01 February 2009

CD REVIEW: Henry Purcell - DIDO AND AENEAS (T. Berganza, P.-A. Wahlgren, D. Borst, G. Linos; Cascavelle)

HENRY PURCELL (1659 - 1695) - Dido and Aeneas: Teresa Berganza (Dido), Per-Arne Wahlgren (Aeneas), Danielle Borst (Belinda), Françoise Destembert (Second Woman), Glenys Linos (Sorceress), Tiziana Sojat (First Witch, Spirit), Alexandra Papadjkiakou (Second Witch), Reinaldo Macias (Sailor); Choeur du Théâtre Municipal de Lausanne, Ensemble Instrumental de Lausanne; Michel Corboz [recording date(s) and venue unknown; Cascavelle VEL 5005]

Though badly battered by the global economic crisis, the musical world marks in 2009 anniversaries related to four of its most important figures: the birth in 1659 of Henry Purcell, the death in 1759 of Georg Friedrich Händel, the death in 1809 of Franz Joseph Haydn, and the birth in 1809 of Felix Mendelssohn. Had these anniversaries occurred thirty years ago, at the dawn of compact discs and digital recording, a music lover might have rightly expected a veritable wealth of new recordings to mark these events. With the worldwide market for compact discs in decline and the demand for recordings of classical music evaporating even further, labels cannot venture the risks undertaken by Philips for the Mozart anniversary in 1991, for instance.

One of the greatest pleasures of listening to recorded music, however, is the rediscovery of a long-forgotten recording, resurrected from obscurity, or the discovery of an existing but unknown recorded performance. Such is the case with this recording of Purcell’s theatrical masterpiece, Dido and Aeneas. Though the provenance of the recording is still mysterious (the compact disc was issued in 1999, but some sources date the recording to 1985), the recording’s virtues were immediately apparent, and in this year that marks the 350th anniversary of Purcell’s birth this recording is a remarkable addition to his opera’s discography.

The recorded history of Dido and Aeneas attests to the enduring quality of the music and its themes of devotion, destiny, and loss. Sung in the first half of the twentieth century by two of the century’s greatest Brünnhildes, Kirsten Flagstad and Martha Mödl, Dido has lured into recording studios artists as diverse in vocal endowments and approaches as Jessye Norman, Tatiana Troyanos, Josephine Veasey, Victoria de los Angeles, Carolyn Watkinson, Anne Sofie von Otter, Dame Emma Kirkby, Catherine Bott, and Jennifer Lane. Two recently-released recordings (soon to be discussed on this forum, should time allow) feature the wonderful British mezzo-soprano Sarah Connolly and the enterprising German soprano Simone Kermes, respectively, as Dido. Arguably, the singer of recent memory to figuratively trod on Carthaginian shores most successfully, not least on records, was Dame Janet Baker, whose pioneering L’Oiseau Lyre recording with Sir Anthony Lewis allied a great voice with a certain awareness of ‘period’ practice as it was known at that time. More than forty years after its release, that is the recording to which many Purcell lovers still turn, its efforts at scholarship never overwhelming the consummate musicality and human drama.

Purcell’s music has nonetheless benefited greatly from increased knowledge of the performance practices of late-seventeenth-century Britain, with the lighter textures and quicker tempi of historically-informed performances freeing the music from ponderous heaviness and unintended pomposity. Still, listening to historically-informed performances of Dido and Aeneas using singers who are ‘early’ music specialists brings to mind the classic line Rhett Butler delivered to Scarlett O’Hara in Gone with the Wind: ‘You should be kissed, and often. And by someone who knows how.’ Something is missing; something elemental. Almost invariably displaying superb musicality, expressivity, and expert acquaintance with the phrasing of Purcell’s music as it is now understood, the actual singing of ‘early’ music performers cannot be faulted. Perhaps, with ears tempered by the recordings made prior to the advent of historically-informed practices, what is missing is the kiss of brilliance brought to the music by truly great voices.

It is in this regard that this recording, whatever its true origins, restores the balance to a significant degree. Conducted by Michel Corboz, a plethora of successes in Baroque and early Classical works to his credit, the forces of the Ensemble Instrumental de Lausanne and Choeur du Théâtre Municipal de Lausanne are superb throughout, playing and singing with great eloquence, never striking a false note. The performance of the great echo chorus, ‘In our deep vaulted cell,’ is as evocative and moving as any on disc, the echo ensemble managed very effectively. Corboz employs a colorful continuo ensemble, consisting principally of harpsichord, organ, lute, and theorbo. The continuo complement is varied throughout, in the manner familiar from Italian scores of the seventeenth century, with the organ alone used to accompany the Spirit in the false command of Mercury (bringing to mind perhaps the most effective alternative for the music of Speranza in Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo). In fact, the influence of Monteverdi and his contemporaries is evident in virtually every moment of this performance, with the result that Purcell’s genius for distilling the operatic forms that he inherited from his south-of-the-Alps predecessors into a style that is both his own and uniquely English is highlighted all the more. There is never a moment at which Corboz’s tempo is consciously wished to be faster or slower: displaying a flexibility rare even for this accomplished maestro, the performance simply sounds right, every musical requirement met without compromise.

Secondary roles are in thoroughly capable (if not, in all cases, exalted) hands. The Sailor of tenor Reinaldo Macias is ardent of utterance, and particular mention is due to the beautifully-articulated and refined Belinda of soprano Danielle Borst, in every way a fittingly regal companion to a great Queen. As the Sorceress, mezzo-soprano Glenys Linos is magnificent, menacing and eerie without resorting to cheap effects or unmusical distortions of voice or line. One or two notes at the top of the role’s tessitura are uncomfortable for Linos, but she remains an urbane, forceful Sorceress: a Baroque Ulrica, and all the better for it.

As Aeneas, tenor Per-Arne Wahlgren brings a dark, baritonal voice that at first sounds too unwieldy for his music (he is, after all, also featured in NAXOS’ ‘live’ recording of Korngold’s Die Tote Stadt), but the weight of the timbre ultimately shapes a genuinely heroic if thoughtful and openly remorseful Aeneas. The soliloquy after the false command of Mercury is nobly done, and Wahlgren’s Aeneas abandons his Dido with touching hesitation. Wahlgren’s diction is occasionally muddled by his vibrato, but the sturdy eloquence of his singing fills in any gaps in the drama created by an occasionally missed word.

For me, the greatest attraction of this recording is its Dido, Spanish mezzo-soprano (though billed on this recording as a soprano) Teresa Berganza, celebrated for her dramatically credible and unfailingly musical interpretations of Rossini mezzo-soprano heroines (Rosina, Cenerentola, and Isabella, all recorded for DECCA) and for her authentically Spanish Carmen (recorded for Claudio Abbado on DGG). It is tempting, with these details of her marvelous career at the fore, to doubt whether this is an appropriate voice for Dido. It was a recording of an opera by Händel (the idiosyncratic Alcina on DECCA with Dame Joan Sutherland) that introduced most opera aficionados to Berganza’s artistry, however, and she remains after thirty years recorded opera’s peerless Sesto in Mozart’s La Clemenza di Tito, thanks to recordings for Kertész (DECCA) and Böhm (DGG). These accomplishments offer coloratura credentials that exceed the requirements of Dido, whose most important needs are centered on security throughout the relatively compressed but challenging tessitura (high for ‘early’ music specialist mezzo-sopranos, low for similarly-trained sopranos), stylishness, and grandiloquence. A regal bearing is an absolute necessity: how does this role suit a singer whose most celebrated stage personalities are impetuous, capricious figures?

Without knowing precisely when or where the recording was made, it is difficult to place this chronologically in Berganza’s career. What is beyond doubt in hearing this recording is that the voice was on magnificent form, every note firmly placed and evenly produced. The limited excursions into chest register are magisterial without being snarled, and the top G’s in the great Lament are formidably ringing without damaging the integrity of the line. Berganza completely avoids the nasality and pinched tone at the top of her range typical of many Latin singers. It is evident in Berganza’s first utterance that we are in the presence of a great Queen being sung by a great voice, one of the very few in recent years fully deserving of comparison with and inclusion among the likes of Flagstad and Baker. Essentially, Berganza combines the finer elements of her notable forebears, bringing Flagstad’s authority and easy dignity to Baker’s fluency and stylistic command. Displaying virtually no technical shortcomings (a couple of attempts at trills are smudged), Berganza simply—or, in truth, not so simply, as the achievement evades most latter-day performers—sings the music in a manner that renders the character effectively and meaningfully and gloriously honors Purcell throughout. As with Wahlgren, there are occasional problems with diction, but it could be argued (as did Strauss in the final moments of Capriccio) that there are emotions better expressed by music than by words. Berganza’s account of the lament, ‘When I am laid in earth,’ is a sublimely tragic performance, worthy of standing with her ‘Una voce poco fa’ as one of the enduring monuments of this wonderful singer’s career. In this performance, Aeneas is faced with a Dido fully prepared to kiss him, often, and who obviously knows how.

Without a great Dido, this recording would be of interest for its effective blend of the academic and the passionate, and for one of the most engaging Sorceresses on disc. Fortunately, it also unexpectedly has in Teresa Berganza one of the finest Didos to be heard. How wonderful to discover this performance perhaps twenty-five years after it was recorded and, through it, to feel the music of a composer born 350 years ago recreated in a fresh but timeless way that reaches through centuries to touch the heart.

[Click here to buy this recording from Arkiv Music.]