31 December 2013

Year in Review: The Best of 2013

Year in Review: The Best of 2013

Since its inception, the principal initiative of Voix des Arts has been to celebrate the finest achievements in the Performing Arts, both in the United States and abroad.  Increasingly, this aim has been complemented by a concerted effort to defend the endeavors of today’s musicians against the apathy of naysayers who suggest that music-making of lasting significance ended with the demise of some assemblage of long-dead artists.  It is beyond debate that, in the first thirteen years of the new millennium, there have been no Isoldes to rival Varnay or Nilsson, no Lucias to supplant Sills and Sutherland, no Normas or Violettas to approach Callas’s perfection of pathos.  The Symphonies of Brahms and Shostakovich, the String Quartets of Beethoven, and the Piano Sonatas of Mozart do not find ideal interpreters with regularity or ease.  There remain ranks of dedicated, gifted artists who apply the best efforts of which they are capable to every performance, however, and some of them have achieved feats of brilliance in 2013 that will continue to gladden the hearts of music lovers for years to come.  The Classical Music recording industry continues to struggle, but those who sounded its death knell in years past were premature with their dirges.  As this year, dominated by celebrations of the Verdi and Wagner Bicentennials, draws to its close, it is only fitting to recognize those artists whose efforts—especially those on disc—have most memorably shaped twelve months of enjoyable listening.  It should be stated in closing that no recordings of music by Benjamin Britten have been selected on the occasion of the composer’s centennial for ‘Best Britten Recording(s)’ honors owing to a pair of important releases not having been received in time for equal consideration.

BEST VERDI RECORDING – Debates about the integrity of their artistic standards notwithstanding, productions throughout the world in 2013 have confirmed that the operas of Verdi are as timeless as they are tuneful.  Many fine performances have sought to display the continued relevance of Verdi’s music, but Bongiovanni’s resurrection of a ‘live’ 1955 La Scala La forza del destino—a performance that in 1955 was more routine than revolutionary—reveals the white-hot, smell-of-the-greasepaint intensity of Verdi singing at its best.  Preserved in listenable but far from opulent sound, this Forza del destino is roughly contemporaneous with the better-known DECCA studio recording made in Rome with Mario del Monaco as Alvaro, Giulietta Simionato as Preziosilla, Ettore Bastianini as Carlo, Cesare Siepi as Guardiano, and Fernando Corena as Melitone.  [Specific dates are not provided by Bongiovanni, but this is almost certainly the performance of 26 April 1955, which was broadcast over RAI and has been sporadically available in inferior sound on other labels, as suggested by limited comparisons between Bongiovanni’s release and another label’s recording of the performance of 26 April.  Balances and the prominence of audience voices during ovations suggest that this recording originated from a clandestine source, however.]  Renata Tebaldi's Leonora is common toBest Verdi Recording of 2013 - LA FORZA DEL DESTINO (Bongiovanni HOC 076/78) both performances, and in Milan she was on near to career-best form.  Launched with suitably orotund tones by Giuseppe Modesti’s stalwart Guardiano, 'La Vergine degli Angeli' is sumptuously-phrased by Ms. Tebaldi, the soprano's ability to ravish an audience with her pianissimo well in evidence; if only moments of distortion and the dreaded ‘hum’ did not intrude!  Giuseppe di Stefano was an Alvaro of will rather than nature, but his ringing sincerity and plangent timbre trump del Monaco's greater suitability for the rôle, not least in his wrenching account of ‘O tu che in seno agli angeli.’  Marta Pérez—incorrectly identified by Bongiovanni as Maria Perez [the singer of Curra is also misidentified as Giusi Giardino: La Scala’s archives confirm that the singer’s name was actually Giuse Gerbino]—is no Simionato, but Preziosilla is no Azucena or Amneris, and Ms. Pérez sings pleasingly.  Similarly, Aldo Protti is no Bastianini, but his was an authentic Verdi baritone voice, more sinewy than Bastianini’s, and his Carlo is a stirring performance.  Renato Capecchi’s voice was leaner than Fernando Corena’s, but Mr. Capecchi was an instinctual rather than a learned-by-rote Melitone.  The conducting of Antonino Votto is traditional in all the right ways, which is to say that he looks to the score rather than to any external ideas or directorial concepts for inspiration in guiding the performance.  Critically, enthrallingly, this performance of La forza del destino throbs in every scene with what so many performances lack: the force of destiny.  [Bongiovanni HOC 076/78; distributed in the USA by NAXOS]

BEST WAGNER RECORDING – Inspired by the bicentennial of the composer’s birth, a number of the world’s most renowned singers, orchestras, and conductors have contributed to an especially robust discography of new Wagner recordings in 2013.  With a ‘new’ Wiener Staatsoper Ring from Deutsche Grammophon and the valedictory installments in PentaTone’s generally fine Wagner Cycle under Marek Janowski’s able direction anchoring the year’s Wagner releases, the field of candidates for Best Wagner Recording was a wiBest Wagner Recording of 2013 - DIE MEISTERSINGER VON NÜRNBERG (Glyndebourne GFOCD 021-11)de one until the release of Glyndebourne’s ‘live’ recording of their 2011 production of Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg [reviewed here] with Vladimir Jurowski presiding over a cast including Gerald Finley, Anna Gabler, Marco Jentzsch, Johannes Martin Kränzle, and Alastair Miles.  Among many admirable Wagner recordings, this Meistersinger is the performance that most hearteningly upholds the standards of Wagner singing of yesteryear.  Both as singing and as an account of one of Wagner’s most dramatically complex but emotionally sincere rôles, Gerald Finley’s Hans Sachs is one of the most fortuitous unions of singer and part in recent memory, and he is but the most notable member of a uniformly superlative cast whose collective commitment to truly, beautifully singing music that is far too often barked and bawled builds a performance that reminds the listener that Wagner’s genius was not merely conceptual.  He also composed deeply personal, inexpressibly beautiful music.  [Glyndebourne GFOCD 021-11]

BEST HOLIDAY MUSIC RECORDING – Far too many recordings of holiday  music by ‘serious artists’ are embarrassing efforts in blatant commercialism; not so with Surrounded by Angels – A Christmas Celebration Best Holiday Music Recording of 2013 - SURROUNDED BY ANGELS (Sono Luminus DSL-92173)with Ensemble Galilei on Sono Luminus.  Formed by Isaac Alderson on flute and uilleann pipes, Hanneke Cassel on fiddle, Ryan McKasson on fiddle and viola, Kathryn Montoya on pennywhistles, shawn, and recorders, Jackie Moran on Bodhrán and banjo, Sue Richards on harp, and Carolyn Surrick on viola da gamba, Ensemble Galilei fuses Celtic sounds and elements of Appalachian folk music with an eclectic funk that is as unique as it is exhilarating.  Applying these qualities to an array of traditional carols and folk tunes, this team of master musicians evokes memories of holidays on front porches, by blazing hearths, and along windswept shores, all while both touching the heart and setting the toes tapping.  Nothing is hackneyed, nothing saccharine or clichéd: this disc simply offers an hour of top-quality music for the ‘most wonderful time of the year.’  [Sono Luminus DSL-92173; distributed in the USA by NAXOS]

BEST INSTRUMETAL SOLO RECORDING – Standing head and shouldersBest Instrumental Solo Recording of 2013 - TOCCATAS (Sono Luminus DSL-92174) above the year’s instrumental solo discs with its adventurous repertory and imperturbably assured execution of music in a wide range of styles, Jory Vinikour’s Toccatas – Modern American Music for Harpsichord [reviewed here] paves new ground and sets high standards for performances of a wealth of challenging music.  Hearing a recital of contemporary music for any instrument is not always a pleasure for the listener, but the communicativeness and open-hearted sincerity of Mr. Vinikour’s playing impart the contagious conviction that these works by contemporary American composers are as worthy of performance and appreciation as those by Bach, Händel, or Rameau.  [Sono Luminus DSL-92174]

BEST CHAMBER MUSIC RECORDING – Interestingly, chamber music can be  perhaps the most intimate, engaging genre of Classical Music in performance and one of the most disappointing on recordings.  The frisson of interaction among a small group of players and an audience is tremendously difficult to recreate or replicate in the recording studio, so recording ‘live’ performances offers a captivating alternative and, in the best cases, rare chances to document the most insightful work of extraordinarily talented musicians.  Offering Classical Music to the patrons of a revitalized community tavern seems a risky proposition, but Ensemble HD—cellist Charles Bernard, pianist Christina Dahl, violinist Amy Lee, violist Joanna Patterson Zakany, oboist Frank Rosenwein, and flautist JoshuaBest Chamber Music Recording of 2013 - ENSEMBLE HD - LIVE AT THE HAPPY DOG (Smith&Watterson S&W-V001) Smith—have enlivened the spirits at The Happy Dog in Cleveland’s Gordon Square District with wonderfully vital performances of music by Ludwig van Beethoven, William Bolcom, Benjamin Britten, Claude Debussy, Johan Halvorsen, Olivier Messiaen, Arvo Pärt, Astor Piazzolla, Maurice Ravel, Dmitri Shostakovich, and Anton Webern, collected and released on Ensemble HD – Live at the Happy Dog.  Ensemble HD’s playing glistens with virtuosity and invention, making of Piazzolla’s Le Grand Tango an unparalleled celebration of the composer’s music, widely known but too little respected as ‘serious’ music.  The third and fourth movements of Shostakovich’s Opus 67 Trio are magnificently played, without the overwrought sentimentality that often spoils performances of the piece, and every lover of American music should hear Ms. Dahl’s ‘swinging’ playing of Bolcom’s Graceful Ghost Rag.  The wonderfully vibrant sound in which the performances were recorded preserves the rapturous responses of the Happy Dog patrons: the listener to Live at the Happy Dog who does not share their enthusiasm is either deaf or a few pints past attentive enjoyment of the finest in chamber playing.  [Smith&Watterson S&W-V001]

BEST SYMPHONIC RECORDING – Since the dawn of vinyl LP recording  technology, virtually every conductor with even a slight appreciation for the music of Gustav Mahler has desired to have his or her thoughts on Das Lied von der Erde recorded for posterity.  Therein lies the problem with so many recordings of this great score: rather than seeking the spirit of Mahler’s interpretations of the texts, conductors have suBest Symphonic Recording of 2013 - DAS LIED VON DER ERDE (LPO-0073)pplied their own idiosyncratic readings.  It is with the greatest respect for Maestro Yannick Nézet-Séguin that it is suggested that the unique power of his conducting of LPO’s Das Lied von der Erde [reviewed here] is primarily derived from the individualism of his understanding of the score being drawn from Mahler’s music.  Nothing needs to be imposed upon the music because every element required for an insightful experience was woven into the score by the composer.  Taking the unhindered soulfulness of Maestro Nézet-Séguin’s approach as inspiration for their own playing and singing, the London Philharmonic, mezzo-soprano Sarah Connolly and tenor Toby Spence collaborate with the thoughtful responsiveness of chamber musicians in what is ultimately a performance of Das Lied von der Erde that succeeds most because it reaches least beyond the letter of Mahler’s score.  [LPO-0073]

BEST PERIOD INSTRUMENT RECORDING – Performances and recordings of  Giovanni Battista Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater are frequent enough that it might seem impossible for any performance in the 21st Century to provide new insights into this fascinating, over-exposed score.  ERATO’s new recording with Russian soprano Julia Lezhneva, French countertenor Philippe Jaroussky, Coro della Radiotelevisione svizerra, I Barocchisti, and Maestro Diego Fasolis dispels that assumption.  The crisply-articulated playing of I Barocchisti heightens the emotional impact of Pergolesi’s fastidiously-wrought melodic lines without sacrificing musicality in pursuit of cheap effects, and the enseBest Period Instrument Recording of 2013 - STABAT MATER (ERATO 50999 319147 2 7)mble’s playing exemplifies all of the progress that has been made during the past half-century in the understanding and application of historically-informed performance practices.  In the Stabat Mater, as well as in Pergolesi’s Laudate pueri Dominum and Confitebor tibi Domine, Ms. Lezhneva and Mr. Jaroussky blend their voices arrestingly.  The bright, slightly bleached quality of Ms. Lezhneva’s timbre lends her singing dramatic force, and her technique enables her to burn through Pergolesi’s most difficult passages with meteoric brilliance.  It is to music like that on this disc that Mr. Jaroussky’s ethereal voice is best suited, and he sings with delicious grace and ease.  When emotions are most raw, he leans into the text rather than applying pressure to the tone, giving a masterclass in the art of singing within one’s vocal means.  Ultimately, this team of artists achieves the unlikely distinction of making one of the most familiar scores in the choral repertory sound as though it is here being sung for the first time.  [ERATO 50999 319147 2 7; distributed in the USA by NAXOS]

BEST VOCAL SOLO RECITAL RECORDINGS – The best vocal recital discs reveal minute details about both music and singer, and few recordings in recent years have pierced these targets more directly or beautifully than Io Vidi in Terra, Brazilian countertenor José Lemos’s recording of 17th-Century Italian vocal music [reviewed here], and Poème d’un jour, the début recital disc in which soprano Ailyn Pérez explores Art Songs in French and Spanish [reviewed here].  Supported by Deborah Fox on theorbo and Jory Vinikour on harpsichord, Mr. Lemos envelops everyBest Vocal Solo Recitals of 2013 - IO VIDI IN TERRA (Sono Luminus DSL-92172) and POÈME D'UN JOUR (Opus Arte OA CD9013 D) emotional nuance of the selections on Io Vidi in Terra with his gossamer voice, drawing from the intricate tapestries of music composed centuries ago golden threads that shine as brightly in the 21st Century as when they were spun.  Ms. Pérez shapes Poème d’un jour with the skill of a champion surfer, sailing over the surging sea of Iain Burnside’s accompaniment on crests of tones clad in silver.  In selections by Fauré, Hahn, and Massenet, Ms. Pérez proves the complete mistress of French idioms in chanson and opera, but in the Spanish songs of de Falla, Obradors, and Turina she soars with particular glory and glamour.  Most importantly, both Mr. Lemos and Ms. Pérez unleash tempests in sound that uproot the staunchest oaks of convention and flood the least penetrable hearts with the simplest joys of song.  [Io Vidi in Terra – Sono Luminus DSL-92172; Poème d’un jour – Opus Arte OA CD9013 D]

BEST VOCAL SOLO ARIA RECORDINGS – Recording a disc of operatic arias  that can boast of traits such as continuity of repertory and consistency of quality often seems to be an expiring art.  Dying but not dead, listeners were reminded in 2013 by two delightful releases, one an unexpected gem from one of opera's most enigmatic songstresses and the other an unabashedly old-fashioned homage to blood-and-tears Italian singing of earlier times.  In Bel Canto, the predictably unpredictable Simone Kermes returns to her musical roots: before she swept through the Baroque repertory with the histrionic force of a cyclone, she was a noted interpreter of rôles like Donizetti's Lucia.  Bel Canto is more than a musical stroll down Memory Lane, however: this is Ms. Kermes at her most radiantly musical.  The glowing expressivity in Monteverdi’s ‘Sì dolce è ‘l tormento’ and spitfire attack on the Königin der Nacht's arias from Die Zauberflöte come as no surprise, but those familiar with the singer's much-discussed negotiations of Händel arias may well refuse to believe that it is the same soprano who here glides so luxuriantlyBest Vocal Solo Aria Recordings of 2013 - BEL CANTO (Sony 88765455062) and AMORE E TORMENTO (BMG 53800781 2) through Nelly's aria 'Dopo l’oscuro nembo' from Bellini's Adelson e Salvini, Norma’s ‘Casta diva,’ and music by Mercadante, Rossini, Donizetti, and Verdi.  Massimo Giordano's Amore e Tormento [reviewed here] is an uncomplicated exhibition of an Italian tenor doing what Italian tenors do—or should do—best.  Singers prattle on about concepts like morbidezza, slancio, and portamento as though these are the passwords required for admission into secret societies.  Rather than joining such aimless conversations, Mr. Giordano just sings.  And what singing!  In the last century, connoisseurs looked down their noses at Mario Lanza, but every Italian immigrant heard Lanza recordings and felt transported back to Italy.  Hearing Mr. Giordano, like Lanza a singer who uses vowels like flashes of lightning, sing the passion-drenched music of Verdi, Ponchielli, Puccini, Giordano, and Cilèa grants the listener an hour in a noisy piazza at sunset, the air damp with the scent of flowers as the old timers make their passeggiata.  Mr. Giordano's voice has all the elegance and grace of the opera house but also the indescribable sensation of speeding along a seaside autostrada in a car that costs more than five years’ salary.  In both Bel Canto and Amore e Tormento, wonderful singers perform arias as they would greet old friends, and listeners are invited to eavesdrop on the fond reunions.  [Bel CantoSony 88765455062; Amore e Tormento – BMG 53800781 2]

BEST OPERA RECORDINGS, PRE-1750 – Two hundred and thirty years after the composer’s death, the music of Johann Adolf Hasse remains an under-explored lode of invaluable treasures.  One of the few gems already mined was the 1725 serenata a due Marc’Antonio e Cleopatra, but deutsche harmonia mundi’s new recording with Vivica Genaux and Francesca Lombardi Mazzulli as the famed lovers [reviewed here] polishes this beautiful score to a shimmering luster.  Both Ms. Genaux and Ms. Lombardi Mazzulli offer expert singing of Hasse’s alternating cantilena and bravura styles, each singer realizing her part with formidable authority.  If noble Romans of antiquity sang in the alto register, it is difficult to imagine them sounding more glorious than Ms. Genaux’s golden-tongued Marcus Antonius in this performance.  The asp intent on striking Ms. Lombardi Mazzulli’s Cleopatra will need very sharp fangs indeed, so tough is her character’s skin, but the soprano’s assured singing makes even Cleopatra’s cruelty strangely charming.  Both singers make it obvious that Hasse’s music is, in comparison with the works of other composers, as good as the best and better than the rest.  More familiar to 21st-Century listeneBest Opera Recordings (Pre-1750) of 2013 - MARC'ANTONIO E CLEOPATRA (Sony/deutsche harmonia mundi dhm 8883721872) and DARDANUS (Alpha Productions ALPHA 951)rs is the music of Jean-Philippe Rameau, but performances of his operas are rare outside of France, recordings of uncompromising excellence rarer still.  Alpha’s performance of Rameau’s Dardanus, recorded in concert at the Opéra Royal du Château de Versailles, unites an ideal cast—Bernard Richter in the title rôle, Gaëlle Arquez as Iphise, Benoît Arnould as Anténor, João Fernandes as Isménor, Alain Buet as Teucer, Sabine Devieilhe as Vénus and une Phrygienne, Emmanuelle De Negri as Amour and une Phrygienne, and Romain Champion as Arcas—with Ensemble Pygmalion and Maestro Raphaël Pichon.  From first note to last, this performance exudes the rich, uniquely French aroma of a fine crème brûlée and bustles with the energy, elegance, and subtle pathos of the best of the French Baroque.  Mr. Richter makes easy going of the name part’s perilously high, haute-contre tessitura, and his heady splendor is matched tone for tone by the sweetly feminine and unimpeachably poised Iphise of Ms. Arquez.  Unusually, each of the low-voiced male principals possesses vocal resources adequate for his rôle, with an especially fine performance being given by Mr. Fernandes.  It is rare that a recording of French Baroque repertory genuinely thrills, but an outstanding cast and conductor make this Dardanus as gripping as any performance of Trovatore or Tosca.  [Marc’Antonio e Cleopatra – Sony/deutsche harmonia mundi dhm 8883721872; DardanusAlpha Productions ALPHA 951; distributed in the USA by NAXOS]

BEST OPERA RECORDINGS, POST-1750 – The companion to a competent but  ultimately lackluster account of Wagner’s Der Fliegende Holländer, Marc Minkowski’s recording of Pierre-Louis Dietsch’s 1842 Le vaisseau fantôme ou le maudit des mers is a marvelous introduction to a forgotten masterpiece.  The foremost element that contributes to the success of the performance is the cast: Russell Braun, Sally Matthews, Bernard Richter, Ugo Rabec, Eric Cutler, and Mika Kares.  With Mr. Braun’s burly but refined tones, Ms. Matthews’s breath-taking coloratura, Mr. Richter’s complete mastery of murderous tessitura, and Mr. Cutler’s gleaming tones, a more stylish, faithfully idiomatic cast could hardly have been assembled, and Maestro Minkowski’s lively leadership enables one of the most delightful musical discoveries of 2013.  Equally valuable is Ricercar’s unearthing of François-Joseph Gossec’s 1782 Thésée.  Gossec is one of those composers whose lot it was to be widely respected during his lifetime and Best Opera Recordings (Post-1750) of 2013 - LE VAISSEAU FANTÔME (Naïve V 5349) and THÉSÉE (Ricercar RIC 337)quickly forgotten after his death.  Occasional revivals of the music of many of the composers who share this dubious distinction have revealed that their obscurity was not entirely unwarranted, but Gossec’s genius—appreciated by both Haydn and Mozart—sparkles on every page of Thésée.  A tragédie lyrique in the manner of Lully and Rameau, Thésée is a masterfully innovative work, Gossec’s compositional style reminiscent of the Parisian operas of Gluck and Salieri but also bringing to mind the young Mozart.  Thésée is a cousin of Mozart’s Idomeneo, not least in its enlightened treatment of a mythological subject, and there are passages in Gossec’s score that would not sound out of place in Mozart’s.  Conductor Guy van Waas brings to the performance precisely the momentum and Gallic eloquence that the score demands, and the cast anchored by Frédéric Antoun, Virginie Pochon, Jennifer Borghi, Tassis Christoyannis, and Katia Velletaz meet every requirement of Gossec’s often raptly beautiful music.  In today’s do-or-die recording industry, any label that ventures a recording of an unknown opera can little afford anything short of perfect results: everyone involved with these recordings of Le vaisseau fantôme and Thésée can rejoice in having given neglected scores ideal entrées into the 21st Century.  [Le vaisseau fantôme (with Der Fliegender Holländer) – Naïve V 5349, distributed in the USA by NAXOS; ThéséeRicercar RIC 337, also distributed in the USA by NAXOS]

BEST CONTEMPORARY CLASSICAL RECORDINGS – Whatever their  quality, the works of young composers rarely receive the best resources that a record label has to offer, but NMC lavished on Joseph Phibbss The Canticle of the Rose [reviewed here] a fantastic effort—nothing less than the music deserves.  Modernity of idiom cannot mask the impact of the heartfelt endeavors of an important composer, and so it is with the music of Mr. Phibbs: when textures are darkest and tonalities thickest with discord, the sonorous humanity of the composer reaches the listener’s ear as surely as in the music of Mozart, Beethoven, or Schubert.  Flawlessly performed, each of the works on this disc is a treasure, and this recording is a gift to music lovers from one Best Contemporary Classical Recordings of 2013 - THE CANTICLE OF THE ROSE (NMC D191) and HERE/AFTER, SONGS OF LOST VOICES (PentaTone PTC 5186 515)of today’s finest composers and a refreshingly bold record label.  Expressive humanity is also at the heart of PentaTone’s recording of the music of Jake Heggie, here/after, Songs of Lost Voices [reviewed here].  Among fine performances, the singing of mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato and tenor Stephen Costello glows with the quiet explosion of sunlight through stained glass.  Ugly music sung beautifully has but limited appeal, however, and all the singers who participate in here/after are given music of impeccable faculty and sheer loveliness with which to make their marks.  Most remarkably, Mr. Heggie’s music allows joy its natural place in commemorations of even the most horrific events, and this memorial to voices silenced by violence is not a thing of granite or marble but a fertile garden in which many flowers grow, ever changing but never expiring.  [The Canticle of the Rose – NMC D191; here/after, Songs of Lost Voices – PentaTone PTC 5186 515]

BEST CHORAL RECORDING – 2013 has seen a plethora of exceptional new  recordings of choral repertory, ranging from music by Bach to the inevitable Verdi Requiems released in honor of the composer’s bicentennial.  The best of these have given listeners countless hours of joy and contemplation, but Maestro René Jacobs’s ‘homecoBest Choral Recording of 2013 - MATTÄUS-PASSION (harmonia mundi HMC 802156.58)ming’ to Johann Sebastian Bach’s Matthäus-Passion on harmonia mundi [reviewed here] discards layers of tarnishing traditions in order to reveal the unspoiled patina of what, all things considered, may be Bach’s single greatest work.  The listener meets anew the heartbroken but zealous Evangelist, sung with the tonal beauty of Wunderlich and the dramatic depth of Fischer-Dieskau by Werner Güra, and the profoundly moving Christ, both palpably of this world and perceptibly beyond it, of Johannes Weisser.  Idiosyncrasies have sometimes clouded the realizations of Maestro Jacobs’s visions of operatic repertory, but in this performance he weds his scholarship to an unmistakable passion for Bach’s score.  The Beatles’ sentiment that ‘all you need is love’ has become an empty cliché, but in the case of recording Bach’s Matthäus-Passion this performance reveals that this just may be true.  [harmonia mundi HMC 802156.58]

BEST REISSUED OR ARCHIVAL RECORDING – It seems somewhat ironic that one of the finest memorials to two great American artists should come from the archives of Norddeutschen Rundunks.  One of opera’s most potent ‘power couples’ before that concept became fashionable, Brooklyn-born soprano Evelyn Lear (1926 – 2012) and Texas bass-baritone Thomas Stewart (1928 – 2006) emigrated to Berlin on Fulbright scholarships in 1957, two years after their marriage, and many of their early successes were achieved in German theatres.  This excellently-remastered 1960 studio broadcast of Franz Schreker’s Die Gezeichneten—an intriguing opera unaccountably denied its American première until 2010—surrounds Ms. Lear and Mr. Stewart with some of the most accomplished GBest Archival Recording of 2013 - DIE GEZEICHNETEN (Walhall WLCD 0376)erman-speaking singers of the era, not least the inimitable Franz Crass and Helmut KrebsWinfried Zillig is the sort of conductor who was regarded during his career as a respected Kapellmeister but would today seem a peer of the greatest Teutonic conductors of the 20th Century: he conducts Die Gezeichneten with a sure hand, allowing the nuances of Schreker’s score to ebb and flow even in the setting of a radio studio.  No singer among the large cast disappoints, but the singing of the principals often leaps across the years with stunning presence.  Mr. Stewart, a great Wotan, finds in Count Andrea a rôle that makes splendid use of his grainy, mahogany-colored tone, and he sings powerfully.  Ms. Lear is a Carlotta of winsome femininity, her voice firmer and intonation more secure here than in many of her later, most celebrated performances.  Mr. Krebs, now remembered primarily for his sterling accounts of the Evangelists in Bach’s Passions, sang a wide repertory of leading and character rôles in German and Austrian theatres, and he brings to Alviano’s music the same verbal sensitivity and slender tonal beauty familiar from his Bach recordings.  Mr. Crass confirms his status as one of the most important basses of the 20th Century, singing with his usual iron-clad tone and gravitas.  This superb performance is more than just a souvenir of two of America’s best singers in their ‘salad days,’ then: it is a monument to an age in which even comprimario singers had legitimate voices and true artists gathered in an antiseptic radio studio could produce a genuine performance.  [Walhall Eternity Series WLCD 0376; distributed in the USA by NAXOS]

MOST PROMISING NEW ARTIST OF THE YEAR – Having refined  his talents under the tutelage of some of the most renowned exponents of the lyric arts, including the incomparable Virginia Zeani, Venezuelan-born coloratura baritone—a Fach that is perhaps more sparsely populated than any other in music—Emiliano Barragán-Géant is not a true newcomer to music.  His voice was first preserved on disc in 2013 on Händel Insólito [reviewed here]Most Promising New Artist of 2013 - coloratura baritone EMILIANO BARRAGÁN-GÉANT, however, and with this release he both upholds the most storied traditions of Händel singing and confounds the efforts of less innovative artists who are content to cloak their performances in honed but dull complacency.  Technical prowess is expected in performances of Baroque repertory, and virtuosity Mr. Barragán-Géant possesses in awe-inspiring quantities, but what sets this artist apart is his boundless curiosity, a quality that gives rise to a need to communicate with all who hear him via effusions of hypnotic melody.  There are in Mr. Barragán-Géant’s singing no hints of marking time, of carving out some perceptible niche in the recording market: he leaves to other, less sincere musicians the pursuit of commercial triumphs.  This artist’s victories are in connections with music and with listeners, and he is for his generation what Kathleen Ferrier and Hermann Prey were for theirs: a singer for whom the power of music is in affection, not affectation.

ARTIST OF THE YEAR – A decade ago, Seattle Opera unveiled a production of  Bellini’s Norma that united the Adalgisa of the brilliant Ewa Podleś with the Norma of one of America’s most promising singers, soprano Christine Goerke.  As singers from Lilli Lehmann to Angela Meade would agree, Norma is a rôle that cannot be conquered by voice, technique, or charisma alone: the daunting Druidess demands a combination of these attributes that eludes even very gifted sopranos.  From the perspective afforded by the prodigiously talented lady’s subsequent development as a singer and artist, it seems almost humorously ironic that it was written in The New York Times of Ms. Goerke’s 2003 Norma that ‘the rôle still seemed a size too big for her.’  There may have been an element of veracity in that assessment in 2003, but there is almost no rôle too big, musically or dramatically, for the Christine Goerke of 2013.  As a young artist of exceptional versatility, her repertory extending from Gluck and Mozart to Dvořák and Poulenc, Ms. Goerke was the deserving recipient of the 2001 Richard Tucker Award, but it is doubtful that even the most perceptive of observers could have foreseen in 2001 how Ms. Goerke’s voice—and the career supported by it—would develop in the years to come.  Ms. Goerke is unusually candid in acknowledging the ‘ups’ and ‘downs’ of her career: indeed, her honesty and humor remind the opera lover that a singer unwilling to concede a few ‘downs’ is unlikely to offer many memorable ‘ups.’  In the last years of the first decade of the new century, Ms. Goerke gave notice that a significant new interpreter of Richard Strauss’s Elektra had arrived, and she2013 Artist of the Year - Soprano CHRISTINE GOERKE (Photo by Arielle Doneson) further expanded her Straussian endeavors by laying siege to Ariadne as well.  In 2012, she grabbed Houston audiences by the throats with her captivating portrayal of the mercurial Eboli in Verdi’s Don Carlos, her account of ‘O don fatal’ one of the few in recent memory that did not rely upon vocal compromises, and electrified New Zealand with Brünnhilde’s war cries in Die Walküre.  Then, in the spring of 2013, she joined a group of gifted colleagues for a concert performance in Amsterdam’s Concertgebouw of Strauss’s Die Frau ohne Schatten, a preview of sorts of her autumn engagements at the Metropolitan Opera.  Her Concertgebouw Färberin was a triumph—but, said the perennially pessimistic, many singers have excelled in one-off performances of demanding rôles.  The Färberin is a lady with whom even the most metaphysically-inclined singer cannot claim to identify on a personal level, and whatever her tribulations as a woman and an artist Ms. Goerke is unlikely to have actually dealt with symbolic fish singing in her skillet or a trio of physically-challenged brothers-in-law.  Rather than wasting her time with philosophical pseudo-insights, however, she approaches the Färberin as a wife and mother and—most importantly—as a genuine Strauss soprano.  If the Concertgebouw Frau ohne Schatten was a triumph, the MET revival was a smashing extravaganza.  Hers is a truly sung and felt Färberin, not a step-by-step traversal of a ‘ten bars ‘til the next top B’ musical roadmap.  This is true of Ms. Goerke’s artistry in general; and of her career to date, in which the best routes from Operatic Points A to B and beyond have not necessarily been the obvious straight lines.  Vocally and dramatically, she fuses the unstinting power of Dame Gwyneth Jones, the disarmingly girlish authority of Rita Hunter, and the steel-cored versatility of Pauline Tinsley, but she is recognizably her own artist.  Most enjoyably, Christine Goerke is a diva in the tradition of Martina Arroyo: confronting challenges head on, quashing intimidation with unstoppable technique, and unafraid of having a few laughs at her own expense, she personifies the spirits of survival and surprise that have, for the past four centuries, made opera the world’s greatest art form.

Best Artist of 2013 - Soprano CHRISTINE GOERKE as the Färberin in Richard Strauss's DIE FRAU OHNE SCHATTEN (Photo by Ken Howard, © The Metropolitan Opera) Best Artist of 2013: Christine Goerke as the Färberin in Richard Strauss’s Die Frau ohne Schatten at the Metropolitan Opera [Photo by Ken Howard, © The Metropolitan Opera]

23 December 2013

CD REVIEW: Richard Wagner – DIE MEISTERSINGER VON NÜRNBERG (G. Finley, A. Gabler, M. Jentzsch, J.M. Kränzle, T. Lehtipuu, A. Miles; Glyndebourne GFOCD 021-11)

Richard Wagner - DIE MEISTERSINGER VON NÜRNBERG (Glyndebourne GFOCD 021-11)

RICHARD WAGNER (1813 – 1883): Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg—G. Finley (Hans Sachs), A. Gabler (Eva), M. Jentzsch (Walther von Stolzing), J.M. Kränzle (Sixtus Beckmesser), T. Lehtipuu (David), M. Selinger (Magdalene), A. Miles (Veit Pogner), C. Judson (Kunz Vogelgesang), A. Slater (Konrad Nachtigall), H. Waddington (Fritz Kothner), R. Poulton (Hermann Ortel), A. Elliott (Balthasar Zorn), D. Norman (Augustin Moser), A. Thompson (Ulrich Eisslinger), G. Broadbent (Hans Foltz), M. Mikhailov (Hans Schwarz), M. Almgren (Nightwatchman); The Glyndebourne Chorus; London Philharmonic Orchestra; Vladimir Jurowski [Recorded ‘live’ during performances at Glyndebourne, Lewes, East Sussex, England, in May and June 2011; 4CD, 257:00; Available directly from Glyndebourne and from major music retailers]

There are operas that are daunting propositions for even the largest opera houses, and then there is Richard Wagner’s Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg.  This magnificent monstrosity, touched on every page of the score by the hand of genius, can confirm the artistic merit of an opera company while also crippling its financial resources.  Even after the success of their inaugural Wagnerian outing, Tristan und Isolde, Die Meistersinger was a bold choice for the Glyndebourne management.  Requiring a large cast of talented singing actors, Die Meistersinger is a logistical nightmare, and volumes are spoken about the integrity and inventiveness of Glyndebourne by this recording’s confirmation that there was nothing small-scaled about the Company’s 2011 production of Wagner’s gargantuan effort at comedy.  In fact, in this year in which the bicentennial of the composer’s birth has been celebrated with dozens of new and reissued recordings and productions of his operas on virtually all of the world’s important stages, this recording of one of Wagner’s most difficult scores goes a long way in restoring confidence in the standards of Wagnerian singing in the 21st Century.  With so much genuinely ugly singing inflicted upon listeners in the name of ‘stylish’ Wagner singing, the performance heard on these discs is balm to the ears.  A half-century ago, a RAI broadcast performance sung in Italian with the unlikely quintet of Giuseppe Taddei (Hans Sachs), Boris Christoff (Pogner), Luigi Infantino (Walther), Renato Capecchi (Beckmesser), and Bruna Rizzoli (Eva)—a cast one might reasonably expect to encounter in a score by Donizetti rather than one by Wagner—revealed that there is in Die Meistersinger a gushing flow of bel canto that is harnessed only by singers who take care to caress rather than shout Wagner’s melodies.  This is, in short, one of the most refreshingly melodic performances of Die Meistersinger committed to disc in many years and one of the few in which love for—rather than fear of—Wagner’s leviathan score is audible in every note.

The chorus and orchestra are perhaps more important in Die Meistersinger than in any other Wagner opera.  In that regard, this performance has nothing to fear from comparisons with celebrated recordings in the Meistersinger discography, the singing of the Glyndebourne Chorus and playing of the London Philharmonic Orchestra leaving almost nothing to be desired.  The choral contributions are critical in Die Meistersinger, not least in the chaotic closing scene of Act Two—the point at which many performances of the opera come unhinged—and the opera’s valedictory final scene.  Prepared with obvious affinity for the requirements of the score by Jeremy Bines, the Glyndebourne choristers acquit themselves magnificently, singing circles round many of the world’s finest opera house choruses.  Their singing of the great ensemble in the final scene of Act Two is astonishing, both in its barely-contained vigor and spontaneity and in the innate but unforced precision: such impeccably-trained but ‘in the moment’ singing exemplifies the notion of the art that conceals art.  This superb singing is not confined to one or two scenes but persists throughout the entire performance.  Equally resilient are the sure intonation and finely-judged balances of the playing of the London Philharmonic.  As in all of his operas, even the early ones that are relegated to relative obscurity, Wagner makes strenuous demands on orchestras, and Die Meistersinger is launched by one of the most famous overtures in opera.  From the first fanfares of the ubiquitous Vorspiel, the Philharmonic players produce an account of Wagner’s score that combines throbbing intensity with velvety grace.  Brass and woodwinds frolic in Wagner’s witty part-writing, and the strings maintain firmness of tone even in gossamer passages on high.  The instrumentalists bring stirring power and heart-warming finesse in turn, shaping the score’s chamber-music-like passages with radiant simplicity of approach.  In this, they are guided with audible absorption of the spirit of the score by Vladimir Jurowski, a conductor whose mastery of German repertory exceeds that of many more aggressively-promoted conductors.  In his conducting of this performance, in which the inner structures of Wagner’s fastidiously-wrought scenes are subtly revealed, Maestro Jurowski proves a peer of Hans Knappertsbush and Rudolf Kempe, conductors who—on records and in opera houses—mastered the energy and hairpin turns of Die Meistersinger without sacrificing the slightly wistful sentimentality with which Wagner lined the score.  Maestro Jurowski seeks to make no apologies for the length of Die Meistersinger, setting tempi that serve the music rather than striving to have fidgety audience members en route back to London at a decent hour.  Nothing drags, nothing feels rushed: no scenes hang fire, musically or dramatically, and no passages whiz by unintelligibly.  Few performances of Die Meistersinger manage to be genuinely funny, but even fewer blend comedy and emotional depth as meaningfully as this one, and the insightful, refreshingly musical conducting of Maestro Jurowski deserves much of the credit for this.

It is to be hoped that the artistic leadership of any organization charged with the task of planning an operatic production collectively set for themselves the goal of assembling the best cast possible for the score at hand.  Regrettably, many performances during the past decade have suggested either that this is not a priority or that it is an exceedingly quixotic undertaking.  There can be little doubt that it is now easier to cast L’Incoronazione di Poppea, Atys, or Rodelinda than any of Wagner’s operas, but those who suggest that this year’s Wagner Bicentennial was a celebration without partygoers worthy of their invitations are not paying attention—and certainly have not heard this recording.  Die Meistersinger depends more than most of Wagner’s operas upon consistency of casting among secondary rôles, and this performance adheres to Glyndebourne’s legendary standards of excellence in casting.  Even the small part of the Nightwatchman is cast from strength with the bass Mats Almgren, who brings gravelly sonority to his lines at the end of Act Two.  Unusually, there is not a single weak link among the ranks of the Mastersingers, and each of the accomplished singers—tenor Colin Judson as Vogelgesang, bass-baritone Andrew Slater as Nachtigall, bass Henry Waddington as Kothner, baritone Robert Poulton as Ortel, tenor Alasdair Elliott as Zorn, tenor Daniel Norman as Moser, tenor Adrian Thompson as Eisslinger, bass Graeme Broadbent as Foltz, and bass Maxim Mikhailov as Schwartz—performs his rôle characterfully and with consummate musicality.  As an ensemble, these gentlemen form a formidable, delightfully euphonious college of Mastersingers.

Pogner, the goodly goldsmith who offers his daughter Eva’s hand in marriage as the grand prize in the Song Contest, is entrusted to one of Britain’s busiest and most reliable basses, Alastair Miles.  That trust is handsomely repaid by Mr. Miles’s shapely singing, the voice centered and filling Wagner’s vocal lines with solid tone.  The plangent tenderness of Mr. Miles’s singing of ‘Wie klug! – Wie gut! Komm’ setz’ dich hier’ in the third scene of Act Two is very effective, and his slightly bumbling doubt of the wisdom of pledging his daughter as a prize to the victorious Mastersinger is both amusing and endearing.  Though his discography is considerable, his broadly-sung Pogner is a marvelous addition to the recorded legacy of Mr. Miles’s artistry.

In recent years, scholars with generally respectable Wagnerian credentials have suggested that, whether by intention or by implication, the rôle of Beckmesser is an unsavory anti-Semitic stereotype, a sort of Shylock in sheep’s clothing.  Perhaps there is merit to this theory, but it also surely subjects Die Meistersinger to a post-Holocaust social awareness that has little bearing on Wagner’s score.  What is more apparent is that Beckmesser is representative of the small-minded stupidity that exists in every community, an archetype depicted in opera from its inception.  The decision that must be made by each singer who performs the part—or, in too many cases, imposed on him by the director of the production in which he participates—is whether his Beckmesser will be a genuinely mean-spirited figure or, as Shirley Maclaine might define him, merely a decent fellow who has been in a bad mood for rather a while.  The significance of psychology is reduced when the listener has a well-sung account of Beckmesser’s music with which to contend, however, and baritone Johannes Martin Kränzle graces this performance with the finest Beckmesser heard on records in a generation.  This is a gentleman with a nasty streak, to be sure, but a gentleman nonetheless, and one whose baser actions are the misguided expressions of his frustrated affection for Eva.  Mr. Kränzle’s voicing of lines like ‘Den Stümpern öffnet Sachs ein Loch’ (‘Sachs is opening a loop-hole for bunglers’) wonderfully conveys exasperation, increasingly so as Beckmesser senses that his chances with Eva are evaporating rapidly.  His Serenade, upset by Sachs’s unwelcome contributions, is exuberantly sung by Mr. Kränzle, and his performance of Beckmesser’s losing entry in the Song Contest is comically inept but never ugly.  Mr. Kränzle’s Beckmesser is snarky, snobbish, and quirky but never truly threatening and certainly not an affront to any race or creed.  Most importantly, it is a first-rate piece of singing.

Glyndebourne’s casting of the second pair of young lovers, Magdalene and David, reveals an understanding of the fact that these are not comprimario rôles.  Magdalene is charmingly sung by mezzo-soprano Michaela Selinger.  This is no fruity alte Junger: Ms. Selinger’s Magdalene is audibly a young woman in her prime, brimming with sexual energy—and salaciously on the prowl.  If Tristan und Isolde is Wagner’s exposition of carnal passions, Die Meistersinger is an exploration of propriety, and the machinations of Magdalene and her mistress undermine the social order of which Wagner is so critical.  Eva is the mastermind of the deception of Beckmesser in Wagner’s twisted balcony scene, but a great deal of convincing is hardly required to enlist Magdalene’s help.  Ms. Selinger is a lively presence throughout the performance, and she sings her part in the great Quintet with distinction.  To David’s music, Topi Lehtipuu applies the most intelligent of his dramatic instincts and a lean but unstrained lyric tenor.  The savagery that Mr. Lehtipuu summons in David’s jealousy and assault on Beckmesser after discovering the town clerk unwittingly serenading Magdalene is pulse-quickening, and his singing of David’s long-winded description of the Mastersingers’ song-writing criteria is hilariously pompous.  Like Ms. Selinger, Mr. Lehtipuu contributes winningly to the Quintet and is a verbally—and musically—alert David from his first utterance until he gratefully accepts his promotion and the ear-boxing that comes with it.

In a sense, Eva is Wagner’s least-complicated heroine.  She has her tribulations, of course, but she is not accused of murdering a sibling, encircled by fire on a mountaintop as punishment for filial disobedience, or denied the comfort of death for having mocked the crucified Christ.  Still, Eva is no ingénue: the course of her true love being, as Shakespeare confided, far from smooth, she is not above engaging in a bit of intrigue in order to ensure that the path ultimately leads to her desired destination.  Soprano Anna Gabler clearly relishes Eva’s moments of spite, but she also conveys the character’s purity with delicious femininity.  In the interview with Sachs in which he tacitly acknowledges his affection for her by relaying the fate suffered by King Marke in the story of Tristan and Isolde, the sweetness with which Ms. Gabler’s Eva comforts Sachs is immensely touching.  It is obvious that this Eva is at least partially cognizant of the significance of Sachs’s sentiments, and the love that she discloses in her gentle dealing with the older—but far from old—man is palpable.  The girlish sensuality of Ms. Gabler’s singing in the Quintet—and, indeed, throughout the performance—is marvelously persuasive, and the natural beauty of her voice shines in even the least congenial sounds of the text.  There are a few ungainly patches, but these heighten the humanity of her portrayal, and Ms. Gabler’s technical acumen extends to a credible effort at Eva’s trill.  Ms. Gabler’s calmly ecstatic singing of ‘O Sachs! Mein Freund! Du teurer Mann!’ is the emotional climax of the performance, but honest feelings rise to the musical surface whenever she is singing.

Walther von Stolzing tends to be cast either with a full-on Heldentenor who bruises the music or with a lyric tenor whose resources are strained by it.  Ideally, the part requires a fusion of power and poise, a partnering of qualities rarely encountered on records or in theatres.  From his first entrance, it is clear that tenor Marco Jentzsch is the rare Walther in whom the elements that produce a memorable Walther intersect.  Maintaining a repertory that mixes Wagner and Strauss rôles with Mozart’s Belmonte and Tamino, Mr. Jentzsch seems to possess the wisdom to make concerted efforts at preserving the flexibility of the voice as he takes on more dramatic rôles.  In this performance, the honey in Mr. Jentzsch’s tone glazes a core of bronze, and the sounds that the tenor produces are both bracing and beguiling.  In Walther’s early interactions with Eva, Magdalene, and David, Mr. Jentzsch conveys the natural unease of a young man among new friends, and the ardor in his singing grows as Walther’s love for Eva blossoms.  Walther’s tessitura is often daunting, especially in the Quintet, in which the singer is asked to scale the heights of his vocal lines with delicacy.  Mr. Jentzsch succeeds almost without fail, in the Quintet and throughout the performance, achieving proper placement and projection of his top notes.  ‘Morgenlich leuchtend im rosigen Schein,’ the Prize Song, is of course the principal test for any Walther, and here, too, Mr. Jentzsch rises to the occasion with panache.  Dramatically, Mr. Jentzsch allies his forthright vocalism with an insightful use of text to give life to a Walther who is credible as an innovator and a man in love.  For once, the strain is in the story rather than in the voice telling it.

He may be no Atlas, but there is no doubting that Hans Sachs ultimately carries upon his shoulders the responsibility for the success of any performance of Die Meistersinger.  A Meistersinger without a capable Eva or Walther is a wounded body that can nevertheless hobble into basic acceptability, and too many performances to count have survived musically disastrous and dramatically embarrassing portrayals of Beckmesser.  A Meistersinger with a maladroit Sachs is a beast without a heart, a corpse that may show cursory signs of life but amounts to nothing more than a mammoth collection of notes.  That Gerald Finley is an important singer and a gifted artist is so widely acknowledged that it is apt to be taken for granted: that he is such an authoritative Hans Sachs, even on disc, is a discovery for which no praise is too great.  In truth, moments in which Mr. Finley shapes text with the eloquence of a great poet are too numerous to be mentioned.  Cross with Beckmesser without becoming crass, Mr. Finley’s Sachs pursues the diplomatic course, cunningly defusing the clerk’s petty anger and averting catastrophes with cleverness.  Mr. Finley’s singing in the scene in which Sachs recognizes the full extent of Eva’s affection for Walther exudes disappointment and gentle melancholy.  There is not even the slightest hint of bitterness underlying the magnanimity with which this Sachs takes Walther under his wing, accepting not only the inevitability but also the greater righteousness of his unintentional rival’s triumph.  Vocally, Mr. Finley is troubled only by a couple of his rôle’s highest notes, but these minor struggles are emblematic of the absolute commitment that he brings to his performance.  In phrase after phrase, Mr. Finley offers the sort of burnished, beautiful tone for which Wagner’s music cries out but so seldom receives.  This is not an aged, world-weary Sachs but one who is still virile and in complete command of his resources; not so much of a different generation than Walther as representative of a different system of ideals.  Mr. Finley anchors the Quintet with uncompromising firmness of line and tone, and his singing of Sachs’s final monologue, extolling the paramount but evolving virtues of true art, ravishes the ears and lifts the soul.  In recent seasons, audiences have been fortunate to hear a competent Sachs: this recording preserves an unforgettable performance by a Sachs who makes mere competence seem woefully inadequate; an exquisite effort that leaves some of the most acclaimed performances of the past half-century in the dust.

Among the ranks of today’s opera singers, there are no Hotters or Schöfflers; no Grümmers or Schwarzkopfs; no Nissens, Schorrs, Reinings, or Müllers; but Glyndebourne’s 2011 production of Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg proved that the score need not be shelved until the dawning of a presumed new age of Wagnerian titans.  Recorded in spacious sound that nicely replicates a natural theatre acoustic and thus includes a good bit of stage noise, which contributes to rather than detracting from the immediacy of the performance, this production catches fire the moment that Vladimir Jurowski enters the pit and burns brightly until the last note is sounded.  No, even the sounding of the final chord does not extinguish the conflagration, for this is a performance that melts any resistance.  Remarkably, hearing the cast assembled by Glyndebourne provides the listener a glimpse of a distant Golden Age of Wagner singing even in these dark ages.  The Hans Sachs of Gerald Finley epitomizes the finest musical artistry of the fledgling 21st Century and reveals anew that, when great artists and great music collide, magic is possible even when it is least expected.

15 December 2013

CD REVIEW: Albert Roussel – PIANO MUSIC, Volume 1 (Jean-Pierre Armengaud; NAXOS 8.573093)

Albert Roussel - PIANO MUSIC, Volume 1 (NAXOS 8.573093)

ALBERT ROUSSEL (1869 – 1937): Piano Music, Volume 1—Sonatine, Op. 16 (1912); Le Marchand de sable qui passe, Op. 13 (musique de scène, 1908); Trois Pièces, Op. 49 (1933); Prélude et Fugue, Op. 46 (1934 & 1932); Doute (1919); Petit Canon perpétuel (1912); L’Accueil des Muses (1920); Segovia, Op. 29 (1925); Conte à la poupée (1904); Jean-Pierre Armengaud, piano [Recorded at Studio 4’33 Pierre Malbos, Ivry-sur-Seine, France, 6 – 7 September and 11 – 12 October 2012; NAXOS 8.573093; 1CD, 64:14; Available from Amazon, ClassicsOnline, and major music retailers]

While many Classical Music record labels pursue ‘safe’ releases featuring standard repertory and commercially lucrative performers, the insightful minds responsible for decisions about future projects on the NAXOS label peruse the discographies of composers of all levels of significance and, where they find a need, seek to fill it.  From operas and oratorios by forgotten composers to forgotten works by famous composers, NAXOS recordings have enabled listeners to explore musical byways that might otherwise have remained uncharted.  The piano music of French composer Albert Roussel is hardly a road not taken, so to speak, but many listeners who are familiar with Roussel’s Symphonies and chamber music may well have never encountered his music for piano, on disc or in the recital hall.  This first volume in NAXOS’s collection of Roussel’s complete compositions for solo piano reveals music that deserves the attention of an intelligent pianist with an authentically French style of playing, and this disc entrusts Roussel’s adventurous, uniquely melodious music to no less a light in the firmament of French pianism than Jean-Pierre Armengaud.

In contrast to Wunderkinder like Mozart and Mendelssohn, Roussel devoted himself to music relatively late in life, having first studied mathematics and spent several years at sea, including a stint on a frigate called the Iphigénie—an auspicious assignment for a future composer in the French tradition.  It was not until 1894, when he was twenty-five, that Roussel began serious studies of music: he would continue to pursue musical tuition until 1908, studying for a time at the Schola Cantorum of Paris with Vincent d’Indy, one of the must influential teachers—and, among 21st-Century audiences, insufficiently respected composers—in fin-de-siècle France.  Perhaps influenced by d’Indy’s interests in music of the past, Roussel’s compositional style ultimately blended healthy doses of Debussy-esque Impressionism with a strong current of Neoclassicism.  With occasional performances of his four Symphonies and a small body of chamber music, along with infrequent espousal by singers such as Rita Gorr and Marilyn Horne of his opera Padmâvatî, Roussel’s music is consigned to a prestigious but unfortunate place just beyond the boundaries of acclaim and popularity.  If these works struggle for the attention that they deserve, Roussel’s music for solo piano lags even further behind.

Offering music written in the three decades between 1904 and 1934, this disc spans virtually Roussel’s entire compositional career.  Conte à la poupée (A Doll’s Tale) from 1904, the earliest piece on this recording, is a tri-part lullaby written for an album compiled by the Schola Cantorum: the subtle singing quality of Mr. Armengaud’s playing makes a wonderfully tranquil effect.  Roussel composed his incidental music for the play Le Marchand de sable qui passe (The Sandman) in 1908 for the ensemble of string quartet, clarinet, oboe, flute, horn, and harp, in which scoring it was published as his Opus 13.  One of Roussel’s most hypnotically Impressionistic works, the music is here performed in its version for piano.  Mr. Armengaud lends the magic of Debussy’s Suite bergamasque to Roussel’s music, especially in the ethereal harmonies and chromatics of the final movement.  Chromaticism is also central to the development of the first movement, and Mr. Armengaud places each harmony with unerring timing and rhythmic precision.  The lyrical inner movements, both touched by suggestions of wistfulness and regret, are beautifully played, the strength of Mr. Armengaud’s left hand highlighting the depths of Roussel’s invention.

The Petit Canon perpétuel dates from the spring of 1912 and finds Roussel in full command of the employment of subjects and countersubjects after the manner of the Baroque masters whose music he likely studied under d’Indy’s tutelage.  Mr. Armengaud’s facility with octaves serves the Petit Canon well, and his rhythmic vitality provides precisely the energy needed to realize Roussel’s complicated figurations with brilliance.  Composed in the summer of 1912, the Opus 16 Sonatine is the most substantial of Roussel’s early works for the piano.  Condensing the traditional four-movement sonata form into a free-flowing two-movement format that ushered in a new style of composition, Roussel fused Beethovenian power with characteristic French grace.  An acknowledged authority on the piano music of both Debussy and Satie, Mr. Armengaud approaches the Sonatine with precisely the combination of virtuosity and finesse required to realize the cleverness of Roussel’s writing.  Perhaps intentionally evocative of the horrors of World War I and the uncertainty of its aftermath, Doute (Doubt) is an unsettling work that Mr. Armengaud plays with great sensitivity.  L’Accueil des Muses (The Muses’ Welcome) was composed in 1920 in memory of Debussy, and Mr. Armengaud’s playing wrings all of the muted sadness from Roussel’s melodic lines.  Originally composed for guitar in 1925 for Andrés Segovia, whose name it bears, the piano arrangement—the work of Roussel himself— of Segovia played on this disc ingeniously preserves the distinct guitar rhythms of the bolero, crisply rendered by Mr. Armengaud.

The Trois Pièces of 1933, dedicated to and first performed by Robert Casadesus, cover a great deal of stylistic ground, from Viennese Classicism to Jazz.  The pieces are sharply contrasted by Roussel, who increasingly dedicated his creative energy during the last years of his life to sharp delineation of his individual technique.  In the Trois Pièces, this resulted in carefully-wrought rhythmic foundations for each of the three pieces, foundations that are meticulously recreated by Mr. Armengaud.  Nods to Beethoven, Schubert, and Schumann are accomplished by the pianist without any suggestions of parody or heaviness.  Published as his Opus 46, the Prélude et Fugue incorporates Roussel’s final work for piano, the 1934 Prélude.  The Fugue was composed two years earlier in homage to Bach, of whose music Mr. Armengaud is also a notable interpreter, and his playing expertly unites the 18th and 20th Centuries.  The virtuosity demanded by the Prélude ripples from Mr. Armengaud’s fingers with every appearance of ease, his flexible but firm sense of rhythm again serving the composer’s music ideally.

Albert Roussel’s name may never be spoken in the same breath with those of Debussy and Satie, but the imaginative, technically accomplished but never academic playing of Jean-Pierre Armengaud on this disc confirms that Roussel’s music for piano is no less worthy of attention from the world’s more insightful pianists than that of his more familiar contemporaries.  Indeed, this disc, recorded in wonderfully clear sound that transports the listener to the ‘sweet spot’ in a small, acoustically superb recital hall, is something of a revelation: rather than compromising standards of excellence with another half-hearted recital of music by Beethoven or Chopin, this disc thrillingly allows a true artist of the keyboard—of all the pianists active in the world today, perhaps the one best suited to this repertory—to share with the listener a voyage into a sumptuous musical world.  Which label other than NAXOS would take such a chance and deliver a disc as momentous as this one?

14 December 2013

CD REVIEW: Johann Adolf Hasse – MARC’ANTONIO E CLEOPATRA (V. Genaux, F. Lombardi Mazzulli; deutsche harmonia mundi, dhm 8883721872)

Johann Adolf Hasse - MARC'ANTONIO E CLEOPATRA (deutsche harmonia mundi, dhm 8883721872)

JOHANN ADOLF HASSE (1699 – 1783): Marc’Antonio e Cleopatra—V. Genaux (Marc’Antonio), F. Lombardi Mazzulli (Cleopatra); Le Musiche Nove; Claudio Osele [Recorded in Villa San Fermo, Lonigo, Italy, 30 November – 4 December 2011; deutsche harmonia mundi dhm 8883721872; 2CD, 91:00; Available from Amazon, jpc, and major music retailers]

Opera is like any of the great cities of Italy.  In Florence, in Milan, in mighty Rome, there are the basilicas to which pilgrims trek in order to bow their heads before centuries-old reliquaries and the galleries in which sensitive viewers gaze in quiet awe upon the canvases familiar to every casual art student.  There are also narrow streets festooned with drying laundry that lead to quiet parish churches in which high altars by forgotten masters seem not so much depictions of heaven as borrowed pieces of it.  There are sleepy piazzas in which shy creations of Donatello hide themselves from lazy tourists.  In opera, too, there are these half-known alcoves, these places beyond common parlance where the musical languages of lost generations are still spoken.  Somewhere between the familiar operatic edifices of Händel and Vivaldi, there is a beautiful palace built of the music of Johann Adolf Hasse.  Neither forgotten nor embraced by the Baroque Revival of the late 20th and early 21st Centuries, Hasse is a composer whose name resounds far more frequently in music lovers' ears than his music.  In the 18th Century, a number of the composers deemed by history to be among the greatest considered Hasse their better, and his operas were the favorites of Kings and Kaisers.  When his early serenata Marc’Antonio e Cleopatra was premièred in Naples in 1725, the title rôles were sung—in gloriously gender-bending fashion—by Vittoria Tesi and Farinelli, singers on the cusps of rock-star careers that would remain closely allied with the operas of Hasse.  Not even Hasse's marital link to Faustina Bordoni, one of the most famous singers of the 18th Century, has prompted anything greater than cursory interest in the composer's music among 21st-Century audiences, but both Hasse and his songbird consort have in mezzo-soprano Vivica Genaux a powerfully persuasive advocate.  Nearly all singers have individual passions: for too many of them, these are the pursuits of fortune and celebrity.  For Ms. Genaux, the music of Hasse is not self-serving esoterica or a means of garnering fame as a singing sleuth: it is a splendid, living organism teeming with potential to engage the best efforts of insightful artists.  Uniting a team of like-minded musicians, this new recording of Marc’Antonio e Cleopatra offers a stimulating tour of one of the most brilliant backstreets of Baroque opera, guided by one of the genre's most unique and gifted practitioners.

Italian maestro Claudio Osele, a noted specialist in giving new life to under-appreciated music of the 17th and 18th Centuries, and Le Musiche Nove, the period-instrument ensemble that he founded in pursuit of this passion, have lent their talents to recording projects featuring such celebrated singers as Cecilia Bartoli, Diana Damrau, and Simone Kermes.  The historically-appropriate performance practice credentials of neither Maestro Osele nor his Orchestra were in question, but the indefatigable verve with which they perform Hasse’s score in this performance of Marc’Antonio e Cleopatra confirms them as the equals of Europe’s most accomplished Baroque stylists.  So powerful are the sounds that the players of Le Musiche Nove produce in the score’s most extroverted passages that it is difficult to believe that they number only fourteen.  Rejecting the fashion for increasing the orchestral accompaniment for a piece like Marc’Antonio e Cleopatra with additions of instrumental parts not indicated in the manuscript, Maestro Osele offers the score with precisely the complement of strings and basso continuo included in the sole surviving score in Hasse’s hand, a decision proved right in every moment of the performance.  Provided by Giuseppe Mulè on cello, Marco Pesci on theorbo and Baroque guitar, and Federica Bianchi on harpsichord, the continuo is realized with particular grace, chord progressions and cadences imaginatively shaped without the overwrought muddling that mars too many performances of Baroque vocal music.  Adopting the commonly-accepted Baroque diapason of A = 415 Hz, an apt compromise considering that Neapolitan pitch in 1725 may have been slightly lower but that pitch in Hasse’s native northern Germany may have a whole tone or more higher, Maestro Osele and Le Musiche Nove make beautiful sounds in execution of Hasse’s score.  Maestro Osele sets tempi that allow the unique qualities of each number in Marc’Antonio e Cleopatra to emerge without being unduly accentuated.  Thankfully, the era of treating Baroque repertory as music in need of apologetic equivocating is ended, and the gifted musicians of Le Musiche Nove astutely convey the same authority in the music of Hasse that the Wiener Philharmoniker players exhibit in Brahms or Mahler.

Composed for private performance before an audience of sophisticated—and, presumably, at least moderately music-loving—illuminati of Hapsburg Naples, Marc’Antonio e Cleopatra—its libretto by Francesco Ricciardi based upon Italian models derived from Plutarch rather than Shakespeare’s then-little-known Antony and Cleopatra, also broadly indebted to Plutarch—likely began life without the benefits of extravagant costumes or stage machinery.  The circumstances of the commissioning and first performance of Marc’Antonio e Cleopatra in an aristocratic residence rather than Naples’s Teatro San Bartolomeo afforded the young Hasse, only twenty-six years old at the time of the serenata’s première in September 1725 but already a celebrated tenor and composer, opportunities to explore the emotional elements of the drama more acutely than the conventions of Baroque opera typically allowed.  The desire to reveal the souls of the characters he set to music remained central to Hasse’s compositional endeavors throughout his career, finding greatest fruition after his marriage to Faustina Bordoni but also likely influenced whilst resident in Naples by his friendship with Alessandro Scarlatti, who died soon after the first performance of Hasse’s serenata.  Already in Marc’Antonio e Cleopatra, Hasse exercised an uncommonly keen talent for giving his characters deftly-portrayed dramatic profiles.  The effect of his work was sufficient to inspire further commissions from Naples’s prominent citizens and theatres and, eventually, to expand Hasse’s fame to all corners of Europe.  Only during the past decade has Marc’Antonio e Cleopatra received anything like the attention that its musical and dramatic distinctions merit, however.

This performance pairs the Marc’Antonio of American mezzo-soprano Vivica Genaux with the Cleopatra of Italian soprano Francesca Lombardi Mazzulli.  It is unlikely that more perfect partnerships between voices and music could ever be achieved.  In comparison with the often long [when performed without cuts] operas of Händel and Vivaldi, neither singer has a great deal of music with which to contend: both Marc’Antonio and Cleopatra have four arias, and each of the serenata’s two parts ends with a duet, the second of which brings the expected salute to the glory of the reigning Hapsburgs.  [The modern listener can be forgiven for failing to recognize the mysterious ‘Carlo’ and ‘Elisabetta’ of whom Antony and Cleopatra sing in the final recitative as the Holy Roman Emperor Charles VI and his consort, Elisabeth Christine, the parents of Maria Theresa.]  There is comparatively little secco recitative: Hasse shrewdly allows his characters to express their deepest thoughts in concerted numbers.  Expressivity is an inalienable quality of Ms. Genaux’s singing, but few singers—especially those singing Baroque music—combine insightful dramatic instincts with absolute technical command with such aplomb.  Marc’Antonio is the more pensive and sincere of the characters, his thoughts and actions conflicted but unfailingly motivated by his love for Cleopatra, and Hasse’s music characterizes him accordingly.  His first aria, ‘Pur ch’io possa a te, ben mio,’ draws from Ms. Genaux a courtly but profound statement of love that would melt the iciest heart; any heart, that is, but that of the coolly calculating Cleopatra, whose response is telling: ‘Signor, la tua sciagura grave m’è più perché a me stessa io deggio rimproverar, che fui nella naval tenzone delle perdite tue prima cagione’ (‘My Lord, your misfortune affects me greatly, as I perceive clearly that I am the principal cause of your defeat in battle’).  Cleopatra answers Antony’s heartfelt sentiments with the aria ‘Morte col fiero aspetto,’ in which the impersonal sting of the Queen’s pride is felt in the brilliant sheen of Ms. Lombardi Mazzulli’s voice.  Ms. Genaux’s tonal warmth pays wonderful dividends throughout the performance, and the emotional impact of her singing is increased exponentially by the understated naturalness of her diction and phrasing.  Furthermore, Ms. Genaux’s delivery of bravura passages remains as dazzling as ever, and her virtuosity is echoed by Ms. Lombardi Mazzulli’s effortless negotiation of Cleopatra’s coloratura.  Ms. Genaux’s long-sustained tones in ‘Fra le pompe peregrine’ are arresting, and her breath control and crisp trills in the stunning ‘Là tra i mirti degl’Elisi’ are models of proper technique.  Though clearly relishing Cleopatra’s haughty elegance, superbly conveyed by Hasse’s music, and indulging in a few embellishments that more effectively show off her upper register than ornament the composer’s vocal lines, Ms. Lombardi Mazzulli rises to great heights of eloquence in ‘Quel candido armellino.’  There are no melodramatic asp strikes in Marc’Antonio e Cleopatra, but the tranquility with which Antony and Cleopatra resign themselves to union in death radiates from Hasse’s score and from Ms. Genaux’s and Ms. Lombardi Mazzulli’s singing.  Hasse ingeniously infused the drama of Marc’Antonio e Cleopatra into his music, and the sublime vocalism in this performance extracts every smile and tear from the composer’s succinct masterpiece.

The music of Hasse no longer slumbers in unmerited obscurity, but even the attention of a number of fine artists has not drawn the full extent of the composer’s genius out of the shadows.  Hasse would go on to compose some of the most acclaimed operas of the 18th Century, a handful of which are starting to enjoy modern revivals, but already in Marc’Antonio e Cleopatra the musical and dramatic skills that endeared Hasse to his contemporaries and to singers like Farinelli, who retained arias by Hasse in his arsenal of ‘insertion’ arias throughout his career and employed beloved arias from the composer’s Artaserse in his nightly recitals for Felipe V, were highly developed.  This recording succeeds in revealing all of the wistful charm of Marc’Antonio e Cleopatra and in doing so with unassailable spirit and stylistic accuracy.  Patches of darkness remain in 21st-Century audiences’ appreciations of Hasse’s music, but this recording of Marc’Antonio e Cleopatra bathes one of this remarkable composer’s most resplendent scores in authentically Italianate sunlight.

12 December 2013

CD REVIEW: Jean-Baptiste Lully – PHAÉTON (E. Gonzalez Toro, I. Perruche, I. Druet, G. Arquez, A. Foster-Williams, F. Caton, C. Auvity; Aparté AP061)

Jean-Baptiste Lully - PHAÉTON (Aparté AP061)

JEAN-BAPTISTE LULLY (1632 – 1687): Phaéton, LWV 61—E. Gonzalez Toro (Phaéton), I. Perruche (Clymène), I. Druet (Théone, Astrée), G. Arquez (Libye), A. Foster-Williams (Épaphus), F. Caton (Mérops, Automne, Jupiter), B. Arnould (Protée, Saturne), C. Auvity (Triton, le Soleil, la déesse de la Terre), V. Thomas (Une Heure, une bergère égyptienne); Chœur de Chambre de Namur; Les Talens Lyriques; Christophe Rousset [Recorded ‘live’ in concert at Salle Pleyel, Paris, on 25 October 2012; Aparté AP061; 2CD, 153:00; Available from Amazon, fnac, jpc, and major music retailers]

​The aficionado of the music of Jean-Baptiste Lully who peruses the performance diaries of those theatres and festivals that are friendly to Baroque repertory might justifiably ask, 'Où est Maître Lully?'  Throughout the world and even to some extent in France, Lully's invitations to many important fêtes Baroques are seemingly lost in the post.  Otherwise, how is the absence of the presiding genius in the refinement of tragédie en musique from celebrations of Baroque music to be explained, especially in an age in which the operas of Rameau are recorded more frequently than those of Gounod or Massenet?  There is no accounting for taste, it is said, but it seems bizarre that ears pleased by the music of Rameau should be any less gratified by Lully's groundbreaking works.  The sort of generalized, all-purpose singing that might get a singer through Händel operas with some degree of credibility falls flat in Lully's music, however: the earnest Hagen moonlighting as an acceptable Achilla or Garibaldo is unlikely to duplicate his success as Apollon or Roland.  Much as they benefit like any other works from keen musicality, the operas of Lully demand a style of singing that remains in short supply.  This inevitably limits the numbers of performances that these innovative scores receive, but it also has the effect of making a stylish performance of a Lully opera a legitimate event.  The October 2012 concert performance of Phaéton—the first in the succession of tragédies en musique with which Lully conquered Versailles—in Salle Pleyel was indeed an event, and the release of Aparté’s recording of the performance, which brought together an uncommonly homogeneous cast of expert singers with Les Talens Lyriques and Christophe Rousset, is an occasion for rejoicing.

It is only natural that an ensemble whose name is taken from an emblematic opera of the French Baroque, Rameau’s 1739 Les Fêtes d’Hébé, should consistently show such facile mastery of the unique idioms of that musical epoch.  Though the score is often beautiful beyond words, Phaéton is not Lully’s strongest opera, its plot of contrived rivalries and conflicting ambitions progressing at too lugubrious a pace to fully engage the listener.  It is an opera that takes well to being performed in concert, then, and Aparté’s engineers have recorded this concert performance with impeccable artistry of their own, beautifully capturing the sonic ambiance of Salle Pleyel without allowing the audience to intrude too significantly upon the delicate sonic landscape of Lully’s music.  This is not the first commercial recording of Phaéton, of course, but in many aspects—not the least of which is the vibrancy of a gifted cast drawing energy from an audience—this recording clearly becomes the Phaéton of choice both for those who love the opera and for those who have not yet made its acquaintance.  The singing of the Chœur de Chambre de Namur, a perfectly-blended ensemble of twenty singers, is consistently assured and quite wonderful in ‘Dieux! Quel feu vient partout s’étendre!’ and ‘Ô dieu qui lancez le tonnerre’ in Act Five.  Carefully-balanced but never ‘churchy,’ the Chœur’s singing is ideally scaled to match the dramatic import of every phrase of the text.  From the first note of the Ouverture, the playing of Les Talens Lyriques displays an unforced grace that many period-instrument ensembles fail to produce even in multiple takes in the recording studio: it is all the more laudable that the gifted instrumentalists of Les Talens Lyriques, obviously meticulously rehearsed, achieve such reliably euphonious sounds in a single live performance.  The continuo group—consisting of Emmanuel Jacques on cello, François Joubert-Caillet on viola da gamba, Laura Mónica Pustilnik on lute, Stéphane Fuget on harpsichord and organ, and Maestro Rousset on harpsichord—provide sharply-defined impetus to the performance, shaped by beguiling, historically-appropriate renderings of the cadences that differ so markedly from those of contemporaneous Italian music.  Les Talens Lyriques’ playing of the great Chaconne that serves as an entr’acte of sorts before Act Three exhibits the aristocratic elegance and razor’s-edge rhythmic precision that are the very essence of the French Baroque, and every scene of the opera benefits from a realization of the instrumental complement that perfectly serves its dramatic needs.

The Prologue, an allegorical homage to Lully’s patron Louis XIV—here entitled, with an unmistakable smattering of flattery, ‘Le Retour de l’Âge d’Or’ (‘The Return of the Golden Age’)—of the type that became typical in Lully’s operas, is an exchange between Astrée and Saturne, eloquently sung by mezzo-soprano Isabelle Druet and bass-baritone Benoît Arnould.  Ms. Druet returns in the opera proper as Théone, the daughter of the sea god Proteus and Phaéton’s discarded lover.  It is to Théone that Phaéton is betrothed when his mother, Clymène, awakens his ambitions for power, and it is she who most touchingly laments his ultimate fate in ‘Changez ces doux concerts en des plaintes funèbres.’  Considering the legitimacy of her indignation, it is hardly surprising that Lully characterized Théone with sublime music, which Ms. Druet sings with warm, flowing tone.  Mr. Arnould also contributes powerfully to the tragédie, appropriately taking the rôle of Protée, Théone’s prophesying father.  To Protée falls the unenviable task of foretelling the death of his daughter’s beloved, but Mr. Arnould performs the task with focused, forceful tone that imbues the music with the gravitas of the text.

Singing the parts of Triton (Clymène’s brother), le Soleil (the Sun God), and la déesse de la Terre (the Earth goddess), tenor Cyril Auvity—one of the most talented exponents of the perilous haute-contre repertory unique to French opera—tears through Lully’s music with a voice of starlit intensity.  Triton’s efforts at extracting previews of coming events from Protée draw singing of exceptional charm from Mr. Auvity, augmented by heady vigor as his annoyance at Protée’s shape-shifting efforts at avoiding sharing his auguries grows.  His performances of the Sun and the Earth goddess—no ground-shaking Erda, this terrestrial deity—are intriguingly contrasted.  Soprano Virginie Thomas also nicely differentiates her appearances as an Hour in the Act Four scene set in the Palace of the Sun, giving a lovely account of ‘Ô dieu de la clarté, vous réglez la mesure,’ and an Egyptian shepherdess in Act Five, where her fresh voice shines in the air ‘Ce beau jour ne permet qu’à l’aurore.’  Bass-baritone Frédéric Caton is enlisted for triple duty as Mérops (King regnant of Egypt), Automne (Autumn), and Jupiter.  An experienced presence in performances of French Baroque music, Mr. Caton brings to each of his rôles in Phaéton vibrant tones matched by insightful delivery of text.  His portrayal of Jupiter is suitably grandiose, and his singing of Mérops is unassailably and slightly bemusedly regal.

Libye, Mérops’s daughter and heiress to the Egyptian throne, is sung with expaniveness and firmly lustrous tone befitting a tragic heroine.  Libye, too, falls victim to Phaéton’s and Clymène’s scheming, her father convinced by her duplicitous stepmother—Clymène, that is—to set aside her intended husband and consort, Épaphus, in preference for Phaéton.  Phaéton being the opera’s subject, Lully and his eventually-frequent librettist, Philippe Quinault, granted Libye a somewhat perfunctory resolution to her tribulations, but mezzo-soprano Gaëlle Arquez makes the most of every musical and dramatic opportunity given to her.  ‘Heureuse une âme indifférente!’ in Act One, ‘Que l’incertitude est un rigoureux tourment!’ and ‘Quel malheur!’ in Act Two, and the deeply emotional ‘Ô rigoureux martyre’ in Act Five all inspire Ms. Arquez to fantastic singing, her use of tonal shading in the service of dramatic verisimilitude as sure as her tasteful deployment of Lully’s ornamentation.  She is partnered with finesse and bountiful tonal beauty by the Épaphus of bass-baritone Andrew Foster-Williams.  Comfortable in a wide repertory, Mr. Foster-Williams’s resonant voice and faultlessly-trained technique find a handsomely-appointed home in Baroque music.  Mr. Foster-Williams’s singing seethes with anger and exasperation in Épaphus’s confrontation with Phaéton in Act Three, and his exchanges with Libye are saturated by sorrow and palpable affection.  Throughout the performance, Mr. Foster-Williams produces a tide of golden sound upon which Lully’s music sails gloriously.

Clymène possesses every quality required to be a monumental operatic villainess: arrogant, duplicitous, power-hungry, manipulative, and even briefly remorseful, she is, like Händel’s Agrippina, as covetous of being Queen Mother as ever she was of being Queen Consort.  She is ruthless but strangely sympathetic, Lully having given her music of refinement that transcends her cruel motives.  There are in her Act Three pleas for Phaéton to abandon his quest for the throne, ‘Le Ciel trouble votre bonheur,’ suggestions of true maternal love, and these are the most memorable moments in soprano Ingrid Perruche’s performance.  So impassioned is her singing that her fear for her son’s safety touches the heart more than any sentiment expressed by this character has the right to do.  Perhaps it would not be so were Ms. Perruche’s voice not so achingly beautiful, here and throughout the performance.  Lully gave Clymène surprising depths of nuance, and Ms. Perruche fills those depths with a sea of sparkling tone.  Were there only her voice to appreciate, Ms. Perruche should be a winning Clymène, but she aligns her verdant singing with uncanny instincts for finding the most poignant aspects of her rôle and flinging them like rose petals into the hands of the listener.

The dexterity and sheer unreservedness with which tenor Emiliano Gonzalez Toro traverses Phaéton’s music are astounding.  Though very different in style and vocal demands, Phaéton’s music hovers in the sort of tessitura that, in the operas of Bellini, annihilates even very accomplished tenor voices.  Knowing precisely how the haute-contre singers of the 17th and 18th Centuries trained and sounded is no more possible than attaining similar knowledge of castrati, but the at least partial lingering of the tradition well into the 19th Century, still evident in a rôle like Nadir in Bizet’s 1863 Les pêcheurs de perles, suggests that the haute-contre tradition made use of a highly-cultivated form of voix mixte rather than the more straightforward falsetto employed in travesti rôles in Italian (especially Neapolitan) Baroque opera.  Mr. Gonzalez Toro’s repertory is not restricted to haute-contre parts, but his mastery of the fiendish demands of this style of singing is apparent in every note that he sings in Phaéton.  Like Ms. Perruche, Mr. Gonzalez Toro inspires an unexpected awakening of sympathy.  Beginning as a rather petulant but endearingly fun-loving fellow, his Phaéton’s worldview is darkened by his mother’s vision of his ascent to the throne, and his arrogance as the offspring of the Sun ultimately seems more political than personal.  It is true that he is none too noble in casting off Théone or making it clear that his pursuit of Libye is solely the product of ambition, but Mr. Gonzalez Toro manages to make Phaéton an unexpectedly amiable figure.  In every note of his music, he displays the sort of charisma that might colloquially be termed ‘star quality,’ and his is a performance that outclasses similar efforts by his most celebrated rivals in this repertory.

Historical records suggest that Phaéton was first performed at Versailles in 1683 with only rudimentary staging, so presenting the opera in concert is an apt recreation of its origins.  At any rate, all of the gargantuan stage effects for which French Baroque operas were renowned are artfully conveyed by Lully’s music, and freedom from the stylized acting required by many productions of French Baroque operas surely affords the singers greater opportunities for shapely singing.  Perhaps because they do not contain the sort of music that can be capably sung by any aspiring singer who has spent a term in conservatory, Lully’s operas have generally fared well on records; better, in fact, on records than in the world’s opera houses and concert halls, where they continue to be seldom heard.  After Mozart’s Idomeneo, subjects drawn from mythology plummeted from popularity as surely as Phaéton on his ill-fated solar journey, but if audiences can embrace Richard Strauss’s dalliances with Ariadne and Helen of Troy why must the mythical incarnations in Lully’s operas remain ignored?  A perfect Phaéton voice is no more common than an ideal Bacchus or Menelaus, but could a cast, chorus, orchestra, and conductor be assembled anywhere in the world today who could perform Ariadne auf Naxos or Die ägyptische Helena as thrillingly as Phaéton is executed by the personnel recorded by Aparté?