26 September 2013

CD REVIEW: STOPPING BY – American Art Songs (Kyle Bielfield, tenor; Lachlan Glen, piano; Delos DE 3445)

STOPPING BY - American Art Songs (Delos DE 3445)

MARK ABEL (b. 1948); SAMUEL BARBER (1910 – 1981); AMY BEACH (1867 – 1944); IRVING BERLIN (1888 – 1989); LEONARD BERNSTEIN (1918 – 1990); PAUL BOWLES (1910 – 1999); CHARLES WAKEFIELD CADMAN (1881 – 1946); ELLIOTT CARTER (1908 – 2012); AARON COPLAND (1900 – 1990); CELIUS DOUGHERTY (1902 – 1986); JOHN DUKE (1899 – 1984); STEPHEN FOSTER (1826 – 1864); CHARLES THOMAS GRIFFES (1884 – 1920); NED ROREM (b. 1923): Stopping By – American Art SongsKyle Bielfield, tenor; Michael Samis, cello; Lachlan Glen, piano [Recorded at First United Methodist Church, Murfreesboro, Tennessee, USA, on 8, 9, 11, and 16 March 2013; DELOS DE 3445; 1CD, 71:54; Available from Amazon, ClassicsOnline, Delos, and major music retailers]

Despite the advocacy of influential artists and organizations like baritone Thomas Hampson and his Hampsong Foundation, the pulsing vein of American Art Songs remains virtually untapped in comparison with the ruddy tides of Germanic Lieder and French chansons that flood the world’s recital halls and recording studios.  On the surface, at least, it seems inexplicable that the words of a poet so much of his time and place as Franz Grillparzer, set to the music of his contemporary Schubert, should be any less unpalatable beyond the reach of the specific traditions in which they were created than a Samuel Barber setting of verses by Robert Frost.  Why, then, does every music lover from Vienna to Vanuatu know Schubert’s ‘Ständchen’ while so few know Barber’s ‘Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening’?  Are Beach’s or Copland’s melodies less caressing to the ears than Schumann’s or Fauré’s, or are the words of Dickinson or Whitman less inspiring to the soul than those of Goethe or Mallarmé?  Perhaps there are clues in the respective discographies of these repertories that elucidate the underlying reasons for the disparities.  Among the champions of the heritage of Teutonic Lieder are many of the greatest German-speaking singers of the era since the popularization of the gramophone: Heinrich Schlusnus, Hans Hotter, Peter Anders, Dame Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, Christa Ludwig, and, perhaps most influential of all, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau.  Illuminating is the fact that to the ranks of these extraordinary artists can be added the names of Kathleen Ferrier, whose interpretations of Mahler scores large and small were considered authoritative by no less an authority than Bruno Walter; Teresa Stich-Randall, whose singing of Richard Strauss’s Vier letzte Lieder was minute in comparison with Flagstad but no less beautiful or stylish for that;  Dame Janet Baker, whose focused tone could prove as poignant in Schubert as in Britten or Purcell; Dame Margaret Price, whose singing of Schumann puts even German-born singers to shame; and Jessye Norman, who made the Lieder of Brahms as much her own as Lotte Lehmann ever did.  American singers of color often explore the rich heritage of Spirituals, which merit the attention of all English-speaking singers but which, rightly or wrongly, are subject to associations which many audiences find discomfiting, but the prize to which discriminating singers aspire is recognition as an insightful interpreter of German Lieder.  It is therefore courageous and incredibly welcome for a promising young singer to introduce himself to music lovers with a recording of American Art Songs.  Having committed himself to doing so, tenor Kyle Bielfield surrenders himself to every song on Stopping By, delivering the energy, musicality, and unequivocal enthusiasm that American composers and poets deserve and so infrequently receive.

Mr. Bielfield is accompanied on this musical journey by Sydney-born pianist Lachlan Glen, like Mr. Bielfield a graduate of the Juilliard School.  Mr. Glen’s Juilliard concentration was in collaborative piano, and the fluidity, integrity, and technical completeness of his playing confirm that he is a highly-skilled collaborative artist rather than a mere accompanist.  Accompanists play for singers in auditions and rehearsals, but Mr. Glen here matches his playing to every verbal and musical nuance of Mr. Bielfield’s singing, creating an environment in which singer and pianist phrase as one.  This disc’s programme encompasses a wide array of styles, ranging from the Romantic-infused idiom of Amy Beach’s ‘Autumn Song’ to the sparsely chromatic musical language of Leonard Bernstein’s ‘Spring Will Come Again.’  That Mr. Glen plays every song with equal distinction is indicative of the vibrant responsiveness of his interpretive gifts rather than any sameness of approach.  In Bernstein’s ‘Spring Will Come Again’ and ‘Dream with Me,’ both from his little-known Peter Pan and strongly reminiscent of ‘Somewhere’ from West Side Story, and in the dolorous strains of Stephen Foster’s ‘Gentle Annie,’ cellist Michael Samis joins with Mr. Bielfield to virtually sing in duet, his tone walnut-hued and his vibrato matched perfectly to the singer’s.

Vocally, this is an ambitious programme, not least because English is not an easy language in which to sing.  Placement of English vowels is contrary to many of the methods of vocal production that, being central to the shaping of Italian and French texts, become routine for young singers.  One of the principal achievements of Mr. Bielfield’s singing is the seeming ease with which he maintains the focused sweetness of his timbre even above the staff without distorting vowel sounds that are not congenial to facile vocal placement.  Speakers of English do not often concern themselves with niceties of diphthongs, leaving such things to pedagogues of other languages, but attentive singers cannot ignore details of English pronunciation and the ways in which composers manipulate language in pursuit of musical effects.  Mr. Bielfield’s diction is wonderfully clear without being stilted or over-enunciated, and he thankfully avoids the ‘Britishisms’ that mysteriously creep into the singing of many Americans.  Hearing the eloquence with which Mr. Bielfield sings Emily Dickinson’s ‘Beauty is not caused, it is’ (‘Beauty—be not caused—It is’ in Dickinson’s manuscript) is a rare pleasure, allied as it is with the luminosity of his voicing of Celius Dougherty’s musical setting.  In all of the songs recorded on this disc, Mr. Bielfield’s singing discloses a sappy lyric tenor still glistening with youth.  No mannerisms distract from the purity of his singing, and only a few notes at the very top of the range prove occasionally troublesome.  On the whole, Mr. Bielfield’s singing is as crisp and refreshing as a spring rain, and his liquid tone washes over these songs most attractively.

Spanning a wide swath of American musical history, Stopping By explores the beginnings of American popular song with fetching performances of Stephen Foster’s ‘Beautiful Dreamer’ and ‘Gentle Annie.’  In addition to the Bernstein numbers, Mr. Bielfield pays homage to America’s oft-dismissed Musical Theatre tradition with an intelligent performance of Irving Berlin’s ‘Change Partners’ that exudes the song’s gentle melancholy without dissolving into overblown sentimentalism.  Amy Beach’s ‘Autumn Song’ is a superb choice for opening the disc, and Mr. Bielfield spins a silver thread of tone through Beach’s elegant melodic lines.  Equally lovely is his singing of Beach’s ‘Go Not Too Far,’ a setting of a poem by Florence Earle Coates.  Ned Rorem’s ‘The Lordly Hudson,’ one of the better-known songs on this disc, has rarely been sung so simply and to such rhapsodic effect.  The same composer’s ‘Snake,’ its swirling melismas akin to the Benjamin Britten of The Turn of the Screw, is sung with complete control of rhythm, vital to revealing Rorem’s clever setting of the text.  Elliott Carter’s ‘The Rose Family’ is an unexpectedly effusive piece of concentrated lyrical expression, the loveliness of Mr. Bielfield’s voice giving the song a plaintive quality that gets closer to the heart of the famously enigmatic composer far more perceptively than is possible in many of his experimental works.  Aaron Copland’s ‘Simple Gifts,’ one of the ubiquitous treasures of American Song, and ‘Long Time Ago’ are sung with ideal grace.

A number of songs that slumber in relative obscurity are awakened by Mr. Bielfield.  Perhaps the most significant group of these is the work of John Duke, whose songs ‘Water That Falls and Runs Away,’ ‘Bread and Music,’ ‘Little Elegy,’ ‘Wood Song,’ ‘February Twilight,’ and ‘Morning in Paris’ receive performances from Mr. Bielfield that show off their charms alluringly.  Charles Thomas Griffes’s ‘Phantoms’ and ‘The Water-Lily’ are gems by a composer whose work merits greater exposure.  These, Paul Bowles’s ‘In the Woods,’ and Charles Wakefield Cadman’s ‘From the Land of the Sky-Blue Water’—a forgotten but beautiful piece inspired by Native American themes that was frequently sung in recital by Lillian Nordica—all draw from Mr. Bielfield singing of poise and ardor that never cross the boundary into saccharine sweetness.

The most pervasive poetic influence examined on Stopping By—that which gives the disc its title—is that of Robert Frost’s ‘Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening,’ which is offered in settings by Samuel Barber, John Duke, and Ned Rorem.  Beyond America’s shores, Frost suffers from the hoary perception that art that is popular or widely-acknowledged as representative of the spirit of a nation is rarely lasting or meritorious on a global scale.  That three of America’s finest composers of art songs turned their crafts to setting Frost’s verses confirms that, whatever the wider world might suggest, the poet’s work is of tremendous importance to lyric art in America.  Barber’s setting is in the uncomplicated, unapologetically emotional style of his Adagio for Strings, and Mr. Bielfield sings it lovingly, never condescending to the simplicity of the expressive conceits.  Duke’s enigmatic setting shivers with the chill felt by a traveler in winter, Mr. Bielfield’s singing providing an infusion of warmth into the music.  His singing also coveys the weariness of the traveler in the stark musical language of Rorem’s setting.

The most recent song on offer is Mark Abel’s ‘The Benediction,’ composed as recently as 2012 and here recorded for the first time.  Truly a ‘crossover’ artist, Mr. Abel’s interests have extended to a broad range of genres and media, and all of his experience united in ‘The Benediction.’  Taking the song at face value, Mr. Bielfield allows the music to weave its spell without imposing his own ‘effects.’  Far too many young singers mistake idiosyncrasy for legitimate interpretation, but Mr. Bielfield never falls into this trap: with a voice of such quality and an artistry as obviously thoughtful as his, he only needs to sing in order to reach the souls of a song and a listener.

It is apparent in every song recorded on Stopping By that this submersion in the largely uncharted waters of American Art Song was a labor of love for Kyle Bielfield and Lachlan Glen.  Their partnership produces one of the most rewarding explorations of this underserved repertory, joining overlooked recordings by Mildred Miller, Eleanor Steber, and Jan De Gaetani.  The quality of these songs can be debated by those with nothing else to do, but the quality of these performances leaves little room for discussion.  Kyle Bielfield and Lachlan Glen may well go on to record extraordinary accounts of Die schöne Müllerin, Winterreise, and Dichterliebe.  What they have recorded here are performances of some of America’s most beautiful songs that do not attempt to inflate or overstate their importance.  Emily Dickinson wrote that ‘This world is not Conclusion. / A sequel stands beyond… / Invisible, as Music… / But positive, as Sound.’  This disc is but the beginning of an exquisite journey, both for these intriguing young artists and for the art of American Song, and the plentiful enticements of this recording inspire the hope that many sequels stand beyond.

CD REVIEW: Jean Françaix, Philip Glass, John Rutter – HARPSICHORD CONCERTOS (Christopher D. Lewis, harpsichord; NAXOS 8.573146)

Françaix, Glass, Rutter: HARPSICHORD CONCERTOS (NAXOS 8.573146)

JEAN FRANÇAIX (1912 – 1997): Concerto pour Clavecin et Ensemble Instrumental; PHILIP GLASS (b. 1937): Concerto for Harpsichord and Chamber Orchestra; JOHN RUTTER (b. 1945): Suite Antique—Christopher D. Lewis, harpsichord; John McMurtery, flute (Suite Antique); West Side Chamber Orchestra; Kevin Mallon [Recorded at the American Academy of Arts and Letters, New York, 10 – 12 September 2012; NAXOS 8.573146; 1CD, 64:02; Available from Amazon, ClassicsOnline, and all major music retailers]

Even at the time of the death of Johann Sebastian Bach in 1750, the harpsichord’s days as the keyboard instrument of choice were already numbered.  Though the instrument would retain prominence in certain musical circles and the less progressive of Europe’s aristocratic courts throughout the latter half of the 18th Century, the work of Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven focused composers’ and audiences’ attentions on what were perceived as the greater expressive possibilities of the steadily-improving fortepiano.  As orchestras, concert halls, and the dimensions of the musical demands of composers’ scores grew larger, the harpsichord was consigned to the orchestra pits of the worlds opera houses and the few ensembles that quietly sought to perform Baroque repertory in a historically-appropriate manner.  In the early decades of the 20th Century, there was a revival of interest in the harpsichord, and the revival’s foremost evangelist was Wanda Landowska, whose preferred instrument was a specially-constructed Pleyel ‘Grand Modèle de Concert,’ a double-manual monstrosity fashioned after modern concert grand pianos, complete with pedals.  British musicians like Thurston Dart and George Malcolm reclaimed the lost art of continuo harpsichord playing, and the brilliant Igor Kipnis assumed the mantle of Landowska, his performances of an exceptionally extensive repertoire of music for the harpsichord doing much to close the gap between the playing styles of the glory days of the harpsichord and the 20th Century.  The instrument might be thought to have again performed a temporary disappearing act in the middle of the 20th Century, before the endeavors of scholarly-minded musicians such as Gustav Leonhardt and Bob van Asperen ushered in the Renaissance of historically-informed performance practices that continues—considerably refined—today, but the harpsichord merely went on sabbatical to pursue other musical interests.  Before his Led Zeppelin duties took him to all corners of the world, John Paul Jones was a busy studio musician whose harpsichord ‘licks’—not so different from period-appropriate continuo playing, really—contributed memorably to dozens of cuts by many of the iconic British Invasion bands, a sterling example of which is Herman’s Hermits’ 1968 single ‘Sleepy Joe.’  Hearing the works on this fascinating disc of 20th-Century Classical works for the harpsichord evokes contemplation of the full history of the instrument, from the powdered periwigs of the 17th and 18th Centuries to the present day.  Music, like Nature, is inherently cyclical, and while it would be simplistic to suggest that, as the adage goes, all that is old will be new again, the pieces on this disc and the unmistakably jubilant performances of them breathe vigorous new life into the harpsichord repertory and introduce a promising young master of the instrument, Christopher D. Lewis.

Composed in 1979 for Britain’s Cookham Festival, John Rutter’s Suite Antique was conceived by its composer as a companion to the fifth of Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos, which shared the programme in the concert at which the Suite was premièred.  The instrumentation complementing Bach’s in Brandenburg Concerto No. 5, the six movements of Rutter’s Suite—Prelude, Ostinato, Aria, Waltz, Chanson, and Rondeau—also explore forms familiar to Bach but from a distinctly 20th-Century perspective.  The virtuosic but infectiously exuberant flute part, occasionally reminiscent of the celebrated Minuet and Badinerie from Bach’s B-minor Orchestral Suite (BWV 1067), was played at the Suite’s première by Duke Dobing and is here played with jaunty technical brilliance by John McMurtery, whose high-profile engagements include service as the Principal Flautist of the Opera Orchestra of New York.  Born in Wales, harpsichordist Christopher D. Lewis has in his brief life already amassed an impressive array of academic and professional credentials.  University degrees are very admirable, but Mr. Lewis’s playing of Rutter’s Suite confirms that he possesses the trait that is at least as important to an effective musician as conservatory training but cannot be taught in any lecture hall or rehearsal room: charisma.  The first five movements of Suite Antique treat the harpsichord more as a continuo instrument than as a solo instrument on equal footing with the flute, but Mr. Lewis’s playing is quietly witty, engaging in dialogue with but never seeking to supplant the flute.  When, in the closing Rondeau, he has the opportunity to sally forth with spirited solo passages, Mr. Lewis rises to the occasion joyfully, playing with impeccable technique.  Granting Rutter’s Suite the same attention to detail that he would devote to the music of Bach but never taking his performance of it too seriously, Mr. Lewis plays with youthful pluckiness.  The buoyant playing of both Mr. Lewis and Mr. McMurtery sails like a jubilantly-decorated vessel on the shimmering sea of sound produced by Maestro Mallon and the West Side Chamber Orchestra.

Those who are acquainted with the music of Philip Glass primarily via his film scores or his mid-career operas like Einstein on the Beach, Akhnaten, and Satyagraha will meet in the Concerto for Harpsichord and Chamber Orchestra a very different composer, one whose homage to the Baroque traditions of Bach and Händel is filtered through apparent but unobtrusive avant garde sensibilities.  Completed and premièred in 2002, Glass’s Concerto is a score that bristles with energy and imagination, and, managing to be both unconventional and strangely inviting, it is a work that can appeal to those for whom Glass’s music is generally hard going.  Adopting a three-movement structure that nods to the Baroque concerti of Bach and his contemporaries, Glass balances vigorous, technically demanding passages for the harpsichord with whirlwinds of orchestral color.  Like the Baroque models that inspired Glass, his outer movements frame a lyrical second movement, and it is in this expansively-conceived inner movement that Mr. Lewis’s playing is at its most refined.  The long-sustained trills over repetitive figurations are vintage Glass but are here used to atypically expressive effect.  True melodic distinction rests with the orchestra, the strings having undulating melodic lines reminiscent of the mathematically-perfect melodies of Bach, particularly in the Concerto for Two Violins in D minor (BWV 1043), and the writing for the woodwinds gracefully scored.  The final movement makes greater technical demands on the harpsichordist, and Mr. Lewis delivers a performance of great strength that nonetheless seems to little test his capabilities.

The music of Jean Françaix has rapidly faded from memory in the years since the composer’s death in 1997, especially in English-speaking parts of the world, where it was never appreciated as widely as it deserved to be.  Though Françaix’s compositional idiom is generally less progressive than Glass’s, the Frenchman’s 1959 Concerto pour Clavecin et Ensemble Instrumental is in certain respects the work among those on this disc that is most touched by compositional techniques of the 20th Century.  Throughout the Concerto, but especially in the harmonically restless but beautiful Menuet, the woodwind writing owes much to the influence of Debussy.  Françaix’s unique Neoclassicism was obviously also influenced by Nadia Boulanger, with whom he studied and to whom the Concerto is dedicated.  Though never approaching his countryman’s skill for inventive orchestration, Françaix also evokes the sonic landscape of Ravel’s L’enfant et le sortilège in the Concerto’s Finale.  The five movements of Françaix’s Concerto—Toccata I, Toccata II, Andantino, Menuet, and Finale—correspond in structure to Bach’s familiar Suites, but the harpsichord writing compares more directly with the stilo galante of the keyboard concerti of the younger Johann Christian Bach.  As in Rutter’s Suite and Glass’s Concerto, Maestro Mallon and the West Side Chamber Orchestra are worthy collaborators for Mr. Lewis, the conductor’s considerable experience in Baroque music ideally qualifying him for mastering the challenges of the pseudo-Baroque forms employed in these works.  Of the composers featured on this disc, Françaix employed traditional structures with the greatest fidelity to Baroque models, and this interestingly highlights the modernism of the music.  Mr. Lewis plays superbly in both Toccatas, conveying the cleverness of the composer’s juxtaposition of keyboard effects with pizzicato playing in the strings.  Here, too, Mr. Lewis excels in the slow movement, his artful phrasing in the Andantino extending the melodic line with a breadth that mitigates the innate limitations of the harpsichord’s mechanism to sustain tones.  The Finale finds both Mr. Lewis and the West Side Chamber Orchestra players at their best, the interplay among instruments executed with careful balance but an abiding sense of enjoyment.

Indeed, it is an abiding sense of enjoyment that makes this disc such a sterling achievement.  The past four decades have produced an army of accomplished harpsichordists, many of whom labor in earnest without discerning the interpretive capacity of their chosen instrument.  The same might be said of composers, but the music on this disc reveals that the right circumstances can prompt contemporary composers to set aside self-conscious attempts at creating individual musical legacies and focus on allying their gifts with the examples of the past.  From a musicological perspective, Brahms did little in his music that was genuinely new: rather, he tilled the rich garden of Western music until he extracted the sturdiest seeds of Bach, Händel, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Weber, and Schumann, which he then cultivated anew in the fertile soil of his own imagination.  In short, he did not need to be radical in order to be remarkable.  None of the scores played on this disc is as radical as the notion of modern music for the harpsichord might suggest, but this is fine music that demands the best efforts of those musicians who play it.  Ably supported by John McMurtery, Kevin Mallon, and the West Side Chamber Orchestra, Christopher D. Lewis performs with unassailable technique and a pervasive spirit of adventure that makes this disc a pleasure to hear.  This is not gimmicky music for an antiquated instrument: this is wonderful, novel music for an instrument about which it seems likely that Christopher D. Lewis will teach listeners much in the years to come.

22 September 2013

CD REVIEW: Antonio Vivaldi – GRISELDA (C. Hulcup, C. Saunders, M. Allan, D. Hansen, R. Harcourt; Pinchgut LIVE PG002)

Antonio Vivaldi: GRISELDA (Pinchgut LIVE PG002)

ANTONIO VIVALDI (1678 – 1741): Griselda, RV 718—C. Hulcup (Griselda), C. Saunders (Gualtiero), M. Allan (Costanza), D. Hansen (Ottone), R. Harcourt (Corrado), T. Cole (Roberto); Orchestra of the Antipodes; Erin Helyard [Recorded ‘live’ in City Recital Hall Angel Place, Sydney, Australia, on 30 November and 3 – 5 December 2011; Pinchgut LIVE PG002; 2CD, 131:14; Available from Amazon, directly from Pinchgut Opera, and from major music retailers]

Of the hundred novelle in Giovanni Boccaccio’s Decamerone, none has proved more irresistible to artists than that recounting the tribulations of ‘patient Griselda.’  Recycled in as many languages as were read in Renaissance Europe, the put-upon Marchesa—promoted to Queen in Apostolo Zeno’s frequently-used (and liberally-adapted) libretto—likely reached Lope de Vega and Shakespeare via Petrarch’s Latin translation.  Reacting to this aspect of their collective artistic heritage, composers of the Italian Baroque identified the natural appeal of Griselda as an operatic heroine, and Zeno’s fine libretto provided the impetus for several excellent scores, one of the most memorable of which is Alessandro Scarlatti’s La Griselda, the title rôle in which provided a vehicle for a surprisingly stylish Baroque outing for Mirella Freni before the revival of interest in Baroque music.  The famous Venetian playwright Carlo Goldoni applied his deft tinkering to Zeno’s work to produce the libretto for an opera commissioned for Venice’s Teatro San Samuele: the resulting work was Antonio Vivaldi’s Griselda, which was premièred on 18 May 1735, when the composer’s three-decade career as one of the leading exponents of Italian opera was entering its final phase.  Not surprisingly to those acquainted with the vocal music of his maturity, Vivaldi conceived the title rôle in Griselda for his muse of sorts, Anna Girò, and in Griselda Vivaldi created one of his most theatrically effective operas; and one in which his music is admirably consistent both in style and in the level of inspiration.  If the Griselda molded by Vivaldi and Goldoni is a less moping gal than Zeno’s or Boccaccio’s incarnations of her, she—and Vivaldi’s opera—is all the better for it.  Almost no records of contemporary reactions to Griselda have survived, but the chronology of Vivaldi’s career confirms that the opera was instrumental in restoring the wavering fortunes of the enterprising Grimani family: another Vivaldi opera, the lost Aristide, a further collaboration with Goldoni, was staged at the family’s Teatro San Samuele in the autumn of 1735.  None of Vivaldi’s operas has claimed a prominent place in the standard repertory, but Mark Gaal’s 2011 production for Sydney-based Pinchgut Opera proved that Griselda is worthy of revival and, when performed with the level of musical and dramatic intensity heard in this recording, can be an enthralling ride.

Pinchgut Opera’s production enjoyed the services of the Orchestra of the Antipodes, Australia’s foremost period-instrument ensemble, and conductor Erin Helyard, a world-renowned specialist in Baroque opera.  Equal and in many cases superior to their European and North American counterparts, the instrumentalists of the Orchestra of the Antipodes—twenty-one in number, including Maestro Helyard at the harpsichord—play brilliantly in this recording, responding to the challenges of Vivaldi’s music with absolute command of the idiom.  Performances in which ensembles deliver Vivaldi’s formulaic string figurations as arbitrary sawing are far too plentiful, but the string players of the Orchestra of the Antipodes audibly seek the meanings with which Vivaldi laced his semiquavers.  Among uniformly excellent performances, Laura Vaughan’s playing of the viola da gamba is superb, and the mastery of period-style horns by Darryl Poulsen and Lisa Wynne-Allen is impressive, with none of the honking and hooting that passes for historically-informed wind playing in many performances.  Lutenists Simon Martyn-Ellis and Tommie Andersson contribute fascinatingly to the continuo on theorbo and Baroque guitar.  Maestro Helyard shares harpsichord duties with Stewart Smith, and their combined efforts provide a rhythmically vital, reliably thoughtful foundation upon which the orchestral players construct potent edifices in sound.  Maestro Helyard conducts with the confidence of a man who knows that his understanding of his task is complete: none of Vivaldi’s quicksilver changes of dramatic pace or rhythmic speed bumps finds him unprepared.  Presumably at the suggestion of la Girò, Vivaldi’s music for the title character is littered with pregnant pauses, and Maestro Helyard navigates these dramatically critical devices with a sure hand.  It is a credit to his close collaboration with the cast that he adopts an appropriate tempo for every aria, giving lyrical outpourings ample time to expand meaningfully and taking the showpiece bravura arias at bracing speeds—all without ever leaving any of the singers snatching at breaths or gasping behind the beat.  Performances of Baroque operas can succeed despite poor orchestral playing and conducting more easily than those of later repertory, but a very good performance can be elevated to a great one by playing and conducting of the quality exhibited by the Orchestra of the Antipodes and Maestro Helyard in this recording.  It is also of vital importance that Pinchgut LIVE’s recording staff have done their musicians proud with a ‘live’ recording that palpably captures the energy of staged performances without sacrificing balance between stage and pit: stage and audience noises are never bothersome, even during stretches of secco recitative, and the recording method ensures that singers are always audible.

The casting of Pinchgut Opera’s production of Griselda reveals an encouragingly rich vein of Australian talent.  Countertenor Russell Harcourt as Corrado has only one aria, ‘Alle minacce di fiera belva’ in Act One, and recitative in which to make his mark, and make his mark he does, with firm, passionate singing that convincingly conveys Corrado’s dedication to protecting Griselda and her son, who is mercilessly used as a pawn in Ottone’s quest to win Griselda’s favor at any cost.  The rôle of Roberto, who loves Costanza, Griselda’s daughter and presumed rival for Gualtiero’s—actually her father!—affection, is sung by another excellent countertenor, Tobias Cole.  Familiar from performances of both Baroque and modern repertories on three continents, Mr. Cole sings Roberto’s arias ‘Estinguere vorrei la fiamma ond’io sospiro’—a beautiful expression of his frustrated despair over seemingly losing his beloved—and ‘Che legge tiranna’ with poised tone and pointed delivery of text, qualities that also serve him well in his live-wire singing of recitatives.  Corrado and Roberto suffer the most from cuts to the score, both characters losing arias that were sung in the opera’s première—one for the former, two for the latter—but Mr. Harcourt and Mr. Cole seize every opportunity left to them with the sure instincts of practiced stage creatures.

The deception enacted at Costanza’s expense is hardly less cruel than the trials endured by Griselda.  Summoned to cast off her lover Roberto in order to become the consort of Gualtiero in Griselda’s stead, not knowing that the king and his discarded queen are her parents, Costanza is torn between duty—a king’s hand in marriage is not a thing to be rejected, after all—and devotion.  This ambiguous disbursement of emotional resources is aptly portrayed by Miriam Allan’s performance.  Focusing foremost on an insightful traversal of her character’s dramatic journey, beginning with the slightly dumbfounded exasperation of her first aria, ‘Ritorna a lusingarmi la mia speranza infida,’ and ending with the eventual revelation of her father’s duplicity and his blessing of her union with Roberto.  Costanza has one of the opera’s most demanding simile arias, ‘Agitata da due venti,’ and Ms. Allan negotiates the tricky divisions unhesitatingly.  The aria ‘Ombre vane, ingiusti orrori’ also inspires Ms. Allan to powerful, stylish singing, her upper register gleaming attractively.  In recitative, Ms. Allan proves an intelligent, knowing figure: the tenderness of her exchanges with Griselda suggests that the daughter feels an instinctive connection to her mother, and there are in Ms. Allan’s vocal inflections hint that she suspects before all is revealed that some trickery is afoot.  Equally adept at tackling strands of coloratura and sustaining long-breathed lyrical phrases, Ms. Allan is a touching, musically fulfilling Costanza.

Gualtiero is a complicated character whose actions are uncompromisingly political.  Bowing to the Vox Populi, which questions the lowly-born Griselda’s worthiness to share his throne, Gualtiero faces the necessity of securing his reign by subjecting his wife to the shame of public denunciation.  Perhaps he never doubts his wife’s loyalty and knows that her devotion will prevail over her trials and the objections of her incredulous subjects, or perhaps he, too, requires convincing that she is truly deserving of his royal favor.  However his motives are interpreted by the singer who performs the rôle, he must work harder than the opera’s other characters to win the audience’s sympathy.  Tenor Christopher Saunders does not succeed in making Gualtiero’s course of action more palatable to modern sensibilities, but his bold singing gives Gualtiero a credibly regal profile.  Anyone who perpetuates the myth that Richard Strauss was antipathetic to the tenor voice is apparently unfamiliar with the tenor rôles in Vivaldi’s operas.  Gregorio Babbi, who created prominent rôles in operas by virtually every Italian composer of any significance in the first half of the 18th Century, was obviously an amazingly gifted singer: Vivaldi’s music for Gualtiero certainly suggests that he possessed a voice of considerable range and a technique that enabled him to achieve feats of consummate virtuosity.  In Gualtiero’s first aria, ‘Se ria procella sorge dall’onde,’ Mr. Saunders hits the ground running.  His upper register does not always project with the clarity for which Mr. Saunders obviously works, and his intonation occasionally falls victim to the nasty tricks that Vivaldi’s music holds in store for him.  He is at his best in ‘Tu vorresti col tuo pianto,’ in which Gualtiero capably depicts the sadness that lurks behind the biting irony of his rejection of Griselda’s pleas for death.  In Gualtiero’s eventual clemency and reunion with his wife and children, Mr. Saunders is moving, the straightforward approach to the rôle that he has employed throughout the performance coming graciously to fruition.

The rôle of the amorously predatory Ottone was created by soprano castrato Lorenzo Saletti, whose professional career was launched by his appearances in Griselda.  Presumably owing to the insufficiency of Saletti’s fledgling technique to meet the demands of ‘Scocca dardi l’altero tuo ciglio,’ Vivaldi cut the aria and replaced it with a simpler alternative.  In the music of Vivaldi, simplicity is relative, and even in its ‘simplified’ form Ottone’s music was daunting and covered a tessitura of more than two octaves, extending to soprano top C.  Previous commercial recordings of Griselda have entrusted Ottone to sopranos—in one instance, a singer who seasons her performance with piquant but inauthentic excursions above top C—and even a tenor, but Pinchgut Opera score a triumph by reuniting the appropriate vocal range with the proper gender in the person of Sydney-born countertenor David Hansen.  A vibrant presence in recitative, Mr. Hansen takes the performance by storm in Ottone’s first aria, ‘Vede orgogliosa l’onda,’ in which he unflinchingly engages in throat-to-throat combat with typically head-turning coloratura.  Here and throughout the performance, his upper register is a source of endless amazement, his top notes soaring.  ‘Scocca dardi l’altero tuo ciglio,’ the aria that defeated Saletti, rivals the most fearsomely difficult arias in the Baroque repertory, and it defies belief that any countertenor would attempt it, particularly in live performances without the ‘safety net’ of retakes.  There is no denying that Mr. Hansen’s technique is tested by the aria, but he faces its terrors with the determination of an Olympian, and with the tone focused with laser-like intensity he conquers the aria with charisma and bravura swagger to burn.  ‘Dopo un’orrida procella,’ a cathartic celebration of calm after the storm, draws from Mr. Hansen expansively lyrical singing that fully reveals the pure beauty of his voice.  Dramatically, Mr. Hansen strides through the performance with the aural presence of a Hollywood leading man.  Occasionally, Mr. Hansen slightly pushes the voice, but a performance of Ottone’s music in which nothing is shirked, nothing is compromised, and nothing jeopardizes complete enjoyment of an astounding piece of singing is an invaluable achievement.

Having trained as a violinist before devoting her studies to singing perhaps gives mezzo-soprano Caitlin Hulcup a special link to the music of Vivaldi.  Whether or not she feels any particular identification with Vivaldi, the connection with Griselda’s predicament that she displays in this performance is heartening.  It is not surprising that a rôle written for Anna Girò received from Vivaldi careful attention to the character’s dramatic development and the lion’s share of the best music in the score.  Like Händel’s Rodelinda, Vivaldi’s Griselda is unrelentingly put upon but is no shrinking violet.  Interestingly, Griselda’s arias are, in general, briefer than those of the other characters, and they are more emotionally direct: she, too, has her moments of poetic aloofness, but for the most part she says what she means without muddling her expression with metaphors.  The climax of her suffering is reached in the aria ‘Ho il cor già lacero da mille affanni,’ in which Vivaldi’s skills as a composer and dramatist are engaged at the most exalted level of his career.  Ms. Hulcup’s skills as a singer are engaged, too, her voice drenched with the pain, indignity, and disbelief inspired by the circumstances to which she finds herself reduced.  The exhaustion and despair that gush out of a passage as brief as ‘Sonno, se pur sei sonno’ are depicted with an anguished delivery of text that does not impede the solemn loveliness of Ms. Hulcup’s singing.  Her ornamentation is mostly stylish, her musicality slightly undermined in a few instances by over-adventurous cadenzas that unnecessarily climb to notes that are just beyond Ms. Hulcup’s comfort zone.  The voice is slightly ungainly but grows in strength and flexibility as the performance progresses.  Above all, Ms. Hulcup engagingly uses Vivaldi’s vocal hurdles and Goldoni’s poetic conceits to create a portrait of a woman ennobled as much by her integrity in suffering as by the love of a king.

If all performances of Vivaldi’s operas were as successful as this Pinchgut Opera recording of Griselda, perhaps these scores would enjoy greater prominence beyond the ranks of those companies that specialize in Baroque repertory.  The ways in which this recording shines are many: welcome as an unimpeachably stylish performance of one of Vivaldi’s finest operas, it is equally appreciable as a celebration of the fantastic wealth of Australia’s musical institutions.  Music is the universal language, of course, and despite the concerted efforts of European ensembles to maintain exclusive dominance of historically-informed performances of Baroque music, Vivaldi with an Aussie accent proves tremendously enjoyable.  Even in this Bicentennial year, why fret over another inadequate performance of a Verdi score when it is possible to hear the music of Vivaldi performed so smashingly?

21 September 2013

CD REVIEW: IO VIDI IN TERRA – 17th-Century Vocal Music (José Lemos, countertenor; Jory Vinikour, harpsichord; Deborah Fox, theorbo; Sono Luminus DSL-92172)

IO VIDI IN TERRA - José Lemos, Jory Vinikour, & Deborah Fox (Sono Luminus DSL-92172)

BENEDETTO FERRARI (circa 1603 – 1681), GIROLAMO FRESCOBALDI (1583 – 1643), MARCO DA GAGLIANO (1582 – 1643), CLAUDIO MONTEVERDI (1567 – 1643), TARQUINIO MERULA (1594 or 1595 – 1665), ALESSANDRO PICCININI (1566 – circa 1638), BARBARA STROZZI (1619 – 1638), and BERNARDO STORACE (dates uncertain): Io vidi in terra, 17th-Century Italian Vocal Music—José Lemos, countertenor; Jory Vinikour, harpsichord; Deborah Fox, theorbo [Recorded at Sono Luminus, Boyce, Virginia, 5 – 7 February 2013; Sono Luminus, DSL-92172; 1CD + Blu-ray, 52:44; Available from Amazon, Sono Luminus, and all major music retailers]

One of the most memorable statements in the remarkable life of John F. Kennedy was his comment to an assemblage of Nobel laureates that those present constituted ‘the most extraordinary collection of talent, of human knowledge, that has ever been gathered together at the White House, with the possible exception of when Thomas Jefferson dined alone.’  From a musical perspective, a similar sentiment might have been justifiably expressed when countertenor José Lemos, harpsichordist Jory Vinikour, and theorbist Deborah Fox gathered at Sono Luminus in Virginia in February to record Io vidi in terra, this scintillating recital of vocal music from the 17th Century.  With the exceptions of Claudio Monteverdi and, to a lesser degree, Barbara Strozzi, now undeservedly perhaps more infamous than famous, the composers whose music is performed by this trio of accomplished artists are forgotten to all but the most attentive students of musical history, but only the most sheltered of listeners could fail to recognize in these miniature masterpieces of the Early Baroque the same emotions that grip humanity in the 21st Century.  The most poignant sentiments lack impact when delivered indifferently, however, and it is the natural, unaffected exploration of the feelings that shape these madrigals and canzonette—what might be termed the art that conceals art—that is the most extraordinary quality of Io vidi in terra.  Recorded by Sono Luminus with balance and warmth that further enhance the directness of approach, this disc offers performances that pay tribute to the circumstances of the composition and earliest performances of this music: created to express the most intimate of passions for gatherings of perfumed aristocrats, these pieces discard the posturing of opera, still in its infancy when this music was new, in favor of unadorned melodies that reach for the soul.  In this performance, the listener is privy to an intensely personal conversation conducted in music; a discourse so unguarded that it seems almost a violation to eavesdrop on it.  Few recordings so completely captivate the listener as Io vidi in terra manages to do, however.  Being absorbed into this atmosphere for an hour, the world itself seems an intrusion.

Born in Brazil, José Lemos possesses a voice that defies conventional classifications.  It is less a countertenor voice in the modern sense than a true contralto, the depth of the tone and rosewood colorations of the timbre evoking memories of Kathleen Ferrier rather than Russell Oberlin or Sir Alfred Deller.  Though he is an accomplished and critically-acclaimed presence in the world’s opera houses and concert halls, it is in the music like that heard on Io vidi in terra that Mr. Lemos’s gifts glisten most radiantly.  Unlike many of his countertenor colleagues, Mr. Lemos sings without the slightest hint of artifice.  So disarmingly uncomplicated is his singing on this disc that, rather than requiring the sort of suspension of credulity demanded by many performances, song seems not only more natural than speech but the sole medium via which such emotions can be shared.  Mr. Lemos’s technique encompasses all of the demands of these selections, including the oft-mangled Early Baroque trillo, and a particular joy of his singing is the manner in which he delivers bravura passages as organic developments of the melodic lines rather than making of them exercises in vanity.  Vocally, Mr. Lemos’s singing is a seductive blend of light and shade: lured into the smoky recesses of his lower register, the listener is then enchanted by the twilit glow of the singer’s upper octave.  There is not another singer in this range active today who sings with such evenness of tone and absolute integration of the registers, and these qualities contribute indelibly to the exalted grace of Mr. Lemos’s performance on this disc, as does the skill with which he exploits every emotive possibility of his flickering vibrato.

The intelligence with which the programme for this disc was selected is revealed by the fact that, even in comparison with the music of Monteverdi, there are no ‘lesser works’ heard here.  The name Tarquinio Merula may prompt little recognition among 21st-Century listeners, but his music—with which Io vidi in terra begins and ends—is wonderfully engaging.  Launched by a rippling figuration for the theorbo, played with audible relish by Deborah Fox, ‘Su la cetra amorosa’ immediately transports the listener to a candlelit chamber in a slightly murky past in which traditions of Renaissance troubadours were being transformed by the lyric art of a new generation of musical geniuses.  When harpsichordist Jory Vinikour enters the conversation, ‘Su la cetra amorosa’ bubbles with effervescent spirits, conveyed unmistakably by Mr. Lemos’s voicing of the piece’s coloratura, which trips along like the play of a mountain stream among pebbles.  Then, when in the final passage the text states that he would sing more sweetly than the most melodic bird, Mr. Lemos achieves this distinction eloquently.  Merulla’s ‘Canzonetta spirituale’ was one of the most popular pieces of its time, and Mr. Lemos’s singing of it leaves no doubt of why it so captivated those who heard it.  Perfectly following every hairpin turn in the song’s rhapsodic progress, Mr. Lemos sings with a stillness that ravishes the ear in this evocative lullaby for the infant Christ.

Both instrumentalists are granted opportunities to display their virtuosity, and they seize these chances with exceptional playing.  Ms. Fox offers a beguiling performance of a Partite by Alessandro Piccinini, the presumed inventor of the instrument of which she proves herself the complete mistress.  Mr. Vinikour’s fingers dazzle with accounts of Bernardo Storace’s ‘Spagnoletta’ and ‘Balletto.’  No less astonishing are the feats of musical brilliance and interpretive integrity that Ms. Fox and Mr. Vinikour bring to their playing in the vocal numbers: they and Mr. Lemos seem to breath in tandem, their collective phrasing so unified as to create the illusion that a single musician is producing all of the sounds heard on Io vidi in terra.

The title track, a setting of one of Petrarch’s best sonnets, is the work of Marco da Gagliano, another forgotten master who was maestro di cappella to the de’ Medici.  The beauty of Mr. Lemos’s singing of the piece is complemented by the simplicity and sincerity of Ms. Fox’s and Mr. Vinikour’s realization of the basso continuo.  Benedetto Ferrari’s ‘Ardo’ is also compellingly sung, Mr. Vinikour’s playing supporting the inner fire that smolders in Mr. Lemos’s singing of the piece.  The transitions between harpsichord and theorbo are managed with particular elegance in ‘Ardo,’ the restlessness conveyed by the harmonies and inventive modulations mined for expressivity by singer and instrumentalists alike.

Girolamo Frescobaldi was far more influential during (and after) his lifetime than his obscurity to 21st-Century audiences suggests.  Regarded by his contemporaries as one of the most important and innovative composers of music for both keyboard and voice, he was greatly esteemed by no less a master than Johann Sebastian Bach.  ‘Così mi disprezzate’ and ‘Se l’aura spira’ are sung by Mr. Lemos with consummate mastery of the idiom, the former benefitting from his command of coloratura.  The latter is built upon a continuo derived from the famed Folia, and the precision of Mr. Lemos’s intonation combines with the playing of his colleagues to highlight the pungent chromatic harmonies.

From its first bars, ‘Si dolce è’l tormento’ reveals that this is the work of the composer of L’Orfeo, Il ritorno d’Ulisse in patria, and L’incoronazione di Poppea at his best.  The unapologetically bittersweet lyricism of the text is given deliciously melancholic life by Monteverdi’s setting, and the understated finesse of Ms. Fox’s accompaniment ideally supports Mr. Lemos’s gorgeously plaintive singing.  Despite its modest proportions, ‘Si dolce è’l tormento’ is cut from the same luxurious fabric as Ottavia’s pained utterances in L’incoronazione di Poppea.  The hushed refulgence of Mr. Lemos’s singing is deeply moving.  ‘Quel sguardo sdegnosetto’ is also attractively sung, its melodic line benefiting enormously from the complete absence of aspirations in Mr. Lemos’s execution of coloratura.  The subtlety of Mr. Vinikour’s playing also contributes significantly to the success of the performance, his restraint in cadences—where many players are tempted to indulge in displays of virtuosity that undermine the integrity of the music—confirming the depth of his artistry.

In times of discord and discontent, it is easy to forget the healing and unifying powers that music can possess and to undervalue the significance of art in the lives of average men.  Many of the recordings released during the past few years have done little to heighten awareness of the capacity of music in its purest form to ease troubled hearts and engage disenfranchised minds, and for better or worse this is an age in which every singer and musician claims the title of ‘artist’ by mere association.  Perhaps true artists are an endangered species, but Io vidi in terra confirms that they are not extinct.  Few corners of the vocal repertory might be thought more distant from 21st-Century sensibilities than the pieces recorded here, but the work of important artists has no expiry date.  While other labels fall over themselves to record lackluster performances of standard repertory, Sono Luminus dig deeper, and in Io vidi in terra they again unearth jewels whose sparkle is undimmed by unfamiliarity.  José Lemos, Jory Vinikour, and Deborah Fox triumph where so many of today’s musicians fail: they create in Io vidi in terra a genuinely distinguished, immensely touching artistic experience and say to the listener, ‘Join us!’


[In the interest of full disclosure, it should be noted that the author contributed liner notes to Io vidi in terra, as well as a new verse translation of Petrarch’s text for the title track.  The author had no artistic or decision-making involvement with the project, however.]

CD REVIEW: ARIAS FOR CAFFARELLI (Franco Fagioli, countertenor; Naïve V 5333)

ARIAS FOR CAFFARELLI - Franco Fagioli, countertenor (Naïve V 5333)

PASQUALE CAFARO (circa 1716 – 1787) JOHANN ADOLF HASSE (1699 – 1783), LEONARDO LEO (1694 – 1744), GENNARO MANNA (1715 – 1779), GIOVANNI BATTISTA PERGOLESI (1710 – 1736), NICOLA ANTONIO PORPORA (1686 – 1768), DOMENICO SARRO (1679 – 1744), and LEONARDO VINCI (1690 – 1730): Arias for Caffarelli—Franco Fagioli, countertenor; Il Pomo d’Oro; Riccardo Minasi [Recorded at the Villa San Fermo, Convento dei Pavoniani, Lonigo, Vicenza, Italy, 25 August – 3 September 2012; Naïve V 5333; 1CD, 78:31; Available from Amazon, fnac, JPC, and all major music retailers]

If contemporary accounts of his demeanor can be trusted, Gaetano Majorano—born in 1710 in Bitonto in the Puglia region of Italy and better known to history as Caffarelli—could have given the most arrogant among the opera singers of the 21st Century pointers on enhancing their self-appreciation.  Unlike many of his 18th-Century rivals, Caffarelli enjoyed a certain level of privilege, his boyhood musical studies financed by the profits of two vineyards devoted to his tuition by his grandmother.  Perhaps most remarkable, especially in comparison with other celebrated castrati who invented elaborate tales of childhood illnesses and unfortunate encounters with unfriendly animals to account for their ‘altered’ states, is the fact that, having been sufficiently impressed by the quality of his puerile voice or convinced thereof by the praise of his tutors, Caffarelli volunteered himself for castration.  It is suggested that his most influential teacher, Porpora, with whom Farinelli also studied, was put off by Caffarelli’s arrogance but regarded him as the most talented of his pupils, reputedly having pronounced the castrato the greatest singer in Europe—a sentiment legitimately expressive of Porpora’s esteem for Caffarelli, perhaps, and surely a fine advertisement for his own services as composer and teacher.  Though none of his music from these operas is included on this disc, Caffarelli created the title rôles in Georg Friedrich Händel’s Faramondo and Serse, and it was likely with Caffarelli’s command of cantilena in mind that Händel composed Serse’s famous ‘Ombra mai fù.’  During the past decade, discs documenting Baroque specialist singers’ tributes to the ‘star’ singers of the 18th Century whose repertories they have reintroduced to the public have been anything but rare, but this bounty has explored little beyond the proverbial tip of the iceberg.  This ardor shaping this disc of arias composed for Caffarelli by composers both famous and forgotten burns so intensely that much of the floe that separates modern listeners from the sparkling days of Caffarelli’s vocal prime is melted, and the source of the heat is the fascinating, flickering voice of Franco Fagioli.

Mr. Fagioli is supported in this venture by an extraordinary musical community.  The disc’s concept is credited to Max Emanuel Cencic, perhaps the only countertenor singing today who can match Mr. Fagioli in bravura technique and timbral warmth, and a portion of the detailed, enjoyably informative liner notes was penned by respected fellow countertenor and teacher Nicholas Clapton.  Even at such an impressive feast, the music is the most tantalizing dish, and the foundation is laid for a wonderful performance by the playing of Il Pomo d’Oro.  Led by their concertmaster, Riccardo Minasi, the instrumentalists of Il Pomo d’Oro produce sounds of consistent beauty, the strings blending with careful balance.  The period woodwinds and horns are especially effective, the players proving masters of their instruments with performances that avoid the astringent sounds and imperfect intonation often heard from period winds.  The continuo is artfully anchored by harpsichordist Yu Yashima, and the theorbo and Baroque guitar playing by Simone Vallerotonda and Ivano Zanenghi is wonderfully imaginative.  It is obvious that Maestro Minasi has spent a great deal of time acquainting himself with the selections on this disc, as well as communicating with Mr. Fagioli about finer points of interpretation.  An atmosphere of close cooperation permeates this disc, a welcome suggestion of days past, when even the most famous musicians took advantage of collaborations to learn from one another and deepen their understanding of the music before them.  Recorded in a natural acoustic, the most intricate details of the music are audible, fully disclosing the insightfulness of the music-making from Mr. Fagioli, Maestro Minasi, and Il Pomo d’Oro.

Born in Argentina, Mr. Fagioli’s ascent to the zenith of his profession has been meteoric, and his gifts merit no less.  Just as it was to the career of Caffarelli, the music of Händel has been of great importance to the establishment of Mr. Fagioli as one of the most important countertenors singing today.  It was his singing of ‘Cara sposa’ from Händel’s Rinaldo that secured his victory in the 2003 NEUE STIMMEN International Singing Competition, a portion of his prize for which was the opportunity to record for the Bertelsmann Group—a sponsor of the Competition—a disc of Händel and Mozart arias.  That disc was an apt introduction to Mr. Fagioli’s smooth, seductive voice, which has taken on an even greater palette of colors since the time of that recording.  Arias for Caffarelli reveals an extraordinary voice that, despite the youth of its owner, is already in its prime, the slightly dark natural timbre blooming into a well-supported, platinum-hued upper register.  Like the castrati of the 17th and 18th Centuries, Mr. Fagioli seemingly possesses untold resources of breath control, and his faculty for sustaining expansive passages, whether those of broad cantilena or bravura runs, is stunning.  The programme for this disc was intelligently selected, the diverse styles of the music providing Mr. Fagioli with occasions to display each of the finest aspects of his artistry in turn.

The opening selections—‘Fra l’orror della tempesta’ and ‘Ebbi da te la vita’ from Hasse’s Siroe—launch the disc excitingly, displaying both Mr. Fagioli’s skills in rapid-fire coloratura and his way of finessing lines at slower tempi.  Though he is one of the more famous composers featured on Arias for Caffarelli, Hasse’s music remains far too little explored.  ‘Fra l’orror della tempesta,’ a spirited simile aria that tests the brass players almost as sorely as the singer, draws from Mr. Fagioli a rollicking performance of near-perfect bravura technique and offers the first outing of the genuine trill that serves him so well throughout the selections on this disc.  ‘Ebbi da te la vita,’ a more introverted piece that would not sound out of place in any of Haydn’s mature operas, is sung very beautifully by Mr. Fagioli, the melodic line expanding attractively from its start in the most gorgeous part of Mr. Fagioli’s voice.  The ‘halting’ effects in the melodic line are put to unmistakable dramatic use by the singer, and his modest embellishment of the da capo repeat is unfailingly musical.

The ambiguous sagas of Semiramis, the legendary queen of Assyria, have inspired composers virtually since the infancy of opera.  Though Rossini’s Semiramide is the complex lady’s operatic incarnation that is most familiar to 21st-Century audiences, Pietro Metastasio’s 1729 libretto Semiramide riconosciuta and Voltaire’s 1748 drama Sémiramis wielded enormous influence over composers of Baroque opera.  Porpora was the first composer to set Metastasio’s libretto, and Mr. Fagioli’s performance of ‘Passaggier che sulla sponda’ from Porpora’s Semiramide riconosciuta discloses in the composer’s music a compositional style clearly influenced by Corelli and Vivaldi.  The security with which Mr. Fagioli spans the aria’s wide intervals is splendid, his descents into his chest voice ringing and stylish.  The B section gives him little with which to work, but he spins out haunting sounds to conjure an environment of uncertainty that he resolves with his exuberant singing of the da capo.  Vinci’s Semiramide riconosciuta is even less remembered than Porpora’s setting of the text, which received a concert performance at Beaune in 2011, but the aria ‘In braccio a mille furie,’ a stirring number with trumpets and timpani, is thrillingly sung here.  The accuracy of Mr. Fagioli’s placement of tones in high-lying coloratura passages is formidable, and his fiery singing in the B section is brilliant.  There is a cadenza in the da capo in which Mr. Fagioli’s extravagant ornamentation is too much of a good thing, perfectly executed though it is, but his performance of the aria is unforgettable.

‘Misero pargoletto’ from Leo’s Demofoonte is a time-suspending, slightly exotic aria that breathes the same air as the slow movements of Pergolesi’s Stabat mater.  Mr. Fagioli phrases the aria with the breath control of a great bel canto singer, ascending into his upper register with particular radiance.  There are occasional vowel sounds that sound strangely disconnected from the rest of the voice, almost as though they were recorded in a different acoustic, but this detracts little from the sumptuous evenness of Mr. Fagioli’s registers.  The aria ‘Sperai vicino il lido’ from the same opera is one of the most enjoyable pieces on the disc, its opening ritornello and subtle melodic line evoking the early operas of Gluck contrasting effectively with the subsequent explosions of coloratura in the up-tempo sections.  This aria gives Mr. Fagioli ample opportunities to use his upper register to expressive effect, and the results that he achieves are fantastic.  Here, too, the final cadenza would have been better had it been slightly less florid, the roulades in Leo’s score having already proved the unquestionable supremacy of Mr. Fagioli’s technique, but the owner of such a voice can hardly be faulted for showing it off.

The plaintive, evocatively chromatic melody for oboe that begins ‘Lieto così talvolta’ from Pergolesi’s Adriano in Siria is arresting, and the limpidness of Mr. Fagioli’s singing of the aria’s primary theme is truly exquisite.  The simplicity of the melodic line, even when it is disturbed by the trills that Pergolesi deployed too frequently, exhibits the composer’s gifts for making much of modest resources.  Isolated high notes are produced with startling ease: a casual listener might well mistake the tones for those of a very gifted lyric soprano.  This is a long aria, but one that, like ‘He was despised’ in Händel’s Messiah, benefits from a slow tempo.  Mr. Fagioli and Maestro Minasi adopt a speed that perfectly matches the moods of the text and the music, and Mr. Fagioli’s sustained singing is awesome.  ‘Rendimi più sereno’ from Cafaro’s L’Ipermestra is also an expansive aria of great lyric stillness.  Mr. Fagioli’s delivery of the ascending strings of trills is extraordinary, and the serene poise with which he sustains tones high in the voice is mesmerizing.  Mr. Fagioli’s voice takes on a silvery sheen in the upper range, where the voices of most countertenors falter, and he complements this vocal strength with singing that ideally reflects the colors of texts.  This is also apparent in his singing of ‘Un cor che ben ama’ from Sarro’s Valdemaro, a veritable contest of wills with the [marvelously-played] trumpet.  Mr. Fagioli and the trumpeter let rip unrestrainedly, each musician matching the other with unfettered virtuosity.

‘Cara ti lascio, addio’ from Manna’s Lucio Vero ossia il vologeso begins with one of the long-sustained tones for which castrati were celebrated, delivered by Mr. Fagioli with inarguable firmness and beauty.  The bravura pieces on this disc are incandescent examples of a great singer at the height of his powers, but the slow arias offer glimpses of the soul of Mr. Fagioli’s artistry, and at least in the context of his insightful musicality it is obvious that he is an artist who feels very deeply.  Mr. Fagioli brings Arias for Caffarelli to a pulse-quickening close with his performance of ‘Odo il suono di tromba guerriera’ from Manna’s Lucio Papiro dittatore, a piece in which the ‘martial trumpet’ sets the pace for a barnstorming display of technique and the detonation of a series of top notes that amaze.  Even in this almost ridiculously difficult music, Mr. Fagioli’s performance transcends shallow display, his manner of singing reminding the listener that, as poets and philosophers have suggested, music expresses things at which words can but hint.

The most detailed contemporary descriptions of the voice of Caffarelli enable only an imperfect notion of how this unique singer must have sounded in performances of the music composed for him.  The combination of a bravura technique second to none with the range and purity of a boy’s voice and the lung capacity of a mature man is virtually unfathomable, especially for listeners whose musical experiences have been formed by exposure to the performance practices of the 20th Century.  Not so long ago, it was thought that the best method of recreating the voice of Farinelli, Caffarelli’s most celebrated rival, for the cinema was to electronically blend the voices of a countertenor and a female soprano.  The resulting sound was decidedly odd but intriguing.  Today, there are countertenors who seek to sing the music composed for higher-voiced castrati like Caffarelli and Farinelli at the original pitches and with something like the resounding glory for which these singers were renowned.  Perhaps, in actuality, the voice of Franco Fagioli sounds nothing like that of Caffarelli.  If, however, his illustrious predecessor sang the music on Arias for Caffarelli more shrewdly, tastefully, blazingly, and entrancingly than Franco Fagioli sings on this disc, he can hardly have been mortal.

Caffarelli [Etching in the collection of the the Royal College of Music, London] Caffarelli [Uncredited etching in the collection of the Royal College of Music]

16 September 2013

CD REVIEW: Richard Wagner – TRISTAN UND ISOLDE (T. Kerl, A. Kampe, S. Connolly, G. Zeppenfeld, A. Dobber; Glyndebourne GFOCD 019-09)

Richard Wagner: TRISTAN UND ISOLDE (Glyndebourne GFOCD 019-09)

RICHARD WAGNER (1813 – 1883): Tristan und Isolde—T. Kerl (Tristan), A. Kampe (Isolde), S. Connolly (Brangäne), G. Zeppenfeld (König Marke), A. Dobber (Kurwenal), T. Scheunemann (Melot), P. Gijsbertsen (Ein junger Seemann), A. Kennedy (Ein Hirt), R. Mosley-Evans (Ein Steuermann); The Glyndebourne Chorus; London Philharmonic Orchestra; Vladimir Jurowski [Recorded ‘live’ at Glyndebourne Opera House, Lewes, England, during performances in August 2009; Glyndebourne GFOCD 019-09; 3CD, 3:47:09; Available from Amazon, the Glyndebourne Shop, iTunes, and all major music retailers]

One of the rarest commodities in opera in the Twenty-First Century is self-cognizance, a quality as important for opera companies as for individual singers.  In an economic environment that has presented even the largest, most financially-solvent companies with tremendous challenges, too many companies have gambled on productions or whole seasons that mistook individual ambitions for legitimate artistic integrity, risking alienating dedicated audiences as standing endowments dwindled or were raided to produce temporary stability.  One of the most thrilling aspects of opera is the unexpected triumph of confounded expectations, however, and this recording of Tristan und Isolde is a product of one of the most successful operatic experiments of the past decade.  Many eyebrows were arched in doubt when it was announced that Glyndebourne’s 2003 season would feature the company’s first staging of a Wagner opera.  From the days of its founding, when Fritz Busch presided over Mozart productions that set new standards both for stylish singing and interpretations on an appropriate scale, Glyndebourne has been the foremost example of a company that understands its limitations and plans its seasons accordingly: risks have been taken, to be sure, but never without the potential consequences having been carefully assessed.  To stage a Wagner opera is a mammoth undertaking, and even companies with greater resources of space and funding than Glyndebourne have begrudgingly left the Bard of Bayreuth’s scores to larger houses.  What many performances during the past half-century have obscured is the fact that, despite their large orchestras and larger-than-life characters, Wagner’s operas are, in their purest forms, very intimate.  The passions of Tristan und Isolde are intensely personal, and performing the opera in a venue like Glyndebourne offers a rare opportunity to genuinely sing the opera on a scale that allows the emotions to simmer as the composer intended rather than shouting it to the last row of the highest balcony.  Like Fritz Busch’s Mozart performances and Vittorio Gui’s bel canto outings, Glyndebourne’s Tristan und Isolde proved a credit to the company and to Wagner, and this recording proves an important addition to the opera’s discography and a worthy celebration of the Wagner Bicentennial.

Any performance of Tristan und Isolde depends heavily upon the efforts of the orchestra and conductor, and this recording benefits enormously from the playing of the London Philharmonic Orchestra and the conducting of Vladimir Jurowski.  Impressive, too, are the singers of the Glyndebourne Chorus, who produce wonderfully blended tone that is audibly shaped by the rich British tradition of choral singing but is never restricted by it.  Unquestionably one of the world’s foremost orchestras, the London Philharmonic have nonetheless never sounded better on records than in this performance.  The balance of the string playing is exceptional, and the woodwinds are beautifully recorded.  The harp, gloriously played by Helen Sharp, has greater prominence in the recorded balance than it often has in the opera house, and this contributes to the intimacy of the performance.  Under Maestro Jurowski’s baton, the orchestral playing is responsive to the demands of each scene.  The tension achieved in the moments before the Love Duet in Act Two is phenomenal and lends the subsequent duet a palpable erotic charge, and both the orchestra’s playing and the clarity with which it is recorded support the singer to render Isolde’s Liebestod a breathtaking catharsis.  The ‘Tristan chord’ that resounded through European musical circles like a volcanic eruption here sounds newly-minted.  Maestro Jurowski is one of today’s unsung heroes of opera: while the conductors favored with contracts with major record labels do combat with largely indifferent, uninspired performances, Maestro Jurowski quietly graces the world’s opera houses and concert halls with superbly uncluttered performances of the operas of Wagner and Richard Strauss.  In this performance of Tristan und Isolde, Maestro Jurowski focuses on realizing every musical and dramatic goal of Wagner’s score rather than seeking cheap effects or imposing qualities that seek to make the performance ‘his.’  Allowing the opera to reveal its power on its own terms is an approach that is virtually unique to Maestro Jurowski, however, and the emotional directness of the performance confirms how much more skill is required to conduct an opera like Tristan und Isolde idiomatically rather than idiosyncratically.

It is widely acknowledged that the principal rôles in Tristan und Isolde are extremely difficult to cast under the best of circumstances, but how many performances are marred by poor showings in supporting rôles!  Consistently strong casting of secondary parts is one of the glories of Glyndebourne, and the cumulative impact of this performance is enhanced by the excellent singing of the artists to whom supporting rôles are entrusted.  Vocally, the performance could hardly be launched more impressively than by the poised singing of the Shepherd of tenor Peter Gijsbertsen.  Mr. Gijsbertsen’s rôle is not large, but he sings appealingly in a part that can sink a performance of Tristan und Isolde before the vessel is out of the harbor when it is sung unimpressively.  Equally impressive is Andrew Kennedy’s Sailor, the plangent sound of Mr. Kennedy’s beautiful tenor allied with a Lieder singer’s formidable command of text.  Richard Mosley-Evans contributes strongly to Act Three as the Steersman, his exchanges with Kurwenal heightening the drama.  The Melot of Trevor Scheunemann, a wonderful singer too little represented on disc, is also a strong, bracingly masculine performance, the character’s duplicity convincingly portrayed without overwrought villainy: for once, it is possible to regard Melot as a viable rival for Isolde’s affection—in his own esteem, at least—rather than merely a jealous, petulant hothead.

Kurwenal is one of Wagner’s most ambiguous characters: central to the drama, he has some fine music but makes little impression in many performances.  Baritone Andrzej Dobber’s singing ensures that this is not the case in this performance.  Mr. Dobber finds in Kurwenal a virtually ideal rôle for his robust, slightly blunt voice, and he fully explores every dramatic opportunity offered by the music.  Despite the tough, sinewy quality of the voice, there is a certain measure of tenderness in this Kurwenal’s interactions with Tristan, as well as an audible sense of mystery that increases the rôle’s dramatic profile.  Mr. Dobber discloses a straightforward way with the text that is effective both on a broad scale and in small details.  If Mr. Dobber is a somewhat unlikely Wagnerian, he is in this performance a very successful one: it would be interesting to hear him as Klingsor in Parsifal in a venue like Glyndebourne, where he could sing the part without the need for forcing the voice.

Wagner lavished some of his best music for the bass voice on König Marke.  In a sense, Marke is like Gurnemanz but with considerably less to say: he is the moral axis upon which the drama turns, and it is his disappointment—he is too noble for anger—and magnanimity that expand the opera’s tragedy from a personal to a communal one.  Most of the accomplished Wagnerian basses of the past century have recorded Marke, and Georg Zeppenfeld joins their ranks with a memorable performance in this recording.  Mr. Zeppenfeld’s voice is one of the few heard in recent seasons that is equal to the demands of his rôle, and his singing is this performance is often masterful.  Not surprisingly, his diction is superb, but his phrasing is occasionally awkward.  The ease with which Mr. Zeppenfeld descends into his lower register is impressive, however, and the dignity with which he delivers Marke’s lines, completing avoiding any histrionic excesses, is touching and adds meaningfully to the understated eloquence of the performance.

In a large house like Covent Garden or the Metropolitan Opera, Sarah Connolly might struggle to be heard in some of Brangäne’s more extroverted moments, not least her outburst after Isolde’s Narration and Curse, when she is asked to soar to her top A over the full power of the orchestra.  Heard in the warm acoustic of Glyndebourne, her performance is little short of perfect, and her voice takes to Glyndebourne’s microphones winningly, sounding fresh and sparklingly beautiful in all registers.  All of the qualities that make a Brangäne unforgettable—insightful use of text, idiomatic phrasing, a warmly feminine timbre, audible concern for her mistress—are evident in Ms. Connolly’s singing throughout the performance.  Ms. Connolly does not possess the vocal amplitude of Christa Ludwig, but she shares Ludwig’s intelligence for adapting her voice to the demands of the music at hand and the space in which she is singing.  So affectionate and obviously prophetic are her exchanges with Isolde in Act One that the title princess seems more than usually ungrateful in ignoring Brangäne’s entreaties.  Ms. Connolly’s singing is so alert to emotional nuances that her hands can practically be heard shaking as she prepares the fateful love potion.  The great test of any Brangäne is her Watch in Act Two, and in this performance Ms. Connolly rises to the occasion with the unstinting radiance of a great singing actress.  Only lovers in the throes of an insurmountable passion could be oblivious to this Brangäne’s baleful warnings, and the terror in Ms. Connolly’s voice as she foretells Melot’s treachery is gripping.  The love with which this Brangäne addresses her mistress in Act Three is very moving.  Ms. Connolly has total command of her voice and knows precisely what she can do with it, and she provides as complete a performance of Brangäne as has ever been recorded, and the fact that she accomplishes this level of Wagner singing with a voice that is no less stylish in the music of Händel is remarkable.  More than in almost any other performance in recent years, one longs to know what becomes of Brangäne after her mistress’s death.  How many Brangänes inspire this sort of sympathy?

During the past decade, tenor Torsten Kerl has been gradually taking on heavier repertory, his Florestan in Beethoven’s Fidelio having been admired at Glyndebourne and his Kaiser in Strauss’s Die Frau ohne Schatten winning praise in a concert performance at Amsterdam’s Concertgebouw and scheduled to be heard at the Metropolitan Opera during the 2013 – 2014 Season.  Tristan is not a rôle than even a prodigiously-gifted tenor can afford to assume on a whim, and Mr. Kerl has generally exhibited a caution in pacing his career that suggests that he did not take on Tristan without feeling that the time was right.  In this performance, all of the strengths and weaknesses of Mr. Kerl’s singing at its best are in evidence.  Contrasting with the nasality of the timbre is Mr. Kerl’s reliable security in the upper register, something lacking in many Tristans.  In Act One, Mr. Kerl is attractively boyish, conversing with Isolde with deepening interest.  The brightness of the upper voice is telling in Act Two’s Love Duet, Mr. Kerl’s sensual exchanges with Isolde pouring out like molten silver.  Mr. Kerl’s vocal security permits close attention to the text, his efforts at poetic phrasing reaching fruition in an exceptionally nuanced, beautifully-voiced account of Tristan’s death scene.  The way in which Mr. Kerl’s Tristan reverts to the boyish wonder of Act One as he reacts to the sighting of Isolde’s ship in Act Three is sublime.  Many good Tristans are upset by the challenging tessitura of the death scene, but Mr. Kerl maintains excellent mastery of line even as the voice comes under attack by the vocal range.  He does not manage his generally wonderful performance without forcing the voice, but Mr. Kerl emerges with far fewer vocal wounds than many Tristans.

In addition to being one of the world’s reigning Sieglindes in performances of Wagner’s Die Walküre, a rôle that she recorded to acclaim with Valery Gergiev, Anja Kampe was lauded opposite Mr. Kerl as Leonore in Glyndebourne’s production of Beethoven’s Fidelio, also available on CD.  In the era in which Kirsten Flagstad sang Sieglinde and Leonore, these rôles might have been thought apt training grounds for Isolde, but subsequent generations have suggested otherwise.  In recent years, singers who have excelled in all three rôles have been woefully few, and one of the best of them—Waltraud Meier—is a mezzo-soprano!  Like Ms. Connolly’s Brangäne, Ms. Kampe’s Isolde would be sorely tested in larger houses, but at Glyndebourne she finds an ideal setting for what proves to be a marvelous conception of the rôle.  It must be said from the start that Ms. Kampe’s voice is not an ideal Isolde instrument, at least not along traditional lines: the timbre is more penetrating than truly beautiful, and the upper register can be raucous, especially when under pressure.  Wisely, Ms. Kampe does not linger over the highest notes in this performance—which, of course, is what Wagner intended, as none of the famously exposed top notes is long sustained in the score.  In the Narration and Curse in Act One, there is crushing sadness as Isolde sings of the death of her betrothed, Morold, and her indignation builds to a blazing climax as she contemplates Tristan’s escape from justice.  No other Isolde on records leans quite so strongly into the text as Ms. Kampe does in her singing of the line, ‘ich ließ es fallen’ (‘I let it [the sword that she held ready to punish Tristan] fall’), elucidating her shame and self-reproach for having failed to take vengeance on Tristan when he lay incapacitated at her feet.  Ms. Kampe’s singing of the Curse is powerful but also tinged by sorrow: these are more ambiguous sentiments than Martha Mödl’s all-consuming anger or Astrid Varnay’s wounded pride.  The high notes do not come without effort, but they come without fail.  It is all the more surprising, then, that the fearsome pair of top Cs in the Love Duet are brilliantly delivered.  Ms. Kampe’s Isolde and Ms. Connolly’s Brangäne seem more like sisters than mistress and servant, a Wagnerian Norma and Adalgisa, and there is less haughtiness in Ms. Kampe’s Isolde than in many performances of the part.  The refulgence of Ms. Kampe’s singing in the Love Duet is magnificent, and she and Mr. Kerl seem to be the rare Tristan and Isolde who are listening to rather than merely singing at one another.  In Act Three, as Isolde’s disbelief and fear are transformed into acceptance and realization of purpose, Ms. Kampe’s voice takes on a perceptible brightness: drained of the darker colorations of regret and uncertainty, the voice moves through the mounting rapture of the Liebestod with golden tone.  A small miscue in the Liebestod is remedied by Ms. Kampe’s admirable breath control, and if her final high F-sharp does not conform to Wagner’s pianissimo marking it certainly conveys the transcendence of terrestrial pain.  Many latter-day Isoldes either act or sing the part compellingly: few singers achieve both distinctions.  Like Hildegard Behrens, Ms. Kampe does not possess a voice of the proportions traditionally associated with Isolde’s music, but traditions do not sing Isolde.  Ms. Kampe is not a conventional, Hochdramatische Isolde: rather, in ways that elude so many sopranos, even those with gigantic voices, she is Wagner’s Isolde.

It should surprise no one that, having taken on a project, Glyndebourne devoted the full measure of their resources to seeing that project realized with the extraordinarily high level of achievement typical of the company throughout its history.  A decade ago, many opera lovers questioned why Glyndebourne would grapple with the operas of Richard Wagner: this recording cancels any doubts about the suitability of the venue for Wagner performances.  As with the music of any composer, the most critical element of performing Wagner’s operas successfully is giving the music its due.  The orchestras are large, the dramas are made of such stuff as the annihilation of humanity, and the demands made of the singers are formidable, but the operas of Wagner do not require multi-million-dollar productions in halls that seat thousands: they need the attention of musicians who love them, understand them, and give them the best of their artistry, and Glyndebourne’s recording of their 2009 revival of Tristan und Isolde preserves an occasion on which all of those needs were fulfilled.  This is a Tristan und Isolde with which the Wagnerian will need no potion in order to fall in love.

13 September 2013

CD REVIEW: Benjamin Britten – PETER GRIMES (A. Oke, G. Allen, D. Kempster, G. Keeble; Signum Classics SIGCD348)

Benjamin Britten: PETER GRIMES (Signum Classics SIGCD348)

BENJAMIN BRITTEN (1913 – 1976): Peter Grimes, Op. 33—A. Oke (Peter Grimes), G. Allen (Ellen Orford), D. Kempster (Captain Balstrode), G. Keeble (Auntie), A. Hutton (First Niece), C. Bedford (Second Niece), R. Murray (Bob Boles), H. Waddington (Swallow), C. Wyn-Rogers (Mrs. Sedley), C. Gillett (Rev. Horace Adams), C. Rice (Ned Keene), S. Richardson (Hobson); Chorus of Opera North, Chorus of the Guildhall Scholl of Music and Drama; Britten-Pears Orchestra; Steuart Bedford [Recorded ‘live’ during concert performances at Snape Maltings Concert Hall, Aldeburgh, England, on 7 and 9 June 2013, in conjunction with the 66th Aldeburgh Festival; Signum Classics SIGCD348; 2CD, 137:19; Available from Amazon and major music retailers]

It is a remarkable thing that opera singers are paid—some of them quite handsomely—to pursue an art that, in its essence, is one of being transformed by the power of imagination, something that comes quite naturally to children but eludes many adults.  The distinctions between reality and imagination, truth and perception, intention and actuality, innocence and experience are at the core of Peter Grimes.  In Book XXI of The Borough, George Crabbe wrote of the character who would be metamorphosed by Benjamin Britten and librettist Montagu Slater into Peter Grimes that ‘he meant no harm, nor did he often mean.’  It is this question of intent that lends Peter Grimes its fascinating theatricality and emotional power: are there genuinely unsavory elements of character at work in Grimes’s dealings with his prepubescent apprentices or is he made a scapegoat for legitimate accidents by a society that rejects and fails to understand him?  Part of the attraction of Peter Grimes is that there are no easy answers, and each production of the opera must make its own choices about the extent to which the title character is culpable, whether by malevolence or negligence, for the misfortunes that surround him.  With only the audible clues of interpretation, recordings leave these choices to the listener, and this new recording from Signum Classics—recorded in concert in the venue that is Britten’s Bayreuth—offers intriguing opportunities for experiencing Peter Grimes both within the context of all the best traditions of British opera and with the heightened zeal lent to the performance by celebration of the centennial of its composer’s birth.

A performance of any of Britten’s operas could scarcely be in better hands than those of Steuart Bedford, who conducted the 1973 première of Death in Venice and the subsequent DECCA recording of the opera.  Serving for more than a dozen years as an Artistic Director of the Aldeburgh Festival, founded in 1948 by Lord Britten, Sir Peter Pears, and Eric Crozier, Maestro Bedford has proved far more significant than a mere ‘disciple’ of Britten: his level-headed approach to the composer’s music, addressing the scores’ musical demands rather than unnecessarily dividing his attention between music and particulars of dramatic interpretations, has revealed that Britten’s operas deserve places of prominence in the modern repertory solely on the grounds of their exceptional music.  The way in which Maestro Bedford conducts Peter Grimes in this recording, drawn from two performances, is enlightening, the firm rhythmic handling of the score shaping a coherent account of the opera in which the Passacaglia and the Sea Interludes—those remarkable inspirations via which even people who do not frequent the opera house are acquainted with Peter Grimes—are organic parts of the opera’s dramatic progression rather than orchestral showpieces that mask scene changes.  Maestro Bedford imposes no interpretive ‘ticks’ on the music, but his affection for the score and its protagonist is always apparent.  Likewise, the complete devotion of the musicians over whom Maestro Bedford presides is audible.  The choristers of both Opera North and the Guildhall School sing with great musicality and nuance that heightens the sense of the chorus forming a community against whose antagonism Grimes has at best a limited capacity for success.  It is not surprising that an ensemble called the Britten-Pears Orchestra should display a natural affinity for Britten’s music, but the performance benefits enormously from the sharply-defined balance and unflinching technical skill of the Orchestra’s playing, which is not on the level of any of the great professional orchestras but is nonetheless very impressive.

There is no greater tribute to Britten’s genius than the skill with which he managed, in the duration of an opera of two hours and twenty minutes, to populate the world of Peter Grimes with portraits of minor characters of which a great novelist would be proud.  The opera begins with the townspeople’s inquest into the death of Grimes’s most recent apprentice, and the singing of this performance’s Hobson and Swallow, basses Stephen Richardson and Henry Waddington, suggests that Britain remains in the second decade of the 21st Century a bastion of fine lower-voiced male singing.  The part of Swallow was originated by the legendary Owen Brannigan, and Mr. Waddington proves an apt successor in the rôle.  The stinging impersonality of his questioning of Grimes conveys precisely the air of contempt that is necessary to building the tension that leads to the opera’s ambiguous conclusion.  Tenors Robert Murray and Christopher Gillett are also effective as Bob Boles and the Reverend Horace Adams.  Mr. Murray is a delightfully sleazy drunkard, and there is an oily suggestiveness in Mr. Gillett’s delivery in the church service that is chilling.  Sopranos Alexandra Hutton and Charmian Bedford exude duplicity as the Nieces, charmingly described as the ‘main attractions’ of their Aunt’s establishment.  The Auntie of mezzo-soprano Gaynor Keeble is obviously weary of both the world and the lying, cheating men who inhabit it and is none too shy in expressing her thoughts.  Mrs. Sedley is the epitome of the ubiquitous busy-body who meddles in the affairs of every community, though admittedly most busy-bodies do not stoop to accusing their neighbors of murder: of course, few scandalmongers sing as vibrantly as Catherine Wyn-Rogers, and the unmitigated glee with which she rouses the mob that pursues Grimes unmistakably drives home Britten’s depiction of the viciousness of society.

It is Ned Keene who selects for Grimes an apprentice among the boys at the workhouse, and he also witnesses the brutality with which Grimes responds to Ellen when she confronts him about his apprentice’s bruise.  Baritone Charles Rice brings a convincing notion of Keene’s conflicting emotions to his performance.  Even a stiff-upper-lipped bloke like Keene cannot have failed to feel some measure of responsibility for the fate of the young apprentice regardless of the depth of his suspicion about Grimes’s involvement, and Mr. Rice conveys this uncertainty compellingly.  Vocally, Mr. Rice sings with ringing masculinity.  Captain Balstrode makes the sad discovery of the apprentice’s jersey, which has washed ashore after Grimes returns from several days at sea: after finding the jersey, Balstrode realizes that, whatever Grimes has or has not done, escaping the Borough’s persecution is no longer possible.  Baritone David Kempster sings Balstrode with concerned resignation, his discomfort at the situation in which he finds himself suppressed but palpable.  Mr. Kempster sings strongly, his suggestion of Grimes’s self-sacrifice powerful but not without sadness, and the occasional rough patches in his singing do not seem inappropriate for a man more used to the sea than to the perhaps even more tempestuous tides of on-shore humanity.

Ellen Orford is one of the most enigmatic heroines in opera.  Like Verdi’s Desdemona, Ellen’s life is altered forever by her compassion for a man who does not conform to their society.  Also like Desdemona, Ellen understands that the social mores of the Borough are as peculiar to Grimes as he seems to his neighbors.  What Britten leaves largely to the listener’s imagination is whether, like Desdemona’s pity for Otello, Ellen’s affection for Grimes blossoms into romantic love.  Grimes entertains thoughts of wedding Ellen, of course, but it is never made clear whether their marriage would be one of convenience and mutually-beneficial companionship or genuine connubial bliss.  Interestingly, one of the most acclaimed portraits by soprano Joan Cross in her pre-World War II seasons at Covent Garden was her Desdemona: having taken the helm of Sadler’s Wells Opera during the War, Cross reopened the Company’s London base of operations in 1945 by creating the rôle of Ellen in the première in Peter Grimes.  Belfast-born soprano Giselle Allen shares with Cross an apparent affinity for singing Britten’s music.  In this performance, Ms. Allen proves a committed Ellen.  Her tone is substantial but not always steady as the lines ascend into her upper register, undermining the purity that Ellen must have if she is to be wholly credible.  An effective Ellen need not sound aristocratic in order to convey her nobility of spirit, but Ms. Allen’s Ellen ultimately sounds less like a virginal lady grasping at what may well be her final opportunity for securing a partner for her dotage and more of a somewhat desperate, slightly common woman in pursuit of a man within her reach.  This is not to suggest that Ms. Allen vocalizes poorly: in fact, her account of Ellen’s music is superior to many performances of the rôle, but her singing lacks the histrionic authority of Cross, the simplicity of Claire Watson, the warm femininity of Heather Harper, and the sheer tonal beauty of Dame Felicity Lott.

The title rôle in Peter Grimes was conceived for and created by Britten’s partner, Sir Peter Pears.  The impact of Pears in the part is likely only partially conveyed by the DECCA studio recording of the opera, taped thirteen years after its première, but excerpts from the opera recorded by Cross and Pears shortly after the première disclose a sappier timbre than was heard in the most active years of his international career.  Pears’s voice was an instrument with a singular array of qualities, foremost among which was the pointed leanness of the tone.  It has been unkindly but not unjustifiably suggested that few singers have made more important careers with less vocal capital than Pears managed to do, and it cannot be denied that Britten understood the capabilities of Pears’s voice and wrote music that maximized the impact of his singing.  As an interpreter of his partner’s music, Pears was unchallenged in his lifetime, and he responded to the formidable challenges laid before him in Britten’s operas with singing of fluidity and astonishing emotional depth.  Alan Oke’s singing in this performance often sounds uncannily like Pears’s during the last decade of his career.  This inevitably implies a degree of vocal fragility, and though Mr. Oke’s intonation is generally secure the voice is threadbare and subject to wobbling, especially in moments of greatest stress on high.  Mr. Oke’s singing of ‘Now the Great Bear and Pleiades,’ the opera’s most famous vocal selection, is expressive and broadly-phrased, but the actual singing is small-scaled and lacking in the rapt intensity that Pears brought to the passage, to say nothing of Jon Vickers’s snarling largesse.  Mr. Oke is far more successful at expressing Grimes’s private anguish than at giving voice to his public rages.  Both poetry and tragedy are present in Mr. Oke’s singing, particularly in the final act, but this Grimes’s suffering is of a generalized sort.  Mr. Oke is a competent, even eloquent Grimes but, unfortunately, never an overwhelming one.

Virgil Thomson wrote in New York’s Herald Tribune on the occasion of the 1948 Metropolitan Opera première of Peter Grimes that the opera is ‘varied, interesting, and solidly put together.’  After its first run in the 1948 – 1949 season, Peter Grimes was absent from the MET stage until 1967, when Sir Colin Davis conducted a new production by Tyrone Guthrie that both changed New Yorkers’ reception of the opera from appreciation to outright affection and introduced audiences to the roaring, self-righteous Grimes of Jon Vickers.  In recent seasons, Anthony Dean Griffey has offered an uncommonly alluring Grimes who fuses Pears’s sensitivity with a bit of Vickers’s tonal rotundity.  Alan Oke adheres more obviously to the British tradition of Pears, Langridge, and Rolfe Johnson, but he strives admirably to make the rôle his own.  That his success is only partial is regrettable considering that the supporting cast form such a formidable body of oppressive townsfolk.  In a sense, it is this unbalance that robs the performance of the emotional weight that Peter Grimes can carry: with an Ellen who seems more pragmatic than idealistic and a Grimes who does not stand a chance against his neighbors, the listener’s sympathies are not sufficiently engaged for the tragedy to make its full effect.  There can be a sickening cruelty in the town’s going on without pause or second thought after Grimes’s disappearance, but here it seems merely inexorable.  This is an enjoyably musical performance, brilliantly conducted and often finely sung, but one that deals too much with events and too little with consequences.  Varied, interesting, and solidly put together it is: a Peter Grimes for the ages it is not.