31 December 2013

Year in Review: The Best of 2013

Year in Review: The Best of 2013

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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