28 February 2014

CD REVIEW: Antonio Francisco Javier José Soler & Sebastián Ramón de Albero y Añaños – SUSPIROS DE ESPAÑA (Philippe Leroy, harpsichord; Peyrole Records MHP 2056)

Antonio Francisco Javier José Soler & Sebastián Ramón de Albero y Añaños - SUSPIROS DE ESPAÑA (Peyrole Records MHR 2056)

ANTONIO FRANCISCO JAVIER JOSÉ SOLER (1729 – 1783) and SEBASTIÁN RAMÓN DE ALBERO Y AÑAÑOS (1722 – 1756): Suspiros de españa – Spanish Harpsichord Sonatas—Philippe Leroy, harpsichord [Recorded in L’Église de Marsolan, Midi-Pyrénées, France, 12 – 15 May 2008; Peyrole Records, MHP 2056; 2CD, 90:45; Contact Peyrole Records to order this recording]

​One of the most persistent quandaries in Classical Music—and, indeed, one that unites this glorious art with popular music and virtually all aspects of universal humanity—is the disheartening way in which fools and sycophants rise to prominence while deserving, genuinely gifted artists struggle in pursuit of elusive recognition. The evolution of the Classical recording industry and the technologically-actuated increase in fellowship among music lovers that should foster an environment in which artists of quality can enjoy exposure equal to their merits have, in fact, facilitated an opposite reality: the voices that are most heard are those that are amplified by garish hype and reputations little reliant upon musical values. Quietly, French-born harpsichordist and organist Philippe Leroy has attained and shared with those fortunate enough to have heard him play mastery of his chosen instruments that far exceeds the accomplishments of many of the most renowned exponents of historically-appropriate keyboard playing. Content to leave his more celebrated colleagues to posing for publicity photographs and writing egotistically imbecilic liner notes for their widely-distributed recordings, Mr. Leroy has devoted himself to honing his skills as an interpreter of music for the harpsichord and organ to a level that surely matches—and, in some cases, exceeds—the talents of the great masters of the 17th and 18th Centuries. Suspiros de españa explores the harpsichord Sonatas of two of those masters, the Spaniards Antonio Francisco Javier José Soler, whose body of work remains a cornerstone of the harpsichord repertoire, and the less-known Sebastián Ramón de Albero y Añaños, traversing in ninety minutes some of the richest, most sagacious music composed for the harpsichord. Listeners for whom the harpsichord summons reluctant thoughts of dainty sounds and endless stretches of secco recitative must be forewarned, however: the playing on these discs, recorded in minimal takes with only a pair of microphones and no editing or tweaking of monitors, is as robust as any pianist’s performances of Beethoven or Brahms Piano Sonatas. It is the style of the music and not the integrity of the music-making that differs, of course, and in his playing of these sonatas for harpsichord Mr. Leroy proves a veritable mago encantador. Suspiros de españa indeed provokes countless sighs of pleasure, but there are also numerous passages that inspire well-earned gasps of awe.

As the appellation by which he is known to many musicians and listeners suggests, Padre Soler pursued an ecclesiastical lifestyle from an early age, entering the famed choir school—the Escolania—of the Benedictine abbey of Santa María de Montserrat at the age of six. After studies with the abbey’s music master and organist (and perhaps also with Domenico Scarlatti, who was resident in Spain from 1729 until his death in 1757 and whose music for harpsichord cannot have failed to influence Soler even if the two composers did not engage in formal tutelage), Soler entered the monastic Order of Saint Jerome. He was eventually appointed maestro de capilla at el Escorial, where his duties included supervising the musical education of the Spanish Royal Family. It may well have been for the most talented of his regal charges, the Infante of Spain, that many of Soler’s Harpsichord Sonatas were composed. Despite the rigors of his liturgical vocation, Soler was a prolific composer: the published canon of his works contains 120 Harpsichord Sonatas, and some musicologists estimate the actual number of his compositions in this genre to be between 150 and 200. For Suspiros de españa, Mr. Leroy selected eleven of Soler’s finest Sonatas, forming a programme that is uncommonly successful in its continuity and key progression. Having chosen two Sontas in C♯ minor (Nos. 20 and 21), two in D minor (Nos. 24 and 25), one in A minor (No. 71), two in C minor (Nos. 18 and 19), one in F Major (No. 69), one in F minor (No. 72), and two in D Major (Nos. 73 and 74), Mr. Leroy plays them with technical panache that draws sounds of extraordinary vitality from the wonderful Anthony Sidey harpsichord, a copy of a 1735 instrument from the German school of Gottfried Silbermann. Prepared for this recording by its maker using a typical 18th-Century unequal temperament with a = 415 Hz, the instrument responds with full-bodied tones to Mr. Leroy’s touch, confounding lingering notions that the harpsichord is an anemic instrument unsuited to solo recitals. Unlike many of his colleagues who have recorded Soler’s Harpsichord Sonatas, Mr. Leroy does not sacrifice rhythmic flexibility, rubato, or nuances of interpretation to unyielding pursuits of hard-nosed ‘authenticity.’ His playing exhibits a complete mastery of the art of imaginative interpretation that expands the boundaries of period-appropriate stylishness rather than being confined by them. The three Sonatas in major keys, including the pair of D-Major Sonatas with which the Soler disc ends, emerge as sunny oases among the darker atmospheres of the minor-key Sonatas, but Mr. Leroy looks beyond key signatures and explores the deeper sentiments in each Sonata.

That the harpsichord music of Sebastián de Albero is less familiar to 21st-Century listeners than that of Padre Soler is revealed by Mr. Leroy’s performances of sixteen of the composer’s thirty known Harpsichord Sonatas to be a circumstance of impersonal fate rather than an indication of the quality of the music. Like Soler, the Church was the center of Albero’s musical life, his formative years as a chorister in Pamplona’s Catedral de Santa María la Real preparing him for his later engagement as principal organist in the Chapel Royal in Madrid. During his tenure at the Royal Court, Albero enjoyed proximity to Domenico Scarlatti, by whose harpsichord music Albero’s was ultimately overshadowed, but it is significant that, when he left Spain after the death of Fernando VI in 1759, the great Farinelli—a far more insightful musician than many of his fellow castrati—took many Albero scores with him to Bologna. Albero’s short life prevented him from bequeathing to posterity a considerable body of work, but the Sonatas played by Mr. Leroy reveal a mature musical intelligence. Eschewing the fugal 15th and 30th Sonatas, Mr. Leroy again chose and grouped Sonatas in a manner that emphasizes tonal relationships and thematic development. In addition to two Sonatas in F Major (Nos. 7 and 8), two in A Major (Nos. 20 and 21), one in G minor (No. 17), two in B minor (Nos. 18 and 19), two in B♭ Major (Nos. 13 and 14), one in D Major (No. 12), two in A minor (Nos. 5 and 6), and two in E♭ Major (Nos. 24 and 25), Mr. Leroy plays Sonatas in the G and D Dorian modes (Nos. 16 and 11, respectively), which in their use of scales pitched a whole tone higher than their adjacent keys [i.e. the G Dorian mode adheres to the compass of the F-Major scale, though beginning on G—G, A, B♭ (the minor third), C, D, E, F, G] are essentially minor keys. To an extent, Albero’s harmonies are even more adventurous—more recognizably Spanish, it might be said—than Soler’s, but the influence of Domenico Scarlatti’s ubiquitous Sonatas is more obvious in Albero’s music. This detracts nothing from the young Spaniard’s originality, however, and it is impossible to imagine another artist providing a more stirring exposition of the nobility of Albero’s music than Mr. Leroy evinces through his playing on this disc. The onerous technical demands of these Sonatas do not prevent uplifting lyrical episodes from shining through, though this perhaps would not be so evident in performances by harpsichordists whose playing does not combine virtuosity and emotional discernment so unpretentiously as Mr. Leroy consistently does. Above all, there is a sense of penetrating humanity in Mr. Leroy’s playing, and even the most disquieting technical stumbling blocks do not distract him from his concentration on the less obvious qualities of the music. Only the keyboardist who is certain of his fingers’ adroitness is liberated to engage his senses as palpably as his hands in music as challenging as that of Albero’s Sonatas. Designating an artist a ‘thinking man’s musician’ has become clichéd, but with his playing of Albero’s music, which has never been delivered more majestically on disc, Mr. Leroy secures the distinction.

Suspiros de españa is a perfect recording for those listeners who cling to their misconceptions of the harpsichord as an instrument for quaint music and players in periwigs. It is also ideal for those who know better. Most significantly, Suspiros de españa is an unsurpassed performance of the music of two gifted composers heretofore underserved on disc and, for listeners who have not yet encountered his playing, an outstanding introduction to the work of a resplendently percipient artist. The inquisitive spirit of the Baroque Revival has thus far only skimmed the surface of Spanish repertoire of the 17th and 18th Centuries, but this recording intoxicatingly tills the fertile fields of Padre Soler’s and Sebastián Albero’s Harpsichord Sonatas. What Suspiros de españa is not is a ‘specialist’ recording that can only be enjoyed by listeners for whom Baroque repertoire is typical fare. Philippe Leroy brings to the music of Soler and Albero what Artur Schnabel brought to Schubert and Claudio Arrau to Chopin—technical mastery allied with a poetic earnestness that transcends rigid efforts at stylistic correctness. Whatever the idiom of the music at hand, marvelous playing never goes out of style, and Philippe Leroy’s performances on Suspiros de españa are like a rioja of excellent vintage; earthy, invigorating, and to be savored without reservation.

26 February 2014

CD REVIEW: Claude Debussy – BEAU SOIR [Préludes Book II & Other Works] (Michael Lewin, piano; Sono Luminus DSL-92175)

Claude Debussy - BEAU SOIR (Sono Luminus DSL-92175)

CLAUDE DEBUSSY (1862 – 1918): Beau Soir – Préludes Book II (L 123) and Other Works for PianoMichael Lewin, piano [Recorded at Sono Luminus, Boyce, Virginia, USA, 1 – 3 July 2013; Sono Luminus DSL-92175; 1CD + Blu-ray, 68:56; Available from Sono Luminus, Amazon, ClassicsOnline, and major music retailers]

Malgré lui, virtually every listener who has ever seen a vintage Looney Tunes® cartoon or a French art house film has been exposed to the piano music of Claude Debussy. Likewise, few aspiring pianists have emerged from conservatories without having encountered Debussy’s two Livres de Préludes, composed in 1909 – 1910 and 1912 – 1913, respectively. Whilst there is nothing in his correspondence or contemporary commentary to suggest that Debussy intended the Préludes to be performed collectively rather than individually, the precedent for playing the full livres rather than extracting Préludes in recital was set as early as 1911. The piano music of Debussy in general has been in the repertoires of many of the best pianists of the 20th and 21st Centuries, especially those with Gallic sensibilities, and American pianist Michael Lewin brings to this disc—his third recording for Sono Luminus, by whose GRAMMY®-nominated producer Dan Merceruio and engineer Daniel Shores his playing of a Steinway Model D concert grand piano has been recorded with extraordinary clarity and spatial ambience—an impeccable Francophile pedigree, having studied with Yvonne Lefébure (1898 – 1986), who played for Debussy in the last years of his life and was a pupil of Alfred Cortot (and whose own pupils also included Dinu Lipatti and Imogen Cooper). Recordings of the Préludes and Debussy’s piano music by an inordinate array of pianists have revealed that it is one thing to play these pieces but quite another to truly experience them. Michael Lewin experiences this music acutely, and, being granted by Sono Luminus the acoustical perspective of a seat in a Parisian salon musical, the listener to Beau Soir can actively take part in this tantalizing escapade in sound.

The disc’s title track, with which this scintillating recital begins, is an arrangement by Koji Attwood of the young Debussy’s lyrical mélodie ‘Beau Soir,’ a setting of a poem by Paul Bourget. The piece was arranged specially for Mr. Lewin, and his playing of it is exquisite, his elucidations of both melody and harmony transcending conventional instrumental renderings of chansons. L’Isle joyeuse, one of Debussy’s most familiar piano pieces, is played as though it were newly-discovered, Mr. Lewin’s unflappable technique making easy going of the work’s formidable demands. The delicate, deliciously Arcadian Le petit berger—cited by Mr. Lewin as the first Debussy piece he learned as a child—glows with subdued wonder in his performance. Perhaps more familiar in Ravel’s orchestration, Debussy’s original Tarantelle styrienne receives from Mr. Lewin a performance in which power never precludes sly humor. The trio of pieces in waltz rhythms—Étude No. 5 (Pour les octaves), Valse romantique, and La plus que lente—are all played with apparent but inconspicuous attention to absolute rhythmic precision, the accuracy of Mr. Lewin’s playing seeming all the more remarkable for his limning of the melodic lines being utterly natural and unforced. The sublime Élégie, Debussy’s last completed work for the piano but ironically one of his least known, brims with august resignation, perhaps even desolation, and Mr. Lewin quarries to the innermost soul of the piece without engaging in overwrought sentimentality, his approach aptly light but informed by cognizance of the poignancy of the music.

Roughly contemporaneous with his ballet score Jeux and the magnificent Trois poèmes de Stéphane Mallarmé, the second Livre de Préludes was composed when Debussy was in the final phase of his development as an artist. Formal structures and conventional tonality were fading from his musical vocabulary, but the breadth of his genius ensured that theoretical exercises in modern idioms remained unfailingly musical and often indescribably beautiful. Though the distinct rhythmic profiles of the Préludes suggest a tacit kinship with similar keyboard ‘cycles’ of earlier generations, not least Johann Sebastian Bach’s Wohltemperierte Klavier, Debussy bound himself with no restraints in terms of producing pieces in particular keys or progressions. Indeed, even as explorations of the possibilities of pianistic technique the Préludes are less formulaic than Chopin’s works in a similar vein. It would be a misguided generalization to suggest that these twelve Préludes are rhapsodic in the purest sense, but the compositional freedom with which Debussy created them is arresting—and, to the listener’s edification, uniformly apparent throughout Mr. Lewin’s playing of them. Musically, the Préludes are not as restrictively programmatic as their evocative titles imply, but each of them engenders its own unique microcosm. The tonally ambiguous mists of Brouillards; the obtuse, anonymous disintegration of Feuilles mortes; the scorching Andalusian sunlight in La puerta del vino; the ethereal sprites of ‘Les fées sont d’exquises danseuses,’ reminiscent of the fairy denizens of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream; the lilting Highlands atmosphere of Bruyéres; the zany musical portraiture of General Lavine – eccentric; the quixotic Orientalism of La terrasse des audiences du clair de lune (a piece that every pianist should learn as a study in restrained lyric expression); the mysterious world of Ondine, a distant cousin of Dvořák’s Rusalka; the tempest-in-a-teacup antics of Hommage à S. Pickwick Esq. P.P.M.P.C.; the vaguely ironic funerary rites of Canopes; the purely technical exposition of Les tierces alternées, almost a Baroque da capo duet for the pianist’s hands; and the explosive, pseudo-patriotic eruptions of color in Feux d’artifice: all of these qualities abound in Mr. Lewin’s playing of the Préludes. Though the style is unmistakably Debussy’s, hearing the Préludes played in succession by an artist of Mr. Lewin’s caliber has the effect of hearing a great pianist play a recital including music by Scarlatti, Mozart, Brahms, Scriabin, and Satie—a recital in which, contrary to expectations, the pianist proves equally adept at all of the musical styles on offer. Since Debussy did not truly devise an unifying concept for his Préludes, Mr. Lewin provides one with unyielding brilliance of technique and artistic intelligence.

There are in many pianists’ performances of Debussy’s music disconcerting notions of the pieces being academic experiments devised to appraise abstract hypotheses about the functional boundaries of tonality. Even the most oblique of Debussy’s works for the piano are not coldly methodical theorems, however: they are phantoms of terror and tenderness, and Michael Lewin plays the pieces on this disc accordingly. Virtuosity is always enjoyable, but the pianist’s hands that are detached from his heart produce nothing but notes, regardless of whose music is being played. The ingeniously chameleonic piano music of Claude Debussy is the vehicle with which Michael Lewin coaxes an engrossingly individual performance from the impersonal keys of his piano, and Beau Soir is nothing less than an intimate discourse between a great composer and a preeminent interpreter of his music. Eavesdropping for a little more than an hour, the cares of the world melt into aural spectacles that comfort and confound.

25 February 2014

CD REVIEW: Engelbert Humperdinck – HÄNSEL UND GRETEL (S. Shigeshima, E. Wimmer, U. Schenker-Primus, R. Teem, A. Günther, C. Maier, H. Park; MDG 909 1837-6)

Engelbert Humperdinck - HÄNSEL UND GRETEL (MDG 909 1837-6)

ENGELBERT HUMPERDINCK (1854 – 1921): Hänsel und Gretel—S. Shigeshima (Hänsel), E. Wimmer (Gretel), U. Schenker-Primus (Peter), R. Teem (Gertrud), A. Günther (Die Knusperhexe), C. Maier (Sandmännchen), H. Park (Taumännchen); schola cantorum weimar, Damen des Opernchores des Deutschen Nationaltheaters Weimar; Staatskapelle Weimar; Martin Hoff [Recorded in the Deutschen Nationaltheater, Weimar, Germany, on 2 – 4 May and 10 – 12 September 2013; MDG 909 1837-6; 2CD, 98:22; Available from Amazon (Germany), HB Direct, and major music retailers]

Engelbert Humperdinck’s Hänsel und Gretel is an opera that, as a work of art of lasting merit, is undermined by its own popularity. Dismissed by many audiences, critics, and musicians as an insipid entertainment for children, an analytical look at the score reveals a masterful work, crafted with obvious musical genius and instinct for the stage. Premièred in Weimar in 1893, when it was conducted by Richard Strauss, Hänsel und Gretel quickly conquered the world: its 1894 Hamburg première was led by Gustav Mahler, and the opera’s first performance at New York’s Metropolitan Opera in 1905, at which the composer was present and in which the Knusperhexe was sung by the remarkable Louise Homer, was a success that surprised both the MET and the New York press. This new recording from Musikproduktion Dabringhaus und Grimm, expectedly benefiting from the sonic brilliance for which the label is acclaimed, returns Hänsel und Gretel to its Weimar roots, and though the performance features an international cast its greatest strength is the inherent legitimacy of the approach to the score adopted by its ‘hometown’ forces. Humperdinck was an earnest disciple of Wagner, of course, and Hänsel und Gretel owes much to Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, Tannhäuser, and even Tristan und Isolde, and this stylistic kinship surely was not lost on the young Strauss, who at the time of the première of Hänsel und Gretel was hard at work on his first opera, Guntram, which was first performed in Weimar in 1894. There are also details in Hänsel und Gretel that would stay in Strauss’s mind as his great future masterpieces took shape, not least the mysterious trills that elevate the tension in Salome and the otherworldly two-note figurations that symbolize the Stimme des Falken in Die Frau ohne Schatten. Hänsel und Gretel is far more than a vapid homage to Wagner or a training ground for Strauss, however: in its most inspired passages, it is a paean to lost innocence, a celebration of the dignity of family values and faith, and a treatise on the independence of virtue from a man’s bank balance. Musically, though the idiom is lushly Romantic, Humperdinck’s score makes it clear that from the summit of Wagner’s Green Hill the Twentieth Century could be seen close on the horizon. This new recording provides equally cloudless vistas of Humperdinck’s talent and the unabashedly sentimental beauties of Hänsel und Gretel.

Musicians and conductors who regard Hänsel und Gretel as a simplistic children’s opera may well be taken short by the score’s difficulties. In this performance, the consistently high level of accomplishment by the choristers is superb, with the singing by the ladies of the Opernchores des Deutschen Nationaltheaters Weimar, directed by Markus Oppeneiger, making a strong impression. Prepared by Cordula Fischer, the singing of the children of schola cantorum weimar is both musically impeccable and wonderfully moving. The voicing of the echoes in the forest in the first scene of Act Two is perfectly light but menacing, and the youths’ singing in the opera’s penultimate scene—that in which, in what can be one of the most profoundly touching episodes in opera, the Knusperhexe’s spell is broken and the bewitched gingerbread children are restored to human form—is convincingly juvenile without musicality ever being compromised. This union of childlike wonder with mature musical standards is precisely what Humperdinck’s music requires, and the Weimar choral forces succeed in supplying it. Their efforts are complemented by the powerful playing of the Staatskapelle Weimar. Despite many gossamer effects in the Traumpantomime and throughout the score, Humperdinck’s orchestration is Wagnerian in scale, and the Staatskapelle Weimar players give of their best in passages that demand displays of orchestral color en masse. Their playing of subdued scenes is no less effective, and their accounts of the opera’s famous orchestral showpieces—the Vorspiel, Hexenritt, Traumpantomime, and Knusperwalzer—are rousing, with especially fine playing from the horns providing a sturdy foundation for the performance as a whole. Martin Hoff’s mastery of Humperdinck’s score is evident throughout the performance, and his conducting reveals the full extent of the composer’s wit and musical sophistication, particularly in passages which other conductors are content to allow to dissolve into syrupy banality.

The otherworldly characters are all entrusted in this recording to capable singers. The Taumännchen of South Korean soprano Hyunjin Park is a sparkling creation, her singing of ‘Der kleine Taumann heiss’ ich’ assured and radiantly lovely, befitting a companion of dawn. She is the ideal foil for the Sandmännchen of German soprano Caterina Maier, who brings benevolent fun and bright tone to her performance of ‘Der kleine Sandmann bin ich, st.’ Though the rôle was composed for and first performed by a mezzo-soprano, the effect of whose top B♭ at the end of her broomstick ‘gallop’ can be exhilarating, there is a long-standing German tradition of casting male singers as the Knusperhexe, a tradition honored in the much-lauded Richard Jones production created for Welsh National Opera and Lyric Opera of Chicago by which many 21st-Century audiences have been introduced to the opera. On records, too, the tradition is charmingly embodied by an unexpectedly vivid performance of the part by tenor Peter Schreier. In this recording, the Gingerbread Witch’s apron is donned by baritone Alexander Günther, a singer more likely to be encountered in opera houses in the ‘big sing’ baritone rôles of Mozart, Verdi, and Puccini. His falsetto singing can be grating, but when Mr. Günther allows his natural baritone to come through the effect is often formidable. Occasional unsteadiness on sustained tones undermines his efforts at making this Rosine Leckermaul atypically appealing, but his intelligence is apparent. Despite the novelty of having a baritone in the part, there are less caricature and annoying distortions than in many performances, and Mr. Günther whispers and roars his way through the music with charisma. Vocally, the highlight of his performance is the closing bars of the broomstick ride, where he summons his resources to challenge his female rivals in the rôle with an exciting top B♭ of his own.

One of the great mysteries in opera is why, when the 1812 story by the Gebrüder Grimm—greatly softened by Humperdinck and his librettist, Adelheid Wette (the composer’s sister)—leaves no doubt that Hänsel and Gretel are young children, productions of Hänsel und Gretel so often give the title tykes superannuated parents. Peter and Gertrud—so they are named in the libretto, though in the course of the opera they are only referred to, even in conversation with one another, as Vater and Mutter—are not substantial rôles by conventional standards and thus, in general, do not attract important singers at the heights of their powers, but surely they might as easily be cast with good singers at the beginnings of their careers as with those in their vocal twilight. This recording offers a fortifyingly secure-toned pair of parents. Peter, the down-on-his-luck broom-maker, is charmingly sung by German baritone Uwe Schenker-Primus. The good humor and beaming pride with which he returns to his family after an unusually successful day of peddling his wares is palpably conveyed, making the contrast of the terror that encroaches on his happiness when he discovers that his children have gone into the threatening forest all the more gripping. Joy returns upon his discovery of his unharmed children, and Mr. Schenker-Primus’s singing of the chorale-like ‘Merkt des Himmels Strafgericht’—the tessitura of which takes him twice to high F—beautifully provides the climax of the opera’s final scene. In the performance of American soprano Rebecca Teem, Gertrud is less of a harridan than she becomes in many performances. Taking up the mantle of sopranos with Wagnerian credentials like Rita Hunter and Hildegard Behrens who have proved the most persuasive Gertruds, Ms. Teem invests her performance with potent vocal amplitude. This Mutter scolds her children without ever seeming hateful, however, and her interactions with her husband are loving even when manic. Unlike many recorded Gertruds, Ms. Teem possesses a secure, ringing top B♭, which she detonates strappingly in Act One. Most significantly, this pair of singers make credible parents for young children: for once, Peter and Gertrud sound as though Hänsel and Gretel were not born in the infirmary of a retirement village.

Ironically, though, the parents and the supernaturals often sound younger than the recording’s Hänsel and Gretel. Japanese mezzo-soprano Sayaka Shigeshima is a forthright but unmistakably feminine Hänsel. To her credit, she endeavors to portray a young boy by maintaining a lean line rather than by employing calculatedly puerile mannerisms. The tessitura of Hänsel’s music holds no terrors for Ms. Shigeshima, her high G having an especially attractive gleam. The lower octave of Ms. Shigeshima’s voice occasionally sounds slightly hollow, most noticeably in passages in which the vocal line requires her to rapidly alternate between her upper and lower registers, but her intonation is generally sure. There is a boyish irascibility in Ms. Shigeshima’s Hänsel’s dealings with his mother, and he is prone to bullying Gretel. He trembles with fear in the forest, however, and his instinct to protect his sister is audibly engaged when they are confronted by the Knusperhexe. Ms. Shigeshima’s voice blends gracefully with Gretel’s in ‘Abends, will ich schlafen gehn,’ the famous Evening Prayer, and the muted cries of ‘Schwesterlein, hüt dich fein’ grow increasingly frenzied as danger mounts. The object of her concern is alluringly portrayed by Austrian soprano Elisabeth Wimmer, who is a more knowing Gretel than many. In the opera’s early scenes, this is a Gretel who sounds deflated by hunger and poverty, but she is audibly inspired to poetic wonder by the perils of the forest. Ms. Wimmer amusingly plays the fool when tricking the Knusperhexe into demonstrating proper use of the magic oven, but there is nothing foolish in her management of her voice. Like Ms. Shigeshima, Ms. Wimmer sounds youthful but not singularly girlish. Still, there is a disarming freshness in her singing. Ms. Wimmer’s top B♭ in ‘Juchhei!’ after the Knusperhexe’s death is jubilant, and her technique enables her to soar to the climactic top B in the final scene with freedom. If Ms. Shigeshima and Ms. Wimmer do not conjure an aural image of young children exuberantly disobeying their parents, the confidence and security of their singing proves most rewarding.

Many productions of Hänsel und Gretel are so concerned with lending Humperdinck’s opera modern sensibilities that they overlook the fact that the core values of the plot and its characters are timeless; and, more unforgiveably, they neglect the musical demands of the score. When an opera is sung well, no apologies need to be made for it, and MDG’s recording delivers a performance of Hänsel und Gretel that leaves no room for regrets. This recording is a beguiling ‘homecoming’ of Humperdinck’s magical score to the musical environs of Weimar that gave birth to it. More significantly, it is a recording that exhibits renewed commitment to giving Hänsel und Gretel expressive life that takes the opera on its own terms. When performed at this level of excellence, what a sublime, heartwarming opera Hänsel und Gretel is!

24 February 2014

CD REVIEW: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart – CONCERT ARIAS FOR TENOR (Rolando Villazón; DGG 479 1054)

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart - CONCERT ARIAS FOR TENOR (DGG 479 1054)

WOLFGANG AMADEUS MOZART (1756 – 1791): Concert Arias for Tenor and Orchestra, K. 21 (19c), 36 (33i), 209, 210, 256, 295, 420, from 430 (424a), 431 (425b), & 435 (416b)Rolando Villazón, tenor; John Alley, harpsichord continuo; London Symphony Orchestra; Sir Antonio Pappano [Recorded in Studio One, Abbey Road Studios, London, UK, in February 2012 and February 2013; DGG 479 1054; 1CD, 63:09; Available from Amazon, iTunes, jpc, Presto Classical, and major music retailers]

Thankfully, the fascinating trove of concert arias composed by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, dating from all periods in his too-brief career, is now considerably more known and appreciated than it was a half-century ago, when the arias were—with a few notable exceptions—infrequently-encountered curiosities that were regarded as ‘lesser Mozart.’ A number of these gems would more properly be termed ‘insertion arias,’ having been composed by Mozart for inclusion in other composers’—or, in the case of the alternate Rondo for Susanna in Le nozze di Figaro, his own—operas, and an element of the neglect of these arias was perhaps derived from the obscurity of the scores which they were intended to supplement. The soprano aria ‘Popoli di Tessaglia,’ with its infamous pair of G6s (the highest note ever demanded of the soprano voice, at least on paper, whether by Mozart, by Massenet in his flights of fancy for Sibyl Sanderson in Esclarmonde, by Salieri, by Offenbach, or by less familiar composers: the 1912 version of Zerbinetta’s ‘Großmächtige Prinzessin’ in Richard Strauss’s Ariadne auf Naxos requires only a pair of meager F♯6s!), was created for insertion into performances of Gluck’s Alceste: the extraordinary difficulty of Mozart’s music notwithstanding, the disappearance of Alceste from the world’s stages hardly bolstered the aria’s fortunes. Still, despite the attention that Mozart’s concert arias have received in both concert halls and recording studios during the past fifty years, those composed for tenor have not enjoyed the same exposure that their brethren for soprano and bass have garnered. With only a handful of recordings of the tenor arias on disc (and a lovely performance by Werner Hollweg awaiting transfer to CD), what is needed—for better or worse—in order to introduce these pieces to 21st-Century listeners is the advocacy of a star singer. This the concert arias for tenor receive in Deutsche Grammophon’s new recording with Mexican tenor Rolando Villazón. The sincerity and integrity of this artist’s endeavors are never in doubt, but the tantalizing enigma of this disc is whether the actual singing will be as stylish and technically assured as it is enthusiastic.

Aside from the fragmentary ‘Ah, più tremar non voglio,’ Mr. Villazón here sings all of the concert arias for tenor, and his efforts are supported by the superb playing of the London Symphony Orchestra. LSO’s first concert in 1904 featured music by Mozart, and under the leadership of such eminent conductors as Sir Edward Elgar, Sir Thomas Beecham, Claudio Abbado, and Sir Colin Davis the Orchestra’s reputation for uncompromisingly stylish performances of Mozart’s music has flourished. As the passing decades have ushered in trends for period-instrument performances of Classical repertory, LSO’s traditions have stood fast, the playing adapting to advances in scholarship without diminishing the standards of excellence for which the Orchestra is renowned. Too many ensembles have lost sight of the fact that success in performance of Mozart’s music relies upon finding the Master’s spirit in his scores rather than playing instruments that existed during the composer’s lifetime, but the playing of the LSO on this disc is unfailingly illustrative of the finest musicianship to be heard today in any repertoire. These arias make strenuous demands on the woodwinds and horns, and the LSO players respond unflinchingly to the most virtuosic passages, taking care to listen to each other, the singer, and their conductor. Acclaimed productions at the Royal Opera House have established Sir Antonio Pappano’s credentials as a thoughtful Mozartean, and his conducting of the arias on this disc, which embody the full range of Mozart’s stylistic evolution from the Händelian beginnings of his youth to the eloquent intensity of his maturity, furthers his reputation. Maestro Pappano’s sung contributions to the aria buffa ‘Clarice cara mia sposa’ confirm that his proper place in the opera house is on the podium rather than on the stage, but the energy, wit, and engaging sense of collaboration with which he conducts are endearing. The details of his interpretations are never obtrusive, and both his tempi and his highlighting of individual passages simply sound right for the music. It is apparent that Maestro Pappano not only knows these arias inside and out but also possesses a deeply sympathetic awareness of how they challenge and reward his tenor. There is in Maestro Pappano’s shaping of each aria a refreshing commitment to success, with passages that are most troublesome for Mr. Villazón being treated with sensitivity that enables the honesty of the singer’s performances to power through. Few listeners pick up a disc of Mozart’s vocal music in order to appreciate the orchestral playing and conducting, but the LSO and Maestro Pappano provide great enjoyment.

Vocally, the disc begins inauspiciously. Ostensibly responding to Mozart’s specified Andante tempo and piano dynamic markings, Mr. Villazón sings ‘Si mostra la sorte’ (K. 209 – 1775) almost as though he were marking in rehearsal. There is an increase in the vibrancy of his singing when the tempo changes to Allegro assai at the words ‘Ma sempre nemica,’ but there is something slightly precious in Mr. Villazón’s management of the frequent F♯s. In general, however, Mr. Villazón’s troublesome upper octave, though approached with caution, is on good form in ‘Si mostra la sorte’ and all of the arias. A holdover from the incomplete 1783 – 1784 Lo sposo deluso, Pulcherio’s aria ‘Dove mai trovar quel ciglio’ is sung by Mr. Villazón in a completion by Franz Beyer, whose orchestration of ‘Müßt ich auch durch lausend Drachen’ (K. 435/416b – 1783) is also employed. In the aria from Lo sposo deluso, Mr. Villazón sings broadly, using the text artfully. Interestingly, his diction and explorations of nuances of text are even finer in the German words of ‘Müßt ich auch durch lausend Drachen,’ the ascents to high G and A brought off winningly.

The treacherous accompagnato ‘Misero! O sogno o son desto’ and aria ‘Aura, che intorno spiri’ (K. 431/425b – 1783) inspire Mr. Villazón to his finest outpouring of dramatic vitality on the disc, with both the coloratura and top A♭s integrated into his singing of the vocal lines impressively. Mr. Villazón is fastidiously consistent in his execution of appoggiature, which contributes meaningfully to the cumulative impact of his compelling if unconventional stylishness. Similar attention to placing musical values in the service of his powerful dramatic instincts shapes his singing of ‘Tali e cotanti soli’ (K. 36/33i – 1766) and its recitative ‘Or che il dover,’ composed in Salzburg when Mozart was just shy of his eleventh birthday. Mozart the dramatist remained in his infancy, but already Mozart the musician was reaching beyond the examples of his contemporaries. His musical curiosity having also encompassed performances of Monteverdi, Händel, and Vivaldi repertoire, Mr. Villazón clearly relishes the young Mozart’s amalgamation of Baroque models with his own burgeoning style. The aria’s tessitura again centers punishingly in the passaggio, but Mr. Villazón takes this in stride, and he makes laudable efforts at producing the trills.

‘Va’, dal furor portata’ (K. 21/19c – 1765), composed in London when Mozart was nine years old, is a setting of an aria from Pietro Metastasio’s Ezio, a libretto set by Händel, Popora, and Gluck. Perhaps orchestrated by Leopold Mozart, this aria—the boy composer’s first concerted vocal composition—also offers an intriguing glimpse of the younger Mozart’s musical development. Using ornaments devised by fellow tenor (and Mozartean paragon) Christoph Prégardien, Mr. Villazón brings excellent breath control to his singing of the aria, delivering unaspirated coloratura with rhythmic precision and accurate pitch. Both ‘Con ossequio, con rispetto’ (K. 210 – 1775) and ‘Clarice cara mia sposa’ (K. 256 – 1776) were composed for insertion into Niccolò Piccinni’s 1772 comic opera L’astratto, ovvero Il giocator fortunato. The vocal line in ‘Con ossequio, con rispetto’ also rises frequently to F and G at the top of the staff, and in this lighter buffo fare Mr. Villazón shines, the words tripping off his tongue with the sheen of a practiced comedian. The high spirits in ‘Clarice cara mia sposa’ are slightly too much of a good thing, though the sheer joy in Mr. Villazón’s singing prevents the performance from slipping into banality. The aria’s purposefully unusual start with twenty-six repetitions of the same note is indicative of its structure, with repeated notes central to the comedic profile, and Mr. Villazón gives every note its due. His Capitano’s exchanges with Maestro Pappano’s bumbling Don Timoteo are a bit heavy-handed, but Mr. Villazón is too sensitive an artist to do anything truly unmusical.

‘Se al labbro mio non credi’ (K. 295 – 1778) was composed in Mannheim for the dual purposes of supplementing the music of Johann Adolf Hasse’s opera Artaserse and making a positive impression on celebrated tenor Anton Raaff, who in 1781 would create the title rôle in the first masterpiece of Mozart’s operatic maturity, Idomeneo. An Adagio of considerable beauty, its vocal line adorned with trills and rising to top B♭, the aria reaches great heights of expressivity, and Mr. Villazón sings it with focused tone and unwavering sense of purpose. These same qualities make his performance of the Rondo ‘Per pietà, non ricercate’ (K. 420 – 1783)—intended to be sung in Pasquale Anfossi’s 1777 opera Il curioso indiscreto—particularly memorable. More than any other composer of his generation, Mozart possessed an innate gift for achieving extraordinary feats of emotional connection via often surprisingly sparse musical means. The ebbs and flows of the vocal line are delivered with consummate grace by Mr. Villazón, who seems to feel the sentiments of which he sings to the depths of his own heart, and the spare repetitions of ‘Vo’ pensando’ are aimed squarely at the heart of the listener. As so often in Mr. Villazón’s performances, even those in which the voice does not function exactly as its owner intends, his shots in the direction of the listener’s imagination hit their mark.

Like his performances of Don Ottavio and Ferrando in DGG’s recordings of Don Giovanni and Così fan tutte, Mr. Villazón’s singing of Mozart’s concert arias for tenor is not what listeners accustomed to the Mozart singing of Fritz Wunderlich or Peter Schreier are likely to expect. His is a voice tanned by sultry Latin sunlight, dark and burnished but heavy only when he wishes it to be. It is a voice that, in the space of a single bar of music, can burst with laughter or drip with tears, and, whatever reservations a listener might have about the stylistic aspect of Mr. Villazón’s singing of it, it cannot be denied that the same description applies to Mozart’s music. Nothing that Mr. Villazón does in his performances of these arias is disinteresting, and his individual, uncomplicated approach to the music communicates the soul of each aria in a direct manner that is refreshing and ultimately very touching. Perfect vocalism is an elusive but admirable goal, but Rolando Villazón again proves that, not least in the music of Mozart, perfection pales in comparison with genuine affection.

21 February 2014

PERFORMANCE REVIEW: Baroque Arias by R. Broschi, N. Porpora, & A. Vivaldi and Instrumental Music by J.C. Bach, G.F Händel, & F.J. Haydn – V. Genaux, CSO, N. McGegan (Symphony Hall, Chicago, IL; 18 Feb 2014)

Mezzo-soprano Vivica Genaux and conductor Nicholas McGegan with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, 18 February 2014 [Photo by the Author]

JOHANN CHRISTIAN BACH (1735 – 1782): Symphony in G Minor, Op. 6, No. 6; RICCARDO BROSCHI (circa 1698 – 1756): ‘Qual guerriero in campo armato’ from Idaspe; GEORG FRIEDRICH HÄNDEL (1685 – 1759): Concerto grosso in G Major, Op. 6, No. 1 (HWV 319); FRANZ JOSEPH HAYDN (1732 – 1809): Symphony No. 100 in G Major, Hob. I/100 (Military); NICOLA PORPORA (1686 – 1768): ‘Oh volesser gli Dei…Dolci, freschi aurette’ from Polifemo and ‘Or la nube procellosa’ (composed for performance in Johann Adolf Hasse’s Artaserse); and ANTONIO VIVALDI (1678 – 1741): ‘Alma oppressa da sorte crudele’ from La fida ninfa, RV 714; Vivica Genaux, mezzo-soprano; Jory Vinikour, harpsichord continuo; Chicago Symphony Orchestra; Nicholas McGegan [Symphony Hall, Chicago, Illinois, USA; Tuesday, 18 February 2014]

In the musical life of any thoughtful performer, a début with one of the world’s greatest orchestras is an occasion of tremendous importance, personally and professionally. In the rarest of instances, it is also an extraordinary occasion for the audience fortunate enough to witness it. Thus, by all accounts, was the case with Alaska-born mezzo-soprano Vivica Genaux’s début with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra on Thursday, 13 February. The programme—featuring four of the most daunting bravura arias of the Eighteenth Century—was repeated on the evening of Tuesday, 18 February, and her second appearance with the CSO found Ms. Genaux at the zenith of her powers both as a vocalist and as a vibrant interpreter of theatrically heightened emotions in sound, even in concert. Under the marvelously stylish direction of Nicholas McGegan, the concert offered appealing performances of repertory that, with the exception of Haydn’s Symphony No. 100, was new to the CSO, and the only regrettable aspect of the evening was that there were not more ears in Symphony Hall to succumb to the spells cast by this coven of gifted musicians.

Music Director of the San Francisco-based Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra (with which Ms. Genaux will sing the rôle of Vagaus in Vivaldi’s oratorio Juditha triumphans in April) since 1985, Maestro McGegan is one of the world’s preeminent specialists in historically-informed practices, and he brought a lifetime’s experience to the differing idioms of this CSO programme. His work with the CSO players—reduced in numbers for this performance, naturally—produced articulation that was mostly crisp and stylistically appropriate. In the performance of Händel’s G-Major Concerto grosso that opened the concert, string playing was clean and light, avoiding the elephantine sounds artlessly blasted in Händel’s music by many modern orchestras. Associate Concertmaster Stephanie Jeong made particularly admirable efforts at adapting her technique to the delicate requirements of Baroque playing, and her colleagues noticeably endeavored to follow her example. Still, there were disparities among the sections, with the lower strings occasionally failing to match the accomplishments of the violins and oboes in terms of apposite phrasing. An overabundance of vibrato, especially from the cellos, intermittently obscured harmonic progressions and threatened to diminish the brilliance of the continuo playing by harpsichordist Jory Vinikour, unaccountably uncredited in CSO’s otherwise informative programme notes. Symphony Hall’s acoustics did not permit full appreciation of the effects of the differentiation between the concertino and ripieno, but contrapuntal passages were coherently executed. The subtle eloquence of the third movement (Adagio) was underpinned inventively by Mr. Vinikour’s continuo, enabling an expressive account of Händel’s lyrical subjects. The broadly-conceived final gigue was played expansively but with meticulous care for its precise rhythms, and here, too, Mr. Vinikour’s playing provided unmistakable energy and infusions of proper Baroque sophistication.

Written sometime in the 1760s, after its composer’s arrival in London in pursuit of a career in the British capital’s opera-friendly theatres, Johann Christian Bach’s Sinfonia in G Minor is a seminal work, one of the earliest surviving concert pieces in G Minor and an obvious influence on the seventeen-year-old Mozart’s Symphony No. 25 (K. 183/173b) in the same key, composed in 1773. Indeed, the significance of the London Bach’s Sinfonia in G Minor is more extensive than the work itself, which is only fifteen or so minutes in duration [longer, admittedly, than Händel’s G-Major Concerto grosso]. Both in its basic structure, which makes educated use of Classical sonata form, and it its stylistic anticipations of early Romanticism, the Sinfonia is a logical companion to Haydn’s ‘Military’ Symphony. Supplemented by a pair of horns, superbly played, the strings and oboes again strove for a manner of playing appropriate to the music. There was none of the all-purpose sawing and honking that undermines many modern-instrument orchestras’ attempts at performing pre-1775 repertory, and the CSO players brought great contrast to the bold outer movements and the subdued but fervent second movement. Vibrato was less obtrusive in Bach’s music than in Händel’s, but Mr. Vinikour’s continuo playing again supplied welcome doses of period polish. In both the Händel and the Bach works, Maestro McGegan set tempi that were quick after the manner of accepted wisdom about meters in the Eighteenth Century but employed subtle rubato to heighten the impact of tonal resolutions in cadences.

Prior to these concerts, Haydn’s ‘Military’ Symphony was last played by the CSO in 1990. It is unlikely, though, that any conductor who presided over past CSO performances brought as much understanding of the music and sheer fun as Maestro McGegan exhibited in his conducting of the score. The ‘Military’ is not as melodically memorable as several of Haydn’s other symphonies, but the cumulative effect of the score is unforgettable. The opening movement is one of Haydn’s most inventive exercises in symphonic form, the motivic development reminiscent of the intelligence the composer displayed in his oratorios, and Maestro McGegan and the CSO players—now also including flutes, trumpets, and percussion—collaborated in a performance of wit and grace. Clarinets, cymbals, triangle, and bass drum joined the party in the second movement, another gem of Haydn’s imagination, and the CSO’s performance throbbed with excitement, not least in the contributions by the trumpets, timpani, and ‘Janissary’ elements that earned the symphony its martial epithet. After the clanging outbursts of the second movement, the third movement, a conventional minuet, seems somewhat muted, but a hallmark of Haydn’s genius is that way in which he, like Brahms, could work within the boundaries of traditions but produce music that transcends them. Maestro McGegan conducted with insightful attention to every transition of key and tempo, the technique of the music-making firmly, rightly rooted in the Eighteenth Century but the spirit of the performance soaring into the Nineteenth. In the final movement, the uninhibited bombast of the CSO’s playing was galvanizing, and the sweep of Maestro McGegan’s conducting was exhilarating. His performance revealed that Maestro McGegan is among the few conductors active today with a mastery of the art of cuing players, and it was apparent that he was actually listening to the musicians rather than merely waving his hands at them. There was wonderful joy in Maestro McGegan’s conducting—the joy of a musician whose understanding of the music at hand and its possibilities nullifies any need to seek inspiration or potency beyond the composers’ scores.

It is bizarre that, unlike so many of America’s largest cities, Chicago has enjoyed relatively limited exposure to Baroque repertory. Despite having been heard in opera houses and concert halls throughout the world and in American cities as diverse as Charlotte and Milwaukee, her début with the CSO was, aside from an intimate University of Chicago tribute to Rossini scholar Philip Gossett with Joyce DiDonato, Ms. Genaux’s introduction to the Windy City. Had she paraded along Michigan Avenue at the head of an invincible army, her conquering of the city could not have been more complete. The audience on Tuesday evening rewarded her performance with a standing ovation, an honor that in Symphony Hall still must be earned. Opening with ‘Alma oppressa da sorte crudele’ from Antonio Vivaldi’s La fida ninfa, composed for the celebrated Bolognese soprano Giovanna Gasparini, the bravura technique for which the singer is renowned was on dizzying form. The volleys of coloratura with which Licori contemplates the soul-crushing weight of misfortune were launched with brilliance, the darkness of the timbre increasing the emotional intensity of the nimbly-ornamented vocal line. ‘Dolci, freschi aurette’ from Nicola Porpora’s Polifemo—the first of the three arias in the programme that were composed for Farinelli—made equally formidable demands on Ms. Genaux’s technique but inspired her to even greater emotional connection: the beautiful melodic lines, a credit to their composer, were radiantly sung, and more than almost any other singer who specializes in this repertory Ms. Genaux consistently integrates vocal pyrotechnics into the interpretive nuances of her performances, embellishing da capo repeats lavishly but tastefully. Even when the sheer profusion of notes necessitates punctuating phrases with breaths, Ms. Genaux artfully conceals effort in displays of passionate but completely natural musical drama. The original design of the CSO concert had all four arias performed in succession, but as was explained in brief introductory remarks the decision was made to present two arias before the interval and two after, allowing—as Maestro McGegan quipped—Ms. Genaux to partake of ‘a glass of water before climbing Mount Everest.’ In vocal terms, the second pair of arias confirmed the suitability of the analogy. Composed by Porpora as a showpiece finale for the pastiche that was hashed out of Johann Adolf Hasse’s Artaserse, ‘Or la nube procellosa’ is the sort of aria at which Farinelli apparently excelled, the bristling bravura passages requiring both consummate technical skills and, ideally, an insightful use of text. Ms. Genaux disappointed in neither aspect, her mastery of the music allied with a native speaker’s usage of Italian. Farinelli’s brother, Riccardo Broschi, certainly was not a great composer, but he was eminently capable of creating music that exploited his brother’s vocal capabilities. ‘Qual guerriero in campo armato’ from Broschi’s Idaspe became Farinelli’s most iconic aria di baule: in whichever opera an audience heard the legendary castrato, they were likely to hear ‘Qual guerriero in campo armato.’ To the modern listener acquainted with the arias of Mozart, Verdi, Puccini, and even Rossini, the difficulties of ‘Qual guerriero in campo armato’ likely seem utterly ridiculous, and the slightest glance at the score leaves little doubt of why this music—and the bulk of Baroque vocal repertory in general—was neglected for more than two centuries. In the best of times, singers with the technique needed to survive ‘Qual guerriero in campo armato’—merely to survive the aria, not to sing it well—are very rare: without question, it was beyond the capacities of most of Farinelli’s castrato contemporaries. Listeners who are acquainted with Pyrotechnics, her recital disc of Vivaldi arias, perhaps were not surprised by the way in which Ms. Genaux dominated Broschi’s relentlessly lung-busting music, but it is unfathomable that anyone in Symphony Hall on Tuesday evening was not dazzled by her performance. Not only was her singing of the rapid-fire coloratura spot-on, both in pitch and in rhythm, but the leaps from top to bottom of the range were perfectly managed. The sharply-differentiated lilting passages were highlighted by Ms. Genaux’s firm, intense delivery of text, supported with ideal synchronicity by Maestro McGegan and the CSO. A special joy of Ms. Genaux’s singing were her trills: for once, these were actual alternations between two distinct pitches, delivered in the correct rhythms. Were he on hand to hear such a performance of music that his gifts inspired, Farinelli could only have been proud—unless, of course, he was understandably jealous.

Tuesday evening’s CSO concert was an uncommon occurrence of great music, great musicians, and a great city colliding in a fascinating explosion of exceptional music-making. The programme of music by J.C. Bach, Händel, Haydn, Porpora, and Vivaldi swept the audience along a journey through nearly a century of the most dynamic years in vocal and instrumental music; a journey along which the ace players of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra distinguished themselves with fine performances of music quite different from their typical repertoire. This music is the natural habitat of Jory Vinikour and Nicholas McGegan, but there was nothing routine about their performances, which approached the music as though they were affectionately greeting old friends. The star of the evening was unquestionably Vivica Genaux, however, and her Chicago Symphony début proved as overwhelming as it was overdue.

14 February 2014

CD REVIEW: Ferdinand Ries – DIE RÄUBERBRAUT (R. Ziesak, T. Blondelle, J. Borchert, Y.F. Speer; cpo 777 655-2)

Ferdinand Ries - DIE RÄUBERBRAUT (cpo 777 655-2)

FERDINAND RIES (1784 – 1837): Die Räuberbraut, Op. 156—R. Ziesak (Laura), J. Borchert (Gianettina), T. Blondelle (Fernando), J. Kupfer (Graf Viterbo), C. Immler (Anselmo), K. Wolff (Carlo), Y.F. Speer (Räuberhauptmann Roberto), D. Schmitz (Pietro); WDR Rundfunkchor Köln; WDR Sinfonieorchester Köln; Howard Griffiths [Recorded in the Philharmonie Köln, Germany, 21 – 25 November 2011; cpo 777 655-2; 2CD, 124:53 (including Ballet Music); Available from ClassicsOnline, jpc, and major music retailers]

Looking beyond the boundaries of standard repertoires, the inquisitive decision-makers at cpo have rediscovered and reintroduced to the public countless works of merit spanning five centuries of musical creativity. Joining the label’s extensive discography of excellent recordings of neglected scores, this recording of Ferdinand Ries’s Die Räuberbraut—a studio production by Westdeutscher Rundfunk Köln—is among cpo’s greatest achievements. Remembered almost solely for his association with Beethoven, who supervised the younger man’s musical education with great interest, Ries was a gifted composer in his own right. Ries’s surviving body of work is small, but Die Räuberbraut reveals that there was nothing diminutive about his talent. Originality is deemed invaluable in music, especially in forgotten works, but there is much to be said for a composer who absorbs the influences of his own and previous generations, learns from the successes and failures of his artistic milieu, and adapts the styles of his contemporaries to his own specifications. There are in Die Räuberbraut, which premièred in Frankfurt am Main in 1828, unmistakable echoes of Beethoven’s Fidelio, particularly in the choruses, as well as passages that evoke thoughts of Paër’s Leonora, Spontini’s La vestale and Weber’s Oberon. Ries’s Laura is a cousin of Mozart’s Fiordiligi, and Fernando’s coloratura-laden vocal lines are reminiscent of Rossini’s and Auber’s music for their tenor heroes. Die Räuberbraut never sounds like a musical jigsaw puzzle assembled from pieces borrowed from other composers, however: such was Ries’s level of accomplishment that the diverse elements of French, German, and Italian opera—and perhaps also the English oratorios that he surely heard during his time in London—were dismantled, studied from the inside out, and employed as the dramatic situations in Die Räuberbraut required. What emerges in the imposing performance on this recording is not a curiosity but an exemplary opera that confirms that Beethoven’s mentoring of the young Ries was a reaction to recognition of genuine promise rather than nostalgia for shared roots in their native Bonn.

With three concerted numbers—the Robbers’ and Soldiers’ Choruses in Act One and Robbers’ Song in Act Three—and important contributions to the concerted finales of all three acts, Die Räuberbraut places mighty responsibilities upon the shoulders of the choristers. This music would challenge the choruses of the world’s best opera houses, but the impeccably-trained ladies and gentlemen of the WDR Rundfunkchor Köln, prepared by David Marlow, deliver a ripping performance, singing powerfully but stylishly. The boisterous spirit of the brigands is superbly conveyed, and the ramrod rhythmic accuracy in the Soldiers’ Chorus is aptly suggestive of military discipline. Die Räuberbraut is a German composer’s German opera for a German theatre, but its setting is Italy, and Ries responded with a rich, credibly Italianate vein of melodic fertility. Even when they are not tremendously distinguished musically, the choruses in Die Räuberbraut—like those in Verdi’s early operas—are winningly tuneful, and the WDR Rundfunkchor personnel sing them with tenacity and near-perfect intonation. Their efforts are supported by the unwavering excellence of the playing of the WDR Sinfonieorchester. Conducted with a flawless mastery of the score by British-born Maestro Howard Griffiths, the Orchestra’s performance leaves no stylistic component of Ries’s score unexplored, giving the arias an inviting infusion of bel canto and approaching the choruses and overtly dramatic scenes with muscularity that leaves no doubt that, at the time of Die Räuberbraut’s première, the first performance of Wagner’s Der fliegende Holländer was only fifteen years in future. Maestro Griffiths conducts with sweep, refusing either to linger over lyrical episodes or to whip extroverted passages into frenzies that his cast cannot sustain, and his support of the principals is generally instinctive and managed with finesse. Maestro Griffiths and the Orchestra also play the opera’s Ouvertüre and the fizzy ballet music, the latter appended to the end of the second disc, with exuberance.

Tenor Dirk Schmitz sings vehemently as Pietro, the scheming foster son of the Count of Viterbo, making the most of the limited opportunities the character offers him before he is killed in the Act One Finale. He contends with one of the finest quartets of low-voiced soloists heard in a recent recording of any repertory. As the Count of Viterbo, betrayed by the man he has taken in and honored as his own son, baritone Jochen Kupfer sings magisterially, his performance in the duet with his daughter Laura in Act One—‘O Vater, nein!’—expressing with equal force the Count’s indignation at being forced into exile by his adopted son’s treachery and his sadness at being separated from his beloved daughter. The palpable affection with which Mr. Kupfer shapes his more tender lines is touching, and his refined, steady tones are produced with ease. The superb baritone Christian Immler and bass-baritone Konstantin Wolff possess voices of quality that seem slightly wasted on their respective rôles, Anselmo and Carlo. It is to the former that the Count entrusts Laura when he flees Viterbo, and Mr. Immler’s singing takes on a warmly paternal quality that complements Mr. Kupfer’s work. In the Act Three Finale, Carlo is essentially a deus ex machina in the manner of Don Fernando in Fidelio, and Mr. Wolff voices his critical pronouncement of justice, ‘Frohe Siegeskunde,’ with appropriate gravitas. The voice is a rock-solid, burly-toned instrument, and its owner uses it with skill and urgency. As Roberto, the ultimately noble-hearted leader of the band of brigands, bass Yorck Felix Speer sings excitingly, displaying unexpected nimbleness in bravura passages. When Mr. Speer sings ‘Ja, er soll sterben!’ (‘Yes, he must die!’) in the Robbers’ Chorus, his is a quest for vengeance that cannot be underestimated or ignored. It is the sly humor and innate dignity of Mr. Speer’s singing that prove most rewarding, however; these traits, that is, and the lush quality of the voice.

There is no better music in the opera than the trio for Laura, Fernando, and Gianettina in Act Two, ‘Dem Mann von Ehr’ und Pflicht,’ in which Ries set colortura traps for all three singers. Hearing the deftness with which soprano Julia Borchert dispatches Gianettina’s roulades, it comes as no surprise that she has enjoyed great successes as Konstanze in Mozart’s Die Entführung aus dem Serail and Violetta in Verdi’s La traviata. In Gianettina’s music, Ms. Borchert’s voice gleams, her upper register approached without the slightest hint of hesitation. Like several of her male colleagues in Die Räuberbraut, she regrettably has few chances to show the real spectrum of her gifts, but every note that she sings is produced beautifully and spiritedly. The same can be said of tenor Thomas Blondelle, who copes outstandingly with music of daunting range and difficulty. Mr. Blondelle voices the most fearsome of Fernando’s divisions unflinchingly and unerringly, his fidelity to both pitches and rhythms an example of the highest standard of coloratura singing. In ‘O Freund,’ Fernando’s duet with Carlo that frames the Soldiers’ Chorus, Mr. Blondelle sings with the growing determination—and something of the high-flying pluck—of Tonio in Donizetti’s La fille du régiment, and he matches the ladies in bringing off exhilarating feats of bravura and ringing flights on high in the Act Two trio. This is followed by a debonair account of Fernando’s aria, a piece that would not sound out of place in La Cenerentola, the voice rounded, lovely, and irreproachably secure. Mr. Blondelle sings imaginatively in ensembles, and his lines in the duet with Laura in Act Three, ‘Hier ist’s,’ are gracefully delivered whether in coloratura fireworks or at the very top of his range. It would be interesting to hear several of today’s best bel canto tenors in Fernando’s music, but not one of them could possibly sing the rôle more engagingly than Mr. Blondelle.

It is perhaps slightly indelicate to designate soprano Ruth Ziesak a veteran singer, but she deserves great respect for having graced performances of a wide repertoire with assured, delicate singing for more than two decades. A part with frequent outbursts of coloratura and no shyness about ascending to top C might seem an unlikely assignment for a great Pamina, but for Ms. Ziesak not even Laura’s most taxing music requires anything beyond her capabilities. From the start, Ms. Ziesak sings superbly, the voice sounding as fresh and pliant as when she recorded Pamina with Sir Georg Solti in 1990. The heartbreak in the duet with her father, ‘O Vater, nein,’ is biting, and the exhibition of sheer technique in Laura’s aria, ‘Du, im Himmel, Herr der Welten,’ is magical. Then, in the Romance with which Laura launches Act Two, ‘Ach! dieses Hoffen,’ Ms. Ziesak again rises to dazzling heights of artful phrasing, and her singing in the trio with Fernando and Gianettina is a lesson in the inspired use of coloratura as a dramatic device. The duet with Fernando in Act Three draws from Ms. Ziesak singing of radiant intensity, matched by the growing warmth of her timbre in the opera’s finale. She sings her lines in ensembles with conviction and silvery tone, giving every word its due with the intelligence of a paragon of Lieder singing, and her ascents to top C are accomplished with laudable freedom. Sounding both softly feminine and toughened by impending tragedy, she is both the spine and the soul of the performance.

Though it is especially important for the first recording of an unfamiliar opera by a composer whose name is essentially a footnote in histories of more celebrated artists, any composer from Monteverdi to Menotti might hope for any of his operas to receive a recording of the quality of this WDR Köln performance of Die Räuberbraut. Sadly, a Trovatore or Tosca of this caliber seems all but impossible now, but an aspect of the success of this recording of Die Räuberbraut is derived from the avoidance of the academic equivocation with which many long-unheard scores are treated. There are no hints in this performance that anyone involved in it regards Die Räuberbraut as an unaccountably-maligned masterpiece in need of rehabilitation. It is not a great opera, in fact, not like Così fan tutte and Tristan und Isolde are great operas, but it is a thoroughly enjoyable one, a credit to its composer and to the fellow artists from whom he learned his craft. Even the listener to whom the music of Ferdinand Ries is completely unknown cannot fail to find much to appreciate in the consistent distinction of the singing on this recording. Die Räuberblaut is not a perfect score, but a performance such as this one could hardly have been inspired by poor music.

11 February 2014

CD REVIEW: ROKOKO – Opera Arias by Johann Adolf Hasse (Max Emanuel Cencic, countertenor; DECCA 478 6418)

Johann Adolf Hasse - ROKOKO (DECCA 478 6418)
JOHANN ADOLF HASSE (1699 – 1783): Rokoko – Arias from Arminio; Il cantico de’ tre fanciulli; Ipermestra; L’Olimpiade; Siroe, re di Persia; La spartana generosa; Tigrane; Tito Vespasiano; Il trionfo di Clelia; Mandolin Concerto in G major; Max Emanuel Cencic, countertenor; Theodoros Kitsos, mandolin; Armonia Atenea; George Petrou [Recorded in Dimitris Mitropoulos Hall of the Megaron, Athens, Greece, 5 – 14 July 2013; DECCA 478 6418; 1CD, 64:25; Available from Amazon (USA release date – 11 March), fnac, jpc, Presto Classical (UK release date – 24 February), and major music retailers]

The global Classical Music community faces extraordinary challenges in the new millennium. Blame economics, blame disinterest, blame the disintegration of Arts education, blame aging populations, or blame the frequently-discussed struggles of today’s artists to connect with audiences in this age of minuscule attention spans and technological pursuit of quicker-than-instant gratification: it cannot be denied that the survival of the Performing Arts depends upon innovation, an important aspect of which must be a renewed focus on quality. No less than cinema, theatre, or the visual arts, what Classical Music and Opera need are stars not of hype but of genuine expertise. Enter countertenor Max Emanuel Cencic. Born in Croatia, he was a celebrated soloist with the legendary Wiener Sängerknaben, an unexpectedly mature artist even before he started to shave. So noble were his tone and phrasing that his unsurpassed First Boy in Sir Georg Solti’s second DECCA studio recording of Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte seemed more like Pamina’s younger brother than a genial lad with good advice. After a period as a successful male soprano, Mr. Cencic applied himself not to restructuring but to fully understanding his voice, and his first performances as a countertenor announced the arrival of a newly-reinvigorated artist of wondrous promise. His singing of the long-suffering Sposa in Stefano Landi’s Il Sant’Alessio with Les Arts Florissants revealed the depths of dolorous expression of which Mr. Cencic is capable, and his embodiment—for it was not merely singing—of Orlofsky in Die Fledermaus in Lausanne sparkled with boundless energy and good humor. Every new recording has opened unforeseen avenues of artistic exploration with repertoire extending from Vinci and Vivaldi to Caldara and Rossini. Rokoko, the first fruit of a blossoming relationship with DECCA, paves yet another new highway along which Mr. Cencic’s gifts provide glowing vistas of eleven of Johann Adolf Hasse’s most distinguished arias, seven of which are here recorded for the first time. The facility with which Mr. Cencic permeates even a studio recording with visceral intensity is apparent from his first note on this disc. For Mr. Cencic, none of the conventional limitations of a countertenor voice apply: it seems that he could sing anything credibly, but the music of Hasse inspires him to a display of tremendous artistry. In short, Rokoko is the work of a star.

Though Hasse’s music continues to fight to gain a foothold in the 21st Century despite the advocacy of a handful of today’s best singers, the composer was acclaimed by his contemporaries as one of the most important artists of the 18th Century. The greatest singers of his time clamored to lend their talents to the premières of his operas and carried in their mobile arsenals of ‘insertion arias’ the expertly-tailored music that Hasse composed for them. Though she is now remembered primarily for her association with Händel and her rivalry with Francesca Cuzzoni, it was in the music of Hasse, her husband, that Faustina Bordoni conquered Europe. Among the operas represented on Rokoko, the presence of the celebrated castrato Caffarelli looms large, the singer—commonly cited as one of the finest of his time—having created rôles in Ipermestra, Siroe, Tigrane, Tito Vespasiano (Hasse’s 1738 reworking of his 1735 La clemenza di Tito), and Il trionfo di Clelia. It is impossible to know how Caffarelli sounded, of course, but his work both in opera houses and recording studios has demonstrated that Mr. Cencic is as sophisticated and vocally imposing a modern interpreter of music composed for Caffarelli and his castrato colleagues as could be imagined. In virtually all of his endeavors on disc, Mr. Cencic has enjoyed the collaboration of equally stylish musicians, never more so than in the contributions of Armonia Atenea and George Petrou to Rokoko. Like the more familiar music of his contemporaries Händel and Vivaldi, Hasse’s operas make arduous demands on the instrumentalists, both in ensemble and in obbligati, and in every aria on this disc the Armonia Atenea players disclose comfort with Hasse’s idiom and unflappable virtuosity that place them among the finest practitioners of historically-informed performance values. Boasting an unobtrusively ingenious realization of the continuo, Armonia Atenea and Maestro Petrou support Mr. Cencic magnificently, probing every detail of Hasse’s orchestrations for creative ways to not merely accompany but to cooperate with the singer. With mandolin player Theodoros Kitsos, Armonia Atenea and Maestro Petrou give a chic account of Hasse’s Mandolin Concerto in G major, a work that owes as much to the influence of Händel’s Organ Concerti as to Vivaldi’s music for mandolin.

Interestingly in what is billed as a recital of opera arias, Rokoko’s opening track is ‘Notte amica, oblio de’ mali,’ an aria for Misaele (most familiar in his Chaldean form, Meshach) from Hasse’s 1734 Dresden oratorio Il cantico de’ tre fanciulli, a setting of the Biblical story of the fiery furnace. In the oratorio, the rapt religious fervor of this aria has a significant impact on the theretofore-pagan Nebuchadnezzar, and Mr. Cencic’s singing of the piece cannot fail to make a similar impact on the listener. Mr. Cencic’s ability to sustain long-breathed lyrical lines is superior to similar capacities among even the most gifted of his countertenor colleagues, and the diaphanous focus of Mr. Cencic’s tone is exceptional. Respecting the subtlety of the text, Mr. Cencic’s ornamentation is restrained but evocative.

Sesto’s arias ‘Opprimete i contumaci’ and ‘Vo disperato a morte’ from Tito Vespasiano are splendidly pulse-quickening, the first a bravura showpiece with pyrotechnics deployed across a wide range and the second a darkly dramatic piece reminiscent of Vivaldi’s best vengeance arias. Both arias require prodigious technical aptitude, which Mr. Cencic supplies unflappably, but the finest quality of his singing in these arias—and in the coloratura passages in all of the arias on Rokoko—is his skill for allying his clean execution of divisions and rhythmic crispness with the nobility of his interpretations of music and text. This is also powerfully evident in ‘La sorte mia tiranna’ from Siroe, re di Persia, in which the slower pace allows Mr. Cencic room for even greater imagination. The control of his mezza voce singing is incomparable, and the vigor with which he attacks the aria’s B section contrasts dazzlingily with the emotional intensity of his voicing of the A section. ‘Cadrò ma qual si mira’ from Arminio, its flurries of roulades cresting in Mr. Cencic’s robust upper register, is an awe-inspiring number with braying brass, and the singer’s embellishments of the da capo soar above the staff. Stylishness is furthered in the cadenza, where Mr. Cencic’s indulgence in good-natured showmanship remains within the boundaries of good taste.

‘Siam navi all’onde algenti’ from L’Olimpiade is sung with fulsome panache, the stylistically questionable decision to end the aria with an interpolated top note justified by the flair with which the tone is managed. The repetitions of ‘Deh, perdona’ in the lovely ‘Ma rendi pur contento’ from Ipermestra require the uncommon lung capacity for which many castrati were renowned, and Hasse casts an alluring spell in the aria’s B section with some unusual harmonies. The depths of Mr. Cencic’s vocal artistry are plumbed with beautiful dominance of the requisite breath control and deployment of deftly-maneuvered trills. ‘De’ folgori di Giove’ from Il trionfo di Clelia is another barnstorming bravura number, but one in which Hasse fused word-setting typical of Baroque models with a gallant style that prefigures Mozart’s early operas. The brightness of Mr. Cencic’s vowels at the top of his range is very effective, increasing the distinctive allure of his smoky lower register. Both in the B section’s cadenza and in his ornamentation of the second statement of the A section, Mr. Cencic produces a string of terrific high notes. ‘Dei di Roma, ah, perdonate,’ also from Il trionfo di Clelia, inhabits the same heady atmosphere populated by Idamante in Mozart’s Idomeneo, and in this aria, too, the singer wields an intoxicating spectrum of dynamics and heart-stopping sustained tones on high. ‘Se un tenero affetto’ from La spartana generosa is built around ascending cascades of coloratura that are delivered with breathtaking ease by Mr. Cencic. ‘Solca il mar e nel periglio’ from Tigrane, a simile aria as cleverly devised as any in Baroque opera, receives from Mr. Cencic a performance in which the tumultuous disquiet of the sea is conveyed in immaculately-phrased coloratura, the piquant edge on the voice clutching the music from the first note and not letting go until every passion has been wrung from the text.

So many recordings of rediscovered music have a disenfranchising air of academia even when they preserve indisputably accomplished performances. Max Emanuel Cencic is an artist who does not differentiate between the theatre and the recording studio, his singing in the former as animated and heartfelt as in the latter. Rokoko brims with excitement from beginning to end, the pensive arias approached as fervidly as the more obviously impressive coloratura numbers. Where this singer towers over most interpreters of this repertory is in his uncanny ability to create even in performances of arias removed from their contexts microcosms of palpable sensitivity. His delight in the sheer act of singing and the throbbing of his heart as timeless emotions rush to the surface of the music can be heard in the seamless transitions between light and shade in his vocalism. For listeners reared on the Isolde of Flagstad, the Brünnhilde of Nilsson, the Norma of Callas, and the Lucia of Sutherland, the countertenor voice may always be an acquired taste. Max Emanuel Cencic is a singer whom these great artists of the past would undoubtedly recognize as a peer, and Rokoko is a disc that should silence any skepticism about Hasse and the integrity of his compositional style. It is also a disc drenched in the genius of a legitimate star.

CD REVIEW: Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky – PIANO CONCERTOS NOS. 1 & 2 (Denis Matsuev; Mariinsky MAR0548)

Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky - PIANO CONCERTOS (Mariinsky MAR0548)

PYOTR ILYICH TCHAIKOVSKY (1840 – 1893) – Piano Concerto No. 1 in B-flat minor, Op. 23 (1874 – 75) and Piano Concerto No. 2 in G Major, Op. 44 (1879 – 80, Revised Version); Denis Matsuev, piano; Mariinsky Orchestra; Valery Gergiev [Recorded in the Concert Hall of the Mariinsky Theatre, St. Petersburg, Russia in March (Concerto No. 2) and April (Concerto No. 1) 2013; Mariinsky MAR0548; 1 SACD, 78:32; Available from LSO, Amazon, Presto Classical, and major music retailers]

To mix cinematic metaphors, his endeavors outside of his native Russia have often caused conducting giant Valery Gergiev to seem a rebel without a cause. It is both impossible to question the legitimacy of the esteem in which he is held in virtually every musical center in the world and possible to be slightly bewildered by it. Many of his performances of non-Russian repertoire have displayed an almost willful idiosyncrasy, even when his masteries of the music at hand and of orchestral colors were indisputably in evidence. In Russian music, however, Maestro Gergiev exhibits an insightful command of rhythms, tonal blends, and thematic development, and in the music of Tchaikovsky—especially, as this disc confirms, the Piano Concerti—he finds an ideal fount for his most polished artistry. The power of the conductor’s insightful approach to Tchaikovsky’s music is felt in every moment of this recording, but Maestro Gergiev also proves an unexpectedly sensitive partner to the pianist’s expansive but delicate readings of the Concerti. Among many admirable qualities, one of the foremost achievements of this recording is the preservation of Maestro Gergiev’s conducting at its finest.

Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerti are among the most frequently-heard works in the concerto repertoire, both in performance and on disc. With stirring accounts by many of the most celebrated pianists of the past century filling an impressive discography, the popularity of the Concerti has persisted throughout the 120 years since Tchaikovsky’s death. The Herculean technical demands of the music have not prevented occasional performances by pianists not up to the task, as well as a number of performances in which fine pianism is undermined by poor orchestral playing. With Maestro Gergiev, the patriarch of their musical family, conducting with brilliance, the players of the Mariinsky Orchestra give of their best, following every broad stroke of their conductor’s approach and every nuance of the soloist’s interpretations with grandeur and finesse in perfect equilibrium. The nimbleness of the string playing is consistently impressive, and the predictably strong showing by the brass—of heightened importance in Tchaikovsky’s music—is often elating. Maestro Gergiev and the Mariinsky players collaborate to highlight the inventiveness of Tchaikovsky’s orchestrations, providing an eloquent explication of the composer’s inimitable synthesis of elements drawn from European traditions with his own unique idiom, indelibly but flexibly rooted in the indigenous music of Russia.

The First Piano Concerto is one of the most iconic works in the piano concerto literature, and the Second is among Tchaikovsky’s most punctiliously-conceived scores. The composer was devastated by the harsh reception the First Concerto received from Nikolai Rubinstein, the pianist and colleague at the Moscow Conservatory to whom the Concerto’s première was to have been entrusted. The work was ultimately first performed by Hans von Bülow, though in an ironic reversal of fortune Rubinstein eventually championed the piece (and rather disingenuously downplayed his earlier rejection of it) whilst von Bülow ultimately abandoned the Concerto. From his entrance in the first movement (Allegro non troppo e molto maestoso – Allegro con spirito), Russian pianist Denis Matsuev phrases with cleansing purity, leaning into the famous opening theme with dash balanced with restraint. Immediately noticeable is Mr. Matsuev’s faculty for preserving an almost clinical degree of rhythmic accuracy even in the thorny passages in octaves, his command of Tchaikovsky’s sometimes bombastic lines obviously centered on an instinctive grasp of fingering that cannot be taught in any conservatory. There is a bracing sweep to his playing but none of the saccharine over-playing that makes many performances seem caricatured. The second movement (Andantino semplice – Prestissimo) introduces profound contrasts drawn from the score, and here, too, Mr. Matsuev’s phrasing has such a natural sense of movement that the music seems borrowed from one of Tchaikovsky’s ballet scores. The expressivity of Mr. Matsuev’s articulation of rhythmic figurations rivals the most accomplished playing of the movement ever committed to disc, and the integrity of his playing carries over to the third movement (Allegro con fuoco) with unforced vigor. Technically, Mr. Matsuev brings a touch to Tchaikovsky’s music that would serve him equally well in Mozart’s Piano Concerti, and the tactical duality is apt: though unapologetically Romantic in ethos, Tchaikovsky’s Concerti owe much in terms of inner structures and imaginative manipulations of sonata form to the music of Mozart that Tchaikovsky so admired. This is even more evident in the Second Concerto, which was also written with Nikolai Rubinstein in mind for its inaugural interpreter. After Rubinstein’s untimely death, the Concerto was premièred by British-born pianist Madeline Schiller and the New York Philharmonic. There are passages in the Second Concerto in which the piano and orchestra seem almost to inhabit different worlds that only occasionally intersect, but Mr. Matsuev and Maestro Gergiev weave the disparate threads of the piano and orchestra parts into a gorgeously-crafted fabric. In the first movement (Allegro brillante e molto vivace), the complicated, sometimes oblique dialogue between piano and orchestra is elegantly limned by all the players, with Mr. Matsuev finding every emotion in Tchaikovsky’s rhapsodic writing. The second movement (Andante non troppo) bristles with barely-contained energy, the exchanges between piano and solo violin—another balletic pas de deux—delivered with the rapport of two voices in duet. As in the First Concerto, Mr. Matsuev plays the final movement—again marked Allegro con fuoco—with controlled passion that goes directly to the heart of Tchaikovsky’s music, and he puts his personal stamp on the cadenzas without distorting Tchaikovsky’s designs. In his playing of both Concerti, what Mr. Matsuev does most memorably is communicate with the listener via Tchaikovsky’s music in a very direct manner; not in some flamboyantly metaphysical way but in a fashion that begins and ends with the music and, along the course of a very compelling journey, never deviates from the inspiration of the score.

Every listener who loves Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerti will have cherished recordings and strong opinions about which performances succeed and fail as demonstrations of the composer’s genius. Perhaps the principal engrossing pleasure to be had from music is being witness to an occasion upon which all personnel involved with a performance are alert to the significance of the music they are recreating and united in a common goal of achieving something unforgettable. This disc, which in its SACD format offers the listener the perspective of an authentic concert hall acoustic, tenders Tchaikovsky’s First and Second Piano Concerti from the perspective of the most captivating components of the Russian tradition—refined but red-blooded, mysterious and mighty. Checking ego at the door of the Mariinsky Concert Hall, Valery Gergiev is content to be merely a musician, and his proficiency frequently rises to sublimity. Denis Matsuev, not yet forty years old, possesses the kind of uninhibited connection with Tchaikovsky’s music that, at best, is encountered only very rarely. For once, a recording of these colossal Concerti is a deeply personal conversation among pensive musicians rather than a battle of narcissistic virtuosos.

10 February 2014

CD REVIEW: Johann Strauß II – DIE FLEDERMAUS (A. Mikołaj, P.A. Edelmann, C. Reiss, R. Trost, N. Petrinsky; Capriccio C5167)

Johann Strauß II - DIE FLEDERMAUS (Capriccio C5167)

JOHANN STRAU II (1825 – 1899): Die Fledermaus—A. Mikołaj (Rosalinde), P.A. Edelmann (Gabriel von Eisenstein), C. Reiss (Adele), R. Trost (Alfred), N. Petrinsky (Prinz Orlofsky), S. Holeck (Gefängnisdirektor Frank), M. Turk (Dr. Falke), J. Sacher (Dr. Blind), S. Kallhammer (Ida); WDR Rundfunkchor Köln; WDR Rundfunkorchester Köln; Friedrich Haider [Recorded in Sendesaal des Deutschlandfunks, Köln, 2 – 13 November 2011; Capriccio C5167; 2CD, 87:49; Available from ClassicsOnline, jpc, and major music retailers; Complete recording of musical score with dialogue omitted]

Johann Strauß II’s Die Fledermaus can be one of the most delectable romps audiences will ever encounter in any of the world’s opera houses, especially those in Vienna, where there remains an operetta tradition stretching back to the Golden Age of Strauß, Lehár, and Kálmán. When performed without a modicum of legitimate Viennese spirit, it can also prove surprisingly, maddeningly dull. For the non-fluent listener, minutes of German dialogue in a complete performance can seem like hours, but both hybrid productions that offer musical numbers sung in the original German and dialogue in the local vernacular and performances that omit the dialogue altogether can also fall flat. One of the true joys of this new recording, a studio production by Westdeutscher Rundfunk, is that it succeeds as a vivacious, coherent performance of Die Fledermaus even without the dialogue. Though dialogue is easily dodged when listening to a CD recording, its loss can undermine the dramatic continuity of a performance of Die Fledermaus. In comparison with the great recordings of past generations, especially Herbert von Karajan’s legendary DECCA performance with Hilde Güden’s Viennese-as-Sachertorte Rosalinde, Regina Resnik’s no-nonsense Orlofsky, and the ‘guilty pleasure’ Gala Sequence [the listener who does not respond with glee to Birgit Nilsson’s charmingly stentorian ‘I Could Have Danced All Night’ and Giulietta Simionato’s and Ettore Bastianini’s ‘Anything You Can Do, I Can Do Better’ probably should not waste time with Die Fledermaus at all], Capriccio’s performance is not sumptuously sung, but it ultimately proves remarkably satisfactory—more so, in fact, than a number of recordings featuring more famous casts.

Much of the success of this performance of Die Fledermaus is thanks to the spirited singing and playing of the WDR Rundfunkchor and Rundfunkorchester. Impersonating the guests at Orlofsky’s ball, the choristers sing with gusto, relishing every opportunity to comment on—and contribute to—the general confusion. Their brief rent-a-crowd dins as ebullient revelers—abetted by an arsenal of cleverly-managed sound effects (footsteps, clinking glasses, and the like) and a clean acoustic—conjure a theatrical atmosphere and contribute enormously to the sparkle of Act Two. Some of the most enjoyable musical discoveries in recent years have been radio performances of a surprisingly vast repertoire that have emerged from WDR’s archives, and these performances invariably preserve unexpectedly idiomatic playing by the Rundfunkorchester: a performance like the 1951 account of Verdi’s Un ballo in maschera conducted by Fritz Busch, though sung in German, is played with an impressive dose of Italianate fervor. In Die Fledermaus, the Rundfunkorchester players are in something nearer to natural territory, but the excellence of their playing is no less admirable for being typical of the Orchestra’s endeavors. The instrumentalists make the most of every opportunity granted by Strauß’s score, and the energy with which they play the familiar melodies lends the performance an extra dollop of froth. Friedrich Haider’s previous recording of Die Fledermaus was a vehicle for one of Edita Gruberová’s several recorded accounts of Adele, and it substituted a bizarre narration spoken by Frosch for the dialogue. The performances that produced that recording, which has moments of brilliance, were an apt rehearsal for this recording: the firm rhythmic profile of his earlier performance is bettered in the Capriccio recording, and the momentum that Maestro Haider’s conducting provides does much to fill in the dramatic blanks left by the absence of the dialogue.

The names of German soprano Sabine Kallhammer, Viennese baritone Sebastian Holecek, Croatian baritone Miljenko Turk, and German tenor Jürgen Sacher may not be familiar to many listeners, but they prove more successful Fledermaus players than many of their more illustrious rivals. Ms. Kallhammer is a charming Ida: the only regret that her singing inspires is that she does not have more to do. Mr. Holecek’s Frank percolates through the performance like a stout Viennese coffee, and when anything genuinely comedic happens it is usually he who has instigated it. He also snores like a champion, and his extravagantly-trilled r’s in accompaniment of Adele’s couplets in Act Three are great fun. Mr. Turk is a Falke of wit and slightly sinister humor, and the incisiveness of his singing in ‘Komm mit mir zum Souper’ suggests that he has quite a memorable retaliatory evening in store for his friend Eisenstein. Mr. Sacher is a delightfully bumbling Blind, sounding almost like a holdover from a bel canto comedy of errors. All four artists sing well and strive to be amusing without seeming foolish.

Viennese mezzo-soprano Natascha Petrinsky is an enthusiastic but unmistakably feminine Orlofsky. Her singing of ‘Ich lade gern mir Gäste ein’ is slightly blowsy, sounding as though she is attempting to rein in the plushness of her timbre in order to achieve a more masculine tone, but the rôle’s top A-flats hold no terrors for her. There is a certain regal authority in her singing, and she holds her own impressively in the frenzied ensemble that ends Act Two. There are flickers of strain when she joins Rosalinde and Adele on the top line of that ensemble, which takes her to top B, but she copes honorably with what is, in terms of its musical demands, an ungainly part.

The central ‘love triangle’ of Die Fledermaus—Rosalinde, her husband Eisenstein, and her lover Alfred—is in this performance a gratifyingly equilateral figure. Son of the celebrated bass Otto Edelmann, baritone Paul Armin Edelmann was to the idiomatic Viennese manner born, and his Eisenstein has some of the same boorish charm of his father’s Baron Ochs. There is a sharp edge to Mr. Edelmann’s characterization of Eisenstein, however: the actions and counteractions of this Eisenstein and Falke are far more serious—and potentially ruinous—than mere overgrown-frat-boy pranks. There is also an element of emotional sincerity in Mr. Edelmann’s performance that makes his Eisenstein unusually sympathetic, especially in the operetta’s penultimate number, the trio with Rosalinde and Alfred, ‘Ich steh’ voll Zagen.’ Musically, though the tessitura of the part occasionally troubles him, Mr. Edelmann sings well, combining insinuatingly with Rosalinde in an entertaining account of ‘Dieser Anstand, so manierlich’ and producing some wonderfully ringing top notes. Tenor Rainer Trost has a leaner timbre than is often heard in Alfred’s music, especially in larger opera houses, but what a superb voice it is! Mr. Trost’s Alfred is audibly a man whose guiding motivation is love, not lust: this Alfred’s ardent singing makes it apparent that he is playing for keeps. His opening serenade, ‘Täubchen, das entflattert ist,’ is poetically phrased, the top As raptly romantic. The beauty and security of Mr. Trost’s voice leave nothing to be desired, here or in any bar of Alfred’s music. His occasional flights into a perfectly-supported falsetto are beguiling, and he is a thoroughly convincing lover. In Act Three, though, it is impossible not to regret that the omission of the dialogue deprives this gossamer-voiced Alfred of the opportunity to indulge in the traditional ego-caressing recital of snippets from operatic fare. Rosalinde, the woman whose affections and machinations make these fellows rivals, is commandingly sung by Polish soprano Aga Mikołaj. In Die Fledermaus, as in many of Strauß’s operettas, the heroine’s music is so melodious as to cause it to seem an easier sing than it is: Rosalinde’s music is, in fact, quite challenging, but Ms. Mikołaj mostly makes easy going of it. The foremost test of any Rosalinde is her Csárdás, ‘Klänge der Heimat,’ and Ms. Mikołaj passes with flying colors. She handles the Frischka with aplomb, never smearing the divisions, and she sustains the long trills well. She punches out the top D that closes the number with greater freedom than what many Rosalindes can summon, and on the whole she is an uncommonly well-qualified Rosalinde. If there is anything lacking in her performance, it is an immediately recognizable shimmer of ‘star quality.’

It is perhaps unusual for an Adele to receive top billing in a recording of Die Fledermaus, but Israeli soprano Chen Reiss, a rising star of the Wiener Staatsoper, is marketed as the primary attraction of this performance; and, to a large extent, so she proves to be. Without interpolations, the tessiture of Adele’s and Rosalinde’s parts are virtually identical, so the differentiation between the two ladies is generally accomplished by casting a lyric coloratura soprano as Adele and a darker, heavier voice as Rosalinde. Ms. Reiss sounds as though she might well have been given a crack at Rosalinde, but she is a suitably fiery Adele. This social-climbing chambermaid seems just grand enough to have a real shot at making a career on the stage, and she is a fetchingly conspiratorial presence in Act One, not least in her brief duettino with Rosalinde, ‘Ach, ich darf nicht hin zu ihr.’ Her singing of ‘Mein Herr Marquis’ in Act Two establishes her as the belle of Orlofsky’s ball, her execution of coloratura, staccati, and the long-held top C commandeering attention. In Act Three, her delivery of Adele’s couplets, ‘Spiel’ ich die Unschuld vom Lande,’ is exemplary, a slight thinness of tone around the top of the staff not affecting her bright top D. Perhaps following the example of her colleagues, Ms. Reiss creates an Adele who is less coquettish and obviously selfish than many portrayals of the rôle: she seems like a good-hearted girl with big dreams but a very perceptive one who understands—and knows how to manipulate—the chauvinistic society of which she is a part. Vocally, Ms. Reiss is a more substantial Adele than those in the vein of Adele Kern, Wilma Lipp, and Renate Holm, but she maintains freshness and lightness of tone. Hers is an accomplished performance that suggests great promise.

Even without the dialogue, this recording offers a truer experience of Strauß’s evergreen score than many of its rivals in the Fledermaus discography. There are passages in this performance in which the joy is rather muted, but approaching the piece with an air of maturity is not inappropriate. For all its humor, there are in Fledermaus—as in Così fan tutte—real dangers of people getting hurt, of lives being uprooted and relationships destroyed. Nonetheless, set to Strauß’s rollicking waltz and polka tunes, it all seems as inconsequential as the weather forecast for some distant locale. There are sunlight and warmth aplenty in this performance, however, and—most importantly—a glimpse of the glory days of Viennese operetta that, like so many treasured aspects of the Arts, seem ever further in the past.