With ballots for GRAMMY® Awards nominations having recently gone into circulation, it is with great pleasure that it is noted that several artists and recordings featured on Voix des Arts are being considered by the Recording Academy. [In order to be eligible for consideration for nomination for the 56th GRAMMY® Awards, a recording must have been released during the period extending from 1 October 2012 to 30 September 2013.] Thankfully, the rumors of the demise of the Classical Music recording industry were greatly exaggerated. Despite the laments of those who long for the bygone eras of Birgit Nilsson, Wilhelm Kempff, and Otto Klemperer, the best efforts of today’s artists set their own standards for artistic excellence, and those who cast ballots for the 2014 GRAMMY® Awards have before their eyes a rich garden of Classical releases, among which these are three of the most delectable blooms.
One of the most innovative releases of 2013 is Ensemble HD’s Live at the Happy Dog, released in May in various formats, none of which is more sonically impressive than vinyl. The project was spearheaded by Joshua Smith, principal flautist of The Cleveland Orchestra, who approached the proprietor of the Happy Dog, a revitalized bar on Cleveland’s culturally-impoverished West Side, with the notion of supplementing the establishment’s typical musical fare with Classical Music. The concept was not as radical as it might seem: much of the young Brahms’s earliest musical experience was achieved at a brothel’s piano, after all. An ensemble of some of metropolitan Cleveland’s most gifted Classically-trained musicians—cellist Charles Bernard, pianist Christina Dahl, violinist Amy Lee, violist Joanna Patterson Zakany, oboist Frank Rosenwein, and Mr. Smith—came together to treat Happy Dog patrons to exhilarating performances of music by Ludwig van Beethoven, William Bolcom, Benjamin Britten, Claude Debussy, Johan Halvorsen, Olivier Messiaen, Arvo Pärt, Astor Piazzolla, Maurice Ravel, Dmitri Shostakovich, and Anton Webern, magnificently recorded in performance with the musicians’ introductory remarks and interactions with the audience preserved. Interesting recordings are not always important recordings: with extraordinary musicians offering world-class performances of though-provoking repertory in a setting whose unique frisson is wonderfully captured, Live at the Happy Dog is the rare recording that achieves both distinctions. Mix a few drinks, drop the needle, and get lost in the grooves of a recording that proves that great music and good times are as inextricably linked as martinis and olives. [Available in downloadable and vinyl formats]
As moving and musically rewarding an exploration of the vocal music of 17th-Century Italy as has ever been recorded, Io Vidi in Terra unites the magnificent voice of Brazilian countertenor José Lemos with the internationally-acclaimed playing of theorbist Deborah Fox and harpsichordist Jory Vinikour. Few of the pieces recorded on Io Vidi in Terra—including music by Benedetto Ferrari, Girolamo Frescobaldi, Marco da Gagliano, Tarquinio Merula, Claudio Monteverdi, Alessandro Piccinini, Bernardo Storace, and Barbara Strozzi—are completely unknown, especially to aficionados of early Baroque vocal music, but the manner in which they are performed by Mr. Lemos, Ms. Fox, and Mr. Vinikour is unprecedentedly affectionate. The immediacy of the collaboration among these three artists is both immensely impressive and delightfully entertaining. Debates rage like teacup-tempests about how best to perform music of this vintage in order to come closest to historically-appropriate performance practices. Such pursuits are laudable, but this disc proves that this music does not need ‘special’ treatment: perform it with the integrity and obvious passion displayed by Mr. Lemos, Ms. Fox, and Mr. Vinikour, and niceties of style and substance fall into place unobtrusively. While others fuss and fret over correct temperaments, proper diapasons, and execution of the vocal tricks of the early Baroque, this trio get it right without the audible calculation and caterwauling. [Released on Sono Luminus and distributed by Naxos USA]
One of the most woefully neglected niches in the Lieder repertory is the engrossing assortment of American Art Songs. Perhaps, with superb recordings like baritone Andrew Garland’s American Portraits paving the way, the appreciation that these largely undiscovered treasures deserve will expand exponentially. Despite the remarkable depths of his artistry in this recital of song cycles by Tom Cipullo, Jake Heggie, Lori Laitman, and Stephen Paulus, there is nothing prissy or artificial in Mr. Garland’s singing: his is the sort of smooth-edged, solid-cored instrument that has become endangered in this age of crooning and preening. Unapologetic masculinity is at the heart of Mr. Garland’s singing in American Portraits, and the impact of the music is intensified by the hearty resonance of his voice. Splendidly accompanied by pianist Donna Loewy, Mr. Garland applies his keenest musical and dramatic resources to performances that explore the intriguing, sometimes gnarled courses of these songs, the rugged handsomeness of his tone conveying the idealized American spirit. The collaboration between Mr. Garland and Ms. Loewy is one of unfettered artistic communication rather than a mere exchange between soloist and accompanist, and the palette of colors that they bring to the performances on American Portraits is thrilling. It can seem disheartening that in a nation in which patriotism is so prized there is so little attention given by native-born singers to the rich traditions of American Art Song. Then, when expectations are low, along comes a disc like American Portraits, clearly the result of genuine affection for this repertory from one of America’s most talented young singers, and pride in this fascinating music is restored—from sea to shining sea. [Released on GPR Records and available from major music retailers]