31 May 2013

CD REVIEW: POÈME D’UN JOUR—Music by de Falla, Fauré, Hahn, Massenet, Obradors, & Turina (Ailyn Pérez, soprano; Opus Arte OA CD9013 D)

Ailyn Pérez: POÈME D'UN JOUR [Opus Arte OA CD9013 D]

REYNALDO HAHN (1874 – 1947): À Chloris, L’Heure exquire, Le Printemps, Si mes vers avaient des ailes, Le Rossignol des lilas, L’Énamourée; FERNANDO OBRADORS (1897 – 1945): Canciones clásicas españolas; JULES MASSENET (1842 – 1912): ‘Je suis encor tout étourdie’ & ‘Adieu, notre petite table’ from Manon; JOAQUÍN TURINA (1882 – 1949): Poema en forma de canciones; GABRIEL FAURÉ (1845 – 1924): Poème d’un jour; MANUEL DE FALLA (1876 – 1946): Siete canciones populares españolas—Ailyn Pérez, soprano; Iain Burnside, piano [Recorded at All Saints, Durham Road, East Finchley, London, UK, 14 – 16 June 2010, except for Massenet arias, which were recorded ‘live’ in recital at St. John’s, Smith Square, London, on 7 March 2012; Opus Arte OA CD9013 D]

There are in every generation artists who make débuts and those who, for lack of a better word, ‘arrive,’ their voices more or less fully-developed and their techniques already polished.  There are undeniable pleasures in encountering the work of artists who fall into either category, and as one of the great journeys of discovery in vocal music is observing the ways in which singers’ voices, artistries, and careers develop, it might be argued that finding a singer at the germination of his or her career is the somewhat more rewarding path.  Nevertheless, there is something indescribably visceral about hearing an already-excellent voice at its introduction to the public, a sense of a genuine ‘event’ that has become all too rare in Classical Music.  Such ‘events’ can be deceptive, however, as not even the greatest artists of lore emerged from their mothers’ wombs, Athena-like, arrayed with mature instincts for performance.  When on a storied February afternoon in 1974 soprano Teresa Stratas was indisposed and unable to sing Desdemona in the Metropolitan Opera’s matinée broadcast of Verdi’s Otello, New Yorkers and listeners throughout the world heard the arrival of Dame Kiri Te Kanawa, a MET début almost as fêted by the MET audience as the legendary début of Astrid Varnay as Sieglinde in Die Walküre.  That Ms. Te Kanawa’s ‘arrival’ at the MET—only a month before her scheduled début—was preceded by years of preparation in her native New Zealand, Australia, Great Britain, and in San Francisco and Santa Fe is somewhat less remembered.  Fine singers simply do not appear like comets in cloudless skies, having been untouched and uninfluenced by other celestial forces.  To those who closely scour the ranks of America’s best young singers, the success of this vibrant lady’s burgeoning international career is hardly surprisingly, but it is beyond question that with this début recital disc—Poème d’un jour—soprano Ailyn Pérez has arrived brilliantly in the Classical recording market.

Choosing the programme for a début recital disc is surely a difficult task for all but those singers who are, vocally speaking, ‘one-trick ponies’ with limited resources or very specific skills.  A Latina with great pride in her heritage, Ms. Pérez has winsomely alternated French selections —including arias from Massenet’s Manon, which she has sung in Valencia and with Covent Garden forces in Japan—with music by Spanish composers, and one of the most enjoyable aspects is hearing a piece as familiar as Manuel de Falla’s Siete canciones populares españolas sung with conviction that is authentically rather than learned-by-rote Hispanic.  Rather than accents more familiar from her own Mexican ancestry, Ms. Pérez employs the Castilian dialect appropriate to songs by Spanish composers, the distinctive enunciation of the letter ‘c’ possessing great sharpness in Ms. Pérez’s performance.  It is enlightening to hear music in Spanish sung by a soprano for whom the language is native.  Despite being close cousins of common derivation from Latin, Spanish and Italian are not interchangeable, as so many singers seem to think: the cadences of Spanish, both spoken and sung, are completely different from those of Italian, and just as singers with non-native French are often accused of failing to comprehend and respond to nuances of French texts there are dangers for singers with non-native Spanish to overlook witticisms inherent in composers’ exploitations of the lilt and niceties of pronunciation of Spanish.  These dangers never claim Ms. Pérez, whose diction remains clear even in the most difficult passages of the music, both in the Spanish and in the French selections.  There are occasional moments in French songs in which vowel sounds are slightly compromised, presumably in the interest of purifying the sound in order to facilitate placement of the tone, but these moments are few and do not detract from Ms. Pérez’s overall linguistic fluidity.  With her seemingly effortless command of effectively putting across texts in both French and Spanish, Ms. Pérez’s work on this disc brings to mind the artistry of one of her most beguiling musical forbears, Victoria de los Ángeles, who had the ability to bewitch effortlessly in either French or Spanish.

Another idiomatic peculiarity of Spanish music, especially the canciones of Obradors and Turina, is the unexpectedly demanding tessitura.  There are passages during which the most prepared singer might find herself thinking, ‘¡Ay dios mio, this is high!’  Though each song in Obradors’s Canciones clásicas españolas and Turina’s Poema en forma de canciones has its own ambiance, the songs combine remarkably to shape true cycles, with climaxes that erupt naturally along musical and dramatic fault lines.  Ms. Pérez ascends and descends with equal comfort to the range extremities demanded by all of the pieces on this disc.  Perhaps the most celebrated song cycle by a Spanish composer, Manuel de Falla’s 1914 Siete canciones populares españolas is a concentration of the essence of Spain in seven brief songs, the longest of which—‘Jota’—barely exceeds three minutes in duration.  The galant gitana rhythms of Andalucía, the sea breezes of Asturias, and the arid sunlight of Murcia flow through de Falla’s music, and Ms. Pérez’s performance makes every nuance of the texts, which with the exception of Gregorio Martínez Sierra’s verse in ‘El paño moruno’ are traditional, pulse with the vitality of Spain in its Golden Age.  On records, the Siete canciones populares españolas have been memorably sung by an uncommonly wide array of voices: the radiantly pure de los Ángeles, the earthy but impeccably poised Teresa Berganza, the unapologetically operatic José Carreras, the passionate Joyce DiDonato, the charismatic Zara Dolukhanova, and the resonant Marilyn Horne.  Ms. Pérez’s performance withstands comparison with any of these artists, her voice shimmering with power in the cante jondo passages and with wit and humor in the moments that lean more towards cante chico.

The recital begins with three selections by Reynaldo Hahn, to whose music Ms. Pérez returns later in the recital with three additional songs.  Had Bach and Händel collaborated on aria, Hahn’s ‘À Chloris’ could have been the result.  With a beautiful vocal line extended over an understated accompaniment with the simplicity of a Baroque ground bass, ‘À Chloris’ is a favorite recital number for lyric sopranos, its languid melody sensitively expressing the emotional serenity of Théophile de Viau’s text.  Ms. Pérez sings the piece with the tonal luster and command of line that a lover of Baroque music might expect from a great Almirena, Asteria, or Teofane.  A setting of a famous text by Paul Verlaine, ‘L’Heure exquire’ is representative of Hahn at the zenith of his abilities as a composer of songs, and the rapture with which Ms. Pérez sings the piece is irresistible.  Ms. Pérez successfully conveys the shifting moods of each of the Hahn songs recorded here, bringing to each vocal colors ideally suited to the texts.  Though more artists are now including his songs in their recitals than in years past, Hahn remains an underappreciated composer of art songs, his individual voice combining French attention to textual twists and turns with Italian melodic precociousness: Ms. Pérez’s singing of the Hahn selections on this disc is of such distinction as to inspire hope for even greater attention to the composer’s work.

A wonder of Gabriel Fauré’s setting of Charles Jean Grandmougin’s enigmatic ‘Poème d’un jour’ is the facility with which the composer translates the restlessness and compact but fully-realized emotional journey of the poetry into music.  In the first song, ‘Rencontre,’ Ms. Pérez brings great depth of expression to the crescendo on the climactic top F-sharp in each of the two stanzas, swelling the tone in reflection of the building ecstasy of the text.  ‘Toujours,’ the second song, rises in intensity and tessitura to a top G, Fauré’s music echoing the poet’s declaration that the loving soul can never fall away as do flowers in spring.  The ease with which Ms. Pérez sings Fauré’s churning lines detracts nothing from the dramatic effectiveness of her alert delivery of the text.  ‘Adieu,’ the final song, is something of a summary of the first two songs, the text completing its exploration of the dualities of love and nature.  Ms. Pérez’s singing captures the insouciance of both music and text, and the grace with which she sings all three songs spotlights the originality and guarded sentiments of Fauré’s music.

Recorded during her début appearance in Britain’s Rosenblatt Recital Series, the two arias from Massenet’s Manon on this disc offer a tantalizing glimpse of Ms. Pérez’s charm on the operatic stage.  ‘Je suis encor tout étourdie,’ the aria in which Manon recounts for Lescaut her wonder at all that she has observed in her journey from the convent in which she spent her early years to Amiens, receives from Ms. Pérez a brightly exuberant performance, the voice tingling with youthful excitement and the top C-sharp in Massenet’s suggested cadenza thrillingly produced.  Ms. Pérez sings ‘Adieu, notre petite table’ with excellent breath control, finely managing the diminuendo and rallentando in the penultimate phrase.  It is rare for a singer to convey the essence of an operatic rôle in recital performances of arias from that part, but Ms. Pérez’s singing—enthusiastically received by the London audience—intriguingly suggests much of Manon’s character and musical profile, along with the singer’s tender but ebullient concept of the rôle.

Supporting Ms. Pérez with playing of refinement and technical mastery both in studio and in recital, Scottish pianist Iain Burnside proves an accompanist of stimulating artistic cooperation.  ‘Dedicatoria,’ the opening movement of Turina’s Poema en forma de canciones, is Mr. Burnside’s only solo piece on the disc: the faculty and vigor with which he plays it invoke wishes for more opportunities to hear Mr. Burnside’s solo playing.  The versatility and attention to the intricacies of her phrasing with which he accompanies Ms. Pérez are wonderful, however, and the rhythmic precision of his playing is especially rewarding in the Spanish pieces.

Many recital discs offer displays of the feats of which singers are capable as vocalists.  It is far rarer that a singer—especially a young singer in the first few years of an international career—focuses on a commanding show of artistic range in a recital disc.  If the music on this disc, particularly the Spanish canciones, are not close to Ailyn Pérez’s heart, she is an unusually cogent vocal actress.  In many cases, to refer to a singer such as Ms. Pérez, whose credentials already include appearances in many of the world’s most important opera houses and receipt of the 2012 Richard Tucker Award, as promising might seem to be politely damning with faint praise: in the case of Ms. Pérez, it is the sincere articulation of expectation for the continued expansion of an already capacious artistry.  Poème d’un jour is a glamorous, enchanting recital with which one of the most enticing young singers of the current generation exclaims to the music-loving and record-buying public, ‘¡Estoy aquí!’