27 October 2009

CD REVIEW: Johann Sebastian Bach – SONATAS FOR FLUTE & HARPSICHORD (Joshua Smith, flute; Jory Vinikour, harpsichord; DELOS)

Johann Sebastian Bach: Sonatas for Flute & Harpsicord (DELOS)

JOHANN SEBASTIAN BACH (1685 – 1750) – Sonatas for Flute and Harpsichord, BWV 1020, 1030 – 1032; Partita for Solo Flute, BWV 1013: Joshua Smith, flute; Jory Vinikour, harpsichord [recorded in First Baptist Church of Greater Cleveland, OH, during December 2008; DELOS DE 3402]

The visceral appeal of music is a marvel that cannot be fully explained with even the most eloquent words.  Physiologically, it is a function of synapses being engaged at an almost primordial level, of extraordinarily complicated series of responses to aural stimuli.  The metaphysics of music, though less tangible in a scientific sense, are more readily comprehensible.  A critical element of the natural grandiloquence of a memorable musical experience is surely derived from the fact that at its heart music is a triumph over the unexpected, over the listener’s fear of disappointment within the limitations of individual exposure.  Because it requires both a medium and an audience, music is never truly solitary and is always new.

Recordings are technological witnesses to listeners’ fears of musical betrayal.  There are those instances in which a listener, having lavished affection on an artist’s recordings, attends a performance by that artist and feels the excruciating deflation of a genuine respect when the artist in the flesh is not an unflawed copy of the artist familiar from records.  Conversely, there are artists of whose prodigious talents in live performance there are only glimpses on recordings.  Invaluable as efforts at preservation in the case of towering individual interpretations and conservation in the case of works that teeter at the edge of obscurity are, recordings are inevitably perilous for artists.  Making a superb recording is not the same enterprise as giving a memorably fine performance before an audience.  It is unfortunately frequent that audiences and listeners discern this before the artists themselves fully fathom the precariousness of their good intentions.

There is no shortage of recordings of the four sonatas for flauto traverso and cembalo offered on this disc by Joshua Smith and Jory Vinikour, with a multitude of versions from both popular concert flautists playing modern flutes and period-performance specialists playing Baroque instruments.  It would be disingenuous to suggest that these sonatas, even with their considerable discography, are standard-repertory fodder, however.  Perhaps, like so many Baroque works that have been revived during the past quarter-century, these sonatas – gems of form that reveal Bach at his apex as a composer of chamber music – have merely awaited discovery by artists who, in performance and on records, not only understand without exaggerating their musical significance but also regard them as their composer must have intended, as vehicles for artistic collaboration and exchange of the highest order.

Without understating the impact of the technical brilliance of the playing, it was obvious to the audience for their December 2008 recital [reviewed on this site] that followed the recording sessions that produced this disc that Mr. Smith shared with Mr. Vinikour completely natural affinities for the collaboration and exchange required by this music, along with an unforced artistic partnership that made their playing seem almost to emanate from two bodies drawing upon one soul.  In the case of that magical evening, it is not merely a poetic conceit to suggest that the soul that inhabited those two artists was Music itself.

Listening to this disc, not as a souvenir of that recital but as a performance with its own unique provenance, it is difficult to keep in mind the work that both artists devoted to this project.  Nothing is shirked, no challenge is met with anything other than absolute mastery, and yet the music-making is of such quality that there is no sense of effort.  For artists who enjoy the levels of virtuosity attained by Mr. Smith and Mr. Vinikour, the supreme difficulties of the music are in its interpretation.  Nevertheless, this appearance of ease should not distract from the incredible feats of technical execution that fill this recording.

The disc opens with the B-minor Sonata (BWV 1030), perhaps the most technically demanding but also rewarding of Bach’s sonatas for flute.  Questions of authenticity surround much of the extant flute music in the catalogue of Bach’s output, but the B-minor sonata is indisputably the work of Johann Sebastian Bach.  In both this sonata and the A-major sonata (BWV 1032), the harpsichord lines are composed in full, a departure from the continuo style of accompaniment typically employed in sonatas for solo instruments by Bach and his contemporaries.  Though limiting the keyboardist’s opportunities for extemporaneous ornamentation, this structure elevates the harpsichord’s music to a stature equivalent to that for the flute, creating a true partnership that must be maintained by both players in order for the music to make its full effect.  The rare grace of the collaboration between Mr. Smith and Mr. Vinikour here bears its sweetest fruit.  With every technical requirement met, these artists explore the emotional niches of this sonata, revealing harmonic progressions that suggest psychological insights one might expect to encounter in the chamber music of Beethoven or Brahms.

The G-minor Sonata (BWV 1020) that follows is somewhat dubious in terms of both authorship and instrumentation.  There exists a version of the score which features a solo violin rather than a flute, and some scholars have suggested (though without offering any compellingly concrete evidence) that the sonata is partially or wholly the work of Bach’s son Carl Philipp Emanuel.  The sonata is a fine work, whatever its origins may be, and it receives a lovely performance from Mr. Smith and Mr. Vinikour.

The E-flat major sonata (BWV 1031) has also been subject to conjecture concerning Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach having lent his hand to its composition, but the considerable quality of the music has ensured that the sonata has remained in the flute canon.  In this sonata, the harpsichord part is conceived more in the traditional continuo fashion of Bach’s time, but the roles are equalized to a great degree in the final movement.  It is the second movement, the Siciliana, that is truly exquisite, however, and Mr. Smith plays the flute’s expansive melodic lines with an ideal blend of freedom and control.  In this context, the Siciliana seems almost a vocalise, the flute taking on the qualities of a delightfully pure, melancholic voice.  The final movement is underlined by a sense of joy that is apparent in the performance it receives.

The last work on this disc is the A-major Sonata (BWV 1032), another piece that is slightly problematic.  Ironically, BWV 1032 was the only one of Bach’s flute sonatas that was preserved in Bach’s autograph manuscript, but this fell victim like so many priceless works of art to World War II.  Forty-six bars from the beginning of the first movement are thus lost to modern musicians, most of whom perform editions that employ a reconstruction utilizing existing thematic material.  Returning to the structure in which the harpsichord part is fully composed, Mr. Vinikour is given (especially in the opening movement) terrific opportunities to display his impressive skills for powerful, theatrical playing.  Pursuing melodic paths that are different but always complementary, both flautist and harpsichordist take parallel journeys that illuminate their individual strengths as prodigiously-talented musicians, their seemingly unflappable instincts for chamber playing, and Bach’s innate genius for injecting even small musical gestures with grandeur.

Mr. Smith completes the disc with a performance of the A-minor Partita for solo flute (BWV 1013).  Consisting of four movements derived from dance forms popular in the Baroque era (Allemande, Courante, Sarabande, and Bourée Anglaise), the Partita offers a compact but comprehensive treatise on Bach’s style of composition for the flute.  Phrases of serene beauty are joined comfortably with passages of bravura intensity, all of them played by Mr. Smith with his customary ‘singing’ tone and attention to detail.  It is worth restating in the context of the Partita that, when listening to this disc, it is easy to forget what a formidable technique is required in order to play the music at this level.

Thankfully, the flute sonatas of Johann Sebastian Bach are sufficiently familiar to musicians and music lovers that Mr. Smith and Mr. Vinikour are spared the daunting task of rehabilitating them.  What they achieve in this recording is the revitalization of the music in a way that, rather than altering the presentation of the works, alters the listener’s perceptions of them.  Listening to this recording, there is the sense not of hearing these sonatas again but of hearing them anew, in a performance that is appropriate to the period in which they were composed but not encumbered by it.  It is Baroque, of course, but Mr. Smith and Mr. Vinikour allow the listener to appreciate through their playing that this is, foremost, music.  The recording is, just as their Cleveland recital was, a complete triumph over the unexpected.

Jory Vinikour [Photo by Kobie van Rensburg]

24 October 2009

ARTIST PROFILE: Andrew Foster-Williams, bass-baritone

Andrew Foster-Williams [Photo by Marco Borggreve]

When at last the clouds of war that obscured the European continent for much of the first half of the twentieth century cleared, it quickly became evident that artistic environments were changed almost as significantly as physical and political landscapes. In the entre-guerres generation, Wagner singing was the crowning glory of the world’s opera houses, with singers such as Kirsten Flagstad, Lauritz Melchior, and Friedrich Schorr setting standards of heroic vocalism that seemed insurmountable – and, to a large degree, remain unmatched even now. After World War II, during which these operatic titans and their contemporaries persevered despite extraordinary hardships and the disturbing Nazi annexation of Wagner’s music, it was undeniable that the musical world bore genuine scars of strife. The age of benchmark Wagnerians, of truly revelatory Brünnhildes and Isoldes – Martha Mödl, Birgit Nilsson, and Astrid Varnay excepted – was in its twilight. In opera as in nature, though, evening paves the way to dawn, and the mid-century sun rose on an era of great male singers, of tenors, baritones, and basses whose extraordinary artistry, versatility, and vocal quality spanned the standard repertory from Monteverdi to Menotti. It was perhaps easy for contemporary observers to underestimate the value of this lode of male vocal talent. These remarkable singers – Bergonzi, Corelli, del Monaco, Tagliavini, and Tucker; Bastianini, Gobbi, Merrill, Taddei, and Warren; Bruscantini, Christoff, Hotter, London, and Siepi – en masse formed an uncommonly reliable base in the pyramidal structure of opera, the foundation being so uniformly impressive that those few high-voiced singers who achieved the dizzy heights of the genre’s zenith shone with new brilliance. A wonder of the operatic world during the decades at the middle of the twentieth century was the way in which companies throughout the world could offer their audiences credible alternating casts of tenors, baritones, and basses in standard-repertory works. Metropolitan Opera audiences for the 1954 – 55 season’s revival of Verdi’s Un Ballo in maschera were not badly served for having to choose between Jan Peerce and Richard Tucker as Riccardo or Josef Metternich and Leonard Warren as Renato. Though Herva Nelli sang Amelia in a Philadelphia performance by the MET forces, the main-stage Ballo in New York in the spring of 1955 had only one soprano heroine: Zinka Milanov. [It is worth noting that it was in this revival that, on 7 January 1955, Marian Anderson made her MET début as Ulrica. Slightly more than three weeks later, Renata Tebaldi made her house début as Verdi’s Desdemona, opposite Mario del Monaco and Leonard Warren and with the young James McCracken in the secondary role of Roderigo.] This production was typical of the era in which a rich field of male vocal talent could be harvested to provide suitably glamorous settings for the rarer stars among female singers.

Also as in nature, however, opera as a living art is cyclical. There are throughout opera’s history discernible vocal and dramatic patterns. In the last decades of the twentieth century, the pendulum swung again in the direction of high-voiced domination of opera, though with the added (and, from the perspective of the great tenors, baritones, and basses of the Mid-Century, surely unanticipated) participation of countertenors. Whereas the MET in 1955 could boast alternating casts of superb male artists to support a single star soprano (two, in fact: Roberta Peters sang Oscar), in 2009 the sopranos, mezzo-sopranos, and – it still seems unlikely, frankly – countertenors find themselves in something nearer to a wasteland among low-voiced singers. [Questions stemming from the obvious fact that, among the MET’s 2009 – 10 roster of celebrated and box-office-star female singers, there are no true successors to Milanov and Tebaldi, nor even the overused but underrated Herva Nelli, will be ignored in the context of this article.] The rosters of the world’s best opera companies include a plethora of sopranos experienced with Donizetti’s Lucia but display an unfortunate paucity of qualified Edgardos, Enricos, and Raimondos. This shift has also enacted an equivalent change in the focus of conventional operatic ‘stardom.’ It is now an atypically talented tenor, baritone, or bass who is a meteor darting through a darkened sky.

In this environment, perhaps it should not have been surprising that the most impressively memorable performance in Washington National Opera’s 2008 production of Händel’s Tamerlano – a production that featured an exceptional mezzo-soprano, a fine young soprano, perhaps the most famous of countertenors, and a tenor who holds the distinction after a long, triumphant career of being perhaps the only living opera singer whose name is almost universally known – came from a young British bass-baritone. In the secondary role of Leone, this remarkable singer rose to the challenge of his only aria, a transplant from another of Händel’s scores, with singing of the sort that regrettably is an endangered species among male singers of his generation. Fuelled by the success of his performances in Tamerlano, Washington National Opera are involved in negotiations aimed at bringing this exciting young artist back to their stage, and Washington-area audiences have reason to give thanks to the National Symphony Orchestra for the opportunity to again hear (as Alaouddin in concert performances of Albert Roussel’s Padmâvatî) the wonderful voice of Andrew Foster-Williams.

Andrew-Foster Williams as Leone at Washington National Opera [Photo by Karin Cooper]

Born in Wigan in Greater Manchester, where he states that he ‘didn’t grow up with Classical music,’ Mr. Foster-Williams pursued musical studies that led him to London’s prestigious Royal Academy of Music, from which he graduated with top honors. In addition to being named an Associate of the Royal Academy, Mr. Foster-Williams won several important prizes during his studies, including the Royal College of Music’s Opera Award, the Flora Nielsen Recital Prize, and the Elena Gerhardt Lieder Prize. Mr. Foster-Williams also took second prize in the 1998 Kathleen Ferrier Awards. These studies and awards built the foundation on which Mr. Foster-Williams continues to build an impressive and stimulating career in both operatic and concert repertory. ‘I spent a lot of time [at the Royal Academy] learning how to sing and discovering the roots of what kind of performer I would like to be,’ he says. ‘I think it’s fair to say that I was a rather green young man when I left college.’

A vital aspect of Mr. Foster-Williams’ artistry is the way in which his performances combine vocal beauty with complete emotional engagement. An insightful attention to the nurturing of this blend was characteristic of Mr. Foster-Williams’ formative operatic experiences. ‘I was extremely influenced by my first singing teacher [Roy Dillon]. He had a profound impact on my life in many ways, and he was solely responsible for my initiation into the world of music. The lasting memory I have of him is his commitment and great love of the art of singing. He made all the hard work, learning, and preparation seem such a pleasure,’ he recollects. Recalling performances that he attended while he was a student at the Royal Academy, Mr. Foster-Williams notes, ‘Whilst I was studiously preoccupied in trying to analyze the vocal skills of the artists I was watching perform, it’s actually performances from the likes of Philip Langridge, Thomas Allen, and John Tomlinson that linger in my mind. These artists are more than great singers: they are masters of communication. They manage to make singing and acting a symbiotic whole. Even as a ‘vocal-obsessed’ student they managed to seduce me into forgetting about my conscious studies and just made me watch them and be immersed in their performance and, therefore, the piece as a whole. These are my kind of singers, and the kind of singer I strive to be myself.’ This goal of being a singer for whom both vocal poise and dramatic verisimilitude are paramount is central to Mr. Foster-Williams’ artistry. His progress in achieving this goal is immediately evident when hearing his singing, even on recordings.

An element of Mr. Foster-Williams’ success as a communicative artist of the first order undoubtedly stems from a quality conspicuously lacking in many young singers: a pervasive self-awareness, or an individual performing philosophy. Mr. Foster-Williams observes, ‘Singing is a deeply personal thing to do, and [singers] are required to ‘lay ourselves on the line’ and be vulnerable every time we do it. As a consequence, we probably spend more time analyzing ourselves, and our equilibrium with the world, than the average person does. When we have found peace with the practical headaches of the profession, and can embrace the magic of the situation we find ourselves in, then the perceptions we have of other things (like art and humanity) are equally positive and have an air of wonder about them. Each day in my work I am immersed in dialectic about love and grief, about faith and power, violence and pity, torment and ecstasy. I feel like my mind and eyes are open to all aspects and interpretations of art – because they have to be. Watching my colleagues create and achieve something exquisite as a daily occurrence is very humbling. This is privilege! Whilst I know I live in a world with much conflict, I feel that, in a small way, I am directly involved in reaching out to those who find some solace in the world of music and theatre.’ His dedications to self-reflection and thoughtful observation of the work of his colleagues are apparent in Mr. Foster-Williams’ singing. His interpretation of Golaud in Independent Opera at Sadler’s Wells’ Pelléas et Mélisande revealed not only a very attractive timbre but honesty, vitality, and emotional directness that made this brutish character unusually moving, even at his most abusive, an accomplishment acclaimed by audiences and critics alike.

Ingrid Perruche as Mélisande and Andrew-Foster Williams as Golaud [Photo by Belinda Lawley]

‘I am very focused when I perform,’ Mr. Foster-Williams says. ‘I don’t allow myself to step out of the moment. I know that if I were to step out of the moment then it all becomes about ‘me’ rather than the music, drama, and audience. It is only when one is focused that one can truly call upon all the resources one has built up and learnt.’ The nature of the roles in Mr. Foster-Williams’ repertory – ranging from Rameau and Händel, through Haydn, Mozart, Rossini, and bel canto repertory, to Britten and Stravinsky – inspires him to refine his approach to vocal acting in order to meaningfully portray such an array of characters to whom, in their turns, virtually no emotions are foreign. ‘It’s about precision,’ Mr. Foster-Williams suggests. ‘It is necessary, sometimes, to portray an emotion in a ‘larger than life’ way in order for it to read on the back row. This should be fine as long as the action and intension [are] very specific, focused and precise. Any flailing around in an uncontrolled way will lose the concentration of the audience. When one is doing something intimate on stage - and the required objective is to ‘draw the audience in’ - then the actions, however minimal, still have to be very focused and with clear intent so that the audience can still read it properly. Precision and clarity must come first before they can give way to spontaneity and naturalness. One has to develop an innate feel for how the audience is reading your gestures and intensions and alter accordingly and constantly. A performer has to understand that the only acceptable performance is one that the audience indulges in.’

Considerations of ‘appropriate’ repertory might seem largely irrelevant in the case of a singer with Mr. Foster-Williams’ versatility. There are in the recent annals of operatic history many instances of very gifted young singers squandering their talents by taking on too many roles – or the wrong roles – too quickly, however. Artistic curiosity is a thoroughly admirable trait, but its mingling with ambition, whether self-imposed or resulting from external pressures, can be fatal for a young voice. To his credit, Mr. Foster-Williams displays an uncanny comprehension of the necessary balance between exploration and setting boundaries within the parameters of one’s own voice. ‘We have entered a potentially dangerous stage in the profession; one in which young singers with great talent are encouraged to do too much too soon,’ he says. ‘The more high-profile work young singers do, the more work they are offered: the eventual result can be disastrous. Lower voices take more time to settle and mature. In this hectic world, it can be frustrating to ‘take time’ (particularly if one is bright and wants to get one’s hands dirty), but strategic building is the name of the game. I have been lucky to have the support of several orchestras and opera companies who have understood the more measured path my voice needed to take.’ It is critical, Mr. Foster-Williams feels, that a young singer ‘is intelligent, trusts one’s own instincts, and aligns oneself with great managers, teachers, and coaches.’

To date, Mr. Foster-Williams’ operatic and concert performances have taken him to the principal musical centers of Europe and North America. On the horizon are débuts with the Detroit Symphony, the Philadelphia Orchestra, and the New York Philharmonic, as well as his first performance in New York’s famed Carnegie Hall. Mr. Foster-Williams’ discography is expanded this month with the release of a new recording of Messiah with Stephen Layton and the Britten Sinfonia on Hyperion. His superb performance in Opera Rara’s studio recording of Mercadante’s Virginia will be followed by his work in the same label’s forthcoming recording of Rossini’s Aureliano in Palmira. For Chandos, Mr. Foster-Williams has recorded the role of Lotario in Händel’s Flavio with Christian Curnyn, with whom he also recorded Ormonte in Partenope. [Click here to explore and purchase items from Mr. Foster-Williams’ extensive discography.]

The impact of Mr. Foster-Williams’ artistry was summarized with near-ideal focus by Nick Kimberley, writing in London’s Evening Standard of Mr. Foster-Williams’ performance in Messiah at St. John’s Smith Square in December 2008. ‘His bass light and flexible,’ Mr. Kimberley wrote, ‘he sang as if telling a story that he really wanted us to understand. That story may be ancient but here it had the urgency of tomorrow’s headlines.’ This eagerness to communicate with audiences through singing is indicative of the integrity with which Mr. Foster-Williams practices his craft. That his work successfully conveys to audiences the stories that he wants them to understand is indicative of the presence of a great artist.

‘The most gratifying element of singing for me has something to do with connection,’ Mr. Foster-Williams says. ‘When I know I have served a piece of music well, and truly connected to an audience, it is the most magical feeling!’ Experiencing Mr. Foster-Williams’ singing, it is apparent that this association between connection and magic is self-perpetuating: audiences connect with his performances because there is in his work that elusive and wondrous element of magic. The shimmering beauty of the voice commands the ears’ full attention, the emotional and intellectual involvement inspire the heart’s complete surrender, and ultimately one leaves the theatre with memories of both performance and performer. In the context of any performance in which he participates, the renown of his colleagues notwithstanding, Andrew Foster-Williams never goes unnoticed.

Andrew Foster-Williams singing Schubert's WINTERREISE

The author’s sincerest thanks are extended to Mr. Foster-Williams for his extraordinary grace, wit, and kindness in responding to questions for this article and for his assistance in providing the photographs used.

Click here to visit Mr. Foster-Williams’ official website.

Mr. Foster-Williams is represented in Europe by Maxine Robertson of Maxine Robertson Management and in North America by Carrie Sykes of Schwalbe and Partners.

13 October 2009

CD REVIEW: Ludwig van Beethoven – SYMPHONY No. 9 (L’Orchestre de la Suisse Romande, Ernest Ansermet; DECCA Eloquence)

Ludwig van Beethoven: SYMPHONY No. 9 (Ansermet; DECCA Eloquence) LUDWIG VAN BEETHOVEN (1770 – 1827) – Symphony No. 9 in D minor, Op. 125: J. Sutherland, N. Procter, A. Dermota, A. van Mill; Choeur du Brassus/André Charlet, Choeur des Jeunes d’Église National de Vandoise; L’Orchestra de la Suisse Romande; Ernest Ansermet [recorded in Victoria Hall, Geneva, during April 1959; DECCA Eloquence 480 0397 (Australia)]

For a piece of such fame and wide-ranging appeal, it is bizarre to note how problematic Beethoven’s iconic Ninth Symphony has proved to be on records.  Seemingly, even conductors for whom the Symphony was a reliably successful concert piece were tempted to unleash distracting and damaging idiosyncrasies in recording studios.  Perhaps it is merely that a listener is carried along in the concert hall by the grandeur of the music, quibbles about the conductor’s approach to this or that passage being swept aside by the overall experience.  The Symphony’s discography is extensive, however, and any listener is virtually assured of finding a recorded performance – or, more likely for true connoisseurs, a group of performances, taken as a whole – that provides satisfaction.

In most instances, it is therefore of dubious interest except to the most obsessive completists when a particular performance of the Symphony is recovered from whatever graveyard there is for recordings, dusted off, and reissued.  Heard with cumulative exposure to nearly eight decades of recorded history, any performance from the archives, as it were, faces comparison with legendary recordings conducted by the greatest baton-wielding luminaries of the twentieth century: Toscanini, Furtwängler, Klemperer, Böhm, Karajan, Solti – an exceptional array of talent ranging from the avant garde late Romanticism inherited from Mahler to post-Impressionist modernism.  That the Symphony not only survives the varied styles of most of these musicians but thrives in some of them is indicative of the true quality of the score, one that in nearly two centuries of being trotted out for every occasion requiring festive music on a suitably grand scale teeters on the brink of imposed banality.  The Ninth may not be Beethoven’s finest symphony, nor indeed truly deserving of the prominent place it holds in the international concert repertory and in the hearts of even casual music-lovers, but it is an important work that manages to be more than a clichéd paean to humanity.

A vital element in a conductor’s successful mastery of the Ninth Symphony, especially on records, is the possession of an understanding that wrong-headed choices in the first three movements are not mitigated by strong work in the universally familiar final movement.  Towering as the final movement is, the Symphony is emphatically a symbiotic whole in which failures in any of the four movements vitiates the impact of the complete piece.  A key to the success of this performance by the Orchestre de la Suisse Romande, which admittedly has never been altogether absent from the shelves but is now granted a new lease on life in a fresh-sounding remastering from Australian DECCA’s Eloquence series, is that Ernest Ansermet displays an inherent comprehension of the fact that the Symphony is a score to be conducted with care and attention to detail from first note to last, without overinflating any of the movements beyond its natural place in the complex structure of the work.

In terms of interpretation and realization of his musical goals, Maestro Ansermet was very fortunate in recording his cycle of Beethoven Symphonies with the Orchestre de la Suisse Romande, an ensemble founded by Maestro Ansermet in 1918 and shaped by his artistic ideals during the forty-nine years of his tenure as the Orchestra’s director.  The unity of approach throughout the Ninth Symphony’s four movements is impressive, with no single movement being given greater emphasis.  The sonorities produced by the Orchestra are unique: from the very first note, the listener is keenly aware that this performance is not coming from Vienna or Berlin.  String and woodwind tones are thinner than in the famous German-speaking orchestras, and there is greater focus on producing a blended sound that encourages an anonymity of individual instruments except in solo passages.  This approach is similar but not identical to the way in which Maestro Ansermet conducted his remarkable recorded performances of modern French and Francophile repertory (de Falla, Ravel, Stravinsky, and the like).  There is a small concession to Viennese tradition, but the style remains very much Maestro Ansermet’s.  Despite sounding very different from most German orchestras and the imitative American and British ensembles that play the Symphony, the Orchestre de la Suisse Romande play very well, facing every challenge with musical integrity that reveals to the listener that emotional engagement with the score is far more meaningful than virtuosity for its own sake.

Some critics have suggested during the past two decades that Maestro Ansermet’s conducting of Beethoven was ahead of its time in the sense that his work resembles that of the later breed of ‘historically-informed’ conductors who seek to restore nineteenth-century practices to modern performances of Beethoven’s music.  The inspiration for these observations is evident in the first movement [Allego ma non troppo, un poco maestoso].  There is a consistent drive for clarity among instrumental textures, with tempi gauged to generate momentum without sacrificing precision and rhythmic buoyancy.  Unlike many latter-day conductors who have justified similar approaches by citing scholars’ opinions, Maestro Ansermet undoubtedly drew his insights from the score.  Rather than consciously striving to pioneer a restoratively ‘informed’ performance philosophy, Maestro Ansermet was conducting as he felt that the music itself dictated.

The second movement, the complicated Scherzo [Molto vivace – Presto], likewise benefits from Maestro Ansermet’s efforts at preserving clarity and bounce.  This is a restrained performance that impresses with its poise, completely avoiding the sometimes exhilarating but more often tiresome sense of barely-averted catastrophe in many go-for-broke performances of the movement.  This performance reminds the listener that the Scherzo truly (for lack of a better word) swings.  This is music played as exciting, tuneful music and not as a string of tones that are primarily symbolic.

The lyrical third movement [Adagio molto e cantabile] finds Maestro Ansermet and his Orchestra at their best, the tempi faster than are often heard and the playing luminous.  Here, too, clarity is at the core of the performance.  Octaves from the strings in the course of the variations reveal minor infelicities of intonation, but the playing of the solo horn is eloquent.  Refusing to exploit the sentimentality of this movement, Maestro Ansermet exhibits an awareness of the notion that despair is not necessarily the impetus of the profundity of Beethoven’s slow movements.  Here, the movement is presented as contemplative rather than despondent, touching the heart as surely with its simplicity as other performances do with dolefulness.

It must be granted that Maestro Ansermet has at his disposal in the final movement an unlikely but uncommonly euphonious quartet of soloists: Dame Joan Sutherland (in her first of many recordings for DECCA), Norma Procter, Anton Dermota, and Arnold van Mill.  Both ladies sing with the beauty and security of tone familiar to listeners who know their contemporaneous work in Händel.  One knows instinctively that with Ms. Sutherland there is no need to fear the high lines of the soprano solos.  Mr. van Mill launches his recitative with obvious relish and rounded tone.  In the course of his contribution, a few instances of questionable German diction undermine the strength of his performance, but it is a strong piece of singing.  The eternally youthful Mr. Dermota is somewhat light of voice for his assignment (and perhaps seems more so when compared with the many performances in which erstwhile Heldentenors struggle with the music) but is steady and ardent.  The female choristers are given an especially hard task, the long-held top A’s revealing weaknesses among the sopranos.  On balance, though, the singing is capable and pleasing; indeed, rather more than that in the work of the solo quartet, who are among the finest on records.

Instrumentally, there are misfires in the final movement, some of which result from Maestro Ansermet’s pacing.  A listener might easily be forgiven when hearing the blatancy of the brass fanfares that launch the movement for imagining that he sees Silver and his ubiquitous rider silhouetted by the rising sun in some high Alpine pass.  As in the preceding three movements, conductor and players make considerable efforts to avoid lapsing into the saccharine murk of facile passion, but there are moments in the final movement in which a more expansive approach would be welcome.  Tempi remain well-judged, but there is a sense of the constant preservation of clarity being at odds with the committed singing of the choristers.  None of the small points of inconsistency throw the performance off course, but the total impact of the final movement is very slightly lessened.  After three unconventional but delightfully challenging movements, the performance of the fourth movement emerges as something of an anticlimax.  It is nonetheless a vibrantly imaginative and rousing performance.

With the boon of an orchestra of his own creation, Ernest Ansermet enriched DECCA’s legacy not only with groundbreaking recordings of ‘new’ repertory but also with a series of Beethoven’s Symphonies that remains competitive because of the conductor’s uncomplicated but poetic manner.  This performance of the Ninth Symphony crowned the superb achievement of that series, and it is impossible to believe when listening to the DECCA Eloquence release that the recording is now fifty years old.  Maestro Ansermet inspired his players and singers to give a performance for the studio microphones that is redolent of the concert hall, quirks marginalized by the persuasive power of the music.  Heart and genuine respect for Beethoven’s coveted score prove more inspiring than oversized musical gestures and Viennese sophistication for conductor, players, and listener.

Ernest Ansermet rehearsing with L'Orchestre de la Suisse Romande

12 October 2009

CD REVIEW: Pietro Mascagni – L’AMICO FRITZ (R. Alagna, A. Gheorghiu, L. Polverelli, G. Petean; DGG)

Mascagni: L'AMICO FRITZ (DGG) PIETRO MASCAGNI (1863 – 1945): L’Amico Fritz – R. Alagna (Fritz Kobus), A. Gheorghiu (Suzel), L. Polverelli (Beppe), G. Petean (David), Y. Kang (Federico), H.-W. Lee (Hanezò), A. Fernández (Caterina); Chor und Orchester der Deutschen Oper Berlin; Alberto Veronesi [recorded during a concert performance at the Deutsche Oper Berlin on 20 September 2008; DGG 477 8358 9]

To many English-speaking audiences, the name Mascagni inspires thoughts almost solely of Cavalleria rusticana, the brilliant success of the composer’s youth that inspired him later in life to lament having been ‘crowned before [he] was king.’  It is unquestionably upon Cavalleria rusticana that Mascagni’s enduring international reputation rests, but he in fact composed a further sixteen works for the stage, many of which were tremendously popular in the years following their first performances.  Some of the finest of these – Iris, Isabeau, Lodoletta, and Il piccolo Marat – have retained their attractiveness to Italian audiences and are still performed in Italian theatres, even without luring the finer singers of our age into participation.

An exception to this neglect by famous singers has to some extent been enjoyed by L’Amico Fritz, Mascagni’s setting of an idyllic but discreetly ironic love story drawn from a French novel by Émile Erckmann and Pierre-Alexandre Chatrian.  First performed on 31 October 1891, the début cast included Fernando De Lucia (remembered by record collectors as a brilliant interpreter of bel canto arias) and Emma Calvé.  During World War II, L’Amico Fritz became a congenial vehicle for Ferruccio Tagliavini and Pia Tassinari, whose popularity in their roles facilitated the opera’s first recording in 1942.  After the passage of twenty-six years, L’Amico Fritz found another pair of ideally-matched interpreters, two young singers who were acquainted virtually from their shared infancy in Modena, Luciano Pavarotti and Mirella Freni.  Following a successful production of the opera at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, EMI captured the charm and freshness of Pavarotti’s and Freni’s performances in the recording studio, producing a lovely, touching, and superbly-sung performance that introduced worldwide audiences to the finest qualities of L’Amico Fritz.

Taken from an almost absurdly acclaimed concert performance at Deutsche Oper Berlin, Deutsche Grammophon’s new recording of L’Amico Fritz both succeeds and fails as a representation of what might be termed a twenty-first century approach to the score and as a successor to the 1968 EMI recording.  Sonically, the DGG set has the clear advantage of modern, digital sound, an advantage that is only very slightly compromised by the ‘live’ circumstances of the recording.  In fact, the Berlin audience for this concert performance were very quiet (or, else, have been very carefully edited), and the ambient noises that affect even the most controlled of ‘live’ recording situations are minimized.  The orchestra of the Deutsche Oper play with tone that, while not idiomatically Italianate in the manner of the formidable La Scala ensembles of previous generations, combines precision with involvement.  Instrumental blends are judged with attention to Mascagni’s often lively and original tonal palette.  The chorus sing with intonational and rhythmic accuracy that do not always avoid conjuring memories of the grand Germanic liturgical traditions, but their diction is generally clear and scarcely encumbered by north-of-the-Alps accents.  As with some of the famous recordings of Italian scores made with Teutonic orchestras by Herbert von Karajan, a measure of authentically Italian chiaroscuro is sacrificed, but the integrity of the music-making by both chorus and orchestra is rewarding in its own right.

Presiding over this performance and contributing to what DGG are promoting as a sort of Verismo Series (following his conducting of the label’s studio recording of Puccini’s Edgar with Plácido Domingo), Alberto Veronesi brings a lively musical intelligence and seemingly genuine interest in the music to this performance.  Concert performances can prove more challenging than staged productions for conductors in that animation and engagement among cast and musicians can be elusive, but Maestro Veronesi shapes the performance in a way that evokes subtle dramatic action.  Though there are instances in which the pacing of individual melodic phrases seems forced, on the whole Maestro Veronesi conducts with grace and an ear for the score’s nuances, avoiding the idiosyncratic missteps of many of today’s operatic conductors but also lacking the complete mastery of the idiom remembered from pre-war conductors.

An obvious advance beyond previous recorded performances boasted by DGG’s new recording is in the casting of secondary roles, which benefit here from several fine voices.  Completely surpassing her recorded rivals is Italian mezzo-soprano Laura Polverelli as the violin-playing gypsy Beppe.  Considerable experience in Baroque and bel canto scores has perhaps provided Ms. Polverelli with a special talent for adapting her lovely tone to male roles.  In this performance, Ms. Polverelli gives Beppe a winsome, even slightly mischievous profile, singing with charm and emotional honesty.  Only occasional bouts with unsteadiness prevent Ms. Polverelli’s performance from being beyond reproach, but she brings to Beppe both a voice and a performance more ingratiating than those of her predecessors.  David, the wily village Rabbi (a kinsman of Alfonso in Mozart’s Così fan tutte and Kecal in Smetana’s Prodaná nevěsta), is sung with assurance and firm tone by the young Romanian baritone George Petean: what is missing is a sense of genuine connection with the character.  David is not, in the context of L’Amico Fritz, a character study of Shakespearean proportions – no Shylock, he – but there are elements of rustic charm, sly but well-intentioned manipulation, and self-effacing humor that are short-changed in this performance.  With a David understated to the point of insignificance, the ironic undertones of the opera are ignored: in short, the opera becomes another unexceptional story of boy and girl overcoming adversity, of a decidedly inert nature in this case, in order to develop a love that has seemed pre-ordained since the curtain went up on the first scene.  None of this is meant to suggest that Mr. Petean’s vocalism is in any way poor, but David is one of those strangely numerous roles in opera in which merely good singing does not carry the day.  The opera’s other, smaller roles are taken by capable singers whose performances do not hide the fact that Mascagni and his librettists (Nicola Daspuro and Giovanni Targioni-Tozzetti) gave them few opportunities to make themselves noticed.

Certainly, the primary focus of any listener who purchases or elects to spend ninety minutes with this recording will be on the star couple in the leading roles of Fritz and Suzel.  It is sadly ironic that this recording of an opera in which two reluctant lovers are brought together is released at the same time at which its stars have publicly confirmed their separation and intentions for divorce.  Nonetheless, personal issues were held at bay for those ninety minutes in Berlin, and we are given a persuasive, even touching account of blossoming love.  It could be argued that the role of an ingénue like Suzel is no longer ‘right’ for Angela Gheorghiu.  She proved herself during the past two Metropolitan Opera seasons to remain effective as Donizetti’s Adina and Puccini’s Mimì, however, and she ultimately proves effective as Suzel, as well.  Ms. Gheorghiu’s voice is darker and less mobile, particularly in the upper register, than it was when her shimmering lyric soprano first captured the attention and appreciation of audiences, but she has developed measurably as an interpreter – rather than merely a singer – of music.  The role of Suzel does not engage the fiery dramatic sensibilities Ms. Gheorghiu has fostered during the past decade of her career, but she is a sensitive and sensible singer who understands the value of letting music of lyrical melodic beauty make its effect without overloading the line with dramatic histrionics.  Still, Ms. Gheorghiu’s approach to Suzel is vastly different from that employed by Mirella Freni, who sang and recorded the role very early in her international career.  Ms. Gheorghiu’s is a more aware, less naive Suzel, one for whom love is a less frightening and embarrassing emotion.  To her credit, Ms. Gheorghiu resists any temptations to artificially lighten or adjust her voice to the requirements of Suzel’s music but also avoids allowing the dark patina of her timbre to create an impression of sluggishness or indifference.  Ms. Gheorghiu sings with passion on an appropriate scale and surpasses her work on several recent recordings, including the much-discussed Madama Butterfly.  Ultimately, it is possible to debate whether Ms. Gheorghiu’s performance amounts to a wholly successful account of Suzel, but her performance impresses when evaluated on its own merits.

There can be little debate about the success of Roberto Alagna’s singing in the title role.  Not unlike Ms. Gheorghiu, Mr. Alagna has developed into an artist of greater subtlety than he was in the early years of his career, the voice gaining thrust but losing some of the pliancy with which he conquered audiences in lyric roles.  As with Plácido Domingo at an equivalent point in his career, Mr. Alagna’s experience in heavier roles is audible, not so much in wear to the voice as in a discernibly ‘larger’ approach to singing in general.  Significantly, some of Mr. Domingo’s finest performances of lighter roles such as Nemorino (a staple of Mr. Alagna’s early career) were sung after his assumption of Verdi’s Alvaro, Don Carlo, and Otello.  There has always been with Mr. Alagna a slightly worrisome notion of very fine natural vocal material being used with imperfect technique.  There have also been numerous instances like those of his two MET performances of Gounod’s Roméo in December 2007, in which, contrary to logic, Mr. Alagna has achieved sublime heights of musical and dramatic eloquence.  If this performance of Fritz does not represent Mr. Alagna at his absolute best, the deviation from that high standard is very slight indeed.  In terms of liquid ease in vocalizing, Mr. Alagna compares unfavorably with Luciano Pavarotti, who – like Ms. Freni – recorded his role in L’Amico Fritz in the early years of his career.  In portraying a rounded character whose emotional responses to the action are inherent in his singing, however, Mr. Alagna is second to no other Fritz on records.  Mr. Alagna brings a stronger tone to Fritz than either Tagliavini or Pavarotti, and this fits ideally with the darker tones of Ms. Gheorghiu’s Suzel.  Most compellingly, Mr. Alagna is completely inside his role, even in the context of a concert performance, using diction and projection to compensate for the elements of lightness and playfulness that may have been reduced by time and a rigorous career.  In moments of stress (which, to be frank, are less plentiful than might be imagined), great care is taken to maintain correct pitch and sustain lines.  It is possible to feel that, taken as a whole, Mr. Alagna’s performance increases Fritz’s importance beyond what can be musically justified, but the quality of the singing and vocal acting are wonderful.  Ms. Gheorghiu’s Suzel is an improvement on some of her recent recorded performances because those showed her beautiful voice subjected to pushing and dramatic overstatement.  Mr. Alagna’s Fritz is among his best recorded performances because it preserves an occasion of committed, emotionally-charged singing from a very fine voice on form.

The two previous commercial recordings of L’Amico Fritz presented listeners with youthful accounts of love blossoming like the vines on Fritz’s estate.  The new DGG recording, largely thanks to the singing of Mr. Alagna and Ms. Gheorghiu, gives a perceptibly more mature view of the score, emphasizing the expansive nature of the emotions at the core of the work.  L’Amico Fritz was Mascagni’s second opera, composed when its creator was in his mid-twenties.  Perhaps the seeming depth of this performance is not altogether faithful to the spirit of Mascagni’s score, but it is thoroughly refreshing to encounter a performance of a heart-on-the-sleeve romantic opera in which it is clear that love is a serious business in which there inevitably are casualties.

Roberto Alagna and Angela Gheorghiu during the 20 September 2008 concert performance of L'AMICO FRITZ