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.