sopranos Hildegard Behrens and Dame Margaret Price regrettably seem to be known far less widely than they deserve to be.] Fusing elements of the styles to which he was exposed in Vienna during his youth and in Paris, to which metropolis he relocated soon after the death of his father in 1827, Liszt was a masterful composer of songs, as the performances on this insightfully-arranged Toccata Classics disc affirm. There are in these songs moments of the exhilarating musical exhibition expected of the composer’s work, but far more abundant are unexpected subtleties of musical invention and response to text. History does not portray Liszt as a man of Chopinesque sensitivity, but the portrait conjured by his songs and these performances of them depict an artist of wit, intellectual profundity, and keen understanding of humanity.

All of the Lieder included in their unmistakably affectionate survey of Liszt’s songs are here sung by a bass voice for the first time on disc, but this is also the world-première recording of the song with which Schwartz and Dibbern launch the disc, ‘Weimars Volkslied.’ A circa 1853 setting of a text by Peter Cornelius, the song wields an unaffected sophistication that belies its ‘Volkslied’ title and recalls the work of the Mendelssohn siblings, Fanny and Felix. Singer and pianist revel in the song’s emphatic style, Dibbern playing the fanfare-like figurations with the exuberance of bells tolling on a civic holiday. This contrasts markedly with Schwartz’s smooth singing of the song’s lyrical interludes.

First composed in 1843 – 1844 and revised in 1864, the earlier version of ‘Pace non trovo’ from the Tre sonetti di Petrarca is frequently included in recitals by lyric tenors, who cherish its ascents to D♭5, but its demands are no less daunting—and its rewards no less plentiful—in the later transposition for lower voice. The performance that the song receives from Schwartz and Dibbern makes a very strong case for the version for bass, this bass’s singing evoking the authentic voice of the poet with the inherent dignity of his delivery. Respectively using words by Ferdinand von Saar and Alfred de Musset, ‘Des Tages laute Stimmen schweigen’ from 1880 and ‘J’ai perdu ma force et ma vie’ from 1872 are very different pieces that here benefit from the same virtues of expertly-managed singing and unfailingly communicative pianism. In each of the songs on this disc, in fact, Dibbern gets at the heart of the music’s ethos, providing Schwartz—and Liszt and the poets, as well—not with accompaniment but with a true partner in conversation.

Likely one of the earliest songs presented on this disc, ‘Jeanne d’Arc au bûcher’ is a visceral, almost operatic adaptation of words by Alexandre Dumas père in which Liszt rivals the dramatic storytelling of Verdi’s Giovanna d’Arco and Tchaikovsky’s Orleanskaya deva on a considerably smaller scale. Schwartz sings the piece superbly, articulating the text with great attention to the emotional depth of Dumas’s diction. Dibbern’s performance dazzles, too, the anxious pounding of the heroine’s heart, the doubts, the fears, and the pangs of patriotism echoing in her playing, not supporting the words but instigating them.

Aside from ‘Über allen Gipfeln ist Ruh,’ an 1849 setting of a text by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, and an elegant employment of words by Heinrich Heine in ‘Du bist wie eine Blume,’ both lucidly performed here, several of the finest songs on this disc use texts by poets whose names are unlikely to be known by listeners whose first languages are not French or German. The words of ‘Sei still’ are the work of Adelheid von Schorn, and they inspired Liszt to writing of striking starkness that is chillingly conveyed by Schwartz’s dusky but dulcet lower register. The resonance of the bass’s bottom octave is also an important component of the panache of his performance of ‘Le Juif errant,’ in which Pierre-Jean de Béranger’s words are handled by composer and pianist with finesse. Schwartz and Dibbern react to the song’s emotional gradations with uncompromising directness—the only effective approach to this piece. Ferdinand Freiligrath penned the words that sparked Liszt’s creativity in ‘O lieb, solang du lieben kannst!’, and the music is widely known even if the poet and his work are not. Its ebullient melody borrowed from the third of the composer’s much-played Liebesträume for solo piano, this is surely Liszt’s best-known song, but Schwartz and Dibbern perform it as though it has never been heard before, their shared musicality triumphing over the hint of lugubriousness that results from assigning the song to a bass voice.

If the poetry of Alfred, Lord Tennyson seems an unlikely source of material for Liszt, the many felicities of the composer’s 1879 treatment of ‘Go not, happy day’ reminds the listener that appearances are deceiving. There are passages in this song in which distant kinship with Gerald Finzi’s vocal writing is apparent, but the linguistic fluidity of Liszt’s word setting is as compelling in English as in languages with which he was more acquainted. The Indiana-born Schwartz sings English with particular clearness, giving vowels and consonants equal weight, and the transparency with which both he and Dibbern perform the music is deeply affecting. The author of many texts set to music by his friend Franz Schubert, Franz von Schober also served as literary stimulus for Liszt’s 1849 ‘Weimars Toten,’ commissioned to mark the centennial of Goethe’s birth. Schwartz and Dibbern create an aptly commemorative atmosphere, immersing themselves in Liszt’s striking musical homage to the great poet and the city in which he died. Already a musical relationship of uncommon congruity in their Toccata Classics recording of mélodies by Ange Flégier, the partnership between bass and pianist is here refined to an even more admirable class of artistic expression. On this disc, their music making is as Liszt’s must have been when he sat at the piano in Rome’s Villa Medici in 1886, surrounded by Claude Debussy, Victor Herbert, and Paul Vidal: shorn of all extravagance and ego, these are performances by and for friends.

If the hallmark of effective Lieder is a consistent profusion of distinguished melodies whereby the listener experiences words on a level that transcends conversational comprehension, the songs of Franz Liszt recorded by Jared Schwartz and Mary Dibbern are exceptionally persuasive representatives of their genre. Liszt’s undervalued mastery of the composition of Lieder notwithstanding, any music performed with the passion heard on this disc would earn appreciation. Here, at last, is a recording of Lieder for bass worthy of comparison with Kurt Moll’s and Cord Garben’s magnificent Orfeo recital of Schubert Lieder.

As captivating and inexplicably overlooked by musicians capable of performing them idiomatically as the Liszt songs recorded by Jared Schwartz and Mary Dibben, the lusciously lyrical mélodies of Reynaldo Hahn are not unknown to connoisseurs, especially those with interest in the music of fin-du-siècle Parisian salons, in which Hahn’s music was immensely popular. When the gorgeous melodic lines of Hahn’s songs caress the ears, however, it is virtually impossible not to wonder why such music is not performed as frequently as the ubiquitous Italian canzonette that litter singers’ repertoires. In the seven decades since Hahn’s death in 1947, perhaps something crucial has been lost in musical translation. This MSR Classics release, recorded by Swineshead Productions engineer David v.R. Bowles with the ambient clarity that the music requires, restores Hahn’s songs their rightful place alongside the works of Henri Duparc, Gabriel Fauré, Édith Piaf, and Charles Aznavour as a pillar of French chanson.

Though their milieux were very different, there are many parallels in the circumstances of Hahn’s and Liszt’s formative years. Born in the Venezuelan capital, Caracas, in 1874, Hahn was the child of an affluent family with strong ties to Europe, bonds which sustained the family’s prosperity when they were forced to seek refuge from the political volatility that ravaged Venezuela in 1877. As Liszt had done after the death of his father a half-century earlier, Hahn found a new home in Paris, where the vibrant musical scene bewitched his imagination and whetted his appetite for composition. Admitted at the age of ten to the Conservatoire de Paris, by which institution the similarly-aged Liszt was denied tuition, Hahn studied with Gounod, Massenet, and Saint-Saëns, absorbing their music with a seemingly boundless curiosity. Throughout his career, he was an avid consumer of Paris’s operatic offerings, maintaining a presence at the Opéra as noteworthy as that of Gaston Leroux’s phantom. Beyond his gift for creating haunting melodies, there was nothing spectral about Hahn’s talent, however. Unlike Liszt’s Lieder, the best-known of which are overshadowed in modern awareness by his orchestral and piano music, Hahn’s songs form the nucleus of their composer’s renown. Even so, hearing them sung outside of France is a rare gift.

Like their colleagues’ performances of Liszt’s songs, Gordin and Nies bring to their traversals of the twenty-one songs on Amour sans ailes an artistic alliance of near-perfect symbiosis. Recalling the gist of Algernon’s remark in Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest that ‘women only call each other sister when they have called each other a lot of other things first,’ it is intimated in the disc’s liner notes that the camaraderie between Gordin and Nies was not fostered without hindrance, but sorting out differences has in their case facilitated an uninfringeable sense of purpose that is audible in the first bars of their urgent but unexaggerated performance of the Victor Hugo setting ‘Réverie.’ In this and all of the selections on the disc, Gordin sounds like an exemplar of a Fach long thought to be extinct: the uniquely French baryton-Martin. Uniting a plush lower octave, smooth navigation of the passaggio, and well-supported falsetto, the baritone sings this music as though he composed the songs himself, projecting a sense of spontaneity even when meticulous care governs his phrasing.

The texts of Hahn’s Chansons grises are the work of Paul Verlaine, whose ambiguous imagery finds in Nies’s playing a stage upon which to act out its cunning dramas. In the lovely ‘Chanson d’automne,’ the singer’s enunciation of the poet’s words is amplified by the pianist’s understated intensity. In ‘Tous deux,’ too, Nies enhances the interpretive impact of Gordin’s singing by playing as though the vocal line were an extension of the piano part. Gordin voices ‘L’Allée est sans fin...’ and ‘En Sourdine’ with close attention to their shifting moods, and his reading of the sublime ‘L’heure exquise’ is lofted upon a current of diaphanous expressivity propelled by Nies’s rhythmic sharpness. The impact of ‘Paysage triste’ is heightened by both singer and pianist approaching the piece without so much as a hint of preciosity, allowing words and music to reach the listener uninhibitedly. ‘La bonne chanson’ is just that: an undeniably well-crafted song. The performance that it receives from Gordin and Nies wholly justifies the title. Hahn returned to Verlaine’s poetry in ‘L’incrédule’ and ‘Fêtes galantes,’ songs with little in common except for the poet’s words and the composer’s sagacious uses of them, and Gordin sings them with flawless cognition of their singular characters and seductive tone.

The expressivity of Alphonse Daudet’s words in ‘Trois jours de vendange’ is realized by Gordin with expertly-judged emphasis echoed in Nies’s rendering of the piano’s side of the dialogue. Similarly, the nuances of Charles Marie René Leconte de Lisle’s texts in Études latines are engagingly explored without ever being over-accentuated. Gordin voices ‘Lydé’ with seductive charm, and his account of ‘Pholoé’ scintillates, the voice cascading through the soundscapes created by the piano. The related spirits of ‘Nocturne’ and ‘Dans la nuit,’ settings of texts by Jean Lahor and Jean Moréas, are enlivened by Gordin’s earnest singing, and his moving performance of Hahn’s adaptation of Augustine-Malvina Blanchecotte’s ‘La chère blessure’ grows from the fertile soil of Nies’s emotive playing.

Like Liszt’s setting of Tennyson, Hahn’s uses of Mary Robinson’s verses in Love without wings displays an affinity for recognizing and tapping the innate musical potential of English words—a trait lacked by many native English-speaking composers. A gentle wistfulness permeates Gordin’s singing of ‘Ah! Could I clasp thee in mine arms,’ and the serene resignation with which he voices ‘The fallen oak’ transitions to ambivalent playfulness in ‘I know you love me not,’ all animated by vocalism of exquisite control. The collaboration between voice and piano is nowhere more efficacious than in Gordin’s and Nies’s performance of ‘L’énamourée,’ their joint commitment to the music reaching into the shadows of Théodore de Banville’s text. Composed in 1913, ‘À Chloris,’ a setting of verses by Théophile de Viau, is perhaps the most familiar of Hahn’s songs, but its familiarity breeds no contempt in Gordin’s and Nies’s presentation. Rather, the pianist plays with the vigor of first discovery, and the baritone’s chic singing triggers memories of Gérard Souzay. Above all, though, Gordin recognizes that this is not music that should be whimpered or whined: whilst listening to this disc, one is unlikely to ever feel compelled, as one sometimes does when hearing Souzay performances, to exclaim, ‘Just sing, s’il vous plaît!’ Simply singing—which is not to be confused with singing simply—is what Gordin does best.

Respect is in some instances the cruelest manifestation of damning with faint praise. Respect is too often misused in musical societies as an excuse for inattention and ignorance. The casual listener professes to respect a composer’s or a musician’s artistry and leaves it at that: if one expresses an all-encompassing respect, is it really necessary to actually know an artist’s work and its context? One of the many victories of this pair of discs is answering that question with irrefutable evidence of the folly of dismissing insufficiently-remembered music with respectful disinterest. Like Alma Gluck, Jared Schwartz, Zachary Gordin, Mary Dibbern, and Bryan Nies clearly realize that the art worker’s toil never ends. Were she able to hear the performances of songs by Franz Liszt and Reynaldo Hahn on these discs, Gluck would undoubtedly congratulate this quartet of art workers on jobs done exceptionally well.