29 March 2009

CD REVIEW: Georg Friedrich Händel - FARAMONDO (M.E. Cencic, S. Karthäuser, P. Jaroussky, I.-S. Sim, M. de Liso, X. Sabata; Virgin Classics)

GEORG FRIEDRICH HÄNDEL (1685 – 1759) – Faramondo, HWV 39: M.E. Cencic (Faramondo), S. Karthäuser (Clotilde), M. de Liso (Rosimonda), P. Jaroussky (Adolfo), I.-S. Sim (Gustavo), X. Sabata (Gernando), F. Bettini (Teobaldo), T. Wey (Childerico); Coro della Radio Svizzera, Lugano; I Barocchisti; Diego Fasolis [recorded in Auditorio Stelio Molo, Radio Svizzera di lingua italiana, Lugano (Switzerland), 19 – 24 October 2008; Virgin Classics 50999 2 16611 2 9]

Completed only two days before composition was commenced on Serse and first performed at the King’s Theatre in the Haymarket on 3 January 1738, Faramondo was one of Händel’s final operatic scores, the rivalry between Händel’s company and that formed around Niccolò Porpora and his star pupil Farinelli having taken its toll not only on the resources of Händel’s company but also on the receptiveness of the English public for Italian opera seria. Though continuing to compose operas for London, Händel’s talents were increasingly devoted to the newly-popular genre of English oratorio. If not exactly an operatic swansong, then, Faramondo was one of the last fruits plucked from a deep-rooted tree that had yielded some of the greatest musical and dramatic scores of the first half of the eighteenth century.

The first-night cast of Faramondo offered the London public an assemblage of singers that included three of the greatest operatic artists of the era: the famous mezzo-soprano castrato Caffarelli, the soprano Elisabeth Duparc (known, owing to her nationality, as La Francesina), and the bass Antonio Montagnana, veteran Händelian for whom the composer wrote many of his finest bass roles. Despite the exceptional abilities of this cast and the fact that Farinelli had left London, Faramondo received only eight performances during its initial run and was never revived during Händel’s life, ultimately waiting until a 1976 Halle production to be heard again. Musicologists and Händel specialists have long attributed this relative failure to a disastrously weak libretto, anonymously adapted from a stronger libretto by Apostolo Zeno (previously set by Gasparini and, ironically, Porpora), and the fickleness of the English public, at the time of Faramondo’s premiere devoted to the burlesque theatre. While one cannot avoid pensively shaking one’s head over the misfortunes of the libretto, among the weakest and least poetic that Händel set, and without knowing the merits of the burlesque piece (the music for which was by Lampe) that so absorbed Londoners’ attention during Faramondo’s brief life, hearing this recording of Faramondo must prompt any admirer of Händel’s operas, and indeed any opera-lover, to wonder at what fools they were who condemned such a distinguished, touching piece to obscurity.

The musical virtues of the score are, in fact, too numerous to itemize. Somehow overcoming a libretto of such poor quality, Händel filled Faramondo with music of great inspiration, invention, and impact. The opera has in Faramondo’s first-act aria ‘Sì, tornerò a morir, non a placarti’ one of those exquisite ‘pathetic airs’ at the composition of which Händel excelled; indeed, a piece of time-suspending beauty and emotional directness worthy to stand alongside its more famous brethren in the sores of Händel’s operatic high-water period. Though every aria is not at this level, there is never a perceptible waning of inspiration, as sometimes exists in a Mozart opera, and the music never fails to effectively portray both characters and dramatic situations. Though it might be argued that its relative unfamiliarity [and this offers an opportunity to correct an error that is seemingly frequently repeated in conjunction with the release of this recording: this is not, in fact, the first studio recording of the work, as the Vox label previously brought out a recording of a somewhat corrupted edition of the score featuring committed Händelians including Julianne Baird, Drew Minter, D’Anna Fortunato, and Jennifer Lane] contributes to this reaction to some extent, this is not one of those scores in listening to which one impatiently awaits the ‘plums.’ The quality of the music is such that, even when the words and the drama they enact are mundane, one’s attention and interest are held through all 165 minutes of this performance.

Conductor Diego Fasolis responds to every nuance of Händel’s score, presiding over a performance that minimizes the weaknesses of the text by focusing on the unstinting brilliance of the music. This is one of those rare performances in which every choice of tempo seems inherently right, not only for the music at hand but for the singer (or singers) executing it. The Coro della Radio Svizzera, perhaps a few too many in numbers for their task, sing eloquently and effectively, making the most of their two appearances and reminding the listener that, at the time at which he was composing Faramondo, Händel was also honing his talents for composing English oratorios. I Barocchisti, another of those wonderful period-instrument bands with which Europe seems to be brimming, play brilliantly, avoiding the sharp edges and brutal attacks employed by some of their rivals and consistently producing tone equal to the musical challenges and wonders offered by the score. The group’s concertmaster, Duilio Galfetti, phrases very eloquently in his playing in the overture and Faramondo’s ‘Sì, tornerò a morir.’

Reuniting a quartet of participants from Les Arts Florissants’ touring production of Stefano Landi’s Il Sant’Alessio (previously discussed, following a performance in New York, on this site), the vocal cast in this performance carefully preserves Händel’s original vocal distribution, offering countertenors not only in the title role (composed for Caffarelli) but also as Adolfo (sung in the first cast by soprano Margherita Chimenti), Gernando (created by contralto Antonia Merighi), and Childerico (composed for the boy soprano William Savage, for whom Händel also composed Oberto in Alcina and who later sang both countertenor and bass roles in Händel’s oratorios). The historical accuracy of this practice can be debated at great length, but surely that is appropriate only when musical values are compromised by miscasting. That is never the case in this performance, in which not one among these high-voiced gentlemen disappoints.

The opera presents two considerable roles for low-voiced male singers, as well. Gustavo, Montagnana’s role, is sung in this performance by South Korean bass In-Sung Sim, a distinguished singer whose experience in Wagner in no way inhibits his excellent command of coloratura. Mr. Sim makes a very strong impression in what is essentially a bravura role with firm, aptly dark singing and an imposing lower register. Singing Teobaldo, Italian baritone Fulvio Bettini makes the most of every opportunity given to him by Händel, pointing his tone effectively and executing his divisions manfully. It is often in the lower-voiced male roles that recent Händel recordings have been deficient, but that trend is put off course in this performance.

Childerico, originally for boy soprano, offers limited scope for impressing the listener (the role does not have an aria), but young Swiss countertenor Terry Wey sings with such natural grace that he both honors Händel’s original casting and confirms his presence among the field of talented countertenors for whom greater opportunities are hoped in future.

Catalan countertenor Xavier Sabata, very moving as Alessio’s grieving Mother in Sant’Alessio here sings Gernando, another grieved character. Mr. Sabata’s timbre is quite unlike those of his colleagues in this performance, deeper but very soulful. Securely meeting every technical demand of the role, Mr. Sabata sings with thrilling abandon, coloring the voice with fury and descending to baritonal low notes to great effect. The voice is a gloriously rich contralto, even throughout an impressive range without being hooty or effeminate. Mr. Sabata creates an engaging character with formidable singing. I object only to a couple of instances in which the musical line is disturbed with snarled effects, not inappropriate dramatically but unnecessary when the excellent young singer already conjures menace with the colorations of the voice.

Italian mezzo-soprano Marina de Liso also makes a strong impression as Rosimonda, singing with a technique so solid that it deals almost off-handedly with Händel’s demands. If not always beautiful in a conventional sense, the voice never loses focus no matter how difficult the music it faces becomes. Ms. de Liso employs a few questionably elaborate cadenzas that exploit an exciting upper register, but even the most extravagant among these does not threaten to cross the line between musicality and vulgarity. On balance, this is an engrossing performance by an important singer, another superb mezzo-soprano for whose dedication to Baroque repertory every lover of Händel’s operas must be grateful.

Equally beguiling is Belgian soprano Sophie Karthäuser, already an admired Pamina, here singing La Francesina’s role of Clotilde. Ms. Karthäuser’s youthful tone is most appealing, and her extensive experience with Baroque music and conductors who specialize in performances thereof (especially William Christie and René Jacobs) is apparent throughout this performance. The poise of Ms. Karthäuser’s singing, befitting an effective Pamina, is equally impressive in the context of Clotilde’s music, which is delivered with masterful traversals of the difficulties Händel knew he could rely on La Francesina to navigate with aplomb. If Ms. Karthäuser’s engagement with the drama seems a bit less complete than what her colleagues achieve, this can be attributed in part to the dignity of the role, a quality served in splendid fashion by the refined beauty of Ms. Karthäuser’s singing. A great Pamina is a rare entity, but a great Händel soprano is rarer still, and one hopes that Ms. Karthäuser will build upon the foundation of this wonderful performance to explore other Händel heroines in future.

Perhaps the most controversial element of the casting in this recording is the selection of young French countertenor Philippe Jaroussky for Adolfo, composed by Händel for a female soprano. Granting that it is inherently beneficial to have a male singer in a male role, the foremost concern is whether a countertenor, however gifted, can cope with the tessitura of a role conceived for a female soprano, even a Baroque role in which tessitura was generally lower than what is considered typical for soprano roles by later standards. In most cases, the modern countertenor voice, weaker above and below the staff than the voices of most female singers, is simply not suited for the higher tessitura of soprano roles. Mr. Jaroussky’s voice is naturally lighter and higher than those of most modern countertenors, however, and the degree to which he succeeds in this performance is a testament both to his extraordinary artistry and to Händel’s acumen for composing music that is eminently singable even when formidably complex. It would be dishonest to suggest that Mr. Jaroussky sounds consistently masculine (and, indeed, in this as in other performances he sometimes achieves this less than some female singers have managed) but his singing is consistently shaped with style, grace, and genuine beauty of tone. The highest tones sometimes take on a brittle, slightly pinched sound that, despite creating a certain concern for the longevity of the voice’s natural beauty within such a tessitura, is nonetheless seldom bothersome. Mr. Jaroussky works harder for dramatic effects because his voice is limited in coloration, but he makes his mark with special eloquence in Adolfo’s pensive moments. One occasionally desires greater sharpness in Mr. Jaroussky’s approach, but the technical wizardry and tonal allure of the singing are undeniable.

It is significant that Faramondo’s music was composed for Caffarelli rather than Händel’s ‘usual’ London castrato, Senesino (for whom many of Händel’s greatest heroes were conceived). Whereas Senesino was decidedly an alto castrato whose powerful and beautiful lower register was appreciated by contemporaries, the higher tessitura of roles composed for Caffarelli reveal that he was what more recent operatic conventions deem a mezzo-soprano. In Händel’s autograph, the tessitura of Faramondo’s music is similar to that of Rosimonda’s, again presenting a casting challenge in that the full mezzo-soprano range is not available at a consistent level of quality to most modern countertenors. The full range required for Faramondo is very much available to Max Emanuel Cencic, however, this performance filled with expressive use of the lower register that sounds legitimately like a mezzo-soprano’s chest register (rather than the exaggerated baritone sounds of a falsettist) and top tones that ring with the authority of a dramatic mezzo-soprano. Faramondo is hardly Amneris, of course, but Mr. Cencic sings with such grandiloquence and commanding tone that one is convinced that, for all that it was composed for a castrato, Faramondo is a truly great mezzo-soprano role. Mr. Cencic succeeds beyond Mr. Jaroussky’s achievements in that his Faramondo does manage to sound unquestionably masculine throughout, every inch the proud Frankish king. Mr. Cencic delivers the aforementioned ‘Sì, tornerò a morir’ with heartbreaking beauty of tone, and the bravura arias (not least the stunning aria that ends the first act) are sung with fullness, unerring dramatic verisimilitude, and unimpeachable virtuosity. Embellishments and cadenzas occasionally lean just slightly towards fussiness, but Mr. Cencic delivers every trial and trick with such musicality and emotional directness that criticism is disarmed. His performance on the Ambroisie Rodrigo inspired the hope that Mr. Cencic would be assigned leading roles in future, and this recording rewards that faith magnificently. Without question, this is one of the most impressive examples of countertenor singing on records.

Though not representative, alas, of Händel composing under ideal circumstances, Faramondo nonetheless displays Händel at his best. As he composed Faramondo, Händel – ever a crafty and perceptive man of the theatre – surely knew that the lifespan of Italian opera in London was drawing to its close, but he lavished on this score the finest gifts of his musical maturity, every number in the opera by turns stirring the blood or touching the heart in a manner achieved by only the handful of the greatest composers. Offering a performance that is properly stylish without sounding academic, this recording preserves the work of several fine artists, exhibits in the singing of Philippe Jaroussky and (even more so) Max Emanuel Cencic the fascinating and musically stimulating accomplishments of countertenors in full-scale operatic roles, and in the end is one of the very best Händel operatic recordings known to me.

09 March 2009

CD REVIEW: Georg Friedrich Händel - RODRIGO (M.R. Wesseling, M. Bayo, S. Rostorf-Zamir, K. van Rensburg, M.E. Cencic, A.-C. Gillet; Ambroisie)

GEORG FRIEDRICH HÄNDEL (1685 – 1759) – Rodrigo, HWV 5: M.R. Wesseling (Rodrigo), M. Bayo (Esilena), S. Rostorf-Zamir (Florinda), K. van Rensburg (Giuliano), M.E. Cencic (Fernando), A.-C. Gillet (Evanco); Al Ayre Español; Eduardo López Banzo [recorded at the Arsenal, Metz, France, during March 2007; Ambroisie AM 132]

Perhaps owing its genesis to a request from Ferdinando de’ Medici, Grand Prince of Tuscany, Rodrigo was Händel’s first opera conceived for and composed in Italy. Likely first performed in Florence in the autumn of 1707, two years before Händel’s second and more celebrated Italian commission, Agrippina (premiered in Venice in late 1709), many aspects of the creation and production of Rodrigo remain mysterious. Until recently, the opera was essentially a musical jigsaw puzzle with significant missing pieces, with only Händel’s autograph score available as a resource for evaluating the musical merits of the work. Händel’s draft exists with several scenes missing, however, necessitating considerable efforts at reconstruction to facilitate any attempt at performing or publishing the score. The Chrysander edition of Rodrigo published in the 1873 Händel-Gesamtausgabe merely reproduced Händel’s fragmentary draft score. Scholarship and attentive musical detective work during the past three decades have revealed meaningful clues, however, among them several of the items missing from the draft score. Careful examination of period sources and the metrical alignment of text to music in other Händel scores has allowed substitution of music from other works for items that even now are still missing (a practice that is not inappropriate, considering that Händel frequently borrowed from his own works and reused ‘hit tunes’ in multiple scores, particularly when different venues were involved), with only minimal quantities of recitative left to be newly composed in order to preserve dramatic continuity in performance (or recording). This painstakingly restored Rodrigo is recorded here for the first time (the previous recording with Alan Curtis leading Gloria Banditelli and Sandrine Piau for Virgin made use of a slightly different reconstruction by Curtis himself) by Eduardo López Banzo and his period-instrument band Al Ayre Español, an enterprising group sponsored in part by the government of the Spanish state of Aragón. [A recording of Händel’s Amadigi di Gaula by López Banzo and Al Ayre Español is also available on Ambroisie.]

Understandably, Rodrigo more closely resembles Agrippina, musically speaking, than Händel’s later, more familiar operatic scores composed for London. Arias are brief for the most part, with fewer da capo arias than would become typical in Händel’s later operas. Allegorical arias comparing human emotions with natural phenomena (revenge or jealousy as a storm-tossed sea, love as a babbling brook or quiet breeze, and the like) are plentiful. Already apparent, however, is Händel’s remarkable – and, among his direct contemporaries, Vivaldi in the occasional instance excepted, virtually unique – gift for cleverly and effectively characterizing individuals within the drama by the style of their music. Heroic characters are given music of virtuosity greater than that of their colleagues, and virtue is rewarded with music of melodic distinction and poise. As in most Baroque operas, Rodrigo deals with various overlapping amorous intrigues, prompting precarious alliances and evolving intentions that are reflected in music that is often ambiguous of spirit but rarely of quality. While not a score of the uncompromising brilliance of Händel’s later operatic masterpieces, Rodrigo is a distinguished and unexpectedly intriguing piece that will reward the attention of those who feel that there is no Händel opera that is wholly without interest.

Maestro López Banzo has the score, whatever its textual mysteries, firmly in hand, conducting with elegance and a sense of the broader structure of the drama. There are moments when tempi seem just slightly slower than the dramatic situations dictate, but López Banzo is successful (as many of his colleagues in this repertory are not) in never pushing his singers beyond their capabilities. One is thankful, even when there are slight reservations about the speeds of particular numbers, that no one is left gasping behind. Al Ayre Español, while not on the level of Les Arts Florissants or Les Musiciens du Louvre, are nonetheless an ensemble of great quality and virtuosity, producing playing that mostly avoids the abrasiveness of some period-instrument groups. The continuo complement is varied in the manner that produces the best, most engaging results for listeners, but there are inconsistencies with the approach: rather than allying a particular continuo instrument to a certain character or a particular style of utterance (accompanying the recitatives of Esilena, the long-suffering heroine, or those expressing tender, remorseful, or dolorous sentiments with a theorbo rather than harpsichord, for instance), recitative accompaniments are alternated in a straightforward fashion, first voice with harpsichord followed by second voice with theorbo, and so forth. An awareness of which character is singing at a given point is clarified by this method, but the voices of the principal singers in this performance are not similar enough to benefit greatly from this clarification. Dramatic continuity is not discernibly damaged (and perhaps some listeners would not even notice were a more thoughtful approach employed) but an opportunity for tightening the cumulative impact of the performance seems missed. More confusing, however, are instances in which the musical structures are undermined by bizarre harmonic progressions produced in the penultimate and final harmonies of recitatives. Scholarship is relatively unanimous in asserting that Baroque practice dictated that the final, dominant vocal note of a secco recitative fell on the penultimate chord of the accompaniment, rather than the final note being sung prior to the sounding of the penultimate dominant and resolving tonic chords. This presumably is the presiding intent in this performance, though Händel in his manuscripts often noted the resolution of the continuo (that is, the dominant and tonic chords) following (as opposed to being concurrent with) the voice’s final note: whether this was an effort at clarity in jumbled, handwritten manuscripts or a conscious preference for the execution of the closing cadence chords is a matter for debate. The continuo is here very freely rendered, particularly by the harpsichord (which is not inappropriate, at least in theory), unfortunately sometimes producing dissonances that are not necessarily inherently unmusical but are decidedly contrary to the harmonic language (even at its most chromatic) native to Händel and his most accomplished contemporaries. The extent to which this is bothersome depends upon the individual response of the listener, but it is difficult to ignore instances in which the harmonic blend of voice and continuo simply sounds wrong (or seems to have been conceived by Ravel rather than by Händel). This detracts somewhat from the overall impression of the dedication that shaped this recording. It does not significantly upset the progress of an interesting performance, however, and it is possible that the effect is exaggerated by the resonance of the recording space.

Singing the roles of the hero and his consort, Rodrigo and Esilena, are mezzo-soprano Maria Riccarda Wesseling and soprano María Bayo, respectively. Ms. Wesseling also sang Amadigi for Maestro López Banzo, a performance in which she displayed an attractive voice and commendable musical integrity. This Rodrigo falls short of the level of achievement she attained in Amadigi. Though the voice remains basically attractive, unsteadiness affects portions of Ms. Wessling’s singing of her principal arias. There is also reason to suspect that the tessitura of the role is slightly low for her. Ms. Wesseling animates her recitatives with involved, alert singing that does much to propel the convoluted story, though, displaying an innate understanding of Händel’s style of developing scenes. Ms. Bayo, a distinctive Spanish soprano whose experience in opera ranges from early repertory through Zarzuela to bel canto and Verdi, is a very good singer with a solid technique that emerges relatively undamaged from her performance of Esilena’s music. Ms. Bayo’s bright timbre, though perhaps not ideal for the role of the languishing, put-upon wife, has ample thrust and ascends into the upper reaches of the role’s tessitura without becoming brittle or worryingly acidic. Her performance, too, suffers from bouts of unsteadiness, and there are occasional problems with phrasing and diction (Italian not being the easiest language for native Spanish-speakers, incidentally). Ms. Bayo is an unintended foil for Ms. Wesseling, proving more effective in arias than in recitatives: their voices do not combine especially well for their pair of duets in the final act, however. Both performances are satisfactory efforts by thoroughly professional artists that, despite inspiring enough reservations to impede complete enjoyment, do not betray the music with which Händel entrusted them.

Singing the role of Evanco, son of the previous king of Aragón (who was killed by Rodrigo), soprano Anne-Catherine Gillet sounds convincingly boyish in recitatives, disclosing a bright voice with a solid core. Ms. Gillet’s singing of her arias is exemplary, every technical challenge met unflinchingly. Dramatically, her performance is thoroughly convincing and, in the opera’s final moments (in which Evanco is united with his beloved and granted the throne of Aragón), even touching.

Evanco’s beloved, Florinda, the spurned mother of Rodrigo’s son (spurned because, following the birth of their child, Rodrigo abandoned her when she insisted that he marry her), is sung by soprano Sharon Rostorf-Zamir, an artist of great vocal personality. Never encountering a word, dramatic gesture, or musical hurdle of which she is not the consummate mistress, Ms. Rostorf-Zamir raises the stakes in every scene in which she appears. Equally accomplished in arias and recitatives, she creates not only a character to be reckoned with but also an impressive sense of a wronged woman, justified in her quest for vengeance, who is battered by circumstance not into complacency but into comprehension of her own motives. How beautiful is her singing of her final aria, sung when she is united with Evanco, ‘Begli occhi del mio ben’ (‘Lovely eyes of my beloved’). Ms. Rostorf-Zamir’s performance is a model of Baroque singing in which she fully reveals the beauty and fledgling genius of the young Händel’s vocal writing.

South African tenor Kobie van Rensburg has, not unlike Ms. Bayo, a varied résumé including roles in Mozart, Verdi, and even Wagner operas. It is for his performances of the music of earlier generations of composers that he is most known, however, and his reputation as a Baroque singer of the first order is confirmed by his performance here. Singing Giuliano, Florinda’s brother, Mr. van Rensburg contributes singing that unpretentiously exhibits complete mastery of the idiom, shaping his recitatives with pulsing momentum that never loses sight of the broader musical phrases and offering in his arias exemplary performances of some surprisingly (because composers of the Baroque era, Händel included, rarely lavished their finer inspirations on tenor roles) beautiful music. In the arias demanding vocal virtuosity, Mr. van Rensburg delivers in spades, deftly managing even the most cruel coloratura passages and offering ornaments that are adventurous and invigorating without risking tastelessness. In arias expressing softer sentiments (which, considering the nature of the character, does not imply tender love songs), there is a comparable softening of the tone and use of a mezza voce that is, in a word, exquisite. Mr. van Rensburg never errs musically and dramatically and, what is very rare not only in Baroque operas but in those of all musical eras, creates a character who is decidedly more than what he is given to sing.

Though granted by the composer (or by what we can ascertain from the remnants of his intentions) only two arias, Fernando – Rodrigo’s general who feigns a change of allegiance by proposing a secret meeting and alliance with Giuliano, only to capture Giuliano in an ambush and deliver him to Rodrigo – plays an important role in the drama. In the second act, he is sent by Rodrigo to broker peace with Evanco by offering Giuliano’s return in exchange for an end to the siege of Seville but pays with his life for his deceptive tactics when Evanco fells him with an arrow before his task is accomplished. This performance of Fernando offers proof of the adage that there are no insignificant roles, only insignificant singers. In a role with only two arias, both of them brief, it would indeed be tempting to cast an insignificant singer. That temptation is avoided entirely in this recording by the casting of the wonderfully talented countertenor Max Emanuel Cencic. Singing with delightfully firm and centered tone, Mr. Cencic never allows the listener to forget that Fernando is a formidable warrior, noble and proud but also capable of stinging treachery. Mr. Cencic brings fire and welcome power to his recitatives and arias, inspiring the desires not only that he had been given by Händel more to do but also that he might have been given a chance to sing Rodrigo. Unfulfilled desires notwithstanding, Mr. Cencic again shows himself to be an artist of important stature who, by the gifts of a truly attractive voice and an uncommon insight not just for singing notes but for shaping roles, is among the very finest countertenors gracing the world’s stages.

Those who love Händel’s music are prone to greeting every new recording of one his operas with unabated appreciation and proclaiming those that are little known rediscovered masterpieces. Rodrigo cannot quite claim to deserve that distinction, but it is a fine work that reveals much about Händel’s early career in Italy and the musical development that led to the undisputed masterworks of his operatic maturity. Questions of scholarship and some few reservations concerning singing and playing aside, this is a performance that offers genuine pleasure and, in the performances of its Florinda, Giuliano, and Fernando, boasts some of the finest singing of Händel’s music to be heard on records.

07 March 2009

CD REVIEW: Vincenzo Bellini - I CAPULETI E I MONTECCHI (A. Netrebko, E. Garanča, J. Calleja; DGG)

VINCENZO BELLINI (1801 – 1835) – I Capuleti e i Montecchi: A. Netrebko (Giulietta), E. Garanča (Romeo), J. Calleja (Tebaldo), R. Gleadow (Lorenzo), T. Bracci (Capellio); Wiener Singakademie, Wiener Symphoniker; Fabio Luisi [recorded ‘live’ during concert performances in the Wiener Konzerthaus, April 2008; DGG 477 803 1]

For an aficionado of Baroque repertory such as myself, the past few years have been a veritable Golden Age despite the monumental struggles of the recording industry, with standard-setting recordings of Baroque works appearing at a steady pace and still more on the horizon (not least with the impending release of Alan Curtis’ new studio recording of Händel’s Alcina with the remarkably gifted Joyce DiDonato in the title role). However passionately we might debate the extent to which the precise performance practices of the Baroque are understood and replicated in modern performances, it cannot be doubted that the current musical scene is endowed with singers uniquely capable of effectively performing Baroque music, not solely in executing the often tremendously complex technical feats but also in communicating the emotional involvement, sometimes elusive, inherent in Baroque music. It is unfortunately true enough that there are few ‘great’ singers before the public now who do full justice to the standard repertory works of Mozart, Puccini, Strauss, Verdi, and Wagner, but there are extraordinary singers – artists like DiDonato; the wonderful mezzo-sopranos Romina Basso, Vivica Genaux, Sara Mingardo, and Sonia Prina; sopranos Rosemary Joshua and Sandrine Piau; tenors Mark Padmore and Kobie van Rensburg; and revelatory countertenors Max Emanuel Cencic, David Daniels, and David Hansen – who illuminate music of the Baroque in ways that convey its brilliance and soul-lifting beauty to contemporary listeners. Perhaps it would be a slight overstatement to suggest that the Flagstads and Melchiors of our time sing Händel and Monteverdi rather than Wagner (with an affectionate memory of the fact that Flagstad, of course, sang Gluck, Händel, and Purcell, if without what we now understand – or feign to understand – as appropriate stylishness with compensatory grandeur of tone and demeanor and complete conviction), but it is surely significant that an opera company such as the Metropolitan can more effectively cast a score like Giulio Cesare or Rodelinda than Aida or Tannhäuser.

The state of bel canto prevaricates between these extremes of feast and famine, as can be discerned from the current MET season with its largely disappointing Lucia di Lammermoor and the new Mary Zimmermann production of La Sonnambula, which is at least sung very well by Natalie Dessay and Juan Diego Flórez. Though success is variable, what is unwavering is the desire of singers to sing bel canto repertory, whether or not their voices are suited by nature or matters of technique and temperament to it. The glorious outpourings of melody are appreciated by audiences even when the accompanying dramas are inane, and proportions of rough singing are forgotten when the music is so beautiful. More damaging are the intentions of managements and artsits’ representatives to cast singers in bel canto works at any cost, following the examples of Callas and Sutherland in that a great Lucia is a more lasting (and more marketable) entity than a great Rusalka or Fiordiligi. Many performances of bel canto scores are bruised by inattentive singing by ambitious singers intent on enjoying star turns in works that are essentially efforts in careful collaboration among singers, orchestra, and conductor.

In previous generations, bel canto was often the link between the Baroque and later, large-house standard repertories. A singer as talented as Tatiana Troyanos was equally effective, by means of secure technique, interpretive genius, and finely-honed performance instincts, as Händel’s Giulio Cesare (and even Cleopatra, as she proved in a studio recording for DGG) and Mozart’s Sesto as she was as Strauss’ Composer (Ariadne auf Naxos) and Wagner’s Waltraute (Götterdämmerung, which she memorably sang in the MET’s 1993 Ring, shortly before her untimely death, opposite the Brünnhilde of Dame Gwyneth Jones), an expanse she spanned with stirring performances of bel canto repertory exemplified by her towering Adalgisa in Norma and a legendary Romeo opposite the Giulietta of Beverly Sills in a Boston production of I Capuleti e i Montecchi. For Troyanos – as for her colleague on the opposite shore of the Atlantic, Dame Janet Baker – this versatility was neither a stunt nor, at least on the whole, unchecked ambition. Troyanos surely understood that bel canto is by its nature the offspring of the Baroque and Classical styles as well as healing balm to the voices of those who spend their careers singing Verdi and Wagner.

It is unquestionably ambition that motivates this new recording on Deutsche Grammophon of Bellini’s I Capuleti e i Montecchi, however, as it is (as was the DGG Bohème with Netrebko and Villazón) sponsored and co-produced by the arts management house IMG Artists. It is not difficult to wonder, when approaching this recording, whether it is intended primarily as a fluent, competitive performance of Bellini’s setting of the tragedy of Romeo and Juliet (though it is important to note that Bellini’s opera is not based upon Shakespeare’s play, which was virtually unknown in Italy at the time when Bellini composed) or as an attractively-presented trinket for the souvenir shoppes where IMG’s artists appear. Still, any lover of bel canto and of Bellini in particular (among whose ranks I emphatically am, for all my affection for and devotion to Baroque music considering Norma perhaps the most perfect opera ever composed) rejoices at the appearance of a new recording produced under the auspices of a major label. Even after nearly two hundred years have passed since the opera was new, there is much pleasure to be had from Bellini’s treatment of Verona’s most famous star-cross’d lovers.

In the context of this recording, primary focus will undoubtedly be (as IMG would demand) on the Giulietta of Anna Netrebko. Ms. Netrebko has been traveling a well-publicized route through the most known bel canto heroines, her first performances following the birth of her son having been as Lucia at the Mariinsky, followed by a reprise of the role at the MET. She is now singing Giulietta in a recycled production of Capuleti e i Montecchi at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, to generally positive notices. Her contributions to this recording, derived from critically-acclaimed concert performances in Vienna, are both interesting and infuriating. Technical shortcomings are almost always apparent in Ms. Netrebko’s performances of bel canto roles, and this Giulietta displays an arsenal of approximated negotiations of coloratura passages, clumsy handling of long-breathed phrases, and trills that cannot even be credibly faked. Possessing an essentially lyric voice with a dark timbre not atypical of Russian and Slavic singers and relative security throughout the range when not pushing the voice, Ms. Netrebko is not nature’s intention for a bel canto heroine, however much she, her management, and opera house administrators may wish to convince listeners otherwise. With such a voice allied with a beautiful form and generally effective stage presence, there is great potential for Ms. Netrebko to prove a splendid Natasha (as she did, to an extent, earlier in her international career) and Tatyana. Why, then, must she exploit her gifts of natural beauty and an attractive voice, as well as her extraordinary popularity, by erroneously laying claim to the bel canto heroines? There are moments of accomplished singing and dramatic gravity in this Giulietta, including a very fine account of the closing duet, but the tragedy comes from the music (evidence of Bellini’s genius) rather than the eloquence of the singing (at which Bellini would surely be disappointed). When expectations are so high and the inherent possibilities of the voice so fine, a smudged and blank performance such as this is especially exasperating. Ms. Netrebko never embarrasses herself, but a safe performance is not a rewarding performance: Giulietta demands more, and Bellini deserves more. This is not riveting music drama, but it is thrillingly beautiful, beguiling, and soul-stirring music. Ms. Netrebko’s fans, ready to forgive all in the adoration of their diva, will treasure her performance here: those who treasure Bellini’s music will listen, thankful to hear a major-league performance of what has been deemed by the operatic establishment a minor-league work, and return to the EMI recording with Beverly Sills, who despite her audible years of service appreciates both the role and her music enough to confront them seriously, openly, and with endearing emotional honesty.

Before coming to the rest of the cast, a few words concerning the choral and orchestral forces and the conducting are required. The singers of the Wiener Singakademie (a choir once directed by Brahms) contribute singing that is consistently well-blended and mostly appropriate to the varying dramatic situations. The beautifully muted singing in the choral contributions to the second-act duet for Romeo and Tebaldo suggests the ‘Miserere’ that shapes Leonora’s scene in the final act of Verdi’s Trovatore. The Wiener Symphoniker, not an ensemble with the same polish and distinction of the more famous Wiener Philharmoniker, nonetheless play very well indeed, with the frequent solo passages being played with great eloquence. The solo clarinet that opens the aforementioned duet for Romeo and Tebaldo with what is very like the slow movement of a great clarinet concerto is especially poignantly and brilliantly played. Maestro Luisi’s tempi occasionally seem rather deliberate but rarely disfigure Bellini’s musical structures or deprive the performance of impetus. Replacing Ms. Netrebko with a more assured and more psychologically involved Giulietta (Annick Massis, for instance) could perhaps have inspired Maestro Luisi to even greater command and produced a remarkable, enduring performance.

Singing Capellio and Lorenzo respectively, Tizianno Bracci and Robert Gleadow are professional and efficient without being memorable. It must be granted, however, that theirs are not roles that often produce memorable performances.

As Romeo, Latvian mezzo-soprano Elīna Garanča contributes a good deal of very fine singing, building upon the positive impression made by her Adalgisa (recorded in concert by Nightingale Classics) opposite the Norma of Edita Gruberová, Giulietta to the Romeo of Agnes Baltsa in a previous Covent Garden run (subsequently recorded by EMI). Not unlike Tatiana Troyanos and Dame Janet Baker, Ms. Garanča is a versatile singer whose noted roles include, along with Adalgisa and Romeo, Massenet’s Charlotte and Strauss’ Octavian. Bolstered by a refreshing freedom from mannerisms and a solid technique, Ms. Garanča succeeds in applying her bright timbre to Romeo’s darker passions. Coloratura passages are mostly delivered with aplomb, and Ms. Garanča brings considerably greater resources of taste and emotional depth to her singing than are heard from Ms. Netrebko. The two singers combine effectively for a convincing account of the final duet, however. With only the lowest portion of her range displaying slight weakness and huskiness (not unlike Leontyne Price in a role like Aïda), Ms. Garanča displays complete mastery of Romeo’s tessitura, with an exciting excursion to top C in the duet with Tebaldo. The morbidezza demanded by the role is achieved through careful attention to the text and a pointing of the sound that largely avoids stress. Without effacing memories of Giulietta Simionato, Ms. Garanča proves a credible, often exhilarating Romeo worthy of standing in Simionato’s company.

With the Tebaldo of Maltese tenor Joseph Calleja this performance achieves its greatest success. Bringing precisely the sappy, Italianate tone for which the role begs and a beautifully-placed timbre with greater weight than many of his rivals in the role, Calleja sings with expert musicality and great sensitivity from his first note to his last. Tebaldo’s first-act aria and cabaletta are delivered with swagger and vocal exuberance, characterizing the hot-blooded young man to perfection. In the second-act duet with Romeo, Mr. Calleja pours forth floods of golden tone, recalling the young José Carreras, and strikes sparks off the flint of Ms. Garanča’s impassioned singing. Learning of Giulietta’s presumed death, a veil falls over Mr. Calleja’s singing that conveys heartbreaking grief and guilt without in any way dissipating the ardor of his vocalism. Already a fixture on the world’s most important stages, Mr. Calleja nonetheless announces his presence among the best singers of our time with this performance. Even considering that his competitors include Nicolai Gedda (commanding despite being strained and past his best) and Ramón Vargas, Mr. Calleja here contributes what seems, on balance, the best Tebaldo on records by a considerable margin.

Callas and Sutherland never sang Capuleti e i Montecchi, instinctively knowing better than to venture staged performances of a wilting ingénue over whose fate she herself has little control. Callas and Sutherland also knew that bel canto is more than doe-eyed sopranos mooning over tenors and interpolating tones above top C. A great performance of a bel canto score proves that, even when listeners are treated to those interpolations in alt (as, except in a few instances, they are not in this recording of Capuleti), accomplished singing, open-hearted acting with the voice, and the shimmering beauty of the music create a truly memorable musical experience. If this Capuleti ultimately is not that, it has in Elīna Garanča a compelling Romeo and in Joseph Calleja an undoubtedly great bel canto singer.

03 March 2009

CD REVIEW: Benjamin Britten - BILLY BUDD (N. Gunn, I. Bostridge, G. Saks, N. Davies, A. Kennedy; Virgin)

BENJAMIN BRITTEN (1913 – 1976) – Billy Budd: N. Gunn (Billy Budd), I. Bostridge (Captain Edward Fairfax Vere), G. Saks (John Claggart), N. Davies (Mr. Redburn), J. Lemalu (Mr. Flint), M. Rose (Mr. Ratcliffe), A. Elliot (Red Whiskers), D. Teadt (Donald), M. Best (Dansker), A. Kennedy (Novice), R. Williams (Novice’s Friend); Gentlemen of the London Symphony Chorus, Members of the LSO St. Luke’s Youth Choir, London Symphony Orchestra; Daniel Harding [recorded ‘live’ during concert performances in London’s Barbican Centre, 5 – 9 December 2007; Virgin Classics 50999 5 19039 2 3]

For an erstwhile admirer of the operas of Benjamin Britten, the release of a new recording of any of his operatic scores is noteworthy, whatever the provenance of the performance at hand. Despite being perhaps the most musically sophisticated but also approachable operatic works available to native speakers of English, productions of Britten’s operas outside of the U.K. are not plentiful, and current economic conditions are likely to further suppress even the noblest intentions to put on Britten’s operas. When faced with the decision of either producing a reliable audience-pleaser like La Bohème or Le Nozze di Figaro or taking a greater risk with Albert Herring or The Turn of the Screw, a cash-strapped opera company must be forgiven for choosing the score that is likely to fill the greater proportion of seats. Still, Britten’s operas enjoy the respect and the ostensible inclusion in the accepted universal operatic canon – though admittedly more by reputation than by actual experience – that their musical importance and psychological significance merit.

Among Britten’s operas, Billy Budd surely enjoys more productions than his brethren, especially in the United States. Perhaps one explanation for this preference is that the score is of a more conventionally operatic scale (which is to say, in a word, grand) than Britten’s other operas. It could also be argued, from the perspective of enterprising managements, that the prospect of a virile, handsome young baritone often singing his role in an abbreviated wardrobe is at least in theory capable of creating box-office success, even if the audience would really rather hear that young baritone sing ‘Contessa, perdono.’ By its construction, Billy Budd requires the sort of grandeur that is typically associated with opera, and its appealing story of betrayal and tragedy on the high seas has the tremendously impressive literary distinction of having been derived from the work of one great writer, Herman Melville, by another, E.M. Forster. This literary heritage bridges the gaps between America and Britain, in essence, and provides a work to which English-speaking audiences on both shores of the Atlantic can respond with equal comprehension and relevance.

The performance recorded by Virgin during concerts at London’s Barbican Centre during December 2007 capitalizes on this transatlantic cooperation by assembling a talented British cast around an American Billy, as Britten did on the opera’s first night by casting Theodor Uppman in the title role. Yet this is, in virtually every way, a very different Billy Budd than Britten presented in the opera’s first production and in his studio recording for DECCA (on which British baritone Peter Glossop sang Billy).

Conducted by Daniel Harding, the London Symphony Orchestra play magnificently throughout, producing tone that reveals many of the nuances of Britten’s composition and reminds the listener that this is, after all, the most opulently orchestrated of Britten’s operas. Orchestral felicities are plentiful, and individual instruments and combinations of instruments emerge wondrously from the broader soundscapes. Particularly impressive is the playing of the alto saxophone in the scene in which the Novice is led back onto the deck after having been flogged: the plaintive sound of the instrument, allied with the beautifully-shaped phrasing of its player, makes a tremendous impact, heightening the emotional immediacy of the scene. Overall, however, the playing of the orchestra seems curiously muted, though perhaps this ultimately is a result of the engineering, microphone placement, or mastering of the recording itself.

The choristers also turn in a fine performance, impressing with their accurate singing and firm lines in the sea shanties and sometimes dirge-like choruses. There is a lingering suspicion that these mariners are a less lively lot than the crew of the Flying Dutchman, however, and a persistent lack of animation damages not only the momentum of the score but also its cumulative impact. Billy Budd is, like all of Britten’s operas, essentially a community drama centered in the establishment, development, and disruption of personal relationships within the larger assembly. When the denizens of that community do not pulse with life and passion, even if subdued, the sharpest points of the drama are blunted. A Billy Budd that lacks a rambunctious crew of lusty sailors who howl their hatred of the French to the winds and growl their dissatisfaction manfully is like a Peter Grimes in which the townspeople are little more than an Episcopalian church choir: simply good singing when the emotional temperature remains low goes for nothing, and the crushing weight of the community that closes in on the principals, the most significant factor in the central drama inherent in any Britten opera, is lost. Whether one is willing to sacrifice an element of accuracy in the interest of drama, in this case a sort of desperation audible in the singing, is a matter of individual preference, but the overall trajectory of Billy Budd as music drama falls short of the target when, as in this performance, the choral singing fails to overwhelm with its testosterone-driven vigor.

The extent to which Daniel Harding’s conducting can be blamed for the reserved orchestral playing and choral singing is difficult to discern. Harding is, of course, admired for his leadership of Britten scores, and his attentive and rather nervous conducting (ideal in the context) of Virgin’s earlier recording of The Turn of the Screw, also with Ian Bostridge, significantly increased my expectations for this Billy Budd. Whereas Harding seemed to so intuitively take to Turn of the Screw, Billy Budd seems to elude him to a degree. Nothing is sloppy or obviously wrongheaded, but it could be justifiably argued that Harding occasionally takes too long in making a particular point, undermining the larger structure of the drama. There is evident musical finesse and an impressive command of orchestral color, but the emotional essence of Billy Budd is not given its due. This contributes to a ponderous manner that, rather than enhancing the weight of the drama (as may have been the intention), weighs down the performance.

Among the secondary cast, there is much impressive singing, not least from the wonderfully articulate and touching Novice’s Friend of baritone Roderick Williams, who also sings the role of Arthur Jones. Darren Jeffery also makes much of his contributions as the Second Mate and Gunner’s Mate. Andrew Staples’ singing as the Maintop is consistently beautiful despite the treacherous tessitura, and both Daniel Teadt (as Donald) and Andrew Tortise (as Squeak) cope with near-equal poise with their challenging music. Among the lower voices on deck, as it were, the balance of the opera is nearly upset by imperturbably fine singing from Neal Davies as Mr. Redburn, Jonathan Lemalu as Mr. Flint, Matthew Rose as Mr. Ratcliffe, and Matthew Best as Dansker. Each of these singers animates his lines with good diction and generally lovely tone, creating an ensemble with life and tentative camaraderie that, sadly, can only partially compensate for the equivalent deficiency among the chorus.

Special mention must be made of the Novice of young tenor Andrew Kennedy, an ideal convergence of artist and role at precisely the right time in his career. The tone is fresh, bright, and very beautiful, and the weight of the voice is of near-perfect proportions for the music. Mr. Kennedy’s dramatic instincts are spot-on in a role that too often seems a whiner: this Novice is genuinely devastated by his unfair punishment (another instance of that betrayal in a personal relationship within the vaster community, as becomes apparent when the Novice later sings to Claggart, ‘And you said you’d protect me, spoke so fatherly to me when you found me crying.’), tremblingly eager to do Claggart’s bidding in order to prevent further punishment, touching in his sadness at being forced by fear to betray Billy, and honest with his trepidation at confronting Billy with his false exhortation to mutiny. This is perhaps the most impressive Novice on records, and Mr. Kennedy’s beautiful voice and pensive manner of singing suggest a very promising Vere of the future.

The Vere of the present is Ian Bostridge, a celebrated singer whose work I have almost always failed to enjoy. His Peter Quint as recorded for Harding was a strange creature, and Vere certainly has his own neuroses. Taken on its own merits, Mr. Bostridge’s is an interesting and effective Vere, quite different from the noted portrayals by Sir Peter Pears, Philip Langridge, and Anthony Rolfe Johnson. Mr. Bostridge’s voice is a small one that retains something of the British choirboy timbre, somewhat white in tone and of limited resources of both range and dynamics. Vere is a thoughtful man, however, certainly more scholar than warrior despite the enthusiasm of his crew (he is encountered below deck reading Plutarch, after all), and the element of aristocratic bearing inherent in Mr. Bostridge’s performance is not inappropriate. This performance differs from that of Sir Peter Pears in that Pears’ aloofness from his crew derived from an emotional complexity that was foreign to the men under his command: with Mr. Bostridge’s Vere, there is the sense that the distance between captain and crew is more intellectual than emotional. This Vere recognizes Billy as good and Claggart as evil (as he states explicitly) almost in the manner of mythological or historical figures. With Pears’ Vere, there was a discernible connection with Billy as an embodiment of the humanistic philosophical ideal of Good. Mr. Bostridge’s conception is a valid approach to the role, and the sometimes preening mannerisms of his singing that can approach archness (he seemingly has never met a word with an ‘r’ that cannot be trilled, for instance) do not intrude as greatly into an effective performance of Vere as they might in another role. Examined solely as singing, Mr. Bostridge occasionally struggles with the tessitura, with some efforts in the upper register being decidedly more effortful than others, but the basic sound of the voice is not unappealing. Though there are subtle reservations and certain differences from what might be considered an ideal Vere after the Pears model, this is a credible and engaging performance, a success if not an absolute triumph for Mr. Bostridge, and surely one of his finest performances on records.

Claggart, Melville’s and Britten’s personification of manifested evil, is sung in this performance by Israeli bass-baritone Gidon Saks (who also sang Hunding in a vocally accomplished Walküre that I attended at Washington National Opera). Suspicions that Mr. Saks is artificially producing sounds darker than are naturally at his command build as the performance progresses, but nothing is shirked or short-changed. The malevolent histrionics are occasionally painted in colors that are too bold, robbing the performance of nuance and psychological depth. Mr. Saks underplays the homoeroticism suggested in his monologue (and increasingly – wrongly – at the heart of productions of the opera), creating an impression more of jealousy than of any carnal desire, but he allows a lyrical line and caressing of the text to inform his singing in a manner that offers an expectedly tender facet to a decidedly nasty personality. This Claggart’s cruelty, particularly with the Novice, seems less masochistic than merely crass. As with Vere, this is not a performance that sets a standard for the role but is nonetheless effective in context.

Foremost attention, especially among American listeners, may well be upon Nathan Gunn, here singing Billy as he has done throughout the world during the past decade. Equipped with a physique ideal for the role and a baritone of medium weight, Mr. Gunn has enjoyed enormous success in many of the world’s greatest opera houses with his performances of Billy Budd. In the context of an audio recording, and even more so in one drawn from concert performances, it is only the vocal profile that Mr. Gunn brings to the role that can be considered. In this regard, he faces comparisons with very impressive competitors: the simply ideal Uppman, hand-picked by Britten for the opera’s first night (and thankfully recorded from the wings by the singer’s wife); the burly Glossop, who sang the role under Britten’s direction for the DECCA recording; Thomas Hampson, another American appreciated for the refinement of his singing (and also recorded in concert performances given in Manchester); and Simon Keenlyside, a manly but poetic Billy born to the tradition. If one considers only the voices of these singers, taking into account none of the quirks of their individual interpretations, Mr. Gunn comes in at the bottom of the list, his voice firm and attractive but not of memorably superb quality. Factoring in the characterizations, the field becomes more muddied. With Uppman, one encountered a Billy uncompromisingly good, quick to piques of temperament because he was incapable of comprehending anything but honest, plain dealing with his comrades. Glossop’s Billy was a resoundingly proper bloke, a bit of a simpleton surely, but to his fingertips the sort of forthright, blissfully uncomplicated chap with whom every man wants to share a pint at day’s end. Hampson’s Billy was a dreamer, an Everyman poet, and rather too much so, but resolute in adherence to his ideals of loyalty and transparency. Keenlyside’s Billy, more thoughtful than some, matched an abundant good nature with a youthfully exuberant spirit. With Mr. Gunn’s Billy, one senses few if any of these traits: it is merely a thoroughly capable performance, often genuinely beautiful and never less than professional, by a very good baritone. It is easy to admire the secure tone and competence that permeate Mr. Gunn’s singing, but he does not create a Billy who lingers in the memory or inspires true empathy.

Lacking a central protagonist with a persona justifying the focus of an opera of this stature and a sense of the propulsive, destructive community so crucial in a Britten score, this Billy Budd – a very musical performance with many positive aspects – fails to generate the incredible power that lurks beyond the notes. On the whole, despite what was almost certainly scrupulous preparation and an expensive cast, the recording satisfies as a distinguished performance of a repertory opera but disappoints as a recounting of the tragedy of Billy Budd.

02 March 2009

PERFORMANCE REVIEW: Harpsichord Recital by Jory Vinikour (College of Charleston, 23 February 2009)

It could seem to the casual reader that this site is increasingly an homage to the formidably talented harpsichordist Jory Vinikour. This site is an homage to what its humble author discerns as the finest musical art in our time, however, and this by necessity includes a measure of attention for great artists. Mr. Vinikour is among the sadly few truly exceptional artists whose work I have encountered during my thirty-one years, and I feel emphatically that any individuals who have heard Mr. Vinikour’s playing or witnessed his operatic work (most recently in Zürich, with a revival of the Robert Carsen production of Händel’s Semele, with Cecilia Bartoli) will agree that the brilliance of his musicality and the quality of his contributions to the contemporary ‘early music’ environment fully justify the prominence his performances receive on this site.

Mr. Vinikour returned on the evening of 23 February – incidentally, the anniversary of Händel’s birth in 1685 – to the Monday Night Concert Series put on by the School of the Arts at the College of Charleston. Presenting a program centered on two of the famed 1720 Suites for harpsichord by Händel, Mr. Vinikour offered playing that fully equaled the virtuosity and expressive accomplishments of his College of Charleston recital in April 2008, with even the harpsichord itself sounding (whether by circumstance or coincident) rather better than some months ago. Despite a sonic profile that is not ideal for the timbre of the harpsichord at Mr. Vinikour’s disposal, few details of technical mastery and interpretive insight were blurred for the audience present at the College’s Recital Hall.

The performance began with Händel’s D-minor Suite (HWV 428), into which Mr. Vinikour interpolated the celebrated D-minor Sarabande with variations (HWV 437) as he also does on his exciting recording of the Händel Suites, also recorded in Charleston (at First Scots Presbyterian Church), on Delos (available from Amazon on 31 March). In addition to supplementing the Suite with some of Händel’s best-known music and providing ample opportunities for virtuosic display, the inclusion of the Sarabande with variations provides further evidence of Händel’s sovereign mastery of writing for the harpsichord, as well as his genius for developing and manipulating both the formulaic conventions of his time and the contrapuntal devices inherited from his Teutonic forbears in ways that are fresh and unmistakably Händelian. The Sarabande and its variations are one of the finest settings of the famous Iberian dance ‘La folia,’ a popular tune among Baroque composers for treatment with complex variations in the manner of Johann Sebastian Bach’s Goldberg Variations, with noted settings by Lully, Marais, Alessandro Scarlatti, Geminiani, Vivaldi, Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach, and – perhaps most famously – Corelli, the twelfth of whose Opus 5 violin sonatas is centered on variations on ‘La folia.’ J.S. Bach alluded to the tune in his ‘Peasant’ cantata, and Händel also made use of the tune (the Portuguese title of which translates as ‘madness’) in the title character’s mad scene in his opera Orlando. To suggest that Händel’s treatment of the famous tune in the D-minor Sarabande with variations towers over the similar works by other composers would perhaps unfairly criticize some of these works, particularly those of Corelli and Vivaldi, but Mr. Vinikour’s playing conjured this impression with complete technical command and careful attention to the qualities that set Händel’s work apart, including adventurous chromaticism that makes the journey from the Baroque to Gluck’s ‘reform’ scores and the keyboard music of Mozart seem shorter than other evidence suggests.

Mr. Vinikour brought the same eloquence and all-consuming virtuosity to the other items on the program, including Händel’s G-minor Suite (HWV 432), the wonderful G-major Chaconne (HWV 435), and Johann Sebastian Bach’s A-minor Prelude and Fugue (BWV 895), as well as Bach’s C-minor Fantasia (BWV 906) which served as Mr. Vinikour’s encore. Throughout the performance, Mr. Vinikour reminded the audience that, especially in music for solo instruments of the Baroque era, virtuosity need not be an exercise in emotionless display. Hearing his Suites played with such appreciable attention to detail and their subtle harmonic complexities, one could easily imagine Händel alone at 25 Brook Street, playing these masterpieces for his own amusement in dark hours. Händel’s genius is evident in the fact that music of such bracing difficulty nonetheless discloses a genuine psychological engagement not only with music but with music-making, and Mr. Vinikour’s exceptional talents again make audible that playing harpsichord works by a composer the semiquincentennial of whose death in 1759 is marked this year is not an act of disinterring musical corpses but of sharing beautiful moments of laughter and tears, struggle and success expressed in carefully-executed tones that defy time.