31 December 2012

Celebrating 200 Years of VERDI and WAGNER

Richard Wagner and Giuseppe Verdi

The bicentennials of the births of both Giuseppe Verdi and Richard Wagner will be celebrated in 2013.  One way in which Voix des Arts will mark these milestones will be with lists of various individuals’—artists', critics, and laypeople—personal selections of the finest recordings of these remarkable composers’ operas.  This inaugural list presents the author’s selections, which are based upon personal, occasionally idiosyncratic, ideals of Verdi and Wagner performance.  Ordering is random rather than indicative of any ranking or preference.


(10.10.1813 – 27.01.1901)

Maria Callas as Violetta in Verdi's LA TRAVIATA

  1. La Traviata – Maria Callas, Cesare Valletti, Mario Zanasi; Nicola Rescigno [Live performance, Covent Garden, 20.06.1958; various labels]  This Covent Garden Traviata is, in so many ways, the quintessential Verdi recording.  At its center is the Violetta of Maria Callas, one of the most compelling creations of one of the 20th Century’s greatest artists.  Cesare Valletti, a tenor of uncompromising elegance, perhaps possessed a voice somewhat small for singing Verdi roles in a large house.  Mario Zanasi, too, was not endowed by nature with the vocal amplitude typically heard in Verdi baritone roles.  Alongside Callas, however, both gentlemen give performances that have never been surpassed.  The scene in which Mr. Zanasi’s Germont pleas with Ms. Callas’s Violetta for her to abandon Alfredo for the good of her lover’s sister’s good name is in this author’s opinion the single greatest recorded example of Verdi’s art.
  2. Aida – Giannina Arangi-Lombardi, Aroldo Lindi, Maria Capuana, Armando Borgioli, Tancredi Pasero, Salvatore Baccaloni; Lorenzo Molajoli [Studio recording made at La Scala, 1928; various labels]  Remarkably, two recordings of Aida were made at La Scala in 1928 (as was also the case in 1930 with Il Trovatore: see below), documenting that house’s desire to capitalize upon electrical recording technology to record the age’s great Verdi singers—and the desires of competing record labels to stock their archives with the sounds of idiomatic Italian singing.  Among several fine performances, it is the Aida of Giannina Arangi-Lombardi that is the legendary performance in this recording.  The beauty, power, and absolute security of her voice, allied with straightforward but never simplistic dramatic instincts, make Ms. Arangi-Lombardi an ideal Aida; and one who deserves to be better remembered.
  3. Simon Boccanegra – Lawrence Tibbett, Elisabeth Rethberg, Giovanni Martinelli, Ezio Pinza, Leonard Warren; Ettore Panizza [Live performance, Metropolitan Opera, 21.01.1939; various labels]  Boccanegra has been well served in New York, at least until recent years, and this 1939 broadcast represents the Metropolitan’s standards at their highest.  Few baritones have shown the affinity for Verdi’s music displayed by Lawrence Tibbett at his best, and his Boccanegra is a complicated, vocally sumptuous portrait.  Ms. Rethberg, effective in a wide repertory, is a poised Maria.  Mr. Martinelli, stirring in this performance, was the Adorno of choice for a generation of opera-goers.  Mr. Pinza as Fiesco and the young Mr. Warren as Paolo are paragons of Verdi singing.
  4. Il Trovatore – Carlo Bergonzi, Leontyne Price, Fiorenza Cossotto, Piero Cappuccilli, Ivo Vinco; Oliviero de Fabritiis [Live performance, Teatro Colón, Buenos Aires, 06.1969; various labels]  Few sopranos have been more naturally suited to the music of Verdi than Leontyne Price.  It was as Leonora in Il Trovatore that she made her debut at the Metropolitan, and when she retired from its stage more than two decades later, her Aida remained a performance of considerable power.  This Trovatore from Buenos Aires finds Ms. Price at the height of her powers, taking every challenge in stride.  Mr. Bergonzi does not storm the heavens like Merli, Pertile, or Corelli, but he effectively reminds the listener that Leonora says that Manrico has descended from heaven.  Ms. Cossotto, Mr. Cappuccilli, and Mr. Vinco are captured at their best in a performance that quickens the pulse and touches the heart.
  5. Il Trovatore – Francesco Merli, Bianca Scacciati, Giuseppina Zinetti, Enrico Molinari, Corrado Zambelli; Lorenzo Molajoli [Studio recording made at La Scala, 10.1930; various labels]  Two recordings of Trovatore were made at La Scala within the space of a few days in October 1930.  This performance preserves the Manrico of Francesco Merli, one of Italy’s greatest dramatic tenors and the first Calaf in Puccini’s Turandot to be heard in Britain and Australia.  His Manrico is a dramatic firebrand, the voice ringing out impressively across the years.  His colleagues do not quite reach his level of accomplishment, though Ms. Scacciati is one of the most interesting Leonoras on records.
  6. Il Trovatore – Aureliano Pertile, Maria Carena, Irene Minghini-Cattaneo, Apollo Granforte, Bruno Carmassi; Carlo Sabajno [Studio recording made at La Scala, 10.1930; various labels]  The raison d’être for La Scala’s second 1930 Trovatore recording was Aureliano Pertile, and his Manrico deserved to be recorded for posterity.  The uniquely bronzed timbre is evident in every phrase.  Ms. Minghini-Cattaneo’s Azucena is a justifiably famous performance, a stinging portrait of an unhinged woman seeking revenge.  Phenomenal, too, is Apollo Granforte’s Conte di Luna, a credibly duplicitous and serenely-sung performance by one of the greatest Italian baritones of the 20th Century. 
  7. Falstaff – Giuseppe Valdengo, Herva Nelli, Teresa Stich-Randall, Antonio Madasi, Frank Guarrera, Nan Merriman, Cloë Elmo; Arturo Toscanini [Compendium of NBC broadcast performances of 01 and 04.04.1950; Sony/BMG/RCA]  Arturo Toscanini’s series of Verdi broadcasts for NBC shaped Americans’ perceptions of Verdi’s operas throughout the 1940s and ‘50s.  This Falstaff is one of the most consistently delightful performances among Toscanini’s NBC broadcasts.  None of the singers is among the greatest Verdi singers of the era, but as an ensemble they achieve precisely the comic timing and emotional bite that Verdi’s valedictory masterpiece requires.
  8. La Forza del Destino – Maria Caniglia, Galliano Masini, Carlo Tagliabue, Ebe Stignani, Saturno Meletti, Tancredi Pasero; Gino Marinuzzi [EIAR Torino studio recording, 1941; Warner/Fonit Cetra]  Few performances of La Forza del Destino convey the force of destiny as grippingly as this recording.  Ms. Caniglia was an inconsistent singer, but her Leonora is vastly more interesting and moving than many better-sung performances.  Mr. Masini, Mr. Tagliabue, Ms. Stignani, and Mr. Meletti are found at their best.  Tancredi Pasero, rivaled as an idiomatic singer of Verdi bass roles only by Ezio Pinza, is the definitive Guardiano.
  9. Simon Boccanegra – Tito Gobbi, Victoria de los Ángeles, Giuseppe Campora, Boris Christoff, Walter Monachesi; Gabriele Santini [Studio recording, Rome, 1957; EMI]  Never admired for its engineering or sound quality, this Boccanegra is nevertheless a legitimate benchmark both in the history of the opera and in the Verdi discography.  Tito Gobbi lacked the prodigious vocal resources of Tibbett or Warren, but the sensitivity and ambiguity that he brings to his depiction of the delicate balance between Boccanegra’s public and private personas is magnificent.  It is, furthermore, an important, extraordinary piece of singing.  Ms. de los Ángeles is perhaps not as well remembered as a Verdian as she deserves to be: no other Maria on records achieves the focus, dramatic perfection, technical command, and sheer beauty exhibited by Ms. de los Ángeles.  Mr. Campora is lightweight for Adorno but sings with absolute commitment.  As recorded, Mr. Christoff sometimes sounds as though he is singing through gauze.  He is the finest Fiesco on records by a considerable margin, however, his singing of ‘Il lacerato spirito’ crowning a superb performance.
  10. Don Carlo – Bruno Prevedi, Leyla Gencer, Fiorenza Cossotto, Sesto Bruscantini, Nicolai Ghiaurov, Luigi Roni; Fernando Previtali [Live performance, Teatro dell’Opera di Roma, 24.04.1968; various labels]  This is an overlooked gem in the Don Carlo[s] discography.  Not included among the ranks of the greatest tenors, Mr. Prevedi was an unfailingly musical singer and, in this performance, is a fine Don Carlo.  Ms. Cossotto, Mr. Ghiaurov, and Mr. Roni give enjoyable performances, and it is wonderful to hear Mr. Bruscantini in a ‘substantial,’ serious role.  It is the Elisabetta of Leyla Gencer that should be heard by every admirer of Verdi’s music, however.  This is a woman—every inch a queen—whose passions boil.  Her performance of ‘Tu che la vanità’ is an example of Verdi singing of the highest order.



(22.05.1813 – 13.02.1883)

Birgit Nilsson as Wagner's Isolde

  1. Tristan und Isolde – Jon Vickers, Birgit Nilsson, Ruth Hesse, Bengt Rundgren, Walter Berry; Karl Böhm [Live performance, Chorégies d’Orange, 07.07.1973; various labels]  There are rare occasions in opera on which the stars, celestial and musical, align in perfect arrangement, and this Orange Tristan und Isolde is one of those occasions.  Ms. Nilsson and Mr. Vickers did not often encounter one another as Isolde and Tristan, and this is arguably the finest document of that infrequent union.  Ms. Hesse is an unsung heroine of Wagner singing in the 20th Century, her ironclad technique and beautiful voice having contributed to many great performances.  Mr. Rundgren and Mr. Berry offer alert, involved performances.  Maestro Böhm was an undoubted master of this score, and this performance finds him near his best.  It is a pity about the Mistral, but it was perhaps inevitable that even Nature would be swept along by this performance.
  2. Götterdämmerung – Kirsten Flagstad, Max Lorenz, Ludwig Weber, Alois Pernerstorfer, Josef Herrmann, Hilde Konetzni, Elisabeth Hönger; Wilhelm Furtwängler [Live performance, Teatro alla Scala, 04.04.1950; various labels]  Ms. Flagstad may have been past her best at the time of this final installment of the celebrated 1950 La Scala Ring, but the grandeur of the voice was untouched by the years.  With an uncommonly distinguished cast, Maestro Furtwängler presides over a performance that, according to his correspondence with his wife, he considered one of the pinnacles of his career.
  3. Die Walküre – Helen Traubel, Astrid Varnay, Friedrich Schorr, Lauritz Melchior, Kerstin Thorborg, Alexander Kipnis; Erich Leinsdorf [Live performance, Metropolitan Opera, 06.12.1941; various labels]  One of the most famous broadcasts in Metropolitan Opera history, this performance introduced the world to Astrid Varnay, whose Brünnhildes at Bayreuth a decade later would usher in a new age of Wagner singing.  Here singing Sieglinde, Ms. Varnay gives a glorious performance.  Ms. Traubel was the Metropolitan’s homegrown stand-in after Kirsten Flagstad returned to Norway when World War II threatened to separate her from her husband indefinitely.  She was an important singer and a great Brünnhilde in her own right, and the beauty of her Wagner singing is often revelatory.  Otherwise, this performance displays the strength of the Metropolitan’s Wagner wing during Edward Johnson’s administration.
  4. Tannhäuser – Lauritz Melchior, Kirsten Flagstad, Kerstin Thorborg, Herbert Janssen, Emanuel List; Erich Leinsdorf [Live performance, Metropolitan Opera, 04.01.1941; various labels]  Mr. Melchior was a near-continuous presence in the Metropolitan’s Wagner productions from his debut (as Tannhäuser) in 1926 until his final performance (as Lohengrin) in 1950.  The high tessitura of Tannhäuser’s music has defeated many Heldentenors, but Mr. Melchior encounters few difficulties in this performance—a remarkable feat considering that, within six weeks, he sang Tannhäuser, Lohengrin, Tristan, Siegmund, and both Siegfrieds at the Metropolitan!  It was Ms. Flagstad who ‘carried the honors’ in this performance according to Musical America, however, and her singing of Elisabeth’s Prayer is ravishing.  No one disappoints.  Of how many Tannhäuser performances can that be said?
  5. Lohengrin – Lauritz Melchior, Lotte Lehmann, Marjorie Lawrence, Friedrich Schorr, Emanuel List, Julius Huehn; Artur Bodanzky [Live performance, Metropolitan Opera, 21.12.1935; various labels]  Mr. Melchior’s Lohengrin was a celebrated portrayal, and he is at his best in this broadcast.  The other male cast members hold up their ends of the musical bargain, but the incomparable qualities of this performance are found in the exquisite singing and dramatic encounters of Ms. Lehmann’s Elsa and Ms. Lawrence’s Ortrud.
  6. Siegfried – Lauritz Melchior, Kirsten Flagstad, Friedrich Schorr, Karl Laufkötter, Eduard Habich, Kerstin Thorborg, Emanuel List; Artur Bodanzky [Live performance, Metropolitan Opera, 30.01.1937; various labels]  This performance, too, finds Mr. Melchior at his best, voicing Siegfried with sterling technique and a voice of near-ideal proportions for the role.  Mr. Laufkötter and Mr. Habich offer appropriately oily characterizations.  Mr. Schorr, never heard in America on the form that electrified Europe, is nonetheless a bracingly eloquent Wanderer.  Brünnhilde has less to do in Siegfried than in Walküre or Götterdämmerung, but no Brünnhilde on records awakens more thrillingly than Ms. Flagstad, who greets her conqueror with opulence worthy of a daughter of Wotan.
  7. Siegfried – Ludwig Suthaus, Martha Mödl, Ferdinand Frantz, Julius Patzak, Alois Pernerstorfer, Margarete Klose, Josef Greindl; Wilhelm Furtwängler [Live performances, RAI Roma, 10 – 11.1953; EMI]  Three years after his pioneering Ring at La Scala, Maestro Furtwängler returned to Italy to present the Cycle in concert performances recorded for broadcast by Italian radio.  This Siegfried preserves a rare performance of the title role by Mr. Suthaus, perhaps best remembered as a Wagnerian for his Tristan opposite Ms. Flagstad’s Isolde in her landmark studio recording.  Siegfried was not an especially congenial part for Mr. Suthaus, but the level of accomplishment that he achieves is a testament to his abilities.  All the cast rise to the occasion, but Martha Mödl’s Brünnhilde is a rightfully acclaimed performance, a worthy record of the work of a true mistress of Wagner’s music.
  8. Parsifal – Günther Treptow, Anny Konetzni, Ludwig Weber, Paul Schöffler, Hans Braun, Adolf Vogel; Rudolf Moralt [Live performance, Vienna Radio, 01.10.1948; various labels]  Maestro Moralt presided over this Parsifal and an interesting Ring for Vienna radio in the days before the Wiener Staatsoper reopened after World War II.  In this performance, some of the most celebrated Wagner singers of the post-War years are heard at their peaks, not least Ludwig Weber and Paul Schöffler.  Ms. Konetzni’s wild, searching Kundry is fascinating, and Mr. Treptow’s Parsifal has the security that so many Parsifals lack.  Maestro Moralt, a nephew of Richard Strauss, is an impressive, insightful, and undervalued conductor who knows and avoids the pitfalls of Parsifal.
  9. Das Rheingold – George London, Kirsten Flagstad, Set Svanholm, Paul Kuen, Gustav Neidlinger, Claire Watson, Waldemar Kmentt, Eberhard Wächter, Jean Madeira, Walter Kreppel, Kurt Böhme; Sir Georg Solti [Studio recording, 1958; DECCA]  Sir Georg Solti, John Culshaw, and an unmatched cast launched DECCA’s ambitious project of recording Wagner’s Ring in studio with this Rheingold, the trump card of which was the luring of Kirsten Flagstad to sing Fricka.  Whatever reservations she and her colleagues may have had are erased by the results that she achieved.  The voice is diminished even from the form of her final Metropolitan performances as Gluck’s Alceste six years earlier, but Ms. Flagstad intones a towering, magisterial Fricka whose blandishments to Wotan cannot be ignored.  Mr. London sings exhilaratingly, greeting Walhalla with ripping panache.  All the cast perform their tasks with relish.  Whatever the virtues of the Solti Ring as a whole, this Rheingold is a superb achievement.
  10. Die Walküre – Gertrude Grob-Prandl, Helene Werth, Ludwig Hofmann, Torsten Ralf, Georgine von Milinkovic, Herbert Alsen; Robert E. Denzler [Live performance, Victoria Hall, Geneva, 04.05.1951; various labels]  This Walküre was planned as a staged performance, but the destruction by fire of the theatre in which it was to be played necessitated a change of venue and conversion to a concert performance.  Misfortune thus produced a fantastic recording of Walküre, a performance built around the stunning Brünnhilde of Gertrude Grob-Prandl.  Ms. Grob-Prandl produces a wall of sound that surprises with its security, accuracy, and brilliance at the extreme top.  Ms. Werth contributes a refreshingly forthright Sieglinde, voiced with considerable beauty.  Mr. Ralf, criticized in New York for lacking the easy upper register for roles like Tannhäuser and Walther von Stolzing, finds a comfortable tessitura in Siegmund’s music and sings manfully.  Mr. Hofmann, Ms. von Milinkovic, and Mr. Alsen are familiar from Wagner performances throughout German-speaking Europe, and they contribute meaningfully to this Walküre.  Maestro Denzler, who conducted at Bayreuth and led the first performance of Hindemith’s Mathis der Maler, proves a very gifted leader of Walküre, presiding over a performance that gives far more pleasure than many performances featuring more famous casts.

The best of both worlds: Kirsten Flagstad as Verdi's Aida

24 December 2012

CD REVIEW: Georg Friedrich Händel—GIULIO CESARE (M. N. Lemieux, K. Gauvin, R. Basso, E. Baráth, F. Mineccia; Naïve OP 30536)

Georg Friedrich Händel: GIULIO CESARE - Alan Curtis, Naïve OP 30536

GEORG FRIEDRICH HÄNDEL (1685 – 1759): Giulio Cesare in Egitto, HWV 17—M.-N. Lemieux (Giulio Cesare), K. Gauvin (Cleopatra), R. Basso (Cornelia), E. Baráth (Sesto), F. Mineccia (Tolomeo), J. Weisser (Achilla), M. Storti (Nireno), G. Buratto (Curio); Il Complesso Barocco; Alan Curtis [recorded in Lonigo, Italy, during November 2011; Naïve OP 30536]

It was not so long ago that a curious listener who wished to hear a recording of Händel’s Giulio Cesare with all roles sung in their original registers, as Händel intended when composing the opera, could but dream.  The earliest modern performances—and it is worth noting that, during the first decades of the Twentieth Century, productions of the opera were conducted by such acclaimed conductors (and Wagnerians) as Böhm, von Karajan, and Knappertsbusch—and recordings of Giulio Cesare—including a German radio production with the great Hans Hotter in the title role and the famously pioneering New York City Opera recording that helped to make Beverly Sills an American sensation—employed stringently-cut, bowdlerized editions of Händel’s score that transposed roles to different vocal registers and took considerable liberties with da capo repeats, rhythms, and tempi.  With the advent of the historically-informed performance practice movement came a revitalization of interest in hearing vocal music sung in the closest possible approximations of how it would have been performed when new, and with this came a wave of opera recordings with all roles sung at their original pitches.  Not surprisingly considering its popularity among both Händel’s oeuvre and Eighteenth Century opera in general, Giulio Cesare was among the first scores to receive a recorded outing with increased fidelity to its composer’s intentions.  Like several of the greatest operas in the standard repertory, Giulio Cesare cannot be said to exist in a single, definitive edition, but the complete recordings, abridged performances, and excerpts included on recital discs during the past thirty years have allowed the modern listener to at least come nearer to enjoying Giulio Cesare as it might have been performed when it was premiered in London in 1724.

The advocacy of American-born conductor Alan Curtis for the operas of Händel has been a mixed blessing.  To his credit are recorded documents of some of the current generation’s finest singers in Händel roles that inspire them to great performances, not least Joyce DiDonato in the title roles of Alcina and Radamisto.  This is offset, at least in part, by an inconsistency of approach that finds Maestro Curtis bold and imaginative in one moment and dull and mannered in another.  It must be admitted that, even by standards influenced by Wagner and Richard Strauss, Giulio Cesare is a long opera, and a firm hand wielding the baton is required if it is not to seem bloated, especially in extended passages of secco recitative.  In that regard, this recording cannot be considered a complete success, for there are moments in which tension and dramatic momentum are allowed to droop, causing the performance to hang fire and threaten to bore.  Fortunately, these moments do not occur in the most important scenes of the opera, but there is a sense of Maestro Curtis having been most fully engaged only in the most celebrated or dramatically crucial scenes.

A considerable virtue of Maestro Curtis’s scholarship is his founding of Il Complesso Barocco, a period instrument ensemble whose musical integrity has grown more impressive with each recording.  Giulio Cesare makes considerable demands upon an orchestra, and Il Complesso Barocco meet those demands with verve and virtuosity to spare.  The continuo ensemble is varied and effective, maintaining sufficient dramatic contrast in recitative without crossing over into the fussiness familiar from many recent performances of Baroque repertory.  The score’s few choral contributions are sung by the principal singers.  This is historically appropriate, of course, but in this case there is slightly too great a sense of soloists singing in coro: the choral passages, though impeccably delivered, sound more like chorales from Bach Cantatas than choruses of massed citizens along the Nile.  Unlike some of Maestro Curtis’s recordings, which have been negatively impacted by their recording venues, this performance benefits from a natural acoustic that is especially kind to woodwinds and grants to the upper voices a particular immediacy.

Few performances of Giulio Cesare are as fortuitously cast with low male voices as is this recording.  The praetor Curio is sung by Italian bass Gianluca Buratto, a valuable artist whose repertory ranges from Monteverdi to Massenet.  As Curio, Mr. Buratto seizes every opportunity to impress by combining the resonance and robust timbre of his voice with a pointed delivery of the text.  Achilla is sung by Norwegian baritone Johannes Weisser, a very promising young singer already familiar to period practice aficionados as the title philanderer in René Jacobs’s recording (and DVD production) of Don Giovanni.  In many ways, Achilla is an ancestor of Don Giovanni, though the charm that the latter should possess is absent in the former.  Achilla was first performed by Giuseppe Maria Boschi, perhaps the most famous bass of the first half of the Eighteenth Century.  Careful examination of the tessiture of the roles that he created suggests that Boschi would today be considered a baritone, so the casting of Mr. Weisser is a nod to historical correctness.  It is also a considerable gain in dramatic verisimilitude: possessing a very fine voice of dark color, Mr. Weisser sings imposingly, putting considerable bite into his recitatives and delivering his arias with stinging precision.  Mr. Weisser’s performance suggests that Achilla is a secondary role only when sung by second-rate singers.

While stating that ‘a really good countertenor appeals’ to him, Maestro Curtis argued in a 2004 interview that he strives to ‘do what Händel did: if he didn’t have a good castrato or contralto, then he would use a falsettist, but only if he had to.’  In the first performance of Giulio Cesare, Tolomeo was sung by the alto castrato Gaetano Berenstadt, who also created the title role in Flavio and Adelberto in Ottone for Händel.  Whether or not a good contralto might have been found to sing Tolomeo, the young Italian artist Filippo Mineccia is surely one of the really good countertenors who appeal to Maestro Curtis.  Tolomeo is a nasty piece of work, as vile as any character in opera, but villainy is most convincing—and treacherous—when beguilingly enacted.  Mr. Mineccia’s performance never allows any doubt about Tolomeo’s motives, but lechery has rarely been more entrancing or unfailingly musical.  Mr. Mineccia’s supple, innately attractive voice practically slithers through his recitatives, and he delivers a dazzling account of ‘L’empio, sleale, indegno,’ Tolomeo’s bravura aria in Act One.  Musically, Mr. Mineccia’s performance is impressively accurate and stylish: dramatically, he creates a character that one definitely would not want to encounter in an alley on a dark night in Egypt.

In the bad old days of tessitura realignment, the role of Nireno—Cleopatra’s eunuch servant—was often assigned to baritones or basses, an unintentional touch of comedy.  Nireno, too, was originated by an alto castrato and is now often sung by a countertenor.  The role is sung in this performance by a female singer, however; the dynamic Italian contralto Milena Storti.  Nireno admittedly does not provide a singer with a lot of meat into which to sink the teeth, but Ms. Storti—revealing a characterful, strong voice—sings appealingly, demanding that the listener take note of her every appearance.

Sesto presents special challenges to any production of Giulio Cesare, whether for the stage or for records.  It is a male role composed for a relatively high voice, as was Baroque custom, but Sesto is a young man, indeed only a teenager.  The castrati with whom Händel and his contemporaries worked were grown men, after all, some of them rather corpulent and decidedly ill-suited to portraying teenaged boys.  Perhaps also taking into account the tradition in British theatre since Elizabethan times of casting female artists as young men and boys, Händel composed Sesto for Margherita Durastanti, a singer with whom the composer enjoyed a long-standing collaboration and whose tessitura underwent a gradual downward shift from soprano to mezzo-soprano.  Despite unflattering descriptions of her physical appearance and figure, Durastanti was widely acclaimed as a fine singing actress, and Händel composed both male and female roles for her.  Among these, Sesto is perhaps something of an anomaly, musically: dramatically, it is precisely the sort of prevaricating, fluid role at which Durastanti apparently excelled.  The role is sung in this performance by young Hungarian soprano Emőke Baráth, winner of the 2011 Cesti Competition.  Born in 1985, Ms. Baráth sounds slightly ‘green’ in this performance, but her technical command of Händel’s difficult music is apparent.  Obvious, too, is her commitment to her craft and to drawing musical inspiration from the text.  Sesto’s famous aria ‘Svegliatevi nel core’ is sung with passion and intriguing ornamentation of the da capo, and the gorgeous ‘L’aure che spira’ lacks nothing in terms of poise and ardor.  What is lacking is an audible sense of the androgynous nature of Sesto: one does not hear in Ms. Baráth’s performance the essence of a boy thrust into inconceivable circumstances but nonetheless not quite a man.  Ms. Baráth’s voice is very feminine, and despite being very lovely as singing per se her performance is not altogether effective.  To her credit, Ms. Baráth is at her best in ‘Cara speme, questo core’ and ‘Son nata a lagrimar,’ the pieces in which Sesto’s music is at its most sublime.

For a generation of opera lovers, Beverly Sills made Cleopatra the center of attention in any performance or recording of Giulio Cesare, and it might be argued that, even now, a singer like Cecilia Bartoli can tip the balance away from the title role.  The strong ensemble of this recording manages to avoid the focus being unduly centered for too long on one singer, but Canadian soprano Karina Gauvin—one of the most renowned Händel singers of the current generation—seeks to remind the listener that, while Caesar was a military power unto himself and a master statesman, Cleopatra was a genuine ‘star.’  Listening to the music that he composed for her reveals that Händel understood this, and Ms. Gauvin’s performance leaves no doubt that she knows it, too, but the performance does not always prove as glorious as the promise.  Extraordinary musicality and a grasp of the Händel idiom that seems as natural as breathing are hallmarks of Ms. Gauvin’s singing, but here the voice sounds darker and slightly less malleable than in previous recordings.  Largely absent in the context of this recording is complete mastery of the role—not just the music—of Cleopatra.  Cleopatra is a dichotomous figure, displaying the sort of contrasting public and private personas encountered in Rigoletto and Simon Boccanegra.  If this implies a certain duplicity, it must be remembered that Cleopatra is a woman in a very dangerous man’s world of Roman conquerors and a pernicious brother who wishes to usurp her power.  Typically, a Cleopatra, even if very accomplished at performing the music, will fully encompass only one aspect of Cleopatra’s complicated dramatic presence, proving either a convincing lover or a practiced politician.  It is only very rarely that a singer manages to convey both sides of Cleopatra with equal conviction.  Beverly Sills did so with graceful lyricism combined with arresting command of coloratura (along with interpolations and embellishments that would likely have dismayed Händel).  In that her performance is beautifully proportioned within the boundaries of period-appropriate good taste, Ms. Gauvin might be said to have improved even upon what Sills achieved as Cleopatra.  Considered in the context of vocalism, this is an accomplished piece of singing.  The playful, scheming Cleopatra—expressed in her arias ‘Non disperar, chi sa,’ ‘Tu la mia stella sei,’ and ‘V’adoro pupille’—inspires Ms. Gauvin to fine displays of virtuosity.  Ms. Gauvin dazzles with coloratura of brilliance and precision but avoids the kind of mad ornamentation that mars too many performances of Händel’s operas.  In Cleopatra’s ‘pathetic’ arias, especially ‘Piangerò la sorte mia,’ Ms. Gauvin’s voice is typically poised, but she mostly fails to reach the greatest depths of emotion.  Singing Händel, particularly Cleopatra, requires much more than a beautiful voice, which Ms. Gauvin certainly possesses, and in this performance her control over the voice seems imperfect.  Arguably, Cleopatra is Händel’s most fully-developed, intriguing operatic character, and Ms. Gauvin might reasonably have been expected to deliver the most fully-developed, intriguing performance of the role yet recorded.  Neither the condition of the voice nor the dramatic use to which it is put warrants that accolade, but it is nonetheless a performance of distinction.  Ms. Gauvin is a performer of the calibre who disappoints by falling short of her own irreproachable standards.

In the same way that Azucena proves the most compelling character in many performances of Il Trovatore, Cornelia often emerges as the ‘heart’ of a production of Giulio Cesare.  Unthinkably wronged within minutes of the opening curtain by Tolomeo’s treacherous engineering of her husband’s murder, Cornelia’s plight is expressed with crushing gravity and pathos in her first aria, ‘Priva son d’ogni conforto,’ one of those time-stopping pieces for which Händel had such an easy faculty.  Composed for the English singer Anastasia Robinson, Cornelia pursues her vengeance dolorously, battling unwelcome amorous advances and only relishing her ultimate victory in productions that include the scene in which her son Sesto kills Tolomeo on stage.  In this recording, Cornelia receives a performance from Italian mezzo-soprano Romina Basso that is worthy of a Roman consul’s daughter described by Plutarch as one of the most beautiful, intelligent, and dutiful women of her age.  Possessing a voice that is dark and imposing without being heavy or unwieldy, Ms. Basso sings with unflappable conviction and virtuosity, bringing complete tonal steadiness and heart-stopping but stylish intensity to ‘Priva son d’ogni conforto.’  The bite of Ms. Basso’s native Italian in secco recitative is wonderfully gripping, giving Cornelia a sharper dramatic profile than she attains in many performances.  Though she is often the emotional center of Giulio Cesare, Cornelia can seem a static character, but Ms. Basso brings uncommon depth and development to her performance.  There is an audible shift from wronged widow to exasperated object of unrequited desires and frightened mother in Ms. Basso’s performance, employing a dramatic sensibility that surely reveals how Händel may have intended his operas to be performed.  Ms. Basso’s performance completely frees Händel’s music for Cornelia, even secco recitative, from charges of boredom.  Ms. Basso joins Ms. Baráth for a very beautiful account of their duet, ‘Son nata a lagrimar,’ and she brings to each of Cornelia’s arias precisely the correct combination of technique, fire, and tasteful ornamentation.  Ms. Basso also sang Tolomeo on the studio recording of Giulio Cesare conducted by George Petrou, and it is indicative of her artistic integrity and versatility that the same voice can so effectively breathe life into two characters that are so different.

The title role in Giulio Cesare was first sung by Senesino, one of the most renowned castrati of the Eighteenth Century, and ironically it is often the eponymous Roman conqueror himself who disappoints in modern performances of Händel’s opera.  Taking into account its considerable demands and the particular musical elements that were tailored to Senesino’s legendary vocal prowess, Cesare is one of the most difficult roles in the repertory to cast.  Few countertenors can muster the power in the lower register and the command of fiorature in all parts of the voice required by Cesare’s music, but few mezzo-sopranos are able to summon and convincingly maintain the swaggering masculinity required for Cesare to be a credible warrior and ladies’ man.  Vocally, Canadian mezzo-soprano Marie-Nicole Lemieux proves one of the most successful performers of Cesare on records, building upon the revelatory performance by Jennifer Larmore on René Jacobs’s harmonia mundi recording.  From the character’s first entrance, Händel lines Cesare’s vocal path with hurdles, most of which Ms. Lemieux clears with panache.  A noble but aggressive presence is established with ‘Empio, dirò, tu sei’ and maintained throughout the opera, the tone at once attractive and powerful as the voice of such a man should be.  Ms. Lemieux occasionally overdoes the histrionics, especially in plunging into her baritonal chest register, but her singing throughout the performance is informed by strong musical instincts.  Her command of Händel’s tricky coloratura is masterful, as is the concentration that she brings to secco recitative.  Responding to Ms. Gauvin’s Cleopatra, though, Ms. Lemieux does not explore all of the dramatic possibilities of Cesare, which ideally lead to creating a figure as adept at strategizing on the battlefield as in the boudoir.  Her singing of ‘Aure, deh, per pietà’ is the zenith of her performance, the voice luxuriating in Händel’s melodic inspiration, but there is a disconcerting sameness to Ms. Lemieux’s singing of Cesare’s wonderfully varied arias.  Still, it is a performance that leaves little to be desired from a musical perspective.  It is impossible to know how Senesino’s voice sounded in any of the roles composed for him by Händel, but Ms. Lemieux’s performance confirms that with Cesare Händel created one of the earliest great roles in the alto range.

It is illustrative of the difficulty of making an opera ‘work’ on a recording that Alan Curtis, with what seems an ideal cast, ultimately cannot boast of having recorded an ideal Giulio Cesare.  This recording is a potent reminder of one of the greatest qualities of opera, however: an honorable effort that misses its mark can be extremely enjoyable.  Heard as a performance of Händel’s superb music, this Giulio Cesare is delightful, but a Giulio Cesare in which Cornelia is both the emotional and dramatic core of the performance is not quite right.

Mezzo-soprano Marie-Nicole Lemieux (Cesare) [Photo by Denis Rouvre]

11 December 2012

IN MEMORIAM: Soprano Galina Vishnevskaya, 1926 - 2012

Soprano Galina Vishnevskaya, 1926 - 2012


25 October 1926 – 11 December 2012

Say the words ‘Russian repertory’ to almost any music lover born in the second half of the Twentieth Century, and the name Galina Vishnevskaya is certain to occupy a prominent position in the thoughts that follow.  It was Galina Vishnevskaya who introduced many Western listeners to the complexities and glories of the Russian soprano repertory, and for this alone she would be remembered as one of the most dynamic artists of the Twentieth Century.

Born in Leningrad in 1926, Ms. Vishnevskaya’s talents were soon recognized and rewarded in her native country, where she became a member of the esteemed Bolshoi company in 1953.  In addition to Russian roles, Ms. Vishnevskaya’s early career encompassed acclaimed performances of operas by Mozart, Puccini, and Verdi.  A recording of Beethoven’s Fidelio—sung in Russian—documents the vibrancy of Ms. Vishnevskaya’s voice in the first decade of her career, along with the dramatic vitality that was an unmistakable hallmark of Ms. Vishnevskaya’s singing throughout her life.  A 1961 Bolshoi broadcast of Aida reveals Ms. Vishnevskaya’s prowess in the Italian repertory, the attention to phrasing exquisite even when the text is sung in Russian translation.  It was for Ms. Vishnevskaya that Benjamin Britten composed the soprano solos in his War Requiem, and her performance on the DECCA recording of that work is a classic of the gramophone.

It was as Tatyana in Tchaikovsky’s Yevgeny Onegin that Ms. Vishnevskaya conquered the world beyond Russia, however.  Recording the role for Melodiya in 1956, she created a performance that remains as fresh, revelatory, and dramatically arresting today as when it was recorded.  Indeed, many stage performances are not as compelling as Ms. Vishnevskaya’s recorded Tatyana, which benefits from a voice of ideal proportions and colors for the role.  Charged with the tension of a deeply intelligent and self-aware young woman experiencing a transforming romantic and sexual awakening, Ms. Vishnevskaya’s performance set standards that have never been surpassed.  The performance leaps out of the sound waves and directly into one’s imagination, and once the Melodiya performance has been heard it is impossible to hear another singer as Tatyana without comparing her to Ms. Vishnevskaya.  It is a performance that forever changed perceptions of Tchaikovsky’s most chameleonic heroine.

Ms. Vishnevskaya made her La Scala début as Liù in Puccini’s Turandot in 1966, opposite the Turandot of Birgit Nilsson and the Calaf of Franco Corelli.  Nilsson and Corelli were one of opera’s rare ‘dream teams’ in 1966, and holding one’s own opposite such a legendary pair in signature roles might have been considered virtually impossible.  By some accounts, Ms. Vishnevskaya walked away with the laurels, however, and a recording of the opening night performance recently reissued by La Scala confirms that Ms. Vishnevskaya’s Liù was a towering performance, little troubled by the inevitable nerves of a La Scala début.

In 1955, Ms. Vishnevskaya married the legendary ‘cellist Mstislav Rostropovich, with whom she shared a partnership in life and art until his death in 2007.  During the last decade of Ms. Vishnevskaya’s career, Mr. Rostropovich frequently accompanied his wife in recital, and it was in these recitals that audiences became truly acquainted with the heart of Ms. Vishnevskaya’s artistry.  After defecting to the West in 1974, advocacy for Russian repertory became an important aspect of Ms. Vishnevskaya’s artistic journey.  Songs of composers such as Mussorgsky, little known outside of Russia, gained from Ms. Vishnevskaya’s espousal the admiration of Western audiences and critics.  Even when musical values were not as uncompromising as they had been earlier in her career, the connection and sense of complete collaboration inherent in Ms. Vishnevskaya’s recitals with her husband in the last few seasons of her performing career remained astounding and extremely touching.

Few artists earn the unwavering adoration of audiences.  Galina Vishnevskaya achieved this with grace and dramatic intensity.  Her voice was perhaps imperfect, but she was a shrewd, thoughtful artist who understood instinctively that she impersonated imperfect characters.  In a sense, she shared an artistic identity with Tchaikovsky’s Tatyana: she gave of herself to a degree that revealed the raw, smoldering core of her soul, and she pursued what she perceived as her artistic duty to the end of her career.  Unlike Tatyana, Galina Vishnevskaya was accepted by a musical world hungry for her unique brilliance.

the young Galina Vishnevskaya as Tatyana in Tchaikovsky's YEVGENY ONEGIN at the Bolshoi

05 December 2012

CD REVIEW: THIS LITTLE LIGHT—A. D. Griffey, tenor, & J. Pecoraro, guitar (CGS Enterprises 80547 27318)

THIS LITTLE LIGHT - Holiday Music performed by Anthony Dean Griffey and Joseph Pecoraro

Various Composers: THIS LITTLE LIGHT—Music for the Holidays performed by Anthony Dean Griffey, tenor, and Joseph Pecoraro, guitar [recorded in Watson Chamber Hall, UNC School of the Arts, Winston-Salem, NC, 2012; CGS Enterprises 80547 27318]

For better or worse, discs of holiday standards are virtually inevitable fare for singers of all genres.  The ‘better’ is that listeners sometimes gain opportunities to hear favorite artists in unlikely contexts and on ‘lighter’ forms than are typical: the ‘worse’ is that, in addition to entering an extraordinarily crowded field in which almost every listener already holds treasured performances close to his or her heart, many holiday discs are made-on-the-fly affairs with little artistic merit.  For the most part, gone are the days when an artist of the merit of Leontyne Price might collaborate with colleagues like Herbert von Karajan and the Wiener Philharmoniker to record an holiday-themed disc that genuinely—and attractively—supplements her discography and expands her artistic legacy.  Too many holiday discs are commercial enterprises with only tenuous attachments to the holidays they purport to celebrate.  Refreshingly, this is not the case with This Little Light, a new recording of holiday favorites by High Point-born tenor Anthony Dean Griffey and guitarist Joseph Pecoraro.  Benefitting North Carolina charities that aid the displaced and mentally ill, This Little Light is audibly a tremendously meaningful project for both artists, and in recording this disc they have given listeners the incomparable gift of an holiday disc that returns to the exalted standards of previous generations of artists and offers stirring performances of some of the most popular songs of the season.

Mr. Griffey, familiar to North Carolina audiences as a treasured native son and a beloved presence at the Eastern Music Festival, is one of the most gifted tenors heard on the world’s stages during the past fifteen years.  Since his 1995 début at the Metropolitan Opera in Wagner’s Parsifal (in the performance in which Stephanie Blythe also made her MET début), Mr. Griffey has earned the affection of the New York public.  His performances of the name part in Benjamin Britten’s Peter Grimes revealed not merely an uncommon artistic sensibility but a voice ideal for the rôle, a voice in which beauty and power are blended in perfect balance.  In this recital of holiday music, as much as in Peter Grimes or the music of Mendelssohn or Weill, Mr. Griffey sings with a voice that seems drenched with starlight, the timbre both brightly ethereal and warmly resonant.  Nonetheless, so sure are Mr. Griffey’s interpretive choices that he never risks overwhelming the music or over-singing in the manner familiar from many opera singers’ holiday outings on records.

Credit for the high quality of this disc is also due to guitarist Joseph Pecoraro, whose guitar arrangements are used for the recording.  Each song is arranged to fit Mr. Griffey’s voice to perfection, and Mr. Pecoraro’s guitar accompaniments are unfailingly gorgeous.  It is a testament to Mr. Pecoraro’s skills as an arranger that there is not one song on the disc that is not impeccably tasteful.  A member of the faculty of the UNC School of the Arts, Mr. Pecoraro is another North Carolina treasure whose music-making is a great gift to the State and to all who are privileged to hear it.

Every song on The Little Light receives a memorable performance, but even amid such excellence there are particularly sublime moments.  Mr. Griffey and Mr. Pecoraro touch the heart with the title track and a poignant performance of ‘Sweet Little Jesus Boy,’ Robert MacGinsey’s classic song that is often mistaken for an African-American Spiritual.  The legitimate Spiritual ‘Go, Tell It on the Mountain’ is shaped with attention to its narrative, its musical structure emerging with a simple eloquence akin to the Lieder of Franz Schubert.  ‘Mary, Did You Know’ receives from Mr. Griffey and Mr. Pecoraro a performance of great emotional immediacy, confirming its stature as one of the finest holiday songs of recent years.  Classics of the holiday repertory sound newly-minted in this performance, but especially impressive is Mr. Griffey’s singing of ‘O Holy Night,’ Adolph Adam’s ‘Cantique de Noël’ that has been a favorite of opera singers since the dawn of recording technology.  Mr. Griffey’s performance of this song, elegantly arranged and accompanied by Mr. Pecoraro, is nothing short of remarkable, worthy of comparison with the greatest accounts by opera stars past and present—and superior to many of the finest performances on records.

For many people, the holiday season is a time of wonder, joy, and hope for the future, and hearing this disc of holiday music performed by Anthony Dean Griffey and Joseph Pecoraro inspires these feelings in the listener.  There is the wonder expressed so innocently but effectively through these songs.  There is the joy of hearing the music performed so magnificently.  There is the hope for the future, that much more will be heard from these great artists.  This Little Light shines very brightly indeed.

Joseph Pecoraro, guitarist, and Anthony Dean Griffey, tenor

Please click here to purchase a copy—or several copies—of This Little Light.  In addition to its superb musical quality, proceeds from the sale of this disc benefit charities that assist the homeless and mentally ill.  Thank you.

14 November 2012

PERFORMANCE REVIEW: Harpsichord Recital by Jory Vinikour–Ebenezer Lutheran Church, Columbia, SC; 2 November 2012

Eric Herz Harpsichord at Ebenezer Lutheran Chapel - Columbia, SC

Johann Sebastian Bach (1685 – 1750), Georg Friedrich Händel (1685 – 1759), Jean Philippe Rameau (1683 – 1764): Music for Harpsichord—Jory Vinikour, harpsichord [performed on the Eric Herz harpsichord at Ebenezer Lutheran Chapel, Columbia, SC; Friday, 2 November 2012]

One of the rarest but most thrilling occasions in Music is when a performance, by some combination of magical factors, manages to be a genuine event.  The recital on Friday, November 2, by world-renowned harpsichordist Jory Vinikour in the Chapel of Columbia’s Ebenezer Lutheran Church was such an occasion: closing a ‘Month of Harpsichord’ launched in celebration of the gift by Dick and Kathy Coolidge of a beautiful instrument by German-born harpsichord builder Eric Herz, the recital exuberantly achieved the goal of exploring all of the musical possibilities of the instrument, which was improved by renowned harpsichord maker—and South Carolina resident—Richard Kingston.  The acquisition of an instrument by an important maker, lovingly reconstituted by one of the greatest masters in his field, is a remarkable milestone in the musical life of a congregation, and a wonderful aspect of the recital was the presence of an audience filled with congregants excited about the treasure acquired by their church and eager to hear the instrument come to life at the touch of a celebrated musical magician.

Opening the recital with Bach’s Toccata in D Major (BWV 912), Mr. Vinikour quickly proved that it would indeed be a magical evening.  Probably composed in 1707 or 1708 but not published until 1843, the D-Major Toccata is typical of the music that Bach composed during his tenure as organist at Divi Blasii in Mülhausen, a time that included his marriage to his first wife and the births of several of his children.  The keyboard music of Bach invariably requires complete technical mastery and rhythmic precision, and Mr. Vinikour delivered both of these qualities with imperturbable elegance, shaping the transitions of tempo and contrapuntal elements of the music with an almost rhapsodic sense of adventure that nonetheless maintained an appropriate adherence to Bach’s complex metrical structure.  Beginning a recital with Bach can be challenging, for both the player and for his audience, but Mr. Vinikour’s choice of the D-Major Toccata was an apt introduction both to the intricacies of his artistry and to the sonic possibilities of the harpsichord, enhanced by the lovely natural acoustic of the Chapel.

Harpsichordist Jory Vinikour [Photo by Kobie van Rensburg, 2008]

Just as in his operas, Georg Friedrich Händel employed many of the musical forms known to him in his music for solo keyboard, and his G-minor Suite (HWV 432) for harpsichord exploits these forms to draw emotional contrasts through sound.  It was perhaps slightly ironic, then, that Mr. Vinikour’s appearance in Columbia came during a brief break in a Vlaamse Opera production of Händel’s Agrippina in which he was participating.  One of the most noted hallmarks of Mr. Vinikour’s playing is his ability to render the harpsichord an engaging, emotionally stimulating instrument, one which almost miraculously mirrors the warmth of the human voice.  In fact, one member of the audience remarked on her surprise at the dramatic immediacy of the sounds produced by Mr. Vinikour’s playing, which were contrary to her notion of the ‘tinny’ sounds often heard from harpsichords.  Händel’s G-minor Suite is representative of the composer’s work at its most inspired, and the composer’s inspiration drew from Mr. Vinikour inspired playing.  Mr. Vinikour’s virtuosity shone brilliantly in the Ouverture, Allegro, and closing Passacaglia, and the poise that he brought to the central Sarabande was profoundly touching.  Stylistically, Mr. Vinikour’s playing exhibited an attention to phrasing that revealed the innate eloquence of Händel’s music.

The selections from Jean-Philippe Rameau’s Pièces de clavecin seemed tailor-made to highlight the possibilities of the harpsichord at hand.  Mr. Vinikour charmingly evoked birdsong in ‘Le Rappel des Oiseaux’ and the Arcadian ambiance of ‘Musette en rondeau.’  ‘Rigaudons,’ ‘Tambourin,’ ‘L’Entretien des Muses,’ and ‘Les Tourbillons’ received from Mr. Vinikour performances that fully realized the individual characters of each movement but integrated each piece into a satisfying musical whole.  Most delightful for the audience was Mr. Vinikour’s performance of ‘Les Cyclopes,’ a dazzling display of easy virtuosity that filled the chapel with cascades of sound and provoked expressions of awe.

The enthusiasm of the audience was rewarded with two encores, the first of which was Domenico Scarlatti’s Sonata in D Major (K. 96), a bracingly martial piece that received a performance fantastically attuned to its implicit drumbeats.  The second encore was François Couperin’s intriguing ‘Les Barricades mistérieuses’ from the VIth Ordre de Clavecin.  Music historians have not yet determined to which ‘mysterious barricades’ the title refers, with theories ranging from musical barriers to more salacious impediments, but there was no questioning the relish with which Mr. Vinikour played the piece.  It was a fittingly barnstorming finale to a tremendously impressive recital.

Few things in music are more refreshing than attending a performance that entertains and enlightens the audience in equal measures, and Jory Vinikour’s performance in Columbia was just such a performance.  Hearing a well-built, wonderfully-improved harpsichord played by a true master of the instrument was an additional gift to the congregation of Ebenezer Lutheran Church, one which was not taken for granted by those who were fortunate enough to enjoy it.  Hearing Mr. Vinikour’s vibrant, exhilarating playing brought to mind the recollection that many of the Rock ‘n Roll artists of the 1960s and 1970s employed harpsichords on their studio albums.  This perhaps seems a bizarre juxtaposition with a recital of music by Bach, Händel, Rameau, Scarlatti, and Couperin, but it is likely that anyone who attended this performance would agree that it was a recital that rocked.

Ebenezer Lutheran Chapel [Photo by Bill Fitzpatrick, 2012]

The author’s heartfelt gratitude is extended to the Ebenezer Lutheran congregation, and especially to Cantor Thomas White, for their incredible kindness and hospitality.

02 November 2012

CD REVIEW: Johannes Brahms—SERENADES (Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra, N. McGegan; PBP-05)

Johannes Brahms: SERENADES (Philharmonia Baroque, Nicholas McGegan; PBP-05)
JOHANNES BRAHMS (1833 – 1897): Serenade No. 1 in D Major, Op. 11 & Serenade No. 2 in A Major, Op. 16; Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra; Nicholas McGegan [recorded ‘live’ in First Congregational Church, Berkeley, California, 13 – 14 February 2010 (Serenade No. 1) and 10 – 11 March 2012 (Serenade No. 2); PBP-05]

With a discography containing performances conducted by such baton-wielding luminaries as Sir Adrian Boult, István Kertész, Sir Charles Mackerras, and Kurt Masur, Johannes Brahms’s beautiful but seldom-heard Serenades have been fortunate on records.  Perhaps this good fortune can be attributed at least in part to the curiosity which naturally extends to lesser-known works of great composers.  Sadly, this curiosity leads to disappointment in many cases, as the attentive listener finds that oblivion is merited.  That emphatically is not true of Brahms’s Serenades, which are works of considerable accomplishment that reveal their composer on superb form.  There is evidence in both Serenades of the combination of majesty and wistfulness that is unique to Brahms, and a listener expecting ‘Brahms in miniature’ will be surprised by these pieces.  The Serenades also are not studies in symphonic form, of which Brahms was a celebrated master: harkening back to the sterling examples of Mozart’s Serenades, these are works that are remarkably well-crafted, significant products of a master composer in the ascendant.  Given a recording of great sound quality despite ‘live’ recording conditions—solely in terms of avoidance of noises off, this disc is an incredible achievement—by the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra’s house label, this is a very important contribution to the Brahms catalogue.

Perhaps surprisingly, this is not the first recording of the Brahms Serenades to employ ‘period’ instruments: Capella Augustina recorded the Serenades several years ago with Andreas Spering conducting.  That was an admirable performance, but the present recording is superior in every way, not least in the immediacy of the sound.  Church sanctuaries can be tremendously difficult recording venues, but every challenge is met and conquered in this recording.  The Philharmonia Baroque are renowned among lovers of Baroque music for their en masse virtuosity and the refined elegance of their ensemble playing.  Under Nicholas McGegan’s direction, the orchestra have thrilled audiences throughout the world and have made fantastic recordings, especially of Händel repertory, featuring some of America’s finest singers, perhaps most memorably the late mezzo-soprano Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, an impeccable artist whose recorded legacy would likely otherwise be much less.  Not unlike Andreas Spering and Marc Minkowski, Maestro McGegan has taken his orchestra into later repertory than is common territory for ‘period’ instrument bands.  There are ample precedents for this in the concert hall, as well as on records, where there are enjoyable ‘period’ performances of Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor (conducted by Sir Charles Mackerras), Verdi’s Falstaff (conducted by Sir John Eliot Gardiner), and even Wagner’s Der Fliegende Holländer (conducted by Bruno Weil), but in the music of Brahms one expects the bigger-boned sounds of a Berliner Philharmoniker or Gewandhausorchester.  The players of the Philharmonia Baroque offer evidence on this recording that ‘period’ instruments are in no way inhibited in terms of tonal amplitude and beauty.  These are, in fact, exceptionally beautifully-played performances, particularly in the most grandiose moments of both Serenades, when the honed ensemble playing of the orchestra is on full display.  Every section of the orchestra plays fantastically, but words of special praise are due to the woodwind players, who produce consistently beguiling sounds.

As in many of Brahms’s best works, there are moments of whimsy among the deeper sentiments in the Serenades, and Maestro McGegan succeeds in bringing an appropriate sparkle to these moments.  Brisk tempi are taken quickly, as is generally the case in period-appropriate performances of earlier repertory, in which it is presumed that tempi were generally faster than became traditional—which is not necessarily to say pedantic—after the development of the modern, mechanical metronome in 1814, and this highlights the humor in the high-spirited movements of the Serenades.  It is in the slower movements, however, that Maestro McGegan’s conducting is most revelatory.  Much has been written on the supposition that composers of the Baroque and Classical eras did not intend for slow tempo markings—those like adagio, grave, and largo—to be played in the dirge-like manners that became accepted practice in the 19th and early 20th Centuries, as orchestras grew in size.  A veritable host of factors contributed to this shift in interpretation of tempo markings: larger concert venues inevitably produced vastly different acoustics from those familiar to composers of earlier generations, there was a gradually increased use of metal strings, metal flutes supplanted the softer wooden instruments, and so on.  Arguably, one of the most significant sources for a re-evaluation of tempi was the decreased articulation of tone possible in the broader acoustics of larger opera houses and concert halls, resulting in slower tempi that allowed greater shaping of tone in expanded soundspaces.  The most insightful conductors of modern ‘period’ instrument ensembles have shown that phrasing is the most important consideration in filling a space with sound, however, and Maestro McGegan’s performances have confirmed that he is among these finest conductors with specialties in period-appropriate practice.  A truly arresting aspect of this recording is the way in which an attention to proper tempi and tonal blending born of intimate work with the music of Händel brings to Brahms’s Serenades performances that make the pieces sound new and, most significantly, larger rather than smaller than a listener might have thought them to be.  Maestro McGegan presides over performances that dispel any notions that the Serenades are mere curiosities: these pieces are vintage Brahms and are played as such.

Brahms was branded a traditionalist because of his strict adherence to the musical forms that he inherited from his cultural ancestors.  Utilizing techniques like sonata form, he was to many musical minds of the 19th Century the anti-Wagner.  It is apparent from his music that Brahms found convention liberating, though: freed from the necessity of trailblazing, he applied his imagination to musical development within his chosen forms.  The Serenades are not groundbreaking pieces, but they are exciting, beautiful pieces that nod to the past of Haydn and Mozart and anticipate the rise of Mahler on a distant horizon.  Nicholas McGegan and the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra gave performances of the Serenades that crackle with the excitement of great music of any era and that genuinely deserved to be recorded for posterity.  Of how many performances—of any orchestral repertory—during the past thirty years can that honestly be said?

05 October 2012

CD REVIEW: Jean-Philippe Rameau—COMPLETE HARPSICHORD WORKS (Jory Vinikour, harpsichord; Sono Luminus DSL-92154)

The Complete Harpsichord Works of Rameau - Jory Vinikour, harpsichord [Sono Luminus DSL-92154]

JEAN-PHILIPPE RAMEAU (1683 – 1764): Complete Works for Harpsichord, 1706 – 1747; Transcription of the Ouverture from Rameau’s Pigmalion by Claude-Bénigne Balbastre; Jory Vinikour, harpsichord [recorded at Sono Luminus, Boyce, Virginia, 29 November – 2 December 2011; Sono Luminus DSL-92154]  Nominated for GRAMMY® Award for Best Classical Instrumental Solo

Less is known about the life, musical and personal, of Jean-Philippe Rameau than about almost any other composer of the Baroque period: even the life of Johann Sebastian Bach is more fully documented than that of Rameau, whose formative years were an enigma to his own wife.  Listening to this recording of Rameau’s music for harpsichord performed by Paris-based harpsichordist Jory Vinikour brings to mind Maria Callas’s famous comment that one need only listen to the final act from her 1959 recording of Ponchielli’s Gioconda in order to get at the heart of her artistry.  More than 250 years after the death of a composer, there is no more apt means of getting to know him than to make the acquaintance of his music, and listening to the energetic, eloquent playing of Jory Vinikour on these discs provides countless insights into the artistry of Jean-Philippe Rameau.

A critical element of the success of this recording is the fact that Mr. Vinikour had at his disposal a magnificent instrument, a 2005 reproduction of a 1707 French double-manual harpsichord by Nicolas Dumont.  Built by Virginia-based craftsmen Thomas and Barbara Wolf, the instrument was loaned for this recording by the Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center at the University of Maryland at College Park.  Remarkably, the original instrument after which the harpsichord used in this recording was modeled—which survived the French Revolution by going into hiding—is presently in a private collection in Delaware.  Tuned to a 7th-comma homogenous French temperament with a = 392 Hz (considerably lower than modern concert pitch, with a = 440 – 443 Hz, and lower than perceived 18th Century pitches in Italy and Germany, where Bach’s organs were tuned to a = 480 Hz), the instrument produces a strikingly warm tone combined with uncommon evenness throughout the five-octave range.  This instrument completely avoids the tinny sound of many of the harpsichords that can be heard on recordings made in the early years of the Baroque performance practice revival, and the glowing timbre and versatility of this instrument offer a near-ideal playground for Mr. Vinikour’s considerable talents.

Aside from Bach’s solo partitas for violin and ’cello, Baroque music for solo instruments does not inspire thoughts of deeper emotions, and indeed many solo pieces composed by Continental composers during the 17th and 18th Centuries were primarily intended to display the virtuosity of the players for whom they were created (or of the composers themselves).  An astonishing aspect of Mr. Vinikour’s artistry is the manner in which he blends unparalleled technical command of the harpsichord to the expressivity that one might expect in a pianist navigating the Piano Sonatas of Beethoven, qualities that are apparent in every track on these discs.  From an interpretive perspective, there are certain technical limitations inherent in any harpsichord, of course: the basic mechanism of tone production that prevents the sustaining of notes (hence the prevalence of trills in Baroque keyboard music), challenges with the clarity of articulation in rapid passages except in the best instruments, and control of dynamic contrasts that is far more complicated than with a modern piano.  Granted an instrument that minimizes these limitations, Mr. Vinikour capitalizes on this opportunity, bringing great expressivity to his playing.  What is quickly revealed is that, rather than applying emotional contexts to the music externally, Mr. Vinikour finds in each piece its own individual colors and allows them to glow through his playing.

This is not to suggest that Rameau’s music for harpsichord is not technically demanding.  There are in all of the Suites in this collection, as well as the late ‘La Dauphine,’ passages requiring uncompromised virtuosity, and Mr. Vinikour delivers performances that belie the difficulties of the music before him.  ‘La Dauphine,’ perhaps the last keyboard piece composed by Rameau and ironically the only harpsichord piece that has survived in manuscript in Rameau’s own hand despite likely being a transcription of an improvisation, presents unusual challenges, perhaps because of its improvisational provenance: stylistically wayward, the formal unity typical of Baroque keyboard music is discarded, rendering the piece a rhapsodic tour de force that receives from Mr. Vinikour a thrilling performance.  Equally impressive is Mr. Vinikour’s playing of the delightfully programmatic pieces in the Suite in G, ranging from demisemiquavers depicting the clucking and pecking of hens (‘La Poule’) to rippling mordants indicative of the rustling of a gypsy girl’s skirt (‘L’Égyptienne’).  Rameau the theorist incorrectly surmised that the illusion of a third playing hand in the technique required in ‘Les Trois Mains’ from the a-minor Suite was his own invention, as contemporaneous examples also exist in the keyboard music of Domenico Scarlatti, but the effect—arresting when seen—is brought off splendidly by Mr. Vinikour.

It is rare that the term ‘moving’ can be used in response to a performance of solo music for harpsichord.  The instrument itself falls victim to hints of dry academia, but the gifts of master composers to create music that explores the dramatic possibilities of their chosen instruments should never be ignored.  In the case of Rameau’s music for the harpsichord, which predictably makes use of many of the French forms that shaped Baroque music, it is important to also remember that Bach and Händel used these same French forms—notably the courante and sarabande—as the foundations for some of their most memorable works.  Rameau, too, realized the potential of adhering to the forms familiar to him, and it is in the ‘delicate’ courantes and sarabandes on these discs that Mr. Vinikour’s skills are at their most poignant.  Playing with elegance and an innate sense of phrasing that allows lyric inventions to shine through the natural flow of the music, Mr. Vinikour achieves the distinction of offering playing that is genuinely moving.  It is only a very fine artist who can play the harpsichord in a fashion that shows that a piece like ‘Les Soupirs’—‘the Sighs’—is expressive of genuine sentiment and not merely a Baroque frivolity with an heavy title.

The scant historical evidence available to today’s musicians and audiences suggests that Jean-Philippe Rameau was a droll, somewhat prickly, and perhaps intentionally mysterious man.  Emily Dickinson wrote, ‘My Wars are laid away in Books,’ and hearing this new recording of his music for harpsichord raises the question of whether Rameau’s ‘wars’ were laid away in Music.  Is it possible to discern the measure of a man from the music that he composed?  Whether or not elements of the life that are lost to musicology are fused into Rameau’s music, it cannot be doubted that artists who apply their souls to their performances get at the souls of the composers whose music they perform.  Gifted with access to an instrument capable of musical magic when united with the hands of a master, Jory Vinikour proves anew in the harpsichord music of Rameau that he is a master of both the practice and the poetry of music-making.

the elusive Jean-Philippe Rameau

11 September 2012

ARTIST PROFILE: Sébastien Guèze, tenor

Sébastien Guèze as Gounod's Roméo at FGO [Photo by Gastón de Cárdenas, FGO]

It was with a performance of Charles Gounod’s Faust that the Metropolitan Opera was launched on 22 October 1883.  This opening performance was sung in Italian translation rather than in Gounod’s French, but an important hallmark in the first half-century in the history of the MET was the establishment and maintenance of national ‘wings’ of performance.  During the first few decades of the Twentieth Century, the MET’s ‘French wing’ brought to performances of French repertory the work of the greatest French-speaking artists, combining idiomatic singing, conducting, and direction for performances than transported audiences from Broadway to the Champs-Élysées.  The early Twentieth Century was also a veritable Belle Époque for the native music of France, where traditions refined by the Opéra and Opéra Comique in the previous century blossomed into an unique musical culture that coincided with the dawn of recording technology.  The voices of Pol Plançon, Maurice Renaud, Victor Maurel, Marcel Journet, Yvonne Gall, and Emma Calvé epitomized the best of the Gallic school of singing in the early decades of the Twentieth Century.  In 1924, the Opéra welcomed Georges Thill, a tenor who for many audiences and listeners represented the zenith of French singing, his repertory spanning many of the great works of the French repertoire as well as Puccini roles and Wagner’s Lohengrin.  After Thill’s retirement, however, French repertory increasingly fell victim to the internationalization of opera.  While French repertory continued to delight and move audiences in all the world’s opera houses, performances were more and more frequently entrusted to singers with non-native French.  By the 1970s, many audiences and critics would hail Alfredo Kraus—a Spaniard with Austrian parentage—as the finest ‘French’ tenor on the international circuit, highlighting the extent to which opera had become an ‘international’ genre, largely discarding the national ‘wings’ and traditional schools of singing that had flourished in the prior century.  There were in the gifted and supremely elegant Léopold Simoneau and Alain Vanzo guardians of the golden standard of French singing, however, and—not unlike Alfredo Kraus—they both sang with reliable style and tonal beauty throughout their careers.  When both Simoneau and Vanco passed away in the first decade of the new millennium, it seemed that the tradition of honeyed, heady French tenor singing inherited from the formidable artists of the Nineteenth Century was consigned to extinction.  Anyone who has heard the young tenor Sébastien Guèze during the past few years rejoices that the endangered species of French tenors has at least one savior, a singer whose voice reminds listeners of the glories of French singing of the past.

Born in Lyon, Sébastien Guèze studied music while also working to earn a Masters Degree in International Business.  After making the decision to devote himself exclusively to music, Mr. Guèze entered the prestigious Conservatoire de Paris, where his studies prepared him for a career in opera by exposing him to all aspects of music-making.  ‘It was a little different [than some music programs],’ Mr. Guèze recollects.  ‘We did more general skills, not specifically opera roles, but also mélodies, Lieder, chorus, theatre…including all the periods.  It’s not like a [young artists] program in an opera house, where you are a part of each production.  It’s a general school of teaching, with, of course, each year one [operatic] production!’  This, Mr. Guèze feels, was crucial to his development as an artist.  ‘It’s in this way that [I] learned a more global vision of the different music possibilities,’ he says.  ‘You start [as a] generalist, [and] the next step is to become a specialist!’

It is interesting to note that, when reminiscing about the singers whose work inspired his interest in opera, Mr. Guèze mentions no French singers.  ‘I discovered opera with ‘Con te partiro’ by Andrea Bocelli!’ he laughs.  ‘Thanks a lot [to] the crossover!’  [In a tenuous nod to his influence on Mr. Guèze, it is interesting to note that, in the coming months, DECCA will release CD and DVD recordings of a production of Gounod’s Roméo et Juliette featuring Mr. Bocelli.]  His appetite for opera whetted, he next encountered the marketing juggernaut that introduced many people throughout the world to tenor singing: The Three Tenors.  After Pavarotti, Domingo, and Carreras, Mr. Guèze turned to the historical models of Franco Corelli and Mario del Monaco, supplemented by the more recent examples of Roberto Alagna, Rolando Villazón, and Jonas Kaufmann.  ‘One who is killing me every time [is] Fritz Wunderlich,’ Mr. Guèze confides.

The singers whose performances have influenced Mr. Guèze reflect the international nature of opera in the Twenty-First Century.  Despite his youth, Mr. Guèze is keenly aware of his place in the lineage of French artists, as well as the demands and expectations of pursuing an international career as an opera singer.  ‘Of course, I feel very comfortable singing in French, more close [to the text], playing on each word,’ he shares.  ‘In French [repertory], I have some roles that I feel so strong inside me.  I don’t know why, especially because I don’t want to sing [them] today or tomorrow, but they are here—like Werther.’  Mr. Guèze first captured the notice of opera lovers throughout the world when he sang Gounod’s Roméo opposite the Juliette of acclaimed Georgian soprano Nino Machiadze in a broadcast performance at Amsterdam’s Concertgebouw, a performance that announced the arrival of a beautiful, genuinely French tenor voice.  Building on the momentum created by the reception of that performance, Mr. Guèze acknowledges that he has been fortunate in his career to date in terms of realizing artistic goals.  ‘I [have] sung most of the roles that I wanted to do: Roméo, Faust, the Duca in Rigoletto, Lenski in Yevgeny Onegin, Pinkerton in Madama Butterfly, and Alfredo in La Traviata,’ he says.  Nemorino in L’Elisir d’Amore is a favored role because, as Mr. Guèze characterizes it, he has the opportunity ‘just to be crazy and have a lot of fun on stage!’  Recent performances of L’Elisir d’Amore in São Paulo, Brasil, found Mr. Guèze on brilliant form, winning ovations from audiences and words of praise from critics.  In choosing which roles to sing, Mr. Guèze is very attentive to maintaining a careful balance during each season.  ‘I try to find a mix to keep the flexibility of the voice and my mind fresh,’ he says.  His goals for each season are specific but logical: ‘four or five productions with different roles that I [have] already sung; one creation [of a new role] or a forgotten opera (finding forgotten pieces is my second passion); and one or two new roles from the repertory (bel canto or Romantic period).’  He acknowledges, though, that he cannot always exercise complete control over his realization of these goals.  ‘There is no rule!’ he laughs, noting that the role that he has sung most often in his career to date is Rodolfo in Puccini’s La Bohème.  His performances of Rodolfo in Graham Vick’s production of Bohème for Greek National Opera garnered rave reviews in the European press, further establishing him as a singer that audiences are excited to hear.

Sébastien Guèze as Nemorino in Donizetti's L'ELISIR D'AMORE in São Paulo, Brasil, 2012

The challenges of an international career are also apparent to Mr. Guèze, who works to adapt his artistry to the realities of being in demand throughout the world.  ‘Now with the airplane,’ he reflects, ‘you are singing one day in Europe and the next day in the USA!  Specifically when the role is very intense, I know that sometimes I am doing too much; too much in the season with some last-minute calls.  But I love that, I love the stage, the improvisation, being surprised and reacting every second to find the best solution.’  Reflecting on his transition from an intended career in international business to one as a singer, he says, ‘I was a singer by accident, so I am just taking the bonus.  So, I conclude that I’ll be a lion, and when it [is] enough, I will do something else!’  Even for a singer as gifted as Mr. Guèze, tackling the challenges of a career as an artist came with a learning curve.  ‘At the beginning, I tried to protect myself,’ he says, ‘but I was sad, loosing my motivation.’  These feelings are swept away by the joys of singing.  ‘When you are on stage and the time is suspended, stopped, you can do everything.  You feel the maestro and the orchestra totally with you, without anyone looking; the audience in a beautiful silence of listening, impatient.  That’s magic, and I think that’s why people love opera so intensely when they taste these kinds of moments!’

These moments are impossible without a firm technical foundation, and Mr. Guèze takes the development of his technique very seriously.  His seriousness does not preclude enjoyment of the art of singing, however.  Asked to summarize his approach to the technical aspects of singing, he responds with typical frankness and humor.  ‘When I am a sweet boy studying, I’ll tell you flexibility and sun.  But when I am on stage, passion and cinema!’  Instruction is very important but must also be approached with a degree of caution, he suggests.  ‘Listening to all [the] teachers and different techniques in the world is good,’ Mr. Guèze opines, ‘but each body, each face, each person is different, so [you must] find your own way.  A good teacher is not a guru, just a friend giving his hand when you need it.’

A performance by Mr. Guèze is a display of the essence of opera.  Not surprising in a native Frenchman are his clear diction and attention to text, regardless of the language in which he sings.  What is exceptional in a singer of any nationality is the beauty of his voice throughout his range, from a burnished lower register that suggests power in reserve for roles like Werther in future to a gleaming, floating upper register that seems to have been distilled from Mediterranean sunlight.  Though still in the early seasons of what seems certain to be a long and uncommonly distinguished career, Mr. Guèze possesses the kind of technical assurance, emotional engagement, and self-cognizance that are necessary for longevity in the business of singing.  Most importantly, perhaps, is Mr. Guèze’s enjoyment of his vocation.

Sébastien Guèze as Gounod's Roméo for Florida Grand Opera

‘At the end [of a performance], there is no book, no sculpture, no painting, just a [series] of vibrations that came and left,’ Mr. Guèze says of opera.  ‘It’s a curious form of art!’  The audience is as much a part of a performance as the artists on stage, he feels.  ‘To be [a] spectator is to take part in it,’ he shares.  ‘Seeing and imagining our own lives through the story…we are coming for that, to dream and to remember that our souls are part of humanity.’  This shared experience is an aspect of opera that Mr. Guèze finds very rewarding.  ‘Everybody can feel it, from the audience to the stage.  It’s starting full of fears, and—like the phoenix—at the end everybody feels alive.’

Achieving this sense of life and fears overcome is the most vital element of Mr. Guèze’s artistic endeavor.  Whether enacting comedy or tragedy, he has been recognized by critics for the directness and emotional truth of his performances, and this is a gratifying validation of Mr. Guèze’s personal philosophy of performing opera.  ‘It’s not about small or big,’ he reflects.  ‘It’s doing something true!  All your ideas must have an origin and an issue.  If your soul feels it, your body will feel it, and your heart will send it to the audience.  For me, this is the key of the presence on the stage.’  Mr. Guèze responds adroitly to the efforts of opera directors to increase the ‘relevance’ of opera by updating the settings of major-repertory operas to times and places more familiar to modern audiences.  ‘The secret of a magical performance is in the emotion,’ Mr. Guèze suggests, ‘so I can understand that you want to make a modern set to change things since the last productions and to create a new point of view, but the leading idea must be shaped by the question, How will we give smiles and tears?’  He feels that updating an opera’s setting without a valid emotional perspective drawn from the score itself is a dangerous and potentially damaging undertaking.  ‘If it’s helping to have a new set, why not?’ he says.  ‘Let’s go!  But if it’s just to create sensation by provocations, it will only work for five minutes, and so what if that is the only [thing] that you have to say?  Give me depth and not an easy, superficial work!’

‘When I go to see an opera, I like to see a show like a movie,’ Mr. Guèze says.  It is important, though, that the music be the source of the spectacle.  ‘I invent nothing,’ he says of his dramatic instincts.  ‘It’s very logical!  How can I give something that I don’t have?’  What Mr. Guèze has is a dedication to the art of singing that is refreshing, whether pursuing repertory in his native language or the major roles in other languages.  It is rare to encounter a Rodolfo in La Bohème who both possesses the voice for the role and displays an emotional sincerity that suggests that he might well be a poet and a young lover on the brink of starvation.  His easy command of the musical idioms of his native country mark him as a legitimate savior of the waning art of French singing, and for this alone he is an artist whose performances are gifts to those who lament the decline of the French school of singing.  Whatever the provenance of the music that he sings, Mr. Guèze identifies as his great challenge in singing the drive ‘to give the shiver every day, every time.’  He says that, in his view, opera is a curious art because, at the end of a performance, nothing tangible, nothing lasting has been created.  In the case of a performance by Sébastien Guèze, this is not true.  Anyone who hears him carries a lasting memory of having heard something wonderful.

Sébastien Guèze in costume as the Duca in Verdi's RIGOLETTO

The author is deeply indebted to Mr. Guèze for his kindness, candor, and great humor in responding to questions for this article.  All photographs are used with Mr. Guèze’s permission.

To learn more about Sébastien Guèze’s career and find information about upcoming performances, please click here to visit Mr. Guèze’s beautifully-designed website.

09 September 2012



One of the greatest debacles facing readers today is the matter of distinguishing legitimate literature from the work of the present generation of pretenders in print. While it is perhaps inaccurate and prejudiced to suggest that there are fewer works of literary merit being newly published now than in years past, it cannot be denied that a good book receives less attention in 2012 than it might have garnered in years before readers’ attention spans were shaped by chat shows and text messages. There can be little debate that, in Tales of Fantasy and Reality (published in July with illustrations by James Browne and available on Amazon), Chinwe D. John has provided modern readers with an engaging, exhilarating work of literature that challenges, beguiles, and impresses with tales delivered by a skilled and unique mistress of contemporary storytelling.

A child of the world whose formative years were divided among four continents, the author brings to Tales of Fantasy and Reality deep understanding of diverse cultures and traditions, and one of the most fascinating aspects of the book is the way in which she brings 21st Century sensibilities to tales originating in ages-old lore. Especially enlightening are her explorations of the folktales of Africa, a rich vein of complex, compelling mythology far too little tapped by Western writers, especially those writing in English. The author is not afraid of addressing the macabre, but the humor and poetry with which she does so are refreshing: these are stories that are meant to provoke self-study and enjoyment, not shock and dissociation. Like the plays of Shakespeare, Chinwe John’s poems and stories reveal the surprising extent to which all peoples, past and present, are related by common emotions, struggles, and successes.

Linguistically, Tales of Fantasy and Reality displays an eloquent command of the English language, allied with a gift for nuance born of the kind of raw insightfulness that only comes from exposure to varied cultures. The rhythmic construction of the author’s poetic verses contains great power, manipulating the reader’s streams of consciousness and conscience by focusing attention and sympathies on themes that often turn preconceptions on their heads. The author’s appreciation of music is apparent in the almost operatic way in which she uses language to bend phrases away from the conclusions that the reader expects, and this renders her stories—whether told in poetry or prose—vibrant and delightfully chameleonic: read the same story multiple times, and its layers of meaning shimmer and change under the light of differing moods. This is an accomplishment achieved only by uncommonly gifted writers.

In this age of e-mails and sound bites, it is rare that even a very good author can create a work of literature that interests and intrigues from the first page to the last. This talented writer succeeds in spinning tales that confront and cajole, drawing the reader into worlds that are mysterious but comfortingly familiar. Reading Tales of Fantasy and Reality is like spending an evening with a dear friend, sharing remarkable stories of lives lived and imagined over the finest cognac. Chinwe John is an author whose maiden literary voyage is one of both triumph and promise; one which is sure to mark the beginning of a circumnavigation of the world of our Century’s true literature.

To learn more about Chinwe John’s work, and to enjoy video recordings of her recitations, accompanied by Classical guitar, please click here to view her Facebook artist profile. Her YouTube channel can be accessed by clicking here.