30 October 2013

CD REVIEW: TOCCATAS – Modern American Music for Harpsichord (Jory Vinikour, harpsichord; Sono Luminus DSL-92174)

TOCCATAS - Modern American Music for Harpsichord (Sono Luminus DSL-92174) SAMUEL ADLER (b. 1928), THOMAS BENJAMIN (b. 1940), STEPHEN BLUMBERG (b. 1962), HENRY COWELL (1897 – 1965), HAROLD MELTZER (b. 1966), PATRICIA MOREHEAD (b. 1940), ROBERT MOEVS (1920 – 2007), ROBERT MUCZYNSKI (1929 – 2010), MEL POWELL (1923 – 1998), and NED ROREM (b. 1923): Toccatas – Modern American Music for Harpsichord—Jory Vinikour, harpsichord [Recorded at Sono Luminus, Boyce, Virginia, 11 – 14 February 2013; Sono Luminus DSL-92174; 1CD + Blu-ray, 61:41; Available from Amazon, directly from Sono Luminus, and from major music retailers]

The catalyst that spurs innovation in most contemporary business methodologies is the element of discovery, and the same quality proves to be the impetus for many of the most meaningful musical experiences.  A great artist can of course lend enchantment and novelty to even the most hackneyed music, but the most memorable experiences in a music lover’s life are those rare intersections of great artists with music that demands the full deployment of their talents.  Toccatas is just such an experience: a recording of 20th- and 21st-Century music for harpsichord by American composers, this disc—another triumph of recording technology from Sono Luminus—reveals every shimmering facet of harpsichordist Jory Vinikour’s formidable technique, which is already familiar to listeners who appreciate the more frequently-encountered Baroque repertory with which the harpsichord is associated.  That any release featuring Mr. Vinikour will preserve superb musicianship is a foregone conclusion, but playing of the quality heard on Toccatas is not to be taken for granted.  Likewise, it is no surprise that Mr. Vinikour transforms the harpsichord into an instrument capable of flights of rhapsodic expressivity as impressive as the daunting feats of virtuosity that are its more typical fare.  What may well surprise many listeners is that the harpsichord has retained, not least because of the advocacy of artists of the caliber of Mr. Vinikour, to whom three of the selections recorded here are dedicated, an important presence in contemporary composers’ work for the concert hall.  Spanning nearly six decades of contemporary American music for the harpsichord, Toccatas exemplifies the harpsichord’s status not as a relic of a distant past but as a fascinatingly vital instrument of endless—and timeless—possibilities.

Likely developed in Renaissance Italy, the toccata dwells most prominently in the minds of 21st-Century listeners via the music of Johann Sebastian Bach, by whose genius the Italian models were refined into the paragons of mathematical purity that define the form in modern minds.  Those who approach Toccatas under the assumption that the disc expands Mr. Vinikour’s discography of the Baroque music of which he is a consummate master will receive a cultural jolt upon clicking or pressing Play.  Opening with Mel Powell’s 1953 Recitative and Toccata percossa, Mr. Vinikour transports both the toccata and the harpsichord from 18th-Century Europe to the gritty environs of American Music in the 20th Century.  Resounding with the din of Tin Pan Alley rather than the elegant tones of the Champs-Élysées, Powell’s music nods to a Gershwinesque integration of Jazz with the musical traditions of the mid-20th Century and is played by Mr. Vinikour with fantastic verve and rhythmic crispness, the ease of his command of Jazz stylings worthy of Herbie Hancock.  The Five Toccatas of Harold Meltzer—composed in 2005, dedicated to Mr. Vinikour, and here recorded for the first time—also benefit from the confident but never confining rhythmic vitality of Mr. Vinikour’s playing.  Building upon Bach’s distillation of the toccata form that he inherited from his south-of-the-Alps ancestors, Meltzer constructed toccatas that melded the Baroque with the Contemporary.  Entrusting these pieces to a performer as knowledgeable of the whole history of writing for the harpsichord as Mr. Vinikour ensured that the Five Toccatas would receive insightful, energetic performances, and Mr. Vinikour’s playing on this recording gloriously fulfills the composer’s objectives.

Also receiving world première recordings on Toccatas are Ned Rorem’s 1968 Spiders, Robert Muczynski’s 1982 Profiles, Robert Moevs’s 1986 Saraband, Thomas Benjamin’s 1988 Three Movements (‘Semi-Suite’), Stephen Blumberg’s 1991 Gyre (dedicated to Mr. Vinikour), and Patricia Morehead’s 2012 Tourbillon Galaxy (also dedicated to Mr. Vinikour).  Rorem, one of the great sages of contemporary American Classical Music, composed Spiders for Igor Kipnis, a pioneer of returning the harpsichord to prominence in the 20th Century.  A more worthy successor to Kipnis, in general and in the specific context of the tightly-wound music of Spiders, than Mr. Vinikour cannot be imagined.  Muczynski’s urbane musicality shines in his Profiles, and Mr. Vinikour plays the carefully-contrasted movements—Moderato and Allegro—with equal brilliance, drawing out the cleverness of the composer’s manipulations of both Jazz and Classical idioms.  Moevs’s Saraband utilizes another typical Baroque form, frequently employed by Händel in both instrumental and vocal works, but adapts it with thoroughly 20th-Century sensibilities.  Mr. Vinikour conjures a beautiful, ‘singing’ tone in the music’s lyrical passages and whirls through the formidable chromatic writing in a storm of unchallenged virtuosity.  Benjamin cites Bach, Händel, Hindemith, and Scott Joplin as the stylistic influences on his Semi-Suite—as unlikely a quartet as a composer might invoke.  In Mr. Vinikour’s performance, hints of the styles of Bach, Händel, Hindemith, and Joplin are evident, as is Benjamin’s unique voice.  Blumberg’s Gyre is, like many of Bach’s works for keyboard, an exercise in the mathematical workings of music, and Mr. Vinikour plays the piece with the glee of an expert mathematician sorting out a Fibonacci sequence.  The most recent piece featured on Toccatas, Morehead’s Tourbillon Galaxy is also one of the most technically daunting pieces that Mr. Vinikour plays in this recital, but his stylishness embraces both the underlying influence of the harpsichord music of Jean-Philippe Rameau and the starkly modern idiom of Morehead’s writing, the punishingly complex contrapuntal passages, their subjects contrasted at intervals of semiquavers, drawing from Mr. Vinikour wonderfully athletic playing.

The ‘Ostinato’ from Henry Cowell’s 1960 Set of Four receives a powerful performance from Mr. Vinikour, but it is Samuel Adler’s 1982 Sonata that is, in many ways, the most substantial piece on the disc.  Conceived as an homage to the keyboard masterworks of Bach and Domenico Scarlatti and a somewhat whimsical treatment of the sonorities of B♭and B♮, the German notations for which—B and H, respectively—form the initials of the musician for whom the Sonata was composed, the Sonata’s three movements (‘Fast, very rhythmic,’ ‘Slowly and expressively,’ and ‘Very fast’) engagingly fuse elements of Baroque music with discernibly 20th-Century tonalities.  The opening movement provides Mr. Vinikour with opportunities for the sort of barnstorming virtuosity at which he excels, and the energy of his playing compels surprisingly robust sounds from the harpsichord at his disposal, a superbly-crafted double-manual instrument in the French style by Thomas and Barbara Wolf.  The final movement is ‘very fast’ indeed, and Mr. Vinikour supplies a quicksilver performance.  ‘Expressively’ is an atypical description of music for the harpsichord but a very apt one for Mr. Vinikour’s playing.  18th-Century composers who preferred the greater expressive potential of the sustained tones of the piano never had the joy of hearing the songful expansiveness that Mr. Vinikour can coax from the harpsichord.  In the inner movement of Adler’s Sonata, the gorgeous, never exaggerated lyricism of which Mr. Vinikour is capable is displayed in its most eloquent incarnation, the subdued voices in the music revealed without any sacrifices of phrasing or rhythmic precision.

The pieces recorded on Toccatas offer a comprehensive view of the important if largely unheralded place of the harpsichord in contemporary Classical Music.  None of the other emblematic instruments of the Baroque has retained a foothold beyond the Early Music revival.  There are many reasons for the continuing presence of the harpsichord, not least among which is its greater suitability for the acoustical atmospheres of modern concert halls than instruments like the theorbo or viola da gamba, but there is also the fact that none of the other instruments of the High Baroque enjoys the charismatic advocacy of Jory Vinikour.  Contemporary composers rarely benefit from the quality of playing that virtuosi lavish on the music of the past: in that regard, the keyboard music of the 20th and 21st Centuries is no less a ‘specialist’ repertory than that of the Baroque.  The harpsichord music of Bach, Couperin, Händel, and Rameau has received many wonderful recordings, including standard-setting performances by Mr. Vinikour.  The vigor with which he plays the pieces on Toccatas dispels the notion that a concert harpsichordist is as much an archivist and musical archeologist as a performer, however.  Toccatas is a voyage of discovery, one which introduces heartening vistas of tonal worlds so close and yet so unfamiliar to many 21st-Century listeners, and Jory Vinikour proves the ideal guide along these craggy, captivating musical paths.

26 October 2013

ARTS NEWS: Artists & Recordings featured on VOIX DES ARTS recognized with GRAMMY® nomination bids

GRAMMY® [Logo © by the Recording Academy]

With ballots for GRAMMY® Awards nominations having recently gone into circulation, it is with great pleasure that it is noted that several artists and recordings featured on Voix des Arts are being considered by the Recording Academy.  [In order to be eligible for consideration for nomination for the 56th GRAMMY® Awards, a recording must have been released during the period extending from 1 October 2012 to 30 September 2013.]  Thankfully, the rumors of the demise of the Classical Music recording industry were greatly exaggerated.  Despite the laments of those who long for the bygone eras of Birgit Nilsson, Wilhelm Kempff, and Otto Klemperer, the best efforts of today’s artists set their own standards for artistic excellence, and those who cast ballots for the 2014 GRAMMY® Awards have before their eyes a rich garden of Classical releases, among which these are three of the most delectable blooms.

One of the most innovative releases of 2013 is Ensemble HD’s Live at the Happy Dog, released in May in various formats, none of which is more sonically impressive than vinyl.  The project was spearheaded by Joshua Smith, principal flautist of The Cleveland Orchestra, who approached the proprietor of the Happy Dog, a revitalized bar on Cleveland’s culturally-impoverished West Side, with the notion of supplementing the establishment’s typical musical fare with Classical Music.  The concept was not as radical as it might seem: much of the young Brahms’s earliest Ensemble HD - LIVE AT THE HAPPY DOGmusical experience was achieved at a brothel’s piano, after all.  An ensemble of some of metropolitan Cleveland’s most gifted Classically-trained musicians—cellist Charles Bernard, pianist Christina Dahl, violinist Amy Lee, violist Joanna Patterson Zakany, oboist Frank Rosenwein, and Mr. Smith—came together to treat Happy Dog patrons to exhilarating performances of music by Ludwig van Beethoven, William Bolcom, Benjamin Britten, Claude Debussy, Johan Halvorsen, Olivier Messiaen, Arvo Pärt, Astor Piazzolla, Maurice Ravel, Dmitri Shostakovich, and Anton Webern, magnificently recorded in performance with the musicians’ introductory remarks and interactions with the audience preserved.  Interesting recordings are not always important recordings: with extraordinary musicians offering world-class performances of though-provoking repertory in a setting whose unique frisson is wonderfully captured, Live at the Happy Dog is the rare recording that achieves both distinctions.  Mix a few drinks, drop the needle, and get lost in the grooves of a recording that proves that great music and good times are as inextricably linked as martinis and olives.  [Available in downloadable and vinyl formats]

As moving and musically rewarding an exploration of the vocal music of 17th-Century Italy as  has ever been recorded, Io Vidi in Terra unites the magnificent voice of Brazilian countertenor José Lemos with the internationally-acclaimed playing of theorbist Deborah Fox and harpsichordist Jory Vinikour.  Few of the pieces recorded on Io Vidi in Terra—including music by Benedetto Ferrari, Girolamo Frescobaldi, Marco da Gagliano, Tarquinio Merula, Claudio Monteverdi, Alessandro Piccinini, Bernardo José Lemos, Deborah Fox, & Jory Vinikour - IO VIDI IN TERRA (Sono Luminus)Storace, and Barbara Strozzi—are completely unknown, especially to aficionados of early Baroque vocal music, but the manner in which they are performed by Mr. Lemos, Ms. Fox, and Mr. Vinikour is unprecedentedly affectionate.  The immediacy of the collaboration among these three artists is both immensely impressive and delightfully entertaining.  Debates rage like teacup-tempests about how best to perform music of this vintage in order to come closest to historically-appropriate performance practices.  Such pursuits are laudable, but this disc proves that this music does not need ‘special’ treatment: perform it with the integrity and obvious passion displayed by Mr. Lemos, Ms. Fox, and Mr. Vinikour, and niceties of style and substance fall into place unobtrusively.  While others fuss and fret over correct temperaments, proper diapasons, and execution of the vocal tricks of the early Baroque, this trio get it right without the audible calculation and caterwauling.  [Released on Sono Luminus and distributed by Naxos USA]

One of the most woefully neglected niches in the Lieder repertory is the engrossing assortment of American Art Songs.  Perhaps, with superb recordings like baritone Andrew Garland’s American Portraits paving the way, the appreciation that these largely undiscovered treasures deserve will expand exponentially.  Despite the remarkable depths of his artistry in this recital of song cycles by Tom Cipullo, Jake Heggie, Lori Laitman, and Stephen Paulus, there is nothing prissy or artificial in Mr. Garland’s singing: his is the sort of smooth-edged, solid-cored instrument that has become endangered in this age of crooning and preening.  Unapologetic masculinity is at the hearAndrew Garland & Donna Loewy - AMERICAN PORTRAITS (GPR Records)t of Mr. Garland’s singing in American Portraits, and the impact of the music is intensified by the hearty resonance of his voice.  Splendidly accompanied by pianist Donna Loewy, Mr. Garland applies his keenest musical and dramatic resources to performances that explore the intriguing, sometimes gnarled courses of these songs, the rugged handsomeness of his tone conveying the idealized American spirit.  The collaboration between Mr. Garland and Ms. Loewy is one of unfettered artistic communication rather than a mere exchange between soloist and accompanist, and the palette of colors that they bring to the performances on American Portraits is thrilling.  It can seem disheartening that in a nation in which patriotism is so prized there is so little attention given by native-born singers to the rich traditions of American Art Song.  Then, when expectations are low, along comes a disc like American Portraits, clearly the result of genuine affection for this repertory from one of America’s most talented young singers, and pride in this fascinating music is restored—from sea to shining sea.  [Released on GPR Records and available from major music retailers]

14 October 2013

ARTIST PROFILE: Christopher Bolduc, baritone

Baritone CHRISTOPHER BOLDUC [Photo by Arielle Doneson, © Christopher Bolduc]

In generations past, the de rigueur path to prominence in the musical environs of his native country for an American singer wound through the conservatories, concert halls, and opera houses of Europe.  Study with someone irreproachably respectable, sing a few big rôles in small houses and a few small rôles in big houses, sing the concert repertory appropriate to your voice in cities with thorough media coverage of musical events, perhaps give a few recitals before discriminating artists; and then return in glory to the United States to the strains of ‘See, the conqu’ring hero comes.’  It was thus that such a gifted singer as Marilyn Horne passed the ‘galley years’ of her early career in German-speaking Hinterlands and, with experiences from locales like Gelsenkirchen in her pocket, returned to America as an established, respected artist.  Then, though, the career of Beverly Sills changed the game for American singers: here was a bona fide star whose musical apprenticeship was served in her fatherland and whose brilliance shone almost solely in the American artistic firmament.  More importantly, Sills turned the traditional progress of an American singer on its head: rather than honing her craft in Europe and returning triumphantly to her own shores, she won the hearts of American audiences and then set her sights on Europe, where her endeavors were not entirely successful.  Nevertheless, the example of Beverly Sills proved tremendously influential to subsequent generations of American singers, disclosing that the development of a strong technique is far more important to the pursuit of a successful career than where one’s formative experiences are achieved.  Much as agents and opera house managements try to pigeonhole voices into easy categories of Fach and functionality, voices, the bodies that house them, and the psyches that govern them grow, evolve, and mature very differently.  Beverly Sills was a special singer because her journey as an artist was unique, but an unexpectedly disheartening element of her legacy has been the sacrificing of individuality among young singers: freed to abandon the paths traveled by great singers of the pasts, many of today’s young singers seek in the impersonal lecture halls of conservatories the sort of training that Marilyn Horne received in Gelsenkirchen or that Beverly Sills gleaned from her early tenure at the New York City Opera.  What too many of these young singers find instead of their own voices are qualities that enable them to sing identically to their colleagues.  No matter how confounding the haze, however, there will always be artists who find their way to clarity, and on 21 October the Metropolitan Opera première of Nico Muhly’s opera Two Boys will introduce MET audiences to one of the adventurous, engaging young artists who has determinedly and unmistakably forged his own course through the perils of training and refining a voice of superb quality, baritone Christopher Bolduc.

Right from the start, Mr. Bolduc displays candor and humility that have become sadly rare among young singers, especially those with legitimate talent.  In the MET production of Muhly’s Two Boys, Mr. Bolduc will sing the rôle of the ‘avatar’ of Jake, one of the two boys of the title, a part created in the 2011 English National Opera world première by baritone Jonathan McGovern.  ‘I wouldn’t characterize my rôle in Two Boys as a leading rôle,’ Mr. Bolduc comments.  ‘The only leading rôles in the opera are Anne, the detective, and Brian, the boy who does the killing.  The other boy in the opera’s title, Jake…I play the idealized version of him.’  Nonetheless, this is the rôle that will introduce him to the storied Metropolitan Opera, and Mr. Bolduc is aware of the importance of the engagement.  ‘It’s a great rôle,’ he says, ‘and I’m thrilled to make my MET début in this.’  In Two Boys, Mr. Bolduc will share the stage with the dulcet-toned American tenor Paul Appleby, replaced in the opera’s final performance of the season by the dynamic Nicky Spence, and the remarkable British mezzo-soprano Alice Coote.

The avenue that has led Mr. Bolduc to the Metropolitan Opera reveals much about both the integrity of his artistry and the depth of his understanding of his craft.  ‘I did not grow up in a musical family,’ he recollects.  ‘I studied piano and composition and listened to the local Classical Music station on the radio as a kid, but [what I heard] were mostly symphonies, chamber music, and solo piano works—not opera.’  As any listener who has heard Mr. Bolduc might suspect, music wielded an inexplicable attraction for Mr. Bolduc even in his earliest youth.  ‘I had always been drawn to Classical Music and sang in choirs and musicals in school.  Around Tenth Grade, I realized that if I combined by love of singing with my love of Classical Music, I would arrive at opera.  So, I started seeking it out.’  There could be few better places from which to depart on such an exploration than the music of Mozart.  Mr. Bolduc remembers, ‘I had played Mozart Piano Sonatas but never had heard a Mozart opera, so I ordered a Le nozze di Figaro CD and became hooked.  I used to sit in my room with my headphones on, listening and reading the English translation of the libretto.  By Twelfth Grade, I was enrolled in the preparatory division at the Manhattan School of Music in New York City and went down every Saturday for the entire school year, learning Art Songs, singing in Italian.  I really got a feel for what college life would be [like] as a Vocal Performance major.’

Baritone Christopher Bolduc in the title rôle of Mozart's DON GIOVANNI at Theater Basel, 2011 [Photo by Simon Hallström, © Theater Basel] Christopher Bolduc in the title rôle of Mozart’s Don Giovanni at Theater Basel, 2011 [Photo by Simon Hallström, © Theater Basel]

Mr. Bolduc’s first taste of that college life was offered by SUNY Purchase College Conservatory of Music.  ‘I enrolled at Purchase at eighteen years old,’ he says.  ‘I had a wonderful teacher, Jacque Trussel, who opened my eyes in so many ways.  He built the foundation of my technique, explained how difficult it is even to attain a career, let alone maintain one, and taught the basics of stagecraft, acting, and audition technique.  He is really an amazing educator and person; and a friend to this day.’  Studying with Mr. Trussel at Purchase College left no doubt in Mr. Bolduc’s mind that he was destined for the operatic stage.  ‘I knew that I wanted a career in opera,’ he says, ‘so, once I started at Indiana University, I signed up for the two-year program to get my Master’s Degree.  I studied for two short years with Timothy Noble, who is the only baritone with whom I’ve ever studied.  He was wonderful in introducing me to repertoire appropriate for my voice and helping me choose competition-winning arias.’  Still dedicated to expanding his knowledge of repertory and building a technique that would enable him to enjoy not merely a successful but also a long career, Mr. Bolduc sought tuition at Philadelphia’s Academy of Vocal Arts, from which many of America’s finest singers have emerged during the past quarter-century.  ‘My life totally changed during my tenure at the Academy of Vocal Arts,’ he reflects.  ‘I would describe AVA as a military-style training program for opera singers.  There is a lot of tough love involved.  There is almost no way to describe how Christofer Macatsoris [AVA’s Music Director] works to bring out the best in [young singers].  He knows the best you can be and sound even before you do.  Working with him has forever changed me.  With every new rôle I prepare, I think about how he would want me to approach each phrase; how he would make sure I “sing all of the the notes,” meaning to pay attention to every anacrusis, grace note, passing tone, or embellishment in a cadenza.  He has an infinite amount of knowledge and experience, and I feel very blessed to have had the opportunity to work with him.’  Mr. Bolduc also feels that he owes a tremendous debt of gratitude to renowned voice teacher William Schuman.  ‘I started studying with Bill Schuman at AVA and still study with him privately in NYC to this day.  I owe him so much.  He gets you out of your own way.  He knows and understands voices so well and how to make them easier and often larger—but without over-singing.’

Baritone CHRISTOPHER BOLDUC [Photograph by Arielle Doneson, © Christopher Bolduc] The notion of each singer possessing a manner of singing that is right for his or her individual voice is a concept that is very important to Mr. Bolduc’s approach to the mechanics of singing.  This self-cognizance would be central to the advice that he would give to other young baritones.  ‘I would urge them to sing with their own voices and not be tempted to imitate famous baritones they might idolize,’ he says.  ‘Too often, one hears a young singer—of any Fach—doing his best impression of someone else.  At most, you’ll only ever be the second-best version of someone else.  You’ll always be the best version of you,’ he confides, echoing from a musical perspective Oscar Wilde’s quip that one can only be oneself since everyone else is already taken, so to speak.

Mr. Bolduc cites reliability and flexibility as qualities that he strives to maintain at the heart of his artistry.  Certainly, these traits have been abundantly evident in his singing to date.  Contributing inalienably to the histrionic power of his interpretations, the reliability of his intelligence as an artist and of his preparation as a vocalist is refreshing.  Beautiful voices are perhaps more common than well-trained ones, but rarer still are voices like Mr. Bolduc’s, which is both beautiful and founded upon especially strong technical footing.  Flexibility is apparent both in Mr. Bolduc’s actual singing and in the breadth of his repertory.  ‘I love my current repertoire,’ he states.  ‘Donizetti, Rossini, and Mozart mixed in with living composers feels absolutely perfect.’  He is keenly aware of the necessity of pacing himself.  ‘I have taken caution not to accept rôles which I feel I’m not ready for,’ he admits.  ‘I have just begun to accept some new rôles that perhaps I was not ready for five years ago.’  The combination of Mozart and bel canto with 20th- and 21st-Century works is an interesting trajectory for the career of a young singer and one that is paying exceptionally rich dividends for Mr. Bolduc.  ‘I enjoy working on contemporary opera, as well as the traditional repertoire,’ he says.  ‘Going back and forth from one to the other gives me a deeper appreciation for both.  As soon as Two Boys wraps up at the MET [there are seven performances between 21 October and 14 November], I work on another contemporary piece, Heinz Holliger’s Schneewittchen, at Theater Basel in Switzerland.  [Mr. Bolduc will sing the Jäger opposite the Snow White—or Schneewittchen—of Anu Komsi and the Queen of Maria Riccarda Wesseling.]  It is extremely difficult, musically—possibly the most difficult piece of music I’ve worked on in my career.  It’s going to be an exciting project, and knowing that I sing Belcore in L’elisir d’amore right after [the Schneewittchen run] at Oper Köln will feel great!’

This versatility enables Mr. Bolduc to realize one of his foremost goals as a singer, to offer audiences meaningful portraits of a wide array of characters.  ‘The most gratifying element of singing for me is the thrill of getting to be someone totally different on stage for an evening,’ he says.  ‘You’re given the structure of the music and the staging but then can make it come alive and make it your own.  It’s very addictive!’  Mr. Bolduc aims to make this addiction as powerful for the audience as for himself as a singer.  ‘I concentrate on embodying the characters as much as possible in the rehearsal process,’ he states, ‘and I rely on directors to advise me if what I’m doing is appropriate for the theatre we’re performing in.’  This awareness of the appropriateness of an interpretation for the space in which it is being enacted is, in Mr. Bolduc’s view, vital to the long-term survival of opera.  The question of how best to present opera to 21st-Century audiences influences Mr. Bolduc’s artistic sensibilities to a significant extent.  ‘The answer, I think, is different based on the size of the theatre and whether or not you’re being filmed for an HD performance, let’s say.  One of the things I love about opera is how collaborative it is.  I’ve learned to trust more and more the others around me involved in the process: my colleagues on stage, the creative team, the makeup and costume crews, and everyone backstage.  In this way,’ he confides, ‘I give myself the freedom to focus on what I have to do, therefore performing at my best.’

Jan Cornelius as the Countess and Christopher Bolduc as the poet Olivier in Richard Strauss's CAPRICCIO at the Academy of Vocal Arts, 2010 [Photograph by Paul Sirochman, © AVA] Jan Cornelius as the Countess and Christopher Bolduc as the poet Olivier in Richard Strauss’s Capriccio at the Academy of Vocal Arts, 2010 [Photo by Paul Sirochman, © AVA]

For Mr. Bolduc, performing at his best can be achieved under any conditions in which artistic decisions are made with understanding of the music at hand.  A production need not be ‘modern’ in order to be effective, he feels.  ‘Frankly, I’m a traditionalist kind of guy when it comes to opera,’ he says.  ‘I think [that] there are so many challenges and so much work to be done anytime a group of people get together and attempt to produce any of the great masterpieces in the operatic repertoire.  Some modernized interpretations are wonderful and eye-opening: for me, this is when a director really knows and has studied the piece and existing secondary sources and bases his or her vision on the intentions of the composer and librettist.  Simply introducing a foreign and newly-invented concept into the piece and then working backwards [throughout] the entire rehearsal process to “make things work” can be frustrating.’  Mr. Bolduc’s comments bring to mind the anecdote concerning a famous American actor’s first encounter with the venerated Sir Laurence Olivier.  Perplexed by the younger thespian’s bizarre appearance and actions on the set of the film in which they were appearing together, Olivier expressed his concern for the young man’s wellbeing.  The impetus for his deprived state was an effort at identification with his character’s situation, he told Olivier; to which Olivier purportedly replied, ‘Try acting, dear boy.’  Olivier’s uncomplicated method might find in Mr. Bolduc an expert practitioner.  ‘Life on the stage is fantastic,’ Mr. Bolduc says, ‘but after the lights go out and the applause is over, there is an abrupt return back to reality.’

Mr. Bolduc concedes that there are certain realities of a singer’s life to which each artist must adapt—and with which he must cope—in his own way.  ‘The greatest challenge [of pursuing a career as a singer] is everything that happens before you get to that opening night,’ he says.  ‘The time away from family and loved ones, the long hours of rehearsals, desperately trying not to get sick or trying to get well again before the opening if you are [sick]: keeping your voice in shape and your body healthy is a daily commitment.’  This is a commitment that Mr. Bolduc takes very seriously, not merely as a guiding principle of his life but also as a vital component of his artistry.  ‘I’m at the MET this season, in my home state and close to my family and friends,’ Mr. Bolduc says, ‘but for the past few seasons I’ve worked out of the USA for nine or more months out of the year.  It can be very lonely.’  He quickly adds, ‘This is not a complaint—it’s a statement of reality.  I love what I’m doing and love the fact that I actually get to do it.  I wouldn’t trade this career for any other.’

That singing is as much a fulfillment of a deeply personal need as a means of making a living is apparent in every note that Mr. Bolduc sings.  ‘I am a singer because I love to sing,’ he shares.  ‘It’s what I’m meant to do, and somehow I’ve known that even from a very young age.’  The most extraordinary voice is of little consequence without this sort of dedication to singing at the zenith of one’s abilities: in Mr. Bolduc’s case, both a superb voice and a palpable artistic integrity are at the heart of every performance that he sings.  Music without passion is nothing more than a series of notes, but music from Mr. Bolduc’s throat is the language in which characters communicate their innermost feelings.  ‘I love the opportunity to be someone totally different from myself for an evening,’ he remarks.  ‘I love to express myself though music and get the opportunity to stir up emotions in others.’

The musical distinction and psychological depth of Christopher Bolduc’s operatic portrayals confirm that, his enjoyment of stepping outside of himself notwithstanding, this exceptional young singer surrenders himself to the power of music and produces every note with equal measures of sound and spirit.  Many singers share Christopher Bolduc’s appreciation of the opportunities offered by opera to stir up emotions in others: few artists succeed as he does in making his every performance genuinely stirring.

Baritone CHRISTOPHER BOLDUC [Photograph by Arielle Doneson, © Christopher Bolduc] To learn more about Christopher Bolduc, visit his Official Website.  Mr. Bolduc is represented by Askonas Holt.

Sincerest thanks are extended to Mr. Bolduc for his kindness, candor, and patience.  All photographs are used with Mr. Bolduc’s permission.

12 October 2013

CD REVIEW: Gustav Mahler – DAS LIED VON DER ERDE (S. Connolly, T. Spence, London Philharmonic Orchestra, Y. Nézet-Séguin; LPO-0073)

Gustav Mahler: DAS LIED VON DER ERDE (LPO-0073)

GUSTAV MAHLER (1860 – 1911): Das Lied von der Erde—S. Connolly (mezzo-soprano), T. Spence (tenor); London Philharmonic Orchestra; Yannick Nézet-Séguin [Recorded ‘live’ at Southbank Centre’s Royal Festival Hall, London, on 19 February 2011; LPO-0073; 1CD, 64:05; Available from Amazon, Presto Classical, directly from LPO, and from all major music retailers]

Perhaps owing to the heightened sensibilities of the artistic temperament, composers have historically been a superstitious lot.  Gustav Mahler, whose anxiety could border on paranoia even when more or less justified by his health or the often sad circumstances of his personal life, was deeply aware of the disingenuous ‘curse of the ninth’ that was interpreted as a cosmic injunction against composers surviving to compose tenth symphonies: indeed, it is surmised by some musicologists that Mahler’s hypersensitive response to the ‘curse’ popularized its prominence in musical lore.  Though the premise of the curse is based upon situations more fantastical than factual, Karma punished Mahler for the sense of triumph produced by his well-intentioned efforts at circumventing the curse’s reach.  After composing his mammoth-scaled Eighth Symphony in 1906, Mahler immersed himself in Hans Bethge’s German-language edition of Chinese poetry from the Tang Dynasty as a means of coping with the emotional catastrophes he endured during 1907.  This spurred Mahler’s imagination to the creation of another large symphonic work, conceived as a setting for vocal soloists and large orchestra of texts by Li Bai, Mong Hao-Ran, Qian Qi, and Wang Wei.  Rather than designating the new work, composed during 1908 and 1909, as his Ninth Symphony as he might have done, Mahler entitled the score Das Lied von der Erde.  With this safely behind him, Mahler completed the Symphony in D that he numbered as his Ninth, but the ruse was futile: the composer died before completing his Tenth Symphony.  If Das Lied von der Erde was the work of a man on the run, so to speak, it nonetheless engaged the best of his creative energies and emerged as the most intensely personal expression of his unique genius.  Every quality that makes the music of Mahler memorable courses powerfully through Das Lied von der Erde: the frenzied expressions of joviality through clenched teeth, the biting irony, the casual decadence, and, above all, the exquisitely unconquerable melancholy.  The allures of the score are such that virtually all ambitious conductors, even those who generally exclude Mahler’s Symphonies from their repertories, are drawn to it.  It was perhaps inevitable that the path traveled by a young conductor who enjoys as sterling a reputation as that of which Québécois Maestro Yannick Nézet-Séguin boasts should lead to Das Lied von der Erde.  With a discography that includes performances led by many of the finest Mahler conductors of the past century, Das Lied von der Erde hardly needs new recordings.  When the paths of Maestro Nézet-Séguin, the London Philharmonic Orchestra, mezzo-soprano Sarah Connolly, and tenor Toby Spence intersected with the wondrous music of Das Lied von der Erde in February 2011, though, the result was a performance of great beauty and integrity that revealed that, slightly more than a century after its creation, Mahler’s score remains an endlessly enthralling exploration of the most basic elements of human psychology and a special opportunity for insightful musicians like these to leave their distinct footprints in a musical field traversed by many of Classical Music’s greatest artists.

Das Lied von der Erde has benefited enormously from the advances in recording technology during the past few decades: a performance as important as Otto Klemperer’s 1951 Vox recording with Elsa Cavelti, Anton Dermota, and the Wiener Symphoniker is significantly undermined by the sonic deficiencies of the recording.  The production team of London Philharmonic’s house label captured the Orchestra’s 2011 Das Lied von der Erde in superbly spacious sound that encompasses a very wide range of dynamics without jeopardizing clarity.  Unlike many recordings derived from live performances, there are no worrisome echoes that distort the delicate sonorities of Mahler’s music, and there are virtually no signs of the recording’s provenance in terms of audience noises.  Throughout the performance, the refined playing of the London Philharmonic is placed within a natural acoustic, allowing the Orchestra’s consistently secure intonation and ideal balance among sections to shine.  The strings are wonderfully subtle, but the orchestral laurels are won by the woodwinds with playing of consummate beauty and nuance.

Maestro Nézet-Séguin’s interpretation of Das Lied von der Erde is surprisingly introverted for such a youthful conductor.  There are magnificent outbursts of intensity, such as are demanded by the score, but the performance as a whole is shaped by thoughtful attention to detail and a deeply-felt response to the shifting emotional energies of the music.  When Mahler’s tonal tectonic plates collide, the musical landscape quakes under the tension evoked by Maestro Nézet-Séguin’s baton.  More palpably than in many performances, this recording of Das Lied von der Erde conveys a sense of continuous progression from suffering to catharsis.  With the personal but wholly apt inflections brought to the score by Maestro Nézet-Séguin, the score seems to depict not so much the ambiguities of life and death as the struggles of being defeated by life and learning to live anew.  The overwhelming, slightly sickly beauty of Mahler’s score is brilliantly served by Maestro Nézet-Séguin’s approach to the score, and the Oriental elements of the music are handled with gossamer delicacy that is appropriate to their cultural associations.  Even in the most exuberant moments of the score, Maestro Nézet-Séguin is attentive to the underlying sadness and grotesque irony.

The three songs for tenor are conducted by Maestro Nézet-Séguin with impressive intensity and sung by Toby Spence with humor and dramatic conviction.  The tessitura of Mahler’s vocal lines is punishing, but Mr. Spence strides through them with confidence and panache, conquering the high-flying passages with far greater ease than the larger-voiced tenors more frequently heard in the music can manage.  The opening movement, ‘Das Trinklied vom Jammer der Erde,’ is a fearsome test of the tenor’s stamina, with each return of the refrain ‘Dunkel ist das Leben, ist der Tod’ rising a semitone.  Mr. Spence does not avoid strain, but Mahler did not conceive this music with vocal ease in mind.  Maestro Nézet-Séguin gives Mr. Spence space in which to approach the greatest hurdles without rushing or forcing, and Mr. Spence reciprocates with singing of extraordinary grace and tonal beauty, even in the highest register.  ‘Von der Jugend’ draws from Mr. Spence singing that is the very embodiment of freshness, the timbre boyish but unfailingly poised.  The quixotic changes of tempo in ‘Der Trunkene im Frühling’ present challenges to both singer and conductor, and both Mr. Spence and Maestro Nézet-Séguin rise to the occasion.  The solo flautist and violinist combine with Mr. Spence to achieve feats of true beauty.  Despite the desperate high spirits portrayed by Mr. Spence and Maestro Nézet-Séguin, there is ultimately something pathetic in the exhortations to ‘just let me be drunk!’  Mr. Spence’s singing is an unmitigated delight, however, and he challenges the standards set in the tenor’s songs by the golden-voiced Wunderlich and the unforgettably poetic Haefliger.

The selections sung by the mezzo-soprano soloist are more obviously fatalistic, dealing with the transience of beauty and—metaphorically—life.  First, there is the notion of the fading of natural beauty in ‘Der Einsame im Herbst.’  There is profound meaning in the paradox of the imagery in ‘Von der Schönheit’ of the flowers gathered by young women being trampled by the young men whose attention they covet: is it possible that, in the broadest terms, destruction is the truest reward of devotion; that, as Oscar Wilde wrote, the dual blessing and curse of humanity is to destroy the objects of love?  Mezzo-soprano Sarah Connolly, the Orchestra, and Maestro Nézet-Séguin pursue Mahler’s discourse on these conceits with exceptional focus and understanding.  It is in the immense final movement, ‘Das Abschied,’ that Mahler’s genius blossoms most movingly, the examination of taking leave from both the natural cycle and the sentimental entanglements of life given poignant expression for both the voice and the orchestra.  Mahler was concerned that the darkness of ‘Das Abschied’ would prove an impediment to audiences’ appreciation of the music, but how can music such as this fail to draw an audience into its embrace, especially when it is performed as well as it is on this recording?  Mahler also voiced wonder at the rhapsodic nature of his creation, asking Bruno Walter whether he could fathom how to conduct ‘Das Abschied,’ something that he himself could not sort out.  Maestro Nézet-Séguin handles the movement deftly.  Perhaps no conductor can be said to truly master this music, but Maestro Nézet-Séguin’s leadership is superior to that of many famous conductors: he knows where ‘Das Abschied’ begins and ends, and he displays the inherent intelligence of his musicianship by allowing the music to speak for itself, following rather than forcing the flow of Mahler’s savage but strangely structured impetus.  A paragon of stylishness and vocal richness in every piece that she performs, Sarah Connolly has nonetheless never sung better than in this performance of ‘Das Abschied.’  She has so many remarkable forbears in this music: Kerstin Thorborg, Kathleen Ferrier, Lili Chookasian, Christa Ludwig, and Dame Janet Baker are among the finest of them.  Ms. Connolly suffers nothing in comparison with these great ladies: indeed, her singing combines the finest qualities of these musical ancestors, the concentration of Ferrier and Baker allied with the raptly intelligent phrasing of Chookasian and the sheer beauty of Ludwig.  Throughout the range required by the music, Ms. Connolly’s voice is full, perfectly supported by an astonishing breath control, and genuinely lovely.  The suppleness with which she manages the crests of the vocal lines in ‘Das Abschied’ is refreshing.  Supported by Maestro Nézet-Séguin, Ms. Connolly gives as complete a performance of the mezzo-soprano songs as can be heard today—and, for that matter, as has been heard in any day—and a compelling display of the full gamut of her artistry.

In a sense, this recording of Das Lied von der Erde is a dangerous performance.  Though no recording could hope to say all that can be said about such a multi-faceted score or to offer new vistas of a landscape so well documented on records, this London Philharmonic Orchestra recording casts revealing light on the extent to which indifferent, insipid performances now pass for world-class music-making.  When exposed for extended periods of time to mediocrity, even the most refined ears gradually accept competence as a substitute for excellence.  A recording like this one illustrates in musical terms Portia’s exclamation in Act Five of Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice—‘How far that little candle throws his beams!  So shines a good deed in a naughty world.’  Performances like those offered by Sarah Connolly, Toby Spence, Yannick Nézet-Séguin, and the players of the London Philharmonic Orchestra shine all the more brightly in the ‘naughty world’ of diminished standards of musicianship.  With so few performances today achieving the levels of musical preparation and eloquent execution exhibited by this team of artists, there can be no doubt that recording this performance of Das Lied von der Erde was a very good deed.

Gustav Mahler at the time of the composition of DAS LIED VON DER ERDE, photographed by Moritz Nähr (1907) Gustav Mahler, photographed in 1907, by Moritz Nähr

09 October 2013

CD REVIEW: Johann Sebastian Bach – MATTHÄUS-PASSION (W. Güra, J. Weisser, S. Im, B. Fink, T. Lehtipuu, K. Wolff; harmonia mundi HMC 802156.58)

Johann Sebastian Bach: MATTHÄUS-PASSION (harmonia mundi HMC 802156.58)

JOHANN SEBASTIAN BACH (1685 – 1750): Matthäus-Passion, BWV 244—W. Gura (Evangelista - tenor), J. Weisser (Christus - baritone), S. Im (soprano), C. Roterberg (soprano), B. Fink (mezzo-soprano), M.-C. Chappuis (mezzo-soprano), T. Lehtipuu (tenor), F. Trümpy (tenor), K. Wolff (bass-baritone), A. Kataja (baritone); RIAS Kammerchor, Staats- und Domchor Berlin; Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin; René Jacobs [Recorded in Teldex Studio Berlin during August and September 2012; harmonia mundi HMC 802156.58; 2 SACD + 1 DVD, 159:05; Available from Amazon, jpc, and all major music retailers]

Not unlike the music itself, recordings of the works of Johann Sebastian Bach inspire respect and reverence far more often than genuine excitement.  There are so many details of Bach’s life, his compositional process, the circumstances under which many of his greatest scores were created, and the performances that introduced contemporary audiences to his music that simply are not known, and at least as many questions have been raised in the eighty years since the Matthäus-Passion was first recorded as have been answered.  In those eight decades, there have been legitimate progress in the understanding of how Bach’s Passions were likely performed during the composer’s lifetime and countless atrocities committed in the name of progress.  Recordings from the middle of the Twentieth Century offered performances of the Matthäus-Passion that adhered to bloated Victorian traditions, distorting the carefully-balanced proportions of Bach’s music, but recordings made after the advent of the historically-informed performance practice movement have seen the pendulum swing to the opposite extreme, with many of the most acclaimed latter-day Bach conductors advocating an one-to-a-part approach that is sensible in academic terms but often disappointingly wan in performance.  Scholarship is exceptionally important, of course: without it, music risks being static, and Baroque music in particular has much to fear from unquestioning perpetuation of performance traditions.  Equally perilous for a score like Bach’s Matthäus-Passion is dogged pursuit of radical ideas for the sake of doing something different, however.  Despite the mountains of uncertainty that encircle the Matthäus-Passion, there are in the fertile valleys of the music itself and the contemporary accounts of its performance that survive plentiful clues that offer fleeting glimpses into the musical landscape of the mighty score as it might have been revealed when Bach himself presided over its unveiling.  The sleuthing of René Jacobs has sometimes produced performances so shaped by idiosyncrasies that the power of the music at hand was diminished.  Having been acquainted on the most intimate of terms with Bach’s Matthäus-Passion throughout virtually his entire life as a performer, first as a treble, later as a countertenor, and most recently as a conductor, Maestro Jacobs cannot fail to regard the work as much as an old friend as one of the great masterworks of Western choral music.  His scholarship, born of the affection inspired by this lifelong coexistence, here produces a performance of the Matthäus-Passion unlike any other ever recorded.  Whether the authentic spirit of Bach pervades this performance must ultimately be determined by each individual listener, but the Passion of Christ has perhaps never been more grippingly depicted through music than in this performance.  Whether his performing forces in Leipzig nearly three centuries ago numbered eighteen or eighty, could Bach object to a performance that employs his music in such an eloquent exploration of the personal and global implications of the life achieved only through death?

It is often stated that Bach’s Johannes-Passion is the more overtly dramatic depiction of Christ’s last days on earth, while the Matthäus-Passion is a more contemplative, introverted work.  Still, the Matthäus-Passion has its own finely-wrought sense of drama: perhaps it might be more accurate to state that the Johannes-Passion portrays the suffering of Christ with the economy and sincerity of Schiller whereas the Matthäus-Passion aspires to the humanity and poetry of Shakespeare.  Recent years have seen attempts to stage Bach’s Passions as sacred dramas on an operatic scale, but Maestro Jacobs rightly rejects this concept in this recording of Matthäus-Passion, which seeks to place the work in precisely one of the contexts for which it was conceived, performance in Leipzig’s Thomaskirche, circa 1736.  Maestro Jacobs therefore employs Bach’s revised edition of the score, prepared (as contemporary accounts confirm) to make use of two organs.  Maestro Jacobs and harmonia mundi’s engineers grant special attention to the spatial challenges presented by the layout of the Thomaskirche, and Maestro Jacobs’s bold choices yield extraordinary results, especially when heard in Super Audio format.  Recognizing that Bach had before him a very large space to fill with sound, Maestro Jacobs takes full advantage of every technical advancement in stereophonic sound recording by dividing not only his choirs and instrumental ensembles but also his soloists, with some arias recorded from a perspective that creates for the listener the illusion of hearing them as they might have been performed in 1736, with both solo and choral voices coming at the ears from different positions within the Thomaskirche.  The effect of hearing some of the arias from a distance, as it were, is bizarre at first, but the cumulative impact of this approximation of the sonic reconstruction of the music as Bach might have heard it is arresting.  Even without the benefits of Super Audio playback, the spatial range of the recording is tremendous, transporting the listener to a pew in the Thomaskirche more convincingly and evocatively than any other recorded performance.

Musically, Maestro Jacobs presides over a performance in which moments of eloquence and genuine insightfulness are too many to number, and the choral and instrumental forces follow his lead with absolute commitment.  The boys of the Staats- und Domchor Berlin, under the direction of Kai-Uwe Jirke, sing beautifully, supplementing the extraordinary singing of the RIAS Kammerchor.  In such a strongly-sung performance, even the formulaic Chorales are moving, and the poise and responsiveness with which the choristers combine with soloists in the arias with chorus are exemplary.  The choristers’ intonation never falters, and the dramatic energy with which both powerful outbursts and subdued moments of greatest emotional conflict are delivered holds the listener’s attention from first note to last.  The vibrancy of the recorded sound detracts nothing from the choristers’ deft articulation of rapid passages.  Individual members of the chorus also contribute ably to the performance in smaller solo rôles: soprano Katharina Hohlfield as Ancilla I, alto Ulrike Bartsch as Ancilla II, soprano Anja Petersen as Uxor Pilati, bass Ingolf Horenburg as Pontifex, bass Andrew Redmond as Petrus, bass Johannes Schendel as Judas, alto Jakob Huppmann as Testis I, tenor Christian Mücke as Testis II and the quartet of soprano Christina Roterberg, alto Waltraud Heinrich, tenor Volker Arndt, and bass Klaus Thiem in the aria ‘Ach, nun ist mein Jesus’ all sing strongly, freeing this performance from the weaknesses frequently encountered among the secondary parts.  The wonderful singing of the choristers is complemented by an exceptionally fine performance by the Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin.  Frequent collaborators with Maestro Jacobs, the Akademie’s players have committed many excellent performances to disc, but they have never played with greater eloquence and inspiration than in this performance.  The ‘halo’ of strings that accompanies Christ’s utterances is shaped with genuine radiance, ideally supporting the effects that the singer seeks to make.  Woodwinds are played with technical acumen far beyond the levels achieved by many players of period instruments.  Lutenist Shizuko Noiri contributes superbly to the continuo, but the obbligato playing in the bass aria ‘Komm, süßes Kreuz’—which is also offered in its version with viola da gamba obbligato as an appendix—is a thing apart, a performance of great accomplishment.  Throughout the performance, the Akademie players respond unerringly to Maestro Jacobs’s leadership, seemingly feeling the pulse of his intensely personal interpretation of the score in their bone marrow.  This uniformity of artistic vision both enhances the validity of Maestro Jacobs’s interpretive choices and reveals the innermost structure of the Matthäus-Passion, from the perspectives of the Gospel and Bach’s music.

Maestro Jacobs’s advocacy of a division of vocal soloists after the same manner as that employed for placement of the divided choirs and orchestras inevitably results in the engagement of more soloists than are typically heard in a performance of the Matthäus-Passion, corresponding with the compartmentalization of the narrative.  It is further testament to the encompassing unity of Maestro Jacobs’s approach to the score that his team of aria soloists, expanded to include eight singers, produces singing of the highest quality.  The soprano arias are sung by Sunhae Im and Christina Roterberg.  Ms. Im takes the lion’s share of the arias and excels in each of them, providing an especially lovely account of ‘Aus Liebe will mein Heiland sterben.’  Ms. Roterberg distinguishes herself with a fervently-phrased performance of ‘Blute nur, du liebes Herz.’  Mezzo-soprano Marie-Claude Chappuis makes much of the sole aria given to her, ‘Können Tränen meiner Wangen,’ bringing impressive intensity to the aria and the recitative that precedes it.  In addition to the score’s other alto arias, to mezzo-soprano Bernarda Fink, renowned for her singing of Bach’s music, falls the task of singing the exquisite ‘Erbarme dich,’ arguably the Matthäus-Passion’s (and perhaps even Bach’s) most celebrated solo aria.  Maestro Jacobs adopts a tempo for the aria that is slightly faster than many conductors have chosen, but the focus of Ms. Fink’s singing unforgettably conveys the text’s plea for mercy.  Ms. Fink’s voice remains in excellent condition, with the upper register sounding especially well-supported and attractive.  Tenorial duties are divided evenly between Topi Lehtipuu and Fabio Trümpy.  Mr. Lehtipuu’s singing of the recitative ‘O Schmerz! hier zittert das gequälte Herz’ and aria ‘Ich will bei meinem Jesu wachen’ is ideal, the tone absolutely secure, the timbre honeyed but brilliant, and the technique absolutely comfortable with the idiom.  Mr. Trümpy proves an extremely capable singer as well, offering nuanced shading of tone in the recitative ‘Mein Jesus schweigt zu falschen Lügen stille’ and aria ‘Geduld, Geduld!’  Bass-baritone Konstantin Wolff produces an alluring stream of dark-sapphire tone in ‘Komm, süßes Kreuz,’ both in the version with lute, which is preferred in the sequence of the Passion, and in the edition with viola da gamba.  Baritone Arttu Kataja reacts to the very different demands of ‘Gerne will ich mich bequemen’ and ‘Gebt mir meinen Jesum wieder!’ with equal success, the dark timbre of the voice never reducing its flexibility or clarity of intonation.

It is interesting to note that Norwegian baritone Johannes Weisser was at the time of the making of this recording close to the age at which history and liturgy suggest that Jesus of Nazareth was crucified.  Thirty-two is hardly an age at which a man of the Twenty-First Century might be expected to have the proverbial weight of the world upon his shoulders, but both the Apostle and the composer depict in the Matthäus-Passion an insightful but not unafraid man compelled by duty and forces beyond his control to be sacrificed both as fulfillment of prophecy and as the embodiment of all that has been, is, and will be; the symbolic destruction of Providence’s stronghold on earth and the rising of the New Jerusalem.  Musically and dramatically, the climax of Christ’s participation in Bach’s Matthäus-Passion is his institution of the Eucharist at the Last Supper, which Bach sets in broadly flowing arioso passages that are sung with verbal alertness and sublime concentration by Mr. Weisser.  Indeed, it is his audible surrender to the spirit of his music that is the most memorable element of Mr. Weisser’s performance.  The Matthäus-Passion is not a ‘sacred drama’ of the sort exemplified by Händel’s Old Testament oratorios, but a performance without a charismatic, credibly self-confident Christ at its center cannot wholly escape this flaw.  Though much of his operatic work is in baritone rôles, including a previous harmonia mundi recording of the title rôle in Mozart’s Don Giovanni under Maestro Jacobs’s direction, Mr. Weisser is comfortable in the fully bass tessitura of Christ’s music, the lowest notes little troubling him.  In the intelligent husbanding of his vocal resources and matching of tonal shading to nuances of text, Mr. Weisser recalls the singing of Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, though Mr. Weisser’s command of the lower octave of the tessitura is more confident than Fischer-Dieskau’s.  Rather than being a cardboard Savior, Mr. Weisser’s Christ emerges as a fascinatingly virile figure, a man in the prime of his life who feels the crushing hand of universal sin upon him but, knowing that it is his destiny to vindicate errant humanity, is not broken by it.  Vocally, Mr. Weisser’s performance wants for nothing.

Perhaps to an even greater extent than in the Johannes-Passion, the overall success of a performance of the Matthäus-Passion relies upon the singing of the tenor to whom the part of the Evangelist is entrusted.  If pages upon pages of text were not sufficiently daunting, Bach set these expanses to music with an uniquely punishing tessitura, closer to the haute-contre tradition of French Baroque music than to other Teutonic models.  Merely to sing the music accurately is achievement enough, but to sing it truly beautifully and without distortion is a preciously rare accomplishment.  Werner Güra, one of the finest tenors heard in Baroque music in recent years, here crowns his distinguished career—which includes participation in several previous recordings of the Matthäus-Passion—with a performance of the Evangelist worthy of comparison with the best accounts of the part ever recorded.  The heady beauty of Mr. Güra’s voice shimmers throughout the performance, and the crispness of his diction—native, of course, but no less praiseworthy for that—renders him a participant in the narrative rather than a passive observer.  Whereas many tenors convey Peter’s anguish at realizing that he has fulfilled the prophecy of thrice denying Christ by evoking empathy for the travails of the singer’s throat, Mr. Güra grips the heartstrings by singing the music unhesitatingly, never crooning, never cheating, and never resorting to poorly-projected falsetto.  Mr. Güra’s Evangelist is audibly a man with a very close relationship to Christ, both follower and friend, and the voice glows with anger in his descriptions of the manner in which Christ is mistreated.  Mr. Güra’s performance transcends mere narration, traveling a wide distance from good-natured awe to genuine sorrow and hope in salvation.  Verbally, every syllable of Mr. Güra’s delivery is discernible without his enunciation ever seeming deliberate or fussy.  Musically, every note of the Evangelist’s music is sung gorgeously.  Most importantly, Mr. Güra embodies the true spirit of the Evangelist: more than relaying things he has seen and heard, this man leads the listener through a dangerous and profoundly troubled world in which a man he loves is brutally murdered.

It has been suggested that, on its own terms, Bach’s Matthäus-Passion is not unlike Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen: dealing with one of humanity’s great systems of belief, Bach paved the way for Wagner by personalizing the ritualized mythology of one of the defining precepts of social and philosophical history without lessening the appeal of its universality.  If it can be argued that virtually any of Wagner’s heroes is symbolic of Christ, that Lohengrin’s Christ champions the honor of Elsa’s Mary Magdalene, that the return of Tannhäuser from Rome and the vanquishing of Venus are the Second Coming of Christ and the condemnation of the Whore of Babylon, perhaps it can be suggested without incredulity that the figure of Christ in the Matthäus-Passion is Bach’s Siegfried, sacrificed for the purification of humanity, and the Evangelist his Loge, who wonders at the known as keenly as at the unknown.  The marvel of the Matthäus-Passion is that a work of such dramatic and musical immensity is in its emotional impact incredibly intimate; or, rather, that it manages to be in the best performances of it.  The true grandeur of the Matthäus-Passion is not in its dimensions but in its directness.  So many performances seek distinction in detail, decorating a heartless corpse in resplendent garments.  The musical clothes in which this Matthäus-Passion is clad are of the richest fabrics, but René Jacobs and his dedicated team of artists take the heart of Bach’s music in their hands, exposing it to beat and bleed throughout this performance.  This is not a performance of incense and reliquaries: this is a performance of pierced flesh, of the smell of putrid smoke and the trembling earth of Golgotha.  Informed but not bound by scholarship, René Jacobs has produced a performance of the Matthäus-Passion that allows the starlight of Bach’s genius to shine brightly and inspires the listener, regardless of his faith, to say, ‘This is the Lord’s doing, and it is marvelous in our eyes.’