26 August 2013

CD REVIEW: Krzysztof Penderecki – PIANO CONCERTO ‘RESURRECTION’ (F. Uhlig; hänssler CLASSIC CD 98.018)

Krzysztof Penderecki: PIANO CONCERTO 'RESURRECTION' (hänssler CLASSIC CD 98.018)

KRZYSZTOF PENDERECKI (b. 1933): Piano Concerto ‘Resurrection’ (revised version of 2007)—Florian Uhlig, piano; Polish Radio Symphony Orchestra; Łukasz Borowicz [Recorded in the Polish Radio Witold Lutosławski Concert Hall, Warsaw, 25 – 27 January 2013; hänssler CLASSIC CD 98.018; 1CD, 37:50; Available on Amazon and ClassicsOnline]

The musical career of Krzysztof Penderecki, who celebrates his eightieth birthday in 2013, has spanned an extraordinarily wide spectrum of musical innovations, the composer’s youthful adherence to the avant garde principals of composition explored by his contemporaries giving way to a later return to traditional forms and tonal systems that persists in his work since the start of the new millennium.  The shifting guises of Penderecki’s work can perhaps be interpreted as a reflection of the deeply personal response of the artist to the political and social trials endured by his native Poland, which during the composer’s lifetime has endured the monumental destruction of World War II and the brutality of Communist rule.  The indomitable spirit of the Polish people has ushered in a new era of individual and creative freedom, however, and Poland in 2013 is one of the most culturally vibrant, invigorated nations in the world.  Ironically, it was an assault on the concepts of freedom and democracy that prompted the creation of Penderecki’s Piano Concerto, entitled ‘Resurrection’ by its composer in an obvious expression of kinship with Mahler’s Second Symphony.  Commissioned by New York’s Carnegie Hall, the piece is dedicated to the victims of the 9-11 terrorist attacks.  What is offered on this recording by German pianist Florian Uhlig and Maestro Łukasz Borowicz is not the Concerto as it was heard at its 2002 première at Carnegie Hall but Penderecki’s revised version of the score, first performed in Cincinnati in 2007.  Its dedication notwithstanding, Penderecki’s Piano Concerto is an appropriate, brilliant homage to his homeland and resilient countrymen and to his own chameleonic versatility as an artist.

Like many of Penderecki’s works, the Piano Concerto initially proved controversial, some critics even suggesting that the broadly unsentimental nature of the music was an affront to artistic sensibilities affected by the tragedy of the 9-11 terrorist attacks.  Having dedicated works to the victims of the bombing of Hiroshima, those killed in 1970 riots in Poland, and—via revisions to his Polish Requiem—Pope John Paul II, Penderecki has allied his creative process throughout his career with an insightful understanding of history and global politics.  Putting politics aside and merely listening to the music, it is difficult to comprehend the Concerto being regarded as anything other than an exceptional piece of music, a gift to pianists that honors the tradition of the great 19th-Century concerti of Schumann, Brahms, and Tchaikovsky but is also very much of the 21st Century.  Penderecki’s score contains a great deal of very fine music, his idiom having evolved into an appealing and consistently accessible modernism.  Perhaps it is this accessibility that draws the ire of some critics, whose prerogative is seemingly to condemn any music that seeks to move beyond the Serialism and bleak atonalism of mid-20th-Century compositional techniques.  The sting of the tragedy of 9-11, the horror of that day that broke hearts in every corner of the world, is that those who died in the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, and in a field in rural Pennsylvania were ordinary people: stock brokers, firefighters, police officers, secretaries; and, more importantly, mothers and fathers, sisters and brothers, daughters and sons, friends—people simply pursuing their everyday lives.  How can a composer’s decision to memorialize these people with sounds that would almost certainly have pleased them more than the cold sounds of the 20th Century avant garde possibly disrespect or pervert the goal of honoring them?  Penderecki undoubtedly felt that these innocents deserved the best of his art, and in his Piano Concerto he gave it to them.

Musically, Penderecki’s assignment of the epithet ‘Resurrection’ and the association with Mahler are apt.  The spirit of Mahler’s ‘Resurrection’ Symphony hovers over the Concerto, not least in the brass fanfares and alternations of hushed, almost trance-like passages with explosions of the orchestra’s full power.  Through-composed, the Concerto indeed often mimics the formal structure of Mahler’s Symphonies and Das Lied von der Erde, its frequent changes of tempo producing an episodic progress that transcends the traditional employment of individual movements.  Still in evidence is the bold use of percussion that characterizes much of Penderecki’s work, though in the Piano Concerto there are none of the typewriters, musical saws, and other mechanical implements that populated the composer’s earlier scores.  Penderecki’s writing for the orchestra recalls both Mahler and Schoenberg but is also individualistic.  Passages that employ strident sonorities never do so merely for the sake of modernity per se, but the effectiveness of the contrasting of these passages with outpourings of lyricism is dazzling.  Fortunately, the spacious, atmospheric sound achieved by hänssler CLASSIC’s engineers faithfully captures the full extent of orchestral outbursts without jeopardizing intimate details, and the balance between orchestra and piano is refreshingly natural, recreating the experience of hearing a work of this nature from an ideal distance in the concert hall.

The gifted players of the Polish Radio Symphony Orchestra are given music that demands their complete concentration, and the excellence of their playing under the baton of their Artistic Director, Łukasz Borowicz, never falters.  Having presided over exciting, idiomatic performances of an array of works, Maestro Borowicz has seemingly also mastered the music of Penderecki.  Conducting with an affinity for the idiosyncrasies of the composer’s music and completely resisting any temptation to approach the Piano Concerto, especially in its most grandiose pages, as a parody or replica of Mahler’s music, Maestro Borowicz adopts tempi that have the distinction of unfailingly sounding right for the music.  He and the Orchestra support the pianist with the subtlety and synchronicity of chamber musicians, maintaining precision of ensemble in even the most musically convoluted passages.  Playing of virtuosic mastery of the music is evident in every section of the Orchestra, and Maestro Borowicz’s conducting is as much in the music of Penderecki as in that of Mozart or Verdi a source of imperturbable strength and grace.

The career of Düsseldorf-born pianist Florian Uhlig has been so rewardingly unconventional that it is perhaps no surprise that he should prove an intelligent interpreter of Penderecki’s Piano Concerto.  In terms of basic pianism, Penderecki’s Concerto evokes memories of a number of composers’ styles of composition, with notable echoes of the large-scale scores of Gershwin, Grieg, and Rachmaninoff.  With its use of emphatic chord figurations in thematic development, the Concerto also discloses the influence of Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto.  Mr. Uhlig’s playing is unmistakably attuned to both the overall structure of Penderecki’s Concerto and the nuances of each episode.  His seamless transitions among tempi combine with a powerful but unexaggerated range of dynamics to meaningfully explore the inner voices of Penderecki’s music, exposing the undercurrents of sorrow and regret that tinge the solo line even when the orchestral accompaniment is at its most exuberant.  Mr. Uhlig’s playing is shaped by finely-judged rhythmic vitality, his delivery of rapid passages accurate but never mechanical.  In the most overtly lyrical moments, Mr. Uhlig’s gossamer touch and use of pedals produce an alluringly ‘vocal’ tone.  Throughout this performance, Mr. Uhlig’s playing reveals the sort of innate musicality that cannot be taught by even the most remarkable teacher.

Virtually every major work of art has to its credit some particular social or political history.  One of the greatest joys of art—and one of the qualities that sets it apart from other aspects of human existence—is the capacity of a concerto, a painting, or a poem to transcend the circumstances of its creation.  The renaissance of global recognition of the universality of loss and humanity’s boundless capacities for compassion and communication were results of the 9-11 attacks that no terrorist could have foreseen.  It is regrettable that similar recognition of the heartfelt memorial to those who fell on that day by one of the world’s foremost composers should have been muddied by the hateful business of politics and critical corruption.  With or without its context of pain and survival, Penderecki’s Piano Concerto is a work that bristles with creativity, beauty, and open-hearted sincerity.  With this performance, Florian Uhlig, the Polish Radio Symphony Orchestra, Łukasz Borowicz, and hänssler CLASSIC give Penderecki’s Concerto its much-deserved Resurrection.

24 August 2013

CD REVIEW: AVE MARIA – Gregorian Chant (Seraphic Fire; SFM SFMCD12)

Seraphic Fire: AVE MARIA - Gregorian Chant (SFM SFMCD12)

JOSQUIN DES PREZ (1450 – 1521), JOHN DUNSTAPLE (1385 – 1455), FRANCISCO GUERRERO (1528 – 1599), GIOVANNI PIERLUIGI DA PALESTRINA (1525 – 1594), LEONEL POWER (1385 – 1445), TOMÁS LUIS DE VICTORIA (1548 – 1611): Ave Maria – Gregorian Chant—Seraphic Fire; Patrick Dupré Quigley [Recorded at All Saints Episcopal Church, Ft. Lauderdale, Florida, USA, on 22 January 2013; SFM SFMCD12; 1CD, 55:28; Available on Amazon, iTunes, and directly from Seraphic Fire]

In the incomparably rich history of Western liturgical music, few tenets of Christian belief have wrought stronger influence on the work of composers than Marianism.  Tracing its origins to the very beginning of the Church, veneration of the Blessed Virgin took on increased importance within the standard liturgy in the early centuries after the Papacy of Saint Paul, not least in the innovations of Saint Ambrose of Milan, whose ‘Ambrosian’ rites of Marian devotion are still employed in conservative parishes in Lombardy and one of whose plainchants, ‘Ave Regina cælorum’ (‘Hail, Queen of heaven’), is sung in this recording.  In the nearly two thousand years that have followed, veneration of Mary has grown stronger and more widespread in the wakes of famous Marian apparitions in Mexico (Our Lady of Guadalupe), France (Lourdes), Ireland (Knock), and Portugal (Fátima), and the well-documented and deeply personal dedication of Pope John Paul II to the Holy Mother inspired a further revival of Marian fervor in the last quarter of the 20th Century.  Integral to the celebration of the Litany of the Hours, which since the reforms of the Second Vatican Council has been the guiding template for execution of the Roman Breviary, is recitation of one of the four seasonal Marian antiphons—Alma Redemptoris Mater, Ave Regina Cælorum, Regina Coeli, or Salve Regina—at the close of Compline, the Evening Prayer.  Since the development of polyphonic Marian antiphons in Britain in the generations just prior to Henry VIII’s dissolution of ties to the Papacy, many of the greatest composers have applied their talents to settings of Marian antiphons: Monteverdi, whose 1610 Vespro della Beata Virgine is anchored by inspired settings of Marian hymns; Händel; Mozart; and even the agnostic Brahms.  This new recording by Miami-based choral ensemble Seraphic Fire features performances of Marian antiphons and Vespers hymns by six of the greatest exponents of Renaissance polyphony, complemented by plainchant settings from the different traditions that influenced the developments of these composers’ distinctive styles.  None of these selections is unfamiliar to listeners who cherish this repertory, but even ears accustomed to performances of this music are unlikely to be prepared for the exalted, uplifting sounds heard on this disc.

Founded in 2002 by conductor and Artistic Director Patrick Dupré Quigley, Seraphic Fire has emerged as one of America’s most innovative, artistically versatile choral ensembles.  With a discography including absorbing performances of Monteverdi’s Vespro della Beate Virgine and Brahms’s Ein Deutsches Requiem, Seraphic Fire and Maestro Quigley have cultivated a reputation for fresh interpretations of music weighed down by bloated, in some cases anachronistic performance traditions.  Scores of historically-informed choral ensembles have the pieces on this disc in their repertories, but the singing of Seraphic Fire brims with the most vital element of this music: devotion.  Though the blended sound that they produce is exquisite, their part singing is so fine that the members of Seraphic Fire deserve individual mention.  Led by Chorus Master James K. Bass, who also sings bass, the singers of Seraphic Fire in this performance are sopranos Rebecca Duren, Estelí Gomez, Gitanjali Mathur, and Molly Quinn; altos Misty Leah Bermudez, Eric S. Brenner, and Reginald L. Mobley; tenors Vincent Davies, Owen McIntosh, and Steven Edward Soph; and basses Cameron Beauchamp and Thomas McCargar.  Maestro Quigley consistently proves an inspired leader, shaping each selection with enlightened understanding of the unique ways in which its composer used music to express the nuances of the mystical texts.

This stimulating recording opens with a beautiful performance of a 13th-Century English plainchant setting of ‘Alma Redemptoris Mater,’ followed by the setting of the same text by 16th-Century Spanish composer Francisco Guerrero.  Guerrero had ample reasons to seek the Blessed Virgin’s intercession: a lifelong resident of Sevilla, the roving Spaniard journeyed to the Holy Land, was abducted and held for ransom by pirates, and landed in debtors’ prison when he proved penniless.  Before he could set out on another pilgrimage to Jerusalem, he was felled by plague.  Unlike many of his Spanish contemporaries, Guerrero composed both sacred and secular music, and his use of harmony was often as adventurous as his spirit.  His setting of ‘Alma Redemptoris Mater’ is a splendid piece, the open-hearted emotionalism of the text inspiring Guerrero to an eloquent employment of four-part writing.  Maestro Quigley directs Seraphic Fire in a poised but stirring account of the piece, culminating in a devoutly ardent statement of ‘Ave, peccatorum miserere,’ the concluding plea for the Virgin’s mercy.

Preceded by an Ambrosian plainchant setting dating from the 9th Century, Josquin des Prez’s ‘Inviolata, Integra, et Casta es,’ a five-part motet typical of the composer’s work, receives from Seraphic Fire a performance that highlights the sophistication of Josquin’s contrapuntal style.  The ensemble’s singing illuminates the ‘dulcisona’ in Josquin’s soaring melodic lines.  Equally sensitive to the brilliance of Josquin’s tone painting is Seraphic Fire’s performance of the composer’s motet ‘Ave Maria … Virgo serena.’  So great was the popularity of this motet in the 15th and 16th Centuries that it was granted pride of place at the front of the first collection of motets ever published.  Josquin’s strophic setting of the text evolves from Gregorian plainchant, and the clarity with which the singers elucidate the fugal treatment of the cantus firmus is highly responsive to the composer’s imaginative use of the unisonal melody.

John Dunstaple and Leonel Power were two of the most influential composers of church music in England during the late 14th and early 15th Centuries.  So admired was the work of Dunstaple in particular that his reach extended well beyond the British Isles and is credited with having contributed meaningfully to the development of the Burgundian School of polyphonic composition that produced Guillaume Dufay, whose music would dominate the churches and courts of Europe by the middle of the 15th Century.  Considering the wide appreciation of his work among his contemporaries, it is remarkable to note that the three-part motet ‘Quam pulchra est’ is one of the handful of surviving pieces that can be indubitably attributed to Dunstaple.  The beauty and originality of the piece, aptly reflective of the text, suggest that the acclaim bestowed upon Dunstaple both during his lifetime and in modern assessments of the music of the period is justified.  Prefaced by the 13th-Century Gregorian ‘Salve Mater Misericordiae,’ Seraphic Fire’s performance of ‘Quam pulchra est’ pulses with sensual exultation of the Blessed Virgin’s fairness, the choristers’ singing unashamedly glorying in the sexually-charged language and tonal explicitness with which the voluptuousness of Mary’s figure is described.  An emphatic Iberian ‘Ave, maris stella’ leads into Power’s ‘Ave Regina cælorum.’  Little is known of either Power’s life or his work, but his celebrity in late-Medieval Britain rivaled that of Dunstaple.  ‘Ave Regina cælorum’ is a brief but fascinating piece for three parts, eschewing Superius lines.  The altos, tenors, and basses sing it broadly but with close attention to Power’s balancing of rhythms as statements of the primary theme pass from voice to voice.

The towering geniuses of the Continental Renaissance and the most prominent voices of the 16th-Century Counter-Reformation were the Spaniard Tomás Luis de Victoria and the Italian Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina.  The former perhaps having studied under the latter, both composers’ works surpassed those of their contemporaries with game-changing refinement of counterpoint.  Victoria’s ‘Salve Regina’ for eight voices is rightly the centerpiece of the disc, its extravagant contrapuntal writing and unstintingly novel exploitation of chromatic intervals typifying not only its composer’s output but also the music of the Spanish Renaissance as a whole.  The sopranos’ voicing of the Superius parts is simply magnificent, the singers exhibiting breath control and security of intonation that rival the best singing of music of this type ever recorded.  The warm, slightly reverberant acoustic of the recording ensures that the music is given an appropriate space into which to expand without any delicate harmonies being obscured.  A less substantial piece, Victoria’s ‘Regina coeli, laetare, alleluia’ is nonetheless a full expression of its composer’s artistry, the repetitions of ‘Alleluia’ drawing from the singers shimmering eruptions of tone and reminding the listener that the great choruses of Händel were not all that far in the future.  So rhapsodic is Palestrina’s part writing in his ‘Ave Regina coelorum’ that the top line seems virtually a discantus supra librum, but the masterful way in which Palestrina maintained tight control over contrapuntal treatment of the primary theme without introducing the slightest element of rigidity into the free-flowing melodic line is apparent in Seraphic Fire’s singing of the piece.  The radiance of the music to which the words ‘Ex qua mundo lux est orta’—‘from whom light has shone to the world’—is sung is especially memorable, and the splendor of the singers’ delivery of the passage is galvanizing.

In every selection on Ave Maria, the ladies and gentlemen of Seraphic Fire offer singing that sets new standards, not merely for musical integrity but also for unashamedly emotive performances of music that, when sung as well as it is on this disc, sounds startlingly modern.  Music is inherently cyclical, after all, and the manner in which composers of the Renaissance expanded the monophony of the Middle Ages into the ambitious polyphony of their own time is reminiscent of the efforts of 20th- and 21st-Century composers to discard the stripped-down traditions of atonalism, post-Modernism, and Serialism and return to the examples of melodic and harmonic invention of Western music prior to World War II.  Just as the King James Bible and Qur’an are monumental works of literature that demand study beyond theological contexts, the music of Marian veneration on this disc requires no shared religious identifications in order to be completely enjoyed.  When the fruits of his labors of devotion are as tellingly and lovingly presented as they are here by Seraphic Fire, one man’s beliefs need not be shared or even understood by another for that devotion to seize the observer’s imagination.  The power of music, whether it was composed five months or five centuries ago, is to transcend every possible point of divisiveness, to be via the ears a means of universal communication among hearts and minds.  Performing exceptional music astoundingly, Patrick Dupré Quigley and Seraphic Fire converse in a dulcet language that no heart could fail to understand.

23 August 2013

CD REVIEW: Richard Wagner - DAS RHEINGOLD (R. Pape, E. Gubanova, S. Rügamer, N. Putilin, M. Petrenko, A. Popov; Mariinsky MAR0526)

Richard Wagner: DAS RHEINGOLD (Mariinsky MAR0526)

RICHARD WAGNER (1813 – 1883): Das Rheingold—R. Pape (Wotan), A. Markov (Donner), S. Semishkur (Froh), S. Rügamer (Loge), E. Gubanova (Fricka), V. Yastrebova (Freia), Z. Bulycheva (Erda), N. Putilin (Alberich), A. Popov (Mime), E. Nikitin (Fasolt), M. Petrenko (Fafner), Z. Dombrovskaya (Woglinde), I. Vasilieva (Wellgunde), E. Sergeeva (Floßhilde); Mariinsky Orchestra; Valery Gergiev [Recorded in conjunction with concert performances in the Concert Hall of the Mariinsky Theatre, St. Petersburg, Russia, on 7 – 10 June 2010, 17 – 18 February and 10 April 2012; Mariinsky MAR0526; 2SACD, 147:42; Available on Amazon and iTunes]

Das Rheingold launches what is perhaps the single most ambitious project in opera, Richard Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen.  Equal parts self-perpetuating mythology, convention-defying musical thesis, and expression of an unfettered ego, the Ring forever changed the landscape of opera: whether composers of subsequent generations embraced or discarded the examples of Wagner’s monumental tetralogy, it is undeniable that their works could not avoid responding to the innovations of Bayreuth.  In this year of honoring Wagner on the occasion of the bicentennial of his birth, his influence is more omnipresent than ever, both in the world’s opera houses and concert halls and in new releases by record labels large and small.  This recording of Das Rheingold is the second installment in the complete Mariinsky Ring conducted by Valery Gergiev, and it upholds the high standards of performance values and state-of-the-art recording technology set in the previously-released recording of Die Walküre.  Despite the presence of German singers in two of the most critical rôles in the opera, this Rheingold also continues the welcome exploration of Wagner interpretation and performance traditions beyond Bayreuth and established centers of Wagnerian history.  The aftershocks of the Ring were felt strongly in Russia: elements of Wagner’s innovations invaded the scores of Russian composers, and Russia’s most celebrated composer of the 19th Century, Tchaikovsky, was of course present for the first complete performance of the Ring at Bayreuth in 1876.  It was only after the fall of the Iron Curtain that the work of Russian singers in Wagner’s operas started to achieve recognition outside of Soviet theatres, however.  For instance, Evgeny Nikitin, who sings Fasolt in this performance of Das Rheingold, has sung the same part, as well as Pogner in Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg and Klingsor in the controversial new production of Parsifal by François Girard, at the Metropolitan Opera.  Its other artistic merits notwithstanding, this Mariinsky recording preserves the singing of some of Russia’s best Wagnerians and, with its richly-balanced sonics, gives Wagner’s score an opportunity to fully reveal its wonders via one of the world’s great orchestras.

The players of the Mariinsky Orchestra indeed confirm their ensemble’s competitiveness with the best orchestras in the world, especially among those that regularly perform the music of Wagner, playing with attention to detail that proves especially useful in clearly delineating statements of Leitmotivs even when these are woven deeply into the musical fabric.  The strings play with full-bodied tone and wonderfully reliable intonation, and the playing of the brass section is often appropriately ferocious.  More so in Rheingold than in their performance of Walküre, orchestral sonorities are adapted to the rapidly-changing drama: the brutal sound world of the Nibelungen is adroitly contrasted with the more nuanced environs of the gods, and the primordial discord from which the Rhinemaidens emerge to introduce the Leitmotiv that will serve them throughout the Ring is viscerally conveyed.  Perhaps owing to the circumstances of having recorded the opera during concert performances, some of Wagner’s most emblematic ‘special effects’ here are not quite special.  The thunder summoned by Donner is decidedly earthbound, and the anvils at which the Nibelung dwarves work sound more like wind chimes, played with splendid rhythmic vitality though they are.  Nonetheless, the Orchestra’s playing is never less than excellent and, in many passages, rises to genuine greatness.

Perhaps no other conductor in the storied history of music in Russia has made the music of Wagner his own, both in Russia and abroad, more than Valery Gergiev has done.  His conducting of this performance of Das Rheingold exposes both the strengths and the weaknesses of Maestro Gergiev’s approach to conducting Wagner.  He has a natural ear for orchestral colors, and his direction of the purely instrumental episodes in Das Rheingold is superb.  The opera’s first pages, in which Wagner memorably captured the undulations of the Rhine in unsettled music, are shaped by Maestro Gergiev with expert command of the strange, sinister sonorities.  When the Rhinemaidens ascend from the depths, reservations about Maestro Gergiev’s pacing of the performance start to rise to the surface, as well.  The irony of the Rhinemaidens’ taunting of Alberich is present, but the playfulness of the scene is absent.  As the performance progresses, moments of fantastic dramatic vibrancy alternate with passages that hang fire.  Wotan’s and Loge’s descent to Nibelheim is depicted with power, but the preceding scene in which the giants Fafner and Fasolt take Freia hostage goes for little.  Alberich’s curse lacks focus, and though the orchestral playing is sublime the famous Entry of the gods into Valhalla does not have the sense of wonder that it can—and should—possess.  Maestro Gergiev is a musician of undoubted accomplishment, and there are stretches of this performance of Das Rheingold that suggest that he can be a memorably eloquent Wagnerian.  Das Rheingold is the briefest of the Ring operas, however, and the one in which scenes progress with almost cinematic legerity.  Though the duration of this performance suggests that Maestro Gergiev’s pacing is not dissimilar from the speeds at which some of the most illustrious Wagnerians of the 20th Century conducted Das Rheingold, there is a lack of momentum that robs the performance of dramatic impetus.  Maestro Gergiev provides moments of exhilarating theatricality, but the performance as a whole is marred by patches of dullness.

Das Rheingold begins and ends with songs of the Rhinemaidens.  All three Rhinemaidens in this performance—soprano Zhanna Dombrovskaya as Woglinde, soprano Irina Vasilieva as Wellgunde, and mezzo-soprano Ekaterina Sergeeva as Floßhilde, all of whom were also heard as Valkyries in the Mariinsky Walküre—sing well, with Ms. Dombrovskaya particularly impressing with her voicing of Woglinde’s high lines.  The ladies do not prove quite so euphonious in trio as they are individually, but their voices are admirably secure.

The giants Fafner and Fasolt are sung with almost demonic relish by basses Mikhail Petrenko and Evgeny Nikitin.  Mr. Petrenko, Hunding at the Metropolitan Opera in 2008 and in the Mariinsky recording of Die Walküre, here sings Fafner, the dark timbre of his voice again proving apt for his part.  So nasty are the utterances of Mr. Petrenko’s Fafner that it is surprising neither that he murders his own brother in a jealous quarrel nor that he returns in Siegfried as a dragon: in Rheingold, he is already repulsively reptilian.  Mr. Nikitin’s Fasolt is also a truly off-putting creation, the singer’s singular timbre filling Fasolt’s vocal lines with chilling effectiveness.  The maddening arrogance with which both singers enact their characters’ interactions with their colleagues is enjoyably disturbing: that one brother should ultimately slay the other seems inevitable.  Both gentlemen indulge in rather more snarling than is necessary to convey the sentiments of their parts, but their singing is firm and forceful.

Fricka’s trio of siblings is strongly cast.  Singing Freia with a clear, bright voice, soprano Viktoria Yastrebova gives an expressive performance.  Her Freia is appropriately unnerved by her abduction, and her pleas for Wotan’s assistance are voiced with suitable ardor.  Ms. Yastrebova’s voice is occasionally strident when pressure is applied at the top of the range, but Freia’s dramatic situation is hardly conducive to smooth singing.  Under siege by satyrs of the likes of Mr. Petrenko’s Fafner and Mr. Nikitin’s Fasolt, Freia’s terror is justified.  It might be said that her brothers are not the most intellectually advanced residents of Valhalla, but they can be interesting when sung by attentive singers.  Tenor Sergei Semishkur makes Froh a kindly presence whose concern for his sister is touching: words of comfort seem to come more naturally to him than threats, but there are flashes of masculine pride in his performance.  Vocally, Mr. Semishkur has a narrow timbre and must occasionally push the voice in order to be heard.  Donner is sung by baritone Alexei Markov, whose noble tone is often lovely.  Like Mr. Semishkur, Mr. Markov is sometimes compelled to force his voice in order to make his intended effects, but he, too, proves convincing in his defense of Freia and summons the best of his vocal resources for a ringing account of Donner’s raising of the storm.

Tenor Andrei Popov, acclaimed in stratospheric tenore contraltino parts in Russian operas like the Astrologer in Rimsky-Korsakov’s Golden Cockerel, is an animated, audibly disgruntled Mime: it is obvious in Mr. Popov’s singing that the seeds of Mime’s hatred for Alberich take root in Das Rheingold.  Mr. Popov’s performances relies overmuch on Sprechstimme, but the voice—when deployed without distortion—is an instrument of quality.  The repertory of German tenor Stephan Rügamer includes both lyric rôles and parts traditionally associated with larger voices.  As Loge in this performance, Mr. Rügamer achieves with projection what several of his colleagues accomplish with effort.  Expectedly, Mr. Rügamer’s diction is excellent, and his performance confirms the great extent to which an effective performance of Loge relies upon a sharp tongue.  Mr. Rügamer’s Loge rides the crests of Wagner’s orchestra impressively, putting across every word with spontaneity and the appearance of legitimate cleverness.  Mr. Rügamer’s Loge is a figure who knows too much in a world in which knowledge is dangerous.  Singing suggestively but with dignity, it is apparent that from the entrance to Valhalla Mr. Rügamer’s Loge already sees the smoke of Siegfried’s funeral pyre rising on the horizon.

Mezzo-soprano Zlata Bulycheva, whose repertory at the Mariinsky contains an array of the most demanding rôles in the mezzo-soprano canon, is a dark-voiced Erda, her warnings to Wotan delivered with unerring accuracy of intonation.  The part’s lowest notes challenge Ms. Bulycheva, but the upper extension of the rôle, so troubling to many singers, is delivered with energy and command.  There is a slight grittiness in Ms. Bulycheva’s timbre that contributes to the credibility of her portrayal of the primeval earth goddess.

The most indelible portrayals of Alberich are those that inspire sympathy for the character’s hardships despite his savagery and inhumanity.  It can be argued that all of his viciousness is born of an unfulfilled desire for acceptance.  In his first encounter with the Rhinemaidens in Das Rheingold, his naïveté in failing to comprehend that any creatures could be so unkind as to mock him can be quite piteous, causing his devolution into sociopathic behavior to be all the more shocking.  Unfortunately, there is little to pity in the Alberich of baritone Nikolai Putilin.  Raging at the world from his first entrance, this is an Alberich who seems unhesitatingly resolved to take the Rhinemaidens by force were they not capable of eluding his grasp.  His glee in torturing Mime whilst rendered invisible by the Tarnhelm borders on sadism, and his stupidity and impetuosity when confronted by Wotan and Loge deprive the character of any redeeming qualities.  This is a defensible interpretation of the part, but it lessens the emotional impact of the individual-versus-society subtext that is central to the Ring.  Vocally, Mr. Putilin is inclined to bark his lines, especially in heated exchanges, but he shows himself capable of singing handsomely and phrasing intelligently: were these qualities in greater supply, his performance could be more completely enjoyed.

Ekaterina Gubanova complements her performance of the Walküre Fricka with this depiction of the same character in Das Rheingold.  In Walküre, she was already ‘inside’ the rôle, her vocal bearing regal but womanly.  In Rheingold, where the subject of Fricka’s indignation is her husband’s self-serving use of her sister as a bargaining chip in his quest for omnipotence, Ms. Gubanova is even more palpably engaged as a singer and an artist.  When this Fricka pleads with Wotan for justice for Freia, it is as an exceptionally insightful woman who loves her husband but is awakening to the depths of treachery of which he is capable.  One of the most critical catalysts of the drama in the Ring is the fact that, in both Rheingold and Walküre, Fricka has the upper hand, wielding moral authority over Wotan.  Few singers have conveyed this more perceptively than Ms. Gubanova, and her transformation from devoted spouse to protector of the values upon which her husband treads is perhaps the single most engrossing aspect of this performance.  The Fricka who enters Valhalla at the end of Rheingold in this performance is already the justifiably implacable woman whose pursuit of moral rectitude changes the course of the Ring in Act Two of Walküre.  Musically, Ms. Gubanova brings to her performance a tightly-constructed, warmly feminine voice with reserves of power for climaxes.  She is unbothered by troubles at either end of her range, her lower register focused and well-supported and her top notes hurled out fearlessly.  Fricka is a difficult to rôle to bring off without veering into caricature: Ms. Gubanova succeeds where many fine singers have failed.

Having fallen victim to some of the rôle’s dramatic and vocal pitfalls in the Mariinsky Walküre, René Pape here finds the Rheingold Wotan a more congenial assignment.  The basic timbre remains quite beautiful, but in Rheingold Mr. Pape is spared the more arduous ascents into the upper register that Wotan faces in Walküre.  In this performance, Mr. Pape’s Wotan is a subtle figure, and the nobility of his singing is unchanged.  In a sense, Mr. Pape’s Wotan seems a sheltered character, his response to Alberich’s depravity and curse almost like the horror of an idealistic man encountering the mean vagaries of reality for the first time.  There is in this Wotan’s obsession with the ring more of a sense of wounded pride than of lust for power.  Still, there is a bluntness in Mr. Pape’s delivery that diminishes the cumulative force of his performance.  There is little is his singing to differentiate Wotan’s attitudes in scenes with Alberich and Loge from his questioning of Erda or exchanges with Fricka: the largesse of the part is there, but the angst and fatalism have not yet entered into Mr. Pape’s concept of Wotan.  Not surprisingly, his voicing of the greeting to Valhalla is expertly phrased and sustained with tremendous breath control, and the sheer impact of the sound of the voice cannot be denied.  Not least because he is a bass in what is unquestionably a bass-baritone rôle, Wotan will never be an easy sing for Mr. Pape, but when he manages to ally a more complete identification with the dramatic profile of the part with his mahogany-hued singing of the music he will be an extraordinary Wotan.

Das Rheingold is the foundation upon which the Ring is built, and there is considerable logic evident in the fact that Wagner conceived Rheingold after Walküre, Siegfried, and Götterdämmerung had taken shape.  For all that it serves as an introduction to the events that shape the Ring in the next three operas, Rheingold is a spellbinding opera in its own right; one with musical and dramatic elements that create their own unique microcosm, both inextricably linked to what transpires in the later operas and fully functional without the context of the full Ring.  Valery Gergiev and the Mariinsky forces here offer a flawed but earnest performance of this endlessly alluring opera.  With a perpetuation of the lofty standards of singing and orchestral playing almost certain, it will be interesting to hear how the famously passionate Maestro Gergiev responds to the more complicated architectures of Siegfried and Götterdämmerung.

22 August 2013

CD REVIEW: Arthur Honegger – JEANNE D’ARC AU BÛCHER (S. Rohrer, K. Wierzba, L. Scherrer, K. Pessatti, J.-N. Briend, F. Le Roux; Hänssler CD 098.636)

Arthur Honegger: JEANNE D'ARC AU BÛCHER (Hänssler CD 098.636)

ARTHUR HONEGGER (1892 – 1955): Jeanne d’Arc au bûcher—S. Rohrer (Jeanne d’Arc – spoken rôle), E. Kisfaludy (Frère Dominique – spoken rôle), K. Wierzba (La Vierge – soprano), L. Scherrer (Marguérite – soprano), K. Pessatti (Cathérine – alto), J.-N. Briend (tenor), F. Le Roux (bass), M. Saniter (La Mère aux Tonneaux – soprano), S. Müller-Ruppert (L’Âne – baritone), J.-P. Ouellet (Bedfort – tenor), F. Schmitt-Bohn (Guillaume de Flavy – bass); Knabenchor collegium iuvenum Stuttgart; Gächinger Kantorei Stuttgart; Radio-Sinfonieorchester Stuttgart des SWR; Helmuth Rilling [Recorded in Liederhalle Stuttgart, Beethovensaal, 2 – 3 April 2011, in conjunction with the 2011 Internationale Bachakademie Stuttgart; Hänssler CD 098.636; 2CD, 84:30]

Among the musical milestones being celebrated in 2013 is the bittersweet occasion of the retirement of Helmuth Rilling from leadership of the Oregon Bach Festival.  Born in Stuttgart, Maestro Rilling’s education recalls the paths taken by the great composers of the 17th and 18th Centuries, with periods of study in Germany and Italy allied with tuition under one of the great masters in his field, Leonard Bernstein.  Gifted from the beginning of his career with uncommon affinities for building and maintaining choruses, Maestro Rilling developed an early affection for the music of Bach that ultimately became the guiding impetus of his artistic life.  Having begun his affiliation with Bach-Collegium Stuttgart in 1965, he was the co-founder of the Oregon Bach Festival—justly acclaimed as one of the world’s best sources of thoughtfully-conceived, thrillingly-executed performances of the music of Johann Sebastian Bach and his contemporaries—in 1970, his forty-three-year tenure there giving the United States not only a bastion of Bach performances of consistent integrity but also an invaluable setting for the commissioning and creation of new works.  In a sense, Arthur Honegger’s Jeanne d’Arc au bûcher might be regarded as a bridge between the legacy of Bach and the music of the later 20th and 21st Centuries: the basic structure of Honegger’s score pays homage to the Passion oratorios of Bach while also incorporating the full pallet of orchestral colors typical of post-Ravel Francophone music of the 20th Century.  Issuing a recording of a performance of Honegger’s Jeanne d’Arc au bûcher might seem an enigmatic way of honoring an eminent Bach conductor in the year of his retirement from what has perhaps been his most coveted post.  The insightful minds who manage Hänssler score a coup with this recording, however, revealing as much as in their tremendous catalogue of Bach recordings that Maestro Rilling’s artistry places him among the most thoughtful and musical conductors of recent years.

Jeanne d’Arc au bûcher has to its credit a number of qualities that should lend the score appeal to modern audiences: an impressively literary libretto by Paul Claudel, one of France’s most important 20th-Century poets and playwrights; a relatively brief running time of approximately eighty minutes; and an opportunity for an actress to recreate a part commissioned and first performed by the celebrated Ida Rubenstein.  Musically, Honegger’s score has much to recommend it, not least its characteristic rhythmic verve, the structure of every scene built upon a meticulously-maintained rhyme scheme as surely as in any of Bach’s works.  Honegger was a member of Les Six, and his music for Jeanne d’Arc au bûcher shares with the works of his colleagues the cosmopolitan but rugged rejection of Impressionism typified by the music of Debussy.  As in the works of Poulenc, the casual listener may be surprised to hear in Jeanne d’Arc au bûcher melodies of genuine beauty; indeed, in an unrepentantly modern work, any melodies at all.  More than many of his contemporaries, Honegger did not discard melody, regarding it as a passé means of pandering to an audience of Philistines: rather, he employed melody much as any of the great painters of the first half of the 20th Century used form to symbolize the increasing disorder of the world.  Thus, Honegger’s Joan of Arc endures the indignities of trial, conviction, and execution made all the more expressive of the crushingly destructive capacity of humanity by emerging from a sonic landscape dotted with lovely vistas.  Honegger enhanced the orchestration of Jeanne d’Arc au bûcher by including a part for the ondes Martenot, the strangely atmospheric electronic instrument superbly played in this performance by Christine Simonin-Fessard.  In fact, all of the players of the Radio-Sinfonieorchester Stuttgart des SWR rise to the challenges of Honegger’s score, providing the compelling setting that is required if the score is to be as effective musically as it is theatrically.  All of the choristers involved—the boys of the Knabenchor Collegium iuvenum Stuttgart and the mixed choir of the Gächinger Kantorei Stuttgart, an ensemble founded by Maestro Rilling in 1954—sing with consummate musicality and great dramatic power.  Maestro Rilling’s long experience in the music of Bach proves to be remarkably useful in Jeanne d’Arc au bûcher: he approaches this piece like any of Bach’s lesser-known works, not as a ‘problem piece’ to be finessed but simply as a score to be played.  Maestro Rilling identifies the structure of each scene and paces the performance so that climaxes, whether spoken or sung, occur organically.  The skill with which Maestro Rilling manages the choral and orchestral forces in this performance is not unexpected, but his mastery of Honegger’s unique idiom is an especially propitious discovery.

In the context of an audio recording, Jeanne d’Arc au bûcher faces a certain danger of seeming like a radio play with incidental music.  The success of a performance of the piece depends greatly upon the talent of the actress who performs the title rôle, and central to the histrionic strength of this performance is the Jeanne of Swiss actress Sylvie Rohrer.  No stranger to the concert hall, Ms. Rohrer has also taken part in performances of Schoenberg’s Pierrot lunaire, and she appeared in the film Antigone by Jürgen Flimm, a familiar presence in Europe’s opera houses.  Ms. Rohrer’s voicing of Claudel’s text is both poetic and fiery, her Jeanne dignified but defiant.  There is appealing ambiguity in her delivery of lines such as, ‘Une petite larme pour Jeanne! / Une petite prière pour Jeanne! / Une petite pensée pour Jeanne.’  The intensity of Jeanne’s sense of duty to her calling is tempered by a palpable weariness, and the suggestions of fear that Ms. Rohrer conveys make her Jeanne a credibly human figure, one whose actions are those of a conflicted young woman caught up in events of importance that she need not comprehend fully in order to pursue her destiny.  Hungarian actor Eörs Kisfaludy is also a frequent presence on European concert stages, and his reading of Frère Dominique in this performance ideally complements Ms. Rohrer’s Jeanne.  Though his French diction is not idiomatic and suffers slightly in direct comparison with Ms. Rohrer’s, Mr. Kisfaludy is nonetheless an alert, engaging participant in the drama.

Vocally, Honegger’s music makes demands as great as those in any opera.  Jeanne d’Arc au bûcher offers no arias, of course, but the score provides exciting opportunities for the vocalists.  Portraying la Mère aux Tonneaux and other parts, Martine Saniter sings characterfully, her phrasing consistently shaped by the natural flow of the text.  Also unfailingly musical and attuned to the nuances of multiple rôles are baritone Stefan Müller-Ruppert, tenor Jean-Pierre Ouellet, and bass Florian Schmitt-Bohn.

As la Vierge and Marguérite, sopranos Karen Wierzba and Letizia Scherrer sing beautifully, their voices responding excitingly to the challenges of Honegger’s music.  Born in Canada, Ms. Wierzba has thus far built a career that includes performances of some of the most challenging coloratura soprano rôles, notably Mozart’s Königin der Nacht in Die Zauberflöte and Richard Strauss’s Zerbinetta in Ariadne auf Naxos: nothing in Jeanne d’Arc au bûcher equals the bravura requirements of these parts, but the security of Ms. Wierzba’s upper register is a decided asset in this performance.  Security, both of intonation and placement of tone, is also a pleasing quality of Ms. Scherrer’s singing.  Having sung under Maestro Rilling’s baton in a lauded Carnegie Hall performance of Brahms’s Ein Deutsches Requiem, the Swiss soprano was familiar with the conductor’s method and follows his lead succinctly, the dark timbre of her voice contrasting effectively with Ms. Wierzba’s brighter tones.  Brazil-born contralto Kismara Pessatti also maintains a varied repertory: in addition to having sung Baroque music under Maestro Rilling’s direction, she also sang the rôles of the Rhinemaiden Floßhilde in Wagner’s Das Rheingold and Götterdämmerung and the Valkyrie Schwertleite in Die Walküre in the concert performances recorded for commercial release by PentaTone.  The involvement that Ms. Pessatti brings to her singing of Cathérine’s lines is audible, and her interactions with her colleagues reveal a grace lacking in the work of many young singers.

French tenor Jean-Noël Briend endures some murderously high tessitura in the music that he sings in Jeanne d’Arc au bûcher, and his performance is nothing short of a triumph.  One of the few tenors singing today whose ringing top C justifies the interpolation of the note in pieces like the Act Three finale in Gounod’s Roméo et Juliette and Alfredo’s cabaletta in Act Two of Verdi’s La traviata, Mr. Briend magnificently sustains a tessitura in Jeanne d’Arc au bûcher that is scarcely less high-flying than that for Tonio in Act One of Donizetti’s La fille du régiment.  Mr. Briend’s native French diction adds to the overwhelmingly positive impression made by his performance, of course, but the wondrous security of his upper register and virility of his voice are the qualities that raise the question of why the work of this talented singer is not more widely known.  The singing of bass François Le Roux is anything but unknown, his vocal versatility having been displayed in a large variety of parts.  Mr. Le Roux is more successful than almost any other bass of his generation at conveying mystery solely via manipulation of the natural colorations of his tone, and this skill contributes to moments of great tension in this performance.  The authority with which Mr. Le Roux intones the Latin texts—‘à la Bach,’ as stipulated by Honegger in the score—is aptly representative of the preeminence of the Church in the social order in which Joan functioned.  With this recording, Mr. Le Roux adds another intriguing performance to his multifaceted discography.

Performances of Honegger’s Jeanne d’Arc au bûcher are infrequent, and considering the drive to attract new, younger audiences to Classical Music this seems counterintuitive.  There is considerable expense inherent in assembling a cast of actors, singers, and musicians capable of executing Honegger’s music in a manner that honors the composer, but this recording confirms that Jeanne d’Arc au bûcher is a work that examines the too-familiar story of Joan of Arc, a figure about whose life and tribulations a provocative but almost certainly mostly apocryphal mythology has grown, from an utterly original perspective.  In his fusion of the Medieval mystery play with the oratorio traditions of Bach and musical techniques of his own 20th-Century musical milieu, Honegger likely got closer to the heart of Joan of Arc in Jeanne d’Arc au bûcher than any of the composers whose fantastical creations contribute to the legend rather than to any real understanding of the woman and her circumstances.  Looking beyond the primary colors of a musical portrait in order to explore the emotions that dwell in shadows has ever been a special achievement of Helmuth Rilling’s conducting, and under his gaze Joan of Arc shines across the centuries with rare hues.  Hänssler’s excellently-engineered, exceptionally-presented recording of Jeanne d’Arc au bûcher crowns the recorded career of one of the most quietly important conductors in recent memory and reminds the listener that the ardently-pursued ideal of ‘relevance’ in Classical Music lurks even in the least-heard music: dedicated musicians and attentive audiences need only to find it.

17 August 2013

CD REVIEW: Agostino Steffani – STABAT MATER & Sacred Choral Music (C. Bartoli, N. Rial, Y. Arias Fernandez, E. Carzaniga, F. Fagioli, D. Behle, J. Prégardien, S. Vitale; DECCA B0018947-02)

Agostino Steffani: STABAT MATER (DECCA B0018947-02)

AGOSTINO STEFFANI (1654 – 1728): Stabat Mater, Beatus vir*, Non plus me ligate*, Triduanas a Domino*, Laudate pueri*, Sperate in Deo*, and Qui diligit Mariam*—C. Bartoli (mezzo-soprano), N. Rial (soprano), Y. Arias Fernandez (soprano), E. Carzaniga (mezzo-soprano), F. Fagioli (countertenor), D. Behle (tenor), J. Prégardien (tenor), S. Vitale (bass); Coro della Radiotelevisione svizzera; I Barocchisti; Diego Fasolis [Recorded in the Auditorio Stelio Molo della Radiotelevisione svizzera, Lugano, Switzerland, during January, February, and April 2013; DECCA B0018947-02; 1CD, 72:40; *World première recordings]

Were it not for the efforts of Cecilia Bartoli, DECCA, and author Donna Leon, whose novel The Jewels of Paradise is set against the background of the composer’s life, the exquisite music of Agostino Steffani might well still reside only in the archives and libraries to which it had been consigned since the mid-18th Century.  A native of the Veneto who spent his boyhood in Venice in service to the Doge in the choir of the Basilica di San Marco, where the beauty of his voice attracted aristocratic patronage, Steffani received the bulk of his musical education north of the Alps.  Following several years of intense study in Munich, Steffani returned to Italy for a period under the tutelage of Ercole Bernabei, whose career was also eventually centered in Munich.  It was in Rome that several of Steffani’s first known works, a series of motets, were composed.  Steffani again crossed the Alps in order to pursue his professional career.  His gifts for composing music for both the church and the theatre were honed during his service to the Elector of Bavaria: it was in 1688, while he was resident in Munich, that Steffani’s opera Niobe, regina di Tebe—performed to acclaim in recent seasons at the Boston Early Music Festival and the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden—was premièred, and his religious devotion found an outlet in music for the Elector’s Catholic court.  It is also likely that it was in Munich that the composer took holy orders.  Soon after the successful première of Niobe, regina di Tebe, Steffani assumed the position of Kapellmeister at the court of the Electors of Hanover, and such was the esteem in which he was held by his new employers that, when he ascended to the throne of Great Britain as George I, the Elector took with him to London a number of Steffani’s scores in manuscript, where they remain in the care of Her Majesty’s Library at Buckingham Palace.  Steffani’s music was sufficiently well-regarded in his employer’s new capital that, though the composer never traveled to London, the members of the Academy of Vocal Music in that city elected Steffani as their honorary president, prompting him to compose for their benefit some of his most beautiful motets and madrigals, one of which—‘Qui diligit Mariam’—is, like all of the works on this disc except for the ‘Stabat mater,’ here recorded for the first time.  The ‘Stabat mater,’ too, was gifted by its composer to the Academy of Vocal Music, but the sheer scale of the piece and the scoring for instrumental accompaniment suggest that it was likely originally composed for another institution.  What cannot be doubted that is the fact that Steffani applied the full richness of his musical genius and special devotion to the Blessed Virgin to the creation of his ‘Stabat mater’ or the irony of some of the finest blossoms of his Catholic fervor having been cultivated under Protestant patronage.  While there are perhaps also political lessons to be learned from this, the obvious education that can be had from this disc concerns the sophistication, beauty, and originality of Steffani’s sacred music.

The participation of wonderful solo singers notwithstanding, any recording of sacred vocal music that relies so prominently upon concerted choral singing cannot succeed without the participation of a choir of top quality.  The Coro della Radiotelevisione svizzera, thirty-four singers strong, respond to every challenge they encounter in Steffani’s music with technical aplomb.  Wonderful as their singing is in the ‘Stabat mater,’ they rise to extraordinary heights of dramatic expression in the concluding ‘Qui diligit Mariam,’ in which Steffani puts them through their paces with contrapuntal passages of great intricacy.  One of the most satisfying aspects of the choristers’ performance is their contrasting of thrillingly robust singing with moments of rapt quietude.  ‘Beatus vir’ and ‘Triduanas a Domino,’ the choral numbers without soloists, are rapturously sung, Steffani’s part writing providing each section of the choir with opportunities to exercise their techniques to the full.  Throughout their performances on this disc, the choristers sing with a mastery of Steffani’s idiom that confirms their position as one of Europe’s most versatile choirs.  The choir and soloists are ably accompanied by the instrumentalists of I Barocchisti, one of the finest ensembles specializing in historically-informed performances of 17th- and 18th-Century music.  Led by Diego Fasolis, the players bring both awe-inspiring technical skill and suavity to their performance, each of the instrumentalists playing with unfettered virtuosity and contributing to the richness of ensemble.  Blending the timbres of period instruments can be challenging, but Maestro Fasolis achieves admirable results with I Barocchisti, the distinct instrumental tones balanced insightfully.  Continuo parts are inventively but unobtrusively rendered, with the organ and theorbos making especially eloquent showings.  Maestro Fasolis, equally accomplished in the Masses and Passions of Bach and in sacred and secular vocal music of the Italian Baroque, is an ideal interpreter of the music of Steffani, which unites the Teutonic traditions of Schütz, Telemann, and Bach with those of the Italian late Renaissance and High Baroque.  These expert musicians deliver outstanding performances, providing the kind of support for which all singers long but so few receive, even in the recording studio.

Cecilia Bartoli’s zeal for rediscovering, performing, and recording Steffani’s music is the raison d’être for this disc, but as in all of the projects that enjoy her advocacy she brings to this recording absolute preparedness.  Though her voice remains a full-bodied mezzo-soprano with access to a colorful, well-supported lower register, Ms. Bartoli here sings music conceived by the composer for soprano.  The motet ‘Non plus me ligate,’ Steffani’s only surviving sacred composition for solo soprano, receives from Ms. Bartoli a performance in which all of the best qualities of her singing are in evidence: crisp diction with consonants sharply defined and vowels properly placed on the beat, sovereign command of the requisite bravura technique, and complete security of tone throughout the range.  Ms. Bartoli explores the nuances of the melancholic text without artificially darkening either her tone or her approach, conveying the despondency of the verses by articulation of the text and the artful interplay among the voice and the violins.  In past, Ms. Bartoli’s enthusiasm and emphatic delivery have occasionally led to her singing overpowering the music at hand, but her singing in this performance mixes audible love for the music—and for singing it—with restraint born of genuine respect for the texts and the unwavering faith with which the composer set them.

Ms. Bartoli is joined in ‘Qui diligit Mariam,’ so lovingly performed by the choir, by Argentine countertenor Franco Fagioli and Italian bass Salvo Vitale.  Mr. Vitale’s impressively deep voice has the slightly shallow sound typical of basses who specialize in Baroque repertory, but the strength of his lower register is impressive and wonderfully effective in this performance.  His singing of the verse beginning with ‘Tempus est de somno surgere’ is suitably ringing, the metaphorical call to spiritual awareness aptly conveyed by the powerful sound of Mr. Vitale’s voice.  Mr. Fagioli, one of the most gifted young countertenors singing today, partners Ms. Bartoli in music with what was designated by Steffani as soprano tessitura, and his singing here and throughout his performances on this disc is remarkable for the ease with which he meets every challenge of range, his lower and upper registers proving equally firm.  Moreover, the beauty of his tone is utterly stunning.  His duetting with Ms. Bartoli on the verse starting with ‘Non pavescat lethales horrores’ is a display of early bel canto singing at its most refined, the two singers breathing as one as their voices intertwine magically in expression of the notion that sorrow and fear are transformed into comfort and hope by devotion to the Blessed Virgin.

In both the ‘Laudate pueri’ and ‘Sperate in Deo,’ high parts are entrusted to Cuban soprano Yetzabel Arias Fernandez and Spanish soprano Núria Rial.  Both singers are celebrated performers of Baroque repertory, and their experience in the music of Händel serves them well in this recording.  In both of the works in which they sing, Ms. Fernandez and Ms. Rial alternate passages of high-lying coloratura, each singer showing her mettle with poised voicing of Steffani’s vocal lines.  The singers’ timbres are contrasted, however, Ms. Fernandez’s voice having a bright, slightly edgy quality that shines in the upper reaches of her part and Ms. Rial’s tone disclosing a darker patina.  Mr. Fagioli sings gloriously in ‘Laudate pueri’ and ‘Sperate in Deo,’ his performance of the verses ‘Suscitans a terra inopem’ and ‘Ut collocet eum’ in the former again displaying the arresting beauty of his voice.  Mr. Vitale’s voice is steady and resonant in both works, and mezzo-soprano Elena Carzaniga makes the most of her lines in ‘Gaudet justus’ in ‘Sperate in Deo.’  The level of accomplishment in the singing of both works is considerably enhanced by the performances of German tenors Daniel Behle and Julian Prégardien.  Sons of acclaimed parents who share their vocation, Mr. Behle the son of noted dramatic soprano Renate Behle and Mr. Prégardien the son of celebrated lyric tenor Christoph Prégardien, both men sing superbly.  Mr. Behle’s faculty for adapting his lovely lyric voice, so effective in the Lieder of Schubert and Richard Strauss, to tessitura similar to that of haute-contre parts in French Baroque opera is fantastic.  The gentlemen prove mellifluous in duet in ‘Excelsus super omnes’ in ‘Laudate pueri,’ and Mr. Prégardien’s singing of ‘Sunt breve’ in ‘Sperate in Deo,’ the text dealing with the transiency of mortal ills and injuries, is extremely appealing.

Scored for a quintet of soloists comprised of two sopranos, an alto, two tenors, and a bass, the ‘Stabat mater’ was Steffani’s last completed sacred work.  The composer himself esteemed the piece above all of his other sacred works, and the performance on this disc suggests that Steffani’s regard for the ‘Stabat mater’ was justified.  Though the style employed by Steffani in his ‘Stabat mater’ was already falling out of fashion by the time of its composition in the 1720s, he poured the best of his art into the score.  Much of the music in the ‘Stabat mater’ recalls the sacred compositions of the Venetian High Baroque that Steffani would have heard and performed at the Basilica di San Marco in his youth, but there are also occasional precursors of the gallant style refined by Pergolesi and Domenico Scarlatti in their settings of the text.  Ms. Bartoli introduces the work with a radiant account of ‘Stabat mater dolorosa,’ and she follows this with passage after passage of sumptuous singing.  Here, too, Mr. Fagioli matches Ms. Bartoli’s vigor and technical acumen, his silken tone enveloping the text in silvery hues.  Steffani’s tone painting is far subtler than Pergolesi’s, but he had a sure sense of matching texts with music that captured their meaning.  Mr. Behle and Mr. Prégardien share the touching passage ‘Fac ut ardeat cor meum,’ in which the poet pleads for the gift of feeling the Virgin’s love for Christ as she herself felt it, the voices intertwining luminously: less beautiful voices, wielded by less insightful singers, could not have put across the mysticism of the passage so believably.  Mr. Vitale sings energetically, his reliability in very low tessitura especially welcome in exposed passages.  All of the artists—soloists, choristers, instrumentalists, and conductor—contribute their finest work to the ‘Stabat mater,’ collaborating in a performance that radiates the spirit of devout contemplation of the sorrows of the Blessed Mother that so obviously filled the composer’s heart.

Since the dawn of sound recording, many of the best recordings of sacred music have been given life by DECCA.  Even among the cumulative richness of the DECCA catalogue, this recording of Agostino Steffani’s setting of the ‘Stabat mater’ and other sacred texts wins a very prominent place.  In assemblages of exceptional musicians, the prospects of performances that permanently alter the listener’s perceptions of a composer or his music are mesmerizing, yet so often the listener is ultimately disappointed.  The only possible disappointment inspired by this disc is that these enticing, earnestly pious works waited so long for a recording of this quality.

16 August 2013

CD REVIEW: ENTENDRE – Music for Violin and Cello (duoW; Sono Luminus DSL-92171)

ENTENDRE - Music for Violin and Cello performed by duoW (Sono Luminus DSL-92171)

BRUCE DUKOV (b. 1951), JOHAN HALVORSEN (1864 – 1935), ZOLTÁN KODÁLY (1882 – 1967), HUBERT LÉONARD (1819 – 1890), MAURICE RAVEL (1875 – 1937), ADRIEN-FRANÇOIS SERVAIS (1807 – 1866), and JOHN PHILIP SOUSA (1852 – 1932): Entendre—Music for Violin and Cello—duoW (Arianna Warsaw-Fan, violin, and Meta Weiss, cello) [Recorded at Sono Luminus, Boyce, Virginia, 10 – 12 December 2012; Sono Luminus DSL-92171; 1CD + Blu-ray, 69:40]

Considering that the violin and cello are staples of so many genres of Classical Music, the paucity of high-quality music for the two instruments in duet is surprising.  Aside from Baroque trio sonatas that combined violin and cello with continuo, chamber music for strings has mostly focused on larger ensembles.  As so often in music, however, an exciting new ensemble’s maiden voyage into the recording studio provides tantalizing discoveries, not just of that ensemble’s musicality but also of underappreciated music.  With Entendre, Sono Luminus introduces duoW to the commercial recording industry.  Already having enjoyed a sensation on the internet, Juilliard-educated violinist Arianna Warsaw-Fan and cellist Meta Weiss brought to Sono Luminus’s studio the boundless enthusiasm and uncompromising virtuosity that have garnered praise wherever these gifted ladies have shared their talents.  Both Ms. Warsaw-Fan and Ms. Weiss are accomplished musicians, and in ensemble their playing reaches astonishing heights of achievement.  All of the finest qualities of chamber playing—unforced coordination between the instrumentalists, genuine connection between musicians and music, and direct communication with the listener—are evident in every note on Entendre, and the obvious joy with which the ladies of duoW sweep away the cobwebs that had gathered both on the music performed on this disc and on the traditions of violin and cello duets in general creates a truly heartening listening experience.

The most familiar piece that duoW perform on Entendre is Maurice Ravel’s brilliant Sonata for Violin and Cello, published in full in 1922.  With its first movement paying homage to Claude Debussy, Ravel’s Sonata was a seminal work in the composer’s artistic development, its combination of unapologetic lyricism and melodic fecundity with the brash tonalities familiar in 20th-Century music serving as a draft for Ravel’s mature idiom.  Musically, the Sonata provided Ravel with an opportunity to both exercise his education in the traditional sonata form and explore new stylistic ground: with the first three movements—‘Allegro,’ ‘Très vif,’ and ‘Lent’—in A-minor and the final movement, marked ‘Vif, avec entrain,’ in the relative C major, Ravel pursued the kind of thematic development that would become de rigueur in his masterworks.  The alert playing of duoW reveals the inherent musical sense of even Ravel’s most stringently ‘modern’ pages, and the glowing beauty of tone brought to lyrical episodes, particularly in the ‘Lent’ movement, is superb.  The economy of Ravel’s part writing ensures that textures are spare, but there is an understated eloquence in the interplay between the instruments that recalls the chamber music and concerti for multiple instruments of Bach.  In all of the pieces on this disc, but especially in the Ravel Sonata, the way in which Ms. Warsaw-Fan and Ms. Weiss create the impression of a single musician playing both instruments is very persuasive.

At least as influential as Debussy on Ravel’s composition of his Sonata for Violin and Cello was the 1914 Duo for Violin and Cello (Opus 7) of Hungarian composer Zoltán Kodály.  Conceived in three movements, Kodály’s Duo for Violin and Cello epitomizes the composer’s style, containing in its unbending technical demands and evocations of Hungarian landscapes and traditions the foremost hallmarks of Kodály’s music.  The opening ‘Allegro serioso, non troppo’ makes formidable demands upon both players, and duoW leave no challenge unmet.  Suggestions that the Duo’s second movement, marked ‘Adagio – Andante,’ is Kodály’s deeply personal response to the growing unease that seized Europe in the months prior to the start of World War I are apt, the bleak sound world accessed by the music imparting a sense of artistic despair.  To their credit, duoW do not linger over the melancholy, never allowing their playing to become mired in sentimentality.  The Duo’s final movement—‘Maestoso e largamente, ma non troppo lento – Presto’—presents both players with music of difficulty greater than that in many solo concerti for their respective instruments.  Ms. Warsaw-Fan and Ms. Weiss distinguish themselves with assured playing of smoldering intensity, both of them seeming undaunted even by the cruelest tricks of Kodály’s music.

Norwegian violinist, conductor, and composer Johan Halvorsen turned to Händel’s G-minor Suite for Harpsichord (HWV 432) for the Passacaglia theme of his variations, originally intended for violin and viola but more commonly performed in the arrangement heard here.  It is obvious from the quality of his variations on Händel’s Passacaglia that Halvorsen was an excellent musician and an extraordinary violinist.  Halvorsen’s variations share something of the spirit of Fritz Kreisler’s ‘faux Vivaldi’ concerti, and the element of showmanship that this suggests is displayed with unaffected charm by duoW in their performance.  Halvorsen intriguingly combines musical forms of his own time with those of Händel’s, hybridizing the score and the techniques required to play it.  douW adapt to every twist of the differing styles of each variation, and a special delight of their playing is their rhythmically-accurate, perfectly-synchronized execution of trills.  So complete is duoW’s command of Halvorsen’s variations on Händel’s music that it would also be splendid to encounter their playing in a performance of authentic music of Händel.

One of the most influential cellists of the 19th Century, Adrien-François Servais composed a large variety of music for his own performance, and duoW selected for this disc the ‘Grand Duo de Concert sur deux airs nationaux anglais’ on which Servais collaborated with fellow Belgian Hubert Léonard, one of the founders of the celebrated Belgian school of violin playing.  The ‘deux airs nationaux anglais’ in question are ‘God Save the King’ and ‘London is out of Sorrow,’ which tickles American ears as ‘Yankee Doodle Dandy.’  The faculty with which Servais and Léonard maintain the basic shapes of both themes in their variations is witty, and as might be expected of music created by two legendary virtuosi for their own benefit the technical demands of the piece are almost ridiculously formidable.  duoW confront every difficulty with stunning facility but without taking the piece too seriously.  In this performance, the ‘Grand Duo de Concert’ unfolds with the high spirits of a scene from a Rossini opera, shaped by duoW with clever attention to the music’s mimicking of the recitative – aria – cabaletta structure of Italian opera.

duoW elected to close Entendre with a dazzling explosion of patriotic fervor in the form of Bruce Dukov’s arrangement of John Philip Sousa’s irrepressibly toe-tapping ‘The Stars and Stripes Forever.’  This is what might be termed an ‘encore’ number, one that gives an audience a final demonstration of the players’ technical wizardry without making great demands upon the audience’s deeper sensibilities.  Ms. Warsaw-Fan and Ms. Weiss are undoubted mistresses of this music, and their performance of ‘The Stars and Stripes Forever’ is as spine-tingling as fireworks on the Fourth of July.  The ladies of duoW play the piece with panache, and it is a fun, fitting ending to their début disc.

Entendre is as enticing an introduction to the artistry of duoW as could be imagined.  These young ladies offer playing that goes far beyond the technically-proficient instrumentalism that is heard from so many young players who emerge from the world’s conservatories today.  What is more, Entendre offers performances of marvelous music that is off the beaten paths traversed by most of the world’s better violinists and cellists.  Ms. Warsaw-Fan’s and Ms. Weiss’s playing in this performance is not of the coolly exhibitionist nature of important artists in the concert hall, and Entendre is all the more enjoyable for it: rather, this is music-making of the sort that occurs when two fabulous artists for whom playing is a true joy meet and play merely for their own pleasure.  Many début discs raise the question of what comes next for the artists at hand, but Entendre leaves no doubt that the young ladies of duoW are poised to significantly influence the dialogue between violin and cello in the 21st Century.  Thanks to Sono Luminus, those who love these instruments have this opportunity to witness a vital step in the artistic genesis of what is sure to remain one of contemporary Classical Music’s greatest partnerships.

14 August 2013

CD REVIEW: Benjamin Britten - WAR REQUIEM, SPRING SYMPHONY, & YOUNG PERSON’S GUIDE TO THE ORCHESTRA (N. Kniplová, G. English, J. Cameron, B. Blachut; Supraphon SU 4135-2)

Benjamin Britten: WAR REQUIEM & Other Works (Supraphon SU 4135-2)

BENJAMIN BRITTEN (1913 – 1976): War Requiem, Op. 66; The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra, Op. 34; Spring Symphony, Op. 44—N. Kniplová (soprano, War Requiem), G. English (tenor, War Requiem), J. Cameron (baritone, War Requiem), M. Šubrtová (soprano, Spring Symphony), V. Soukupová (contralto, Spring Symphony), B. Blachut (tenor, Spring Symphony); Kühn Children’s Choir; Prague Philharmonic Choir; Czech Philharmonic Orchestra; Karel Ančerl [Recorded ‘live’ in the Dvořák Hall of the Rudolfinum, Prague (Czech Radio broadcasts), 13 January 1966 (War Requiem), 3 May 1958 (Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra), and 17 January 1964 (Spring Symphony); Supraphon SU 4135-2; 2CD, 141:25]

Thus far, the Verdi and Wagner Bicentennials seem to have been deemed more marketable by record labels than the centennial of the birth of Benjamin Britten.  Alongside the dozens of recent and forthcoming releases timed to pay homage to the masters of Busseto and Bayreuth, releases celebrating Britten have been markedly fewer.  It seems remarkable in a time in which there are so many excellent singers whose native language is English—and whose techniques are far more suited to Britten’s works than to those of Verdi or Wagner—that performances of Britten’s operas and other vocal works, widely acknowledged as masterpieces of 20th-Century music, remain infrequent outside of Britain.  There are occasional suggestions that Britten’s vocal music is slightly too ‘British’ to be palatable beyond the shores of the British Isles; or at least to be fully appreciated in locales where English is not the primary language.  This reveals an interesting paradox in the musical world: while English-speaking singers take on rôles in all of the languages in which operas are sung, subjecting themselves to criticism of their diction, non-native speakers of English are less likely to perform music with texts in the tongue of Shakespeare and Melville.  Ironically, though, the operettas of Gilbert and Sullivan—works more British than bangers and mash—remain popular currency throughout the world, often sung in English even in productions by ‘foreign’ theatres.  Can it be that Britten’s musical sensibilities are too inherently of their time and place to seize the imaginations of artists and audiences whose experiences have been shaped by other traditions?  This new release from Prague-based Supraphon, long the upholder of the highest standards in Czech music, answers this question with strong performances of three of Britten’s most finely-crafted works: The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra, the Spring Symphony, and the War Requiem, all recorded in concert and originally broadcast over Czech Radio.

The circumstances of recording concerts for radio broadcast inevitably introduce problems with balance, ambient noise, and the mistakes that occur in performance.  The remastering by Jan Lžičař minimizes sonic deficiencies to a remarkable degree: balances are natural, and voices are placed within the soundscape without undue prominence.  Especially in the War Requiem, volume levels are low, but boosting the dynamics electronically in playing the recording does not introduce distortion or hiss.  The coughs, shuffles of paper, creaking of music desks, and other noises of live performances remain, of course, but never distract from the music: in fact, these are works that gain histrionic power from audible interaction with an audience, as it were.  These recordings are priceless artifacts from the archives of Czech Radio, and Supraphon’s engineers have granted them appropriate respect without robbing the performances of their vitality.

Czech maestro Karel Ančerl (1908 – 1973) is perhaps one of the least-remembered important conductors of the 20th Century.  A man of remarkable resilience who survived both Terezín and Auschwitz, where his wife and young son perished, Maestro Ančerl was central to the reconstruction of Czech musical life and traditions in the years after World War II.  Not long after the performance of Britten’s War Requiem presented on this release, the 1968 Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in the wake of the Prague Spring prompted Maestro Ančerl to emigrate to Canada, where he served as Music Director of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra until his death.  Whilst in Toronto, Maestro Ančerl impressively improved the quality of the Toronto Symphony’s playing and presided over dozens of memorable performances, many of which were broadcast by the CBC.  One of the greatest achievements of Maestro Ančerl’s tenure in Toronto was a 1970 performance of Beethoven’s Missa solemnis featuring the uncommonly well-chosen quartet of Claire Watson, Maureen Forrester, Stuart Burrows, and Simon Estes.  Much of the grandeur and tenderness evident in Maestro Ančerl’s pacing of Beethoven’s music also courses through his performances of Britten’s music.  Maestro Ančerl’s leadership is followed with absolute dedication by the players of the Czech Philharmonic, of which Maestro Ančerl was Artistic Director from 1950 until his flight from Czechoslovakia.  During those eighteen years, Maestro Ančerl devoted himself to inspiring his Czech Philharmonic colleagues to a level of playing that would render the orchestra one of the finest in Europe: the success of his efforts is apparent in the performances recorded here.

Britten’s 1946 Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra is, as its title suggests, a piece intended to showcase the instruments of the orchestra individually and in ensemble.  As such, Britten’s orchestration is large-scaled, including the clever use of percussion typical of the composer.  Conceived as a series of variations on a theme from Henry Purcell’s incidental music for a 1695 revival of Aphra Behn’s play Abdelazer, Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra is a rare piece in which the famously intellectual Britten uninhibitedly flexed the muscles of his compositional technique, shaping each variation as a celebration of an individual instrument of the orchestra and combining all instruments in a fugal restatement of Purcell’s melody in the finale.  This performance understandably omits the English narration by Eric Crozier, librettist of Britten’s opera Albert Herring, but every nuance of the score is conveyed by the splendid playing of the Czech Philharmonic.

Premièred at the Holland Festival in 1949 with soloists Jo Vincent, Kathleen Ferrier, and Sir Peter Pears, the Spring Symphony immediately became one of Britten’s most popular works, its depiction of the triumph of light over darkness inherent in the transition from winter to spring evoking themes memorably explored in Mahler’s Symphonies.  Like Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde, Spring Symphony employs vocal soloists as extensions of the orchestra in settings of verses by an array of poets.  This 1964 Czech Radio performance offers the work in Czech translation, which add to the poetic power of the performance.  Each of the four Parts of the Symphony receives from Maestro Ančerl an individual interpretation, culminating in a broadly-phrased account of the Fourth and final Part.  The choristers, both adults and children, bring off many hair-raising effects, coping with some punishing tessitura.  The soloists are drawn from the ranks of Prague’s National Theatre and were obviously selected with sensitivity to their suitability for the music.  Soprano Milada Šubrtová, an acclaimed Jenůfa and Rusalka, sings delightfully, suffusing her tone with the warm sounds of spring.  Mezzo-soprano Věra Soukupová sings with equal elegance.  Tenor Beno Blachut is perhaps the most renowned Czech singer of the 20th Century.  He is best remembered for his standard-setting performances of the rôle of Jeník in Smetana’s Prodaná nevěsta (The Bartered Bride), but his repertory also included many of the most demanding tenor rôles in the Italian and German repertories, ranging from Ferrando in Mozart’s Così fan tutte to Verdi’s Otello and Walther in Wagner’s Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg.  Mr. Blachut’s singing of Britten’s tricky vocal lines, often placed high in the voice, is superb.  He was fifty at the time of this performance, and his singing is marked by the liquid ease with which the voice flows through the music.

The War Requiem was composed for the 1962 consecration of the rebuilt Coventry Cathedral.  A lifelong pacifist, Britten apparently found his work on the War Requiem spiritually liberating as it allowed him to pay homage to the traditions of the Latin Requiem while also expressing his very personal response to the horrors of war, poignantly conveyed in the poetry of Wilfred Owen, who was killed in action a week before the signing of the Armistice that ended World War I.  The War Requiem is one of the true masterworks of 20th-Century choral music and one of its composer’s most powerful creations.  Maestro Ančerl leads a performance of great subtlety and unapologetic sentimentality, the ethereal quality of the hushed singing contrasting meaningfully with the moments of bombastic depictions of the terrors of modern warfare.  Gerald English brings a pointed sound to the tenor solos, his tone leaner even than that of Sir Peter Pears, for whom the tenor part was written.  There is compelling emotional directness in Mr. English’s approach, however, and his delivery of the deeply compassionate lines from Owen’s ‘Futility’ in the closing section of the ‘Dies irae’ is heartbreaking.  Singing music composed for Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, baritone John Cameron is not in best voice, a shudder in the tone sometimes threatening to compromise his intonation, but he, too, provides eloquent, thoughtful singing.  His performance of ‘After the blast of lightning’ in the ‘Sanctus,’ taken from Owen’s ‘The End,’ is unforgettably visceral.  The real surprise in this performance of the War Requiem is the singing of Pokorná-born soprano Naděžda Kniplová.  Britten composed the soprano solos for Russian soprano Galina Vishnevskaya, who was denied the opportunity to participate in the Coventry première by politics and was replaced by Heather Harper but who sang the part in the legendary DECCA studio recording of the War Requiem.  A noted interpreter of the dramatic heroines of Czech opera and the most demanding of Wagner’s soprano rôles, Ms. Kniplová maintained a wide repertory, but her performance in the War Requiem is nonetheless atypical of her work.  Her Brünnhilde, greatly admired and brought to the Salzburg Easter Festival by Herbert von Karajan, was recorded in studio under Hans Swarowsky’s baton [after a long absence from the catalgoue, the Swarowsky Ring is being reissued on the Profil Medien label] and in concert by RAI with Wolfgang Sawallisch on the podium.  The amplitude of the voice that gave the engineers of these recordings such trouble is more comfortably reproduced by Supraphon, for which label she recorded a number of her finest Czech rôles.  A few of the highest notes are raucous, but the security with which Ms. Kniplová faces the difficulties of the music is phenomenal.  Especially in the ‘Sanctus’ and ‘Libera me,’ the benefits of a larger, dramatic voice in the music are thrillingly apparent.  This is a fascinating addition to Ms. Kniplová’s discography, and her singing makes an excellent performance of the War Requiem unmissable.

In the thirty-seven years since the death of Benjamin Britten, his works have remained in the repertories of musical institutions in English-speaking countries but have struggled to expand their reach into other corners of the world.  Though the performances recorded by Czech Radio and now released by Supraphon took place fifty years ago, they display the undimmed appeal of Britten’s music and the universality of the philosophical themes that his scores explore.  As a view of Britten’s work from a perspective outside of the British tradition, this release is an important contribution to celebration of the Britten Centennial: offering a newly-rediscovered, mercurial performance of the War Requiem that treats the score merely as significant music rather than as specifically British music, this release deserves a space in every music lover’s collection.

13 August 2013

CD REVIEW: AMORE E TORMENTO - Italian Arias (Massimo Giordano, tenor; BMG 53800781 2)

AMORE E TORMENO - Italian Arias sung by Massimo Giordano, tenor (BMG 53800781 2)

GIUSEPPE VERDI (1813 – 1901), AMILCARE PONCHIELLI (1834 – 1886), GIACOMO PUCCINI (1858 – 1924), FRANCESCO CILÈA (1866 – 1950), & UMBERTO GIORDANO (1867 – 1948): Amore e Tormento – Arias from Don Carlo, Simon Boccanegra, La Gioconda, Le Villi, Manon Lescaut, Tosca, Madama Butterfly, Turandot, L’Arlesiana, Adriana Lecouvreur, Andrea Chénier, Fedora, and Marcella—Massimo Giordano, tenor; Ensemble del Maggio Musicale Fiortentino; Carlo Goldstein [Recorded ‘live’ in the Teatro del Maggio Musicale Fiorentino, Florence, Italy, in 2012; BMG 53800781 2]

Alfredo Kraus, one of the most astute artists in operatic history in terms of careful management of technique and vocal resources, once said in an interview that ‘you have to make a choice when you start to sing and decide whether you want to service the music, and be at the top of your art, or if you want to be a very popular tenor.’  Kraus was perhaps the last of the truly great tenors to enjoy a tremendous career in a repertory that was by the standards of most of his contemporaries quite small: Kraus’s understanding of the capabilities of his own voice was legendary, and he maintained the fluidity of his upper register and the agility of his voice to the end of his career by only singing rôles that were within his technical comfort zone.  In this age in which operatic productions are conceived along cinematic lines, when the attractiveness of faces and figures sometimes take precedence over the quality of voices and techniques, versatility is perhaps the primary requirement for making a significant career in the world’s major opera houses.  Too many of today’s promising young singers are squandering their natural gifts in pursuit of the sorts of fame and celebrity that are, except in the rarest of instances, elusive to opera singers, stretching their voices to fit whichever rôles they are told that they need to sing in order to achieve a well-publicized television appearance, a cover story, or that next high-profile engagement.  Among all of this arrogance and cut-throat competiveness, it is gratifying to encounter a young tenor whose versatility is genuine, a product of artistic curiosity and exploration of the capabilities of his voice rather than an exercise in commercialism.  The singing of Massimo Giordano recalls the open-throated, heart-on-the-sleeve style of previous generations, and his artistic versatility—a choice informed by his adherence to his own artistic standards rather than an act of necessity—is a refreshing recollection of great singers of the past who expanded the boundaries of their artistries without overextending their vocal endowments.  Amore e Tormento, Mr. Giordano’s début recital disc, alluring explores nearly seven decades of Italian tenor repertory, ranging from Verdi’s Simon Boccanegra to Puccini’s Turandot.  It is not uncommon for a modern tenor’s active repertory to include both Gabriele Adorno and Calàf, along with many of the rôles that were created between them, but it is rare for performances of the arias from many of these parts to be sung as beautifully as Mr. Giordano sings them on this disc.

Born in Pompei, Mr. Giordano has already lent his talents to performances in many of the world’s major opera houses, including the Metropolitan Opera, where he débuted as des Grieux opposite Renée Fleming in Massenet’s Manon in 2006.  In subsequent MET seasons, he has sung Nemorino in L’Elisir d’Amore (in which rôle he had the unenviable task of replacing the indisposed Rolando Villazón, a favorite of New York audiences), Alfredo in La Traviata, Rodolfo in La bohème, and Rinuccio in Gianni Schicchi.  These assignments reveal the variety that has shaped the first decade of Mr. Giordano’s career.  This variety is also in evidence in this recital, but few other performances of these arias have displayed the unbroken musical lineage among the works of Verdi, Ponchielli, Puccini, Cilèa, and Giordani with such clarity.  Particularly in Europe, Mr. Giordano is celebrated for his portrayals of bel canto heroes, and he has been acclaimed in Europe and America in lighter Verdi rôles: Edoardo in Un giorno di regno, Alfredo in La Traviata, the Duca di Mantova in Rigoletto, and Fenton in Falstaff.  In this recital, he takes on arias from heavier rôles; rôles that he is perhaps wisely reserving for later in his career or will ultimately forgo altogether.  All of these arias are ‘chestnuts,’ but they offer tantalizing glimpses at how Mr. Giordano’s career may progress as his voice expands and darkens.

This disc was recorded in live takes, and Mr. Giordano’s performances of the arias benefit excitingly from the immediacy of these circumstances.  The acoustic in which the voice is recorded is natural and avoids the closeness which inaccurately reproduces the voices of many singers and mars their recordings.  The players of the Ensemble del Maggio Musicale Fiorentino, instrumentalists associated with one of Italy’s most venerable musical institutions, have this music in their blood, and it shows in their spirited, idiomatic playing.  The demands of the accompaniments of these arias are quite different, but the members of the Ensemble adapt their playing to every style.  Also advantageous is the insightful leadership of young conductor Carlo Goldstein.  With successes in Boris Godunov in Valencia and Carmen at Venice’s Teatro La Fenice to his credit, Maestro Goldstein is one of the most promising conductors to have emerged onto the musical scene in recent seasons, and his sensitive support of Mr. Giordano’s performances on this disc portends a notable career in opera.

Mr. Giordano pays homage to Verdi with performances of arias from Don Carlo and Simon Boccanegra.  In Carlo’s aria ‘Io la vidi,’ Mr. Giordano finds especially congenial vocal territory, Verdi’s melodic line recalling the bel canto models of earlier generations.  Mr. Giordano’s diction in his native language is excellent, and his phrasing is unfailingly musical.  There is an audible element of aristocratic grace in his singing of ‘Io la vidi,’ but there is also a bracing dose of Italianate passion.  Gabriele Adorno’s aria ‘Sento avvampar nell’anima’ from Simon Boccanegra is an explosion of fury that punishes the tenor with tessitura that centers in the passaggio.  Traditionally, the rôle has attracted dramatic voices, but Mr. Giordano’s more lyric tone fills the vocal lines gorgeously.  Mr. Giordano’s vibrato and method of producing an even, balanced tone across his range recall the singing of Giuseppe Campora, who successfully took on a carefully-selected handful of dramatic rôles with his essentially lyric voice.

Francesco Cilèa undeservedly remains in the shadow of Puccini, and aside from productions of Adriana Lecouvreur mounted for self-indulgent divas his operas are now seldom performed.  Perhaps surprisingly considering the esteem in which he was held in Italy in the first decades of the 20th Century, Cilèa completed only five operas, two of which are represented on Amore e TormentoAdriana Lecouvreur is Cilèa’s most popular opera and arguably his best: its synthesis of Italian verismo with elements of French Impressionism conjures a decadent musical setting in which an ambitious soprano can chew the scenery like a genuine luminary of the Comédie-Française.  The tenor rôle of Maurizio, created by Caruso, received from Cilèa a number of pages of fine music, and Mr. Giordano here sings ‘La dolcissima effigie,’ an impassioned outpouring of Maurizio’s love for Adriana.  The urgency of Mr. Giordano’s vocal expression is invigorating, and the spin of his tone is magical.  The ‘Lamento di Federico’ (‘È la solita storia del pastore’) from L’Arlesiana receives from Mr. Giordano a similarly ardent performance.

The operas of Umberto Giordano, like those of Cilèa, are infrequently performed—with the exception of Andrea Chénier, of course.  Few operas in the Italian repertory are more obvious vehicles for tenors than Andrea Chénier, but few performances in recent years have justified the faith shown in the drivers of this vehicle.  His singing of ‘Come un bel dì di maggio’ suggests that Mr. Giordano’s Chénier will be unusually poetic.  His phrasing of the aria displays a mastery of the text, and his placement of the tone as the vocal line builds to the climactic top B-flat is authoritative.  Loris’s brief aria ‘Amor ti vieta’ from Fedora is a favorite number in many tenors’ recital and concert repertories.  Like Adriana Lecouvreur, Fedora occasionally turns up on the boards when there is a soprano—a soprano of a certain age, in most cases—on hand who wishes to show off her histrionic command of the verismo repertory.  It is a score with many felicities, however, and ‘Amor ti vieta’ is a refulgent eruption of Italianate melody.  Mr. Giordano sings the aria spaciously, rising with fervor to the top A.  Marcella is a veritable operatic ghost town: long uninhabited, it awaits a repopulation by singers capable of revealing its unique charms.  Giorgio’s aria ‘Dolce notte misteriosa’ is included on Amore e Tormento as a ‘bonus track,’ and it receives the finest performance of any of the arias on the disc, Mr. Giordano’s voice glowing with subtle inflections inspired by the text.

Not unexpectedly for a recording by an Italian tenor, the music of Puccini is at the core of this disc.  The arias that Mr. Giordano selected cover the entire span of Puccini’s creative activity, from Le Villi, the composer’s first opera, to Turandot, the final masterpiece of his maturity.  Mr. Giordano opens the disc with ‘Donna non vidi mai’ from Manon Lescaut, the sort of flowing, melodic aria that seems so easy until one actually attempts to sing it.  Mr. Giordani’s attempt is a triumphant one, his phrasing of the aria long-breathed and evocative of young love.  Both of Cavaradossi’s arias from Tosca are included.  ‘Recondita armonita’ is particularly successful: so artful is Mr. Giordano’s depiction of Cavaradossi’s hymn to picturesque beauty that the listener can practically smell the drying paint on his portrait of the Maddalena.  The top B-flat is ringing but not over-emphasized, the note serving as the natural climax of the phrase rather than being sustained merely for show.  The singer’s voicing of ‘E lucevan le stelle’ is moving, the sound of death in the voice even as recollections of Tosca’s love warm the vocal line.  ‘Torna ai felici dì’ from Le Villi is, despite its early place in the composer’s output, a quintessentially Puccinian tenor aria: Mr. Giordano sings it broadly but with with rhythmic vitality.  Pinkerton’s ‘Addio fiorito assil,’ added to the score to give the rôle greater balance when Puccini revised Madama Butterfly after its lackluster première, is another aria that is typical of its composer, but the emotional directness that Mr. Giordano lends the number in this performance is very moving.  Mr. Giordano is to be congratulated for preferring Calàf’s ‘Non piangere Liù’ to the over-familiar ‘Nessun dorma’ for his selection from Turandot.  ‘Nessun dorma’ is a fine aria, undone to an extent by its popularity: musically, ‘Non piangere Liù’ is the superior number.  Calàf might prove a perilous rôle for Mr. Giordano, especially in larger theatres, but his singing of ‘Non piangere Liù’ is gorgeous, the tone at once robust and carried on the breath.  Dramatically, Mr. Giordano seems to connect with the sentiments of the aria on a very personal level, and he gives a scintillating performance with an unaffected morbidezza that often eludes larger-voiced tenors who sing Calàf.

Enzo’s ‘Cielo e mar’ from Amilcare Ponchielli’s La Gioconda is also a gem of the repertory that is often included by tenors in their concerts and recitals.  The irony is that, for so popular and musically straightforward a piece, it is frequently poorly sung.  In this performance, the aria is anything but poorly sung, Mr. Giordano bringing rare mastery to the music and singing the aria as though it has been in his voice since birth.  Something in the phrasing of the aria seems to unnerve many tenors, but its unhurried climax and ascent to an exposed top B-flat make it irresistible.  While the aria is often the least successful portion of many tenors’ performances of the rôle of Enzo, Mr. Giordano’s singing of the aria constitutes several of the finest minutes on this disc.  As in ‘Recondita armonia,’ the top B-flat crowns the aria not as an act of tenorial showboating but as an inevitable resolution of the penultimate phrase.  Mr. Giordano encounters no difficulties with phrasing, and his timbre provides intriguing layers of richness to the performance.

In both the basic sound of his voice and the way in which he sings, Massimo Giordano is a welcome reminder of the tradition of Italian tenors that developed with Caruso and Gigli and has been lamentably endangered since the retirement of Ferruccio Tagliavini.  There are minor imperfections in Mr. Giordano’s singing in this recital, but he shows the same wisdom and cognizance of his vocal abilities in his selections of the arias on this disc that he has thus far exhibited in his career in the world’s opera houses.  Amore e Tormento offers an ambitious programme, and Mr. Giordano explores every vocal and dramatic nuance of the ‘amore’ and ‘tormento’ expressed in these arias with virility and sensitivity.  Ample torment there is in these songs of men bolstered and betrayed by love, but no torment is there to be had from hearing Mr. Giordano’s singing.  His is the sort of voice, and this the sort of singing, that is balm to wounded hearts and ears offended by the vacuous performances of singers pursuing acclaim rather than art.